'The Ox': New Book Reveals the Secret Life of Who Bassist John Entwistle

British writer Paul Rees had just started work on his new book, The Ox: The Authorized Biography of John Entwistle, when Christopher Entwistle, son of the late Who bassist, handed him a locked box from his father’s vast archives. “It looked like it hadn’t been opened in years,” says Rees. “We had to use WD-40 to open the lock.”

Inside was a leather attache case stuffed with A4 notebooks and looseleaf sheets of pages. It was the beginning of an autobiography that the bassist had started back in 1990 and never came anywhere finishing. Very few outside of his immediate family had ever seen a word of it. “There were four completed chapters from a word processor,” says Rees. “The notebooks were full of handwritten stories from other periods in his life he didn’t want to type up. All of it was was funny, knowing, and very descriptive. It gave me some small sense of being able to talk to him through it and hear his voice.”

The idea of writing a book about Entwistle first came to Rees about five years ago when he attended a literary festival for music writers in Manchester, England. He bumped into a colleague at the hotel bar who regaled him with insane stories about visiting Entwistle at Quarwood, his Victorian mansion in Gloucestershire, England. “He told me he had his entire bass rig setup in his living room,” says Rees. “It made me realize he was one of the last great rock stars. He just embodied everything you imagine a Seventies rock star would be like from the way he lived to the way he passed.”

Rees reached out to Christopher Entwistle for a two-part feature about his father in Classic Rock Magazine. “It just barely scratched the surface of what dad was like,” says Christopher. “A few months later he came back to me and said, ‘Can I do a book?’ Because of how the magazine article went, my mother and I thought it would be a good idea.”

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From the very beginning, everyone involved in the book wanted to tell the real, unvarnished story of Entwistle’s life. That certainly involved his groundbreaking work in the Who, where he wrote timeless songs like “My Wife” and “Boris the Spider” while influencing nearly every bass player that followed in his wake. But it also involved delving into his messy personal life, which was marked by heavy drug and alcohol use, endless partying, wild spending binges, chronic infidelity, and a general disregard for his health.

Authors who write books with the cooperation of estates tend to shy away from such touchy issues, but that wasn’t the case here. “Christopher said right from the start that it had to be an accurate profile,” says Rees. “That meant warts and all. He said, ‘I’ll only ask you to change things I know are incorrect.’”

“My father wasn’t an angel,” explains Christopher. “But he was a lovely bloke, generally. I didn’t want it to be a fluff piece. I didn’t want it to be something that said, ‘Oh, gosh. How wonderful. Wonderful wonderful.’ I wanted it to be the story.”

Christopher told his mother and everyone else in his life to cooperate with Rees in any way they could. And throughout the entire reporting process, Rees sent him interview transcripts so he could both track the book’s progress and learn more about his dad. “Much of it was eye-opening and sometimes painful because some of his exploits, shall we say, were not at a level where I thought they were at,” Christopher says. “And I imagine he didn’t tell me because I was his boy, basically.”

Some of the most eye-opening revelations involved his relationship with women. “I knew he was a tart,” says Christopher. “He was with my mother from the age of 14 and went straight from that to another relationship and straight from that to another relationship. And so he’s only actually ever had three constant relationships in his life, but he slept with slightly more women than that, so he wasn’t the most faithful man in the world. But then, I understood that. But I didn’t quite understand the extent.”

Reading through the transcripts also helped Rees sort fact out from fiction. “One person said he consoled my dad after someone smashed through his dining room window and stole his crystal ship,” says Christopher. “Right at the moment I was reading that, that very ship was siting on my mantlepiece. Also, many people were claiming they were at places they weren’t. They’d say, ‘I was there when we did this,’ and I’d say, ‘No, because four other people said you were nowhere near it.’”

The early chapters were easier to assemble since much of the info came straight from John’s own writings from the unfinished autobiography. Rees quotes directly from it in long blocks, including a passage about a time in 1964 when the Who opened up for the Beatles in Blackpool, England. The screaming fans made it impossible for the audience to hear a word the band was saying, but the Who got a direct feed to their dressing room and were able to make out every word.

“The four of us were crying with laughter at the words they were singing and which only we were able to pick up on,” wrote Entwistle. “‘It’s been a hard day’s rock…’ ‘I wanna hold your cunt…’ They struck a last chord and they were gone. And we got on with the task of packing our own gear away.’”

The other members of the Who are significant characters in the book, but surviving members Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey did not agree to be interviewed for it. “I left a message with Roger and his people and there was no response whatsoever.,” says Rees. “He was obviously doing his own book at the time. With Pete, there was a backwards and forwards between Pete’s assistant and myself, two or three messages. They were very polite, but they basically said that Pete said he has nothing else to say about John that he hasn’t already said. When I did the research, I came to that conclusion anyway.”

“They weren’t great friends,” explains Christopher. “The only place they knew dad anyway was onstage. They worked together brilliantly, but they were never friends. Well, they were at the very beginning and at school. That’s when they had the relationship. But afterwards they were just completely different people. They didn’t really get on outside of work.”

That work ended in June 2002, one day before the Who were supposed to kick off an American tour in Las Vegas, when Entwistle was found dead in his hotel room. Contrary to reports, according to Christopher, John did pass a pre-tour physical and was cleared to go on the road. But the physical wasn’t as thorough as it could have been. “One artery was 100 percent blocked and the other was 75 percent blocked,” says Christopher. “They would have only noticed that had they done an EKG, and they didn’t. We learned about it in the post-mortem.”

Christopher has yet to see the Who in concert since his father’s death (“it’s just horrible thinking about anyone else on that side of the stage”), but he took no offense last year when Pete Townshend was quoted as saying he “thanked God” that Entwistle and Keith Moon were no longer around because it was so difficult to play music with them.

“That was taken totally out of proportion,” says Christopher. “All he was really saying was that without other people to write for, he could write what he wanted. He didn’t say it very well, but I didn’t have a problem with it. I hold no enmity towards him whatsoever. … He just made a throwaway comment that was grabbed hold of for people to try and tear him apart with.”

But Rees does feel that the Who were never the same after John’s death. “Even people that worked for them for years and years said to me, ‘That isn’t the Who,’” he says. “‘It’s Pete and Roger playing Who songs, but it isn’t the Who.’ The great bands are great because all of the elements work together. You can’t extract something as important as that and have it be the same.”

Entwistle’s life has received far less examination than his three bandmates. There hasn’t even been a proper book about him prior to this. “This is a guy that really didn’t have his due,” says Rees. “He deserves to be recognized and hopefully we’ve done him some sort of justice.”

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