By Tim Bean
Even 50 years later, musicians repeat Scot Halpin’s legend with awed solemnity. The first reaction is almost always disbelief, until the listener looks it up on YouTube. The closed circuit recording is grainy, the sound woofy and muddled, but the viewer’s reaction is almost always the same.
A respectful “Holy s–t! It’s true.”
Who was the Who?
In 1973, the Who stood higher than any rock band in the world. The band had rocketed to megastardom with a parade of legendary albums: Tommy in 1969, Live at Leeds in 1970, Who’s Next in 1971, and Quadrophenia in 1973. For rock musicians then and now, that era would forever define rock n’ roll.
Since the band’s founding in 1964, drummer Keith Moon had evolved into the living symbol of rock’s impulsive indulgences. Moon compensated for weak technical ability with animal mania. He was fast, he was loud, and he was a showman. He made headlines by destroying furniture, toilets, and television sets wherever he went, and cemented this destruction by doing the same to his drum kit at the end of most concerts. This part of Moon’s personality was propped up by a steady diet of amphetamines and alcohol (and would sadly cause his death in 1978).
By 1973, the other members of the Who—singer Roger Daltrey, guitarist Pete Townsend, and bass player John Entwistle—knew Moon’s crash would eventually come. And it did, November 20th, 1973, during the first show of the US leg of the Quadrophenia tour, held at the Cow Palace in Daly City, California.
Nervous before the first American show, Moon readily accepted several downers an anonymous fan offered him, hoping to “soften the edges” of his nerves. He chased these pills with long swigs of his beloved brandy. Then the show began.
They did more than soften the edges. Those pills turned them into warm Silly Putty. After an hour of playing, his fellow band members and the audience could tell something was not quite right about the world’s most famous drummer. His timing was off, his fills sloppy, and he was missing cues. During the band’s signature song “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” Keith Moon finally passed out, collapsing onto his drum kit.
Roadies quickly hauled him off stage. The other three Who members apologized and played some acoustic numbers, making light of the incident and trying to give the 14,000 fans the show they paid for. Thirty minutes later, after a hefty shot of cortisone and a cold shower, Moon stumbled onstage. As the California crowd roared, Townsend and Daltrey firmly nudged Moon to his drum throne. The manic drummer brushed the incident off. The band gently waded into “Magic Bus.”
Before the song ended, Moon had collapsed again. Roadies carted him offstage, but this time everyone knew Moon wasn’t coming back. Instead, he went straight to the hospital, where doctors would pump out a mixture of horse tranquilizers and brandy from the drummer’s stomach.
Owing at least another 30 or 40 minutes to the Cow Palace audience, Townsend knew acoustic stuff wouldn’t cut it, not for the WORLD’S BIGGEST ROCK BAND. Both inspired and desperate, Townsend asked the sweaty mass of fans if there was anyone that could play drums in attendance. “Somebody good,” he specified.
Enter Scot Halpin.
In 1973, Scot Halpin was a 19-year-old student who had left the cornfields of Iowa for the schools of San Fransisco, and hadn’t sat behind a drum kit in over a year.
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When Townsend requested a musician, Scot Halpin didn’t actually volunteer. A friend, knowing Halpin could play, volunteered for him, screaming and waving to get the concert promoter’s attention. It worked.
Security escorted the two to the edge of the stage, and the promoter leaned in close to be heard above the screaming audience. He shouted, “Can you do it?”
Scot simply said, “Yes.”
A roadie offered Halpin a quick shot of brandy to loosen his nerves. A moment later the 19-year-old was perched behind Moon’s kit, listening attentively to Pete Townsend’s West London accent. “Watch me. I’m going to lead you. I’m going to cue you,” Townsend said. The guitarist was both grateful and sympathetic to the young man.
“It was easy to follow,” Halpin later said. “Because Pete signals when to end [a song] by jumping up and down.”
How did Halpin do? He did just fine. Life isn’t a Miramax movie. He didn’t blow the audience away with superhuman chops and win an instant recording contract. The best reflection a musician can have at the end of a show is “I got through it” and “I didn’t screw up too much.” Scot Halpin was able to say just that.
He spent less than 15 minutes playing in front of 14,000 people, covering three familiar blues-based tunes. When the show was over, he took a stage bow with the band, joined them in a quick can-can dance, then followed backstage for sandwiches and beer. The Who thanked him with a tour jacket, but the jacket was stolen later that same night.
Scot did not remain in the megastardom world of “everything, all the time,” but art would become his profession. Instead of playing with one band, he led several, becoming a composer-in-residence at Sausalito’s Headlands Center for the Arts. He graduated from San Fransisco State University with a Master of Arts degree in interdisciplinary art and transitioned from the musical arts to the visual with great success.
In 1995, Halpin left California for Bloomington, Indiana, which had become the Midwest’s unofficial center for art festivals. Influenced by artists Picasso and Paul Klee, he quickly developed artwork equal parts dreamy, introspective, and optimistic. Sadly, Scot Halpin passed away in 2008 from a non-malignant brain tumor, leaving behind his wife, a son, and a mountain of work.
Want to Know More?
If you enjoyed Scot Halpin’s story, check out the T. Scot Halpin Fan Club Facebook page maintained by his surviving wife, Robin Halpin Young. Here you’ll find more images of the Renaissance man as well as collections of his moving artwork.