Illustration by bunny007, used with her kind permission.
September 16, 1967
The stillness was what bothered John Entwistle the most. He had walked into the hospital room not ten minutes before, and except for a seemingly random jerk of the right knee, the man on the bed was completely still.
“Are you even in there?” he finally resorted to teasing.
The only reaction he got was a wry twist to the lips and the right hand raising with two fingers pointing upward before the hand crashed listlessly back down beside the thigh.
Chuckling, John slid his long frame up onto the bed and sat there studying him for a moment before reaching out and touching his shoulder. The reaction was such a violent start he was almost kicked off. “Easy, Keith. Take it easy, it’s just me.”
Keith Moon sighed deeply and lolled his head on the pillows, the stark white of the bandages making his hair appear even darker. “It was just supposed to be a joke, Whiskey-Man. Just a prank….”
Seven hours earlier.
Keith tightened the last bolt on the back of his auxiliary bass drum. Bribing the stagehand had been worth every last penny and drop. This time there wouldn’t be any wimpy little puff of smoke and fizzle of sound.
This time there would be a boom worthy of the name of the Who.
About ninety minutes later, the Who took the stage. Their first number, “I Can See For Miles”, Keith kept his left foot firmly hooked around his stool so he wouldn’t hit the trigger on the auxiliary bass too soon and tip his hand. But he couldn’t quite keep his natural exhilaration inside and his middle-tom cymbal took a flying leap off the riser at the end of the song, despite his taking a flying leap trying to catch it.
He was already grumbling under his breath when the older Smothers – Keith couldn’t recall his name for his irritation -- walked onstage. “Oy,” he called. “Get that for me, huh?” The man picked up the stand and Keith pointed to its spot. “Right here, if you would.”
“Right where? Here?” Distracted and thrown off-cue by the drummer’s request, the older Smothers put it too far left.
“No, here. Right he—“ Keith gave up pointing and just took it from him. “Oh, they take good care of us on this show, they do,” he groused.
But Tommy – finally, Keith remembered his name -- had already moved on. The scripted quips and comebacks worked well, and Keith chuckled slightly when he ignored Roger Daltrey completely before going to him third. But when he turned to Keith, the quip wasn’t scripted. “And up here, the gentleman with the sloppy drums?”
“Follow the yellow brick road, eh?” Keith shot back, referring to Roger’s ‘Oz’ quip that hadn’t been scripted either. His large eyes were narrow with anger at the ‘sloppy drums’ insult and when the guy asked him for his name, his friends exchanged glances and grins at the coldness in his voice. “Keith. My friends call me Keith. You can call me John.” Keith had already made up his mind that he would call him ‘the man’ from then on. Asshole didn’t deserve a name.
Blinking, the man nodded. “John. All right. You sure you don’t want me to call you Roger?”
“Whatever, I don’t care,” Keith shrugged.
The man turned away and asked Roger what song they were going to sing. Roger identified “My Generation” with the stutter he used in the song, and the man went off on a mini-logue about how he could really identify with this generation….
Keith couldn’t let that slide. He brought his hand to his mouth and made a farting noise. When the man turned, askance, he shot coldly, “You’ve got some sloppy stagehands back here.”
And the rest of the band cracked up. Pete Townshend even nodded approval at him as the man blew up: “ALL RIGHT, THAT’S ENOUGH!” Keith grinned back at him, twirling his sticks.
The irritating man finally exited the stage, and the band began their frenetic song. Once more, Keith kept his foot hooked around the stool until the time was right.
When Pete started throwing his guitar up and catching it and a mini-smoke bomb went off, the time was right. Keith waited until Pete had knocked over a stack of amps, then he shot to his feet, overturning the stool. One well-placed kick and the main bank of drums slid off the riser to the floor, taking the left hand cymbal with it.
Battering the other two toms and cymbals as fast as he could, Keith readied himself with a mental countdown. Three…two….. he braced his foot on top of the auxiliary bass….
And slammed it down.
The cannon exploded with a deafening roar. Keith had tried his damnedest to aim it so that nobody onstage would be hit by shrapnel.
Unfortunately, he hadn’t counted himself in the equation. He’d pointed the thing to the left and up, and the rightmost cymbal was caught in the blast.
As if in slow motion, Keith watched the cymbal arch upward in a dizzying arc, spinning to its own insane beat. When he realised where it was going to hit, he yelled and tried to dodge.
But he was a few milliseconds too late. The sharp edge of the copper plate caught him full across the bridge of the nose, slamming into his upper face with the force of a piledriver.
His last thought before he passed out was bloody hell this hurts….
The stage was in absolute pandemonium. Pete reappeared out of the smoke, patting down his lit hair and shaking his ringing head. He grabbed Tommy’s guitar and smashed it to pieces, then grinned vacantly at him as he called for Dick’s bass, sending the stunned audience into paroxysms of laughter.
When a commercial was called seconds later, Tommy rounded on them. “What the hell was that? Someone could have been hurt!”
“Someone was,” John rumbled from where he’d moved to Pete’s side. “Pete can’t hear anything.”
“Shit,” Roger hissed, turning. “Keith, you better have a damned good explanation for--- Keith?” He took a step toward the ruined riser. “KEITH?”
The drummer was gone.
It dawned on all three of them at the same time as their eyes met. “Oh, G-d,” Pete groaned, louder than normal. It was almost a prayer. Suddenly, in perfect unison, all three bolted for backstage.
There was no way Keith Moon would not stick around to enjoy the aftermath of a prank. He got too big of a buzz off of it.
It was John who found him, crumpled like a rag doll – half in the shadows, with a bloodstained cymbal still doing an insane wobble beside him. “Keith.” He gently pulled him into the floodlights, trying very hard not to think about the smear of blood that followed the movement. “Keith, this isn’t funny. Wake up, man.” He punctuated that thought by turning Keith over onto his back.
The next instant, John lurched into the shadows himself, crashing to his knees and forcibly emptying the contents of his stomach.
The sentiment – though not the force – was echoed with the others ran up. Pete was swallowing very hard, and Roger spun on his heel and thundered back toward the stage, bellowing for Tommy and Dick to “call a f----n’ ambulance NOW!”
John returned to Keith’s side, looking at Pete and tapping the top of his own chest. Nodding, Pete grabbed the expansive ruffles at the throat of his shirt and ripped them off, handing them to John.
After wadding them into a ball, John gently touched them to the drummer’s ruined face. Keith flinched and groaned, and John whispered, “Shhh…. I know it hurts, it’s got to hurt after that….”
Impossibly, the ruined eyelids lifted a fraction of an inch. “…..Whi…..Whi….”
“Yeah, Moonie, it’s me. You just go on back, we’ll take care of you.”
Keith drew in a ragged breath full of pain and fear. “…can’t….can’t…”
“You’re repeatin’ yourself, m’friend. Close those eyes and—“
“John!” he groaned, gripping John’s coat with weak hands. “….can’t …can’t see!”
And John found himself with nothing to say. He exchanged helpless glances with Pete, who spread his hands. Not being able to hear, Pete had no idea what was just said, and he didn’t trust himself to speak.
“Keith…” John said at last, still unsure of how much to tell the wounded man. John was no doctor by any stretch of the imagination, but that damage looked irreversible.
John would forever be haunted by the flare of intense relief he felt when he realised Keith had passed out again from the pain.
Pete sagged in relief, reading and re-reading the note the doctor had handed him. Ears stunned. Hearing will return in matter of hours. Muffled for long while, but will recover completely.
Roger peered quizzically around the doorframe at him, and Pete laughed, motioning for him to come in. “REPRIEVE!” he laughed, holding out the note.
Motioning for him to lower his voice, Roger read it and grinned, nodding once in satisfaction and pounding Pete’s shoulder.
Pete’s grin faded and he frowned. “Keith?”
Roger shook his head. He pulled the small notebook Pete carried for when lyrics would suddenly ambush him from Pete’s jacket pocket. He scribbled one word on it, underlining it three times, then turned it to where Pete could see it.
Pete nodded, half-curling over as if he’d been dealt a physical blow. “Yeah…Kind’a figured, from the look of his eyes.”
More writing. *Were they very bad? I only got a glimpse…*
“Roger, I’m going to be seeing those injuries in my nightmares for years.”
The blond’s wince wasn’t exaggerated.
Keith sighed deeply and lolled his head on the pillows, the stark white of the bandages making his hair appear even darker. “It was just supposed to be a joke, Whiskey-Man. Just a prank….”
“Some prank – landed you here. What happened, anyhow?”
The forehead above the bandages furrowed slightly as Keith frowned. “I bribed the stagehand to load more powder. I think I misaimed. I was tryin’ to not hurt anyone. And look.” He waved his hand. “I’ve destroyed Pete’s ears and my own eyes.”
When John couldn’t think of anything to say, Keith shook his head again. “That’s it, then. I’m officially swearin’ off pranks.”
“Oh, like that’ll last,” John chuckled.
“It’ll last,” Keith promised. “I can’t pull them off like … like this.”
“I know you, Keith, remember?” John nudged his leg. “You’ll find a way. You always do. You’re Keith Moon, remember? Bigger’n life.”
Keith’s head turned away.
John met Roger in the hallway. “How’s he?”
“Oh, he’s fine. About to bounce off the walls, he’s so giddy. The deafness is temporary.” When John nodded in satisfaction, Roger asked, “Keith?”
John sighed and shook his head. “It’s permanent.”
“Shit.” Roger shook his head, running his hand through his hair.
“It gets better. He’s shuttin’ down.” At Roger’s incredulous look, John nodded grimly.
“Oh, we’ll just see about that.” And Roger stormed toward Keith’s room.
No one would ever really know what went on in that room. Only Roger and Keith knew – and they weren’t talking.
Urban legend would later state that Roger had struck Keith – literally beating some sense into the blinded man. Both of them vehemently denied this.
But when Roger left the room, Keith’s sunny nature had reasserted itself. The nurses came in to prep Keith, and he flirted and joked up until the anesthetic took hold.
“Surgery?” John gasped. “But – why?”
Doctor Howland smiled at him and held up a hand. “We can’t save the function of his eyes, but we’re going to try to save the form. We’re going to try to make it so that his lids will open and close and that there will be something there for them to open and close over –“
“Rather than empty sockets,” Roger shivered.
“So you might want to go home,” Howland suggested. “Get something to eat, freshen up—“
John glanced over at Pete, who was curled up on an unused gurney, his non-functioning ears not cluing him in to what was going on around him. His large, pale eyes were closed and his breath smoothed out in sleep.
Then John looked at roger, who nodded. “I’ll bring fresh clothes and food.”
“Thanks.” John sighed and turned to Howland. “We’re staying.”
For the first time, the world at large was seeing what their inner circle of friends had seen over and over again.
One of the Who was in trouble. The rest of the quartet closed ranks and would not leave him alone.
The world at large was finally seeing the bickering band act like the brothers they truly had become.
The rest of the US tour was canceled. The trio tightened ranks about their blinded drummer.
Keith was never left alone. He was read to, sang with, held when his dark side threatened to overwhelm him, and conversation often turned to the future now.
The doctors had been correct. Pete’s hearing slowly returned. He would, however, forever be haunted by the memory of absolute silence. He would forever be running from it on one level or another.
As the weeks went by, Keith slowly adjusted to his blindness. He turned out to be one of the 30 or so percent who could read Braille, and he took to it eagerly.
He remained in the LA hospital, detoxifying and adjusting. And the rest of the Who stubbournly remained with him.
Shortly before they returned to England, the doctors removed the bandages from Keith’s eyes. Faint white scars criss-crossed his closed lids.
But when his lids parted, his three waiting friends drew in involuntary breaths.
Keith’s large brown eyes were intact. Pupil-less, with a scar running across them – perfectly aligned with the one across the bridge of his nose – and with the glassy gaze of the sightless. But intact.
On the plane to England, the four discussed their future once more. Keith mentioned a project Pete had been very excited about at Monterey and the first part of their spectacularly-ended tour.
“Oh, uh –“ Pete stammered. “That. I… I’m gonna bin it.”
Keith looked horrified. “You’re what? Why?”
“W-well…. After what happened to you –“
“You think it’d bother me, you writing about a blind guy since I lost my sight?” His large eyes rolled. “John, are you near Pete?”
“Sitting right by him, why?”
“Slap him for me!”
“NO!” Pete roared. “No, okay? I’ll keep the damn thing!”
Keith nodded, satisfied. “This thing is going to be huge, Pete.”
For over a year, speculation had run rampant. A new record had been released, and it had become one of their most popular.
But the Who weren’t touring. And that led to speculation that Keith Moon – who had been so publicly injured and permanently blinded – was no longer part of the group.
A music festival called Woodstock was in full swing. It was the largest gathering of young people in one place ever. The music was heady, the atmosphere was electric.
Suddenly an announcer called out a name nobody expected.
“People, I give to you – THE WHO!”
The lights went up. The music rolled out. And there they were.
And on the drums, playing with the skill he’d always possessed – Keith Moon.
The Who were back. Intact. Musically, better than ever.
And still with their trademark aggression, even as they were protective of their blinded drummer.
As Abbie Hoffman was the first to find out – the hard way.
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