THE WHO holds a strange position in modern music. Their constant reunion tours have become a sort of running gag; it's only a matter of time before the boys gather together again for yet another run-through of "My Generation." The populace at large, despite buying enough tickets to make most shows sell out, view each tour cynically, as yet another case of classic rockers cashing in on their legacy. Each excessively priced T-shirt is yet another symbol that The Who are just out for your money (as if most big acts don't gouge on the merchandise; the last Nine Inch Nails show offered fans a matching shirt and shorts ensemble for a mere $150). It's one more show where a bunch of old guys try to regain past glory, one hand on the microphone and the other on a tube of Geritol.

The thing is, these people are wrong. And if you agree, with them, you're wrong, too.

I saw The Who four years ago at the Rose Garden, and it was one of the singularly most spectacular concert experiences of my life. It was the tour to celebrate the anniversary of Quadrophenia, their best album, the mission statement of everything they stood for as a young British band. Seeing Townshend, Roger Daltrey, and John Entwistle performing the rock opera in its entirety--all the way from opener "I Am The Sea" to the heart-wrenching "Love Reign O'Er Me"--was a sight I never thought I'd behold. I thought my time had passed. Keith Moon had died, the band had moved on, the moment was gone.

But there I was. 24 years old. Screaming my head off as they launched into a raucous "5.15." It didn't matter if it was 1996 and the boys were old and rich and long past the days where they were looking flash on Ready, Steady Go. Some shit is timeless, and can't be soiled by being sold to a car commercial or because Eddie Vedder has taken it upon himself to perform endless crap renditions of it. The Who--my Who--are untouchable.

You have to understand, this music meant something to me. Having grown up in a household that felt The Beatles ruined music, there was always something vaguely Satanic to classic rock. It was something those long-haired guys in bad T-shirts listened to at keggers. Even though I was a reformed Duran Duranimal and was black-clad in my adoration of The Smiths and Depeche Mode, Jim Morrison and John Lennon were somehow evil, not to be touched.

Then I met this girl (how many stories get transformed by that statement?), and she had a tape: The Who's Greatest Hits. It was all downhill from there.

Next thing I know, I'm in my town's one alternative record shop (this was a small community in the middle of the Mojave desert in California, and the most popular song in my senior class was "Me So Horny," which should give you an idea of what kind of teenage wasteland I was in), and in their bins, amongst Bauhaus and Siouxsie and Dead Can Dance, there was a sealed vinyl copy of Quadrophenia. Gray cover, a mod in a parka on a scooter, each band member reflected in one of the Vespa's mirrors. It was intriguing, dangerous, sexy--a picture of a world I didn't know but wanted to be a part of. I didn't know what a mod was, but I remember my sister watching an English Beat video once and saying she hated them, so obviously, they had to be cool.

It was a couple more trips to the shop before I stopped staring at the sleeve and actually purchased the record. I was so excited to get it home and slice open the shrinkwrap. I was even more excited to find a story on the inside, a first-person monologue by Jimmy, the kid on the scooter. It was a whole new world. It was a world of misfits fighting for the music they believed in, of a boy with no real place in life struggling to find his identity. There were girls in yellow houses and zoot suits, punks, and godfathers. I was enthralled, in love, entranced. (Years later, I would discover that the album originally came with a booklet that was not issued with my edition; I ended up shoplifting it from a used record store by sliding it in a copy of Townshend's Iron Man.)

Next thing I knew, I was a fanatic. I'd picked up an LP of Meaty, Beaty, Big & Bouncey and the cassette of Tommy. It was the beginning of one of my most passionate love affairs, and Townshend's songs would prove to be one of my greatest sources of inspiration as a writer. The mark was indelible. The music was part of Who I was.

Which is going the long way around to say The Who are coming back. There's no anniversary; no dishonest album to promote. The band is just back on the road to tear it up once more. And think of it what you will, but I'll be there, standing on my chair and cheering. And it'll feel like I'm 17 again--the teenage rage, the broken hearts, the triumph of rebellion. I won't care how much the shirts and coffee mugs cost, or if Roger Daltrey comes on stage with a cane and John Entwistle is wearing adult diapers. It's still The Who, and The Who still matter. n