Tributes to the Who, George Martin

THERE ARE "once-in-a-lifetime" tribute and trophy shows most every weekend in Los Angeles, but Saturday night had been circled on the calendar for weeks by fans of the British Invasion as an evening of amazing confluence. Crosstown events promised to bring the surviving members of the Beatles to USC at the same time that the Who was plugging in to play at UCLA.

In the end, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of the Who were most definitely the Pinball Wizards of Westwood, but the Beatles, sadly, were the Nowhere Men of Troy -- although the standing ovations at the USC event made it clear that the Fab Four songbook remains stirring enough on its own to help nostalgic baby boomers get back to where they once belonged.

The USC event was a $2,500-a-seat fundraiser for Grammy music charities that honored George Martin, the storied and stately record producer who was so instrumental in the sonic revolution of the Beatles. Beatles widows Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison attended, and there were performances by Jeff Beck, Tom Jones and Burt Bacharach. But despite much excited speculation in recent weeks, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr did not make it.

Martin, an intensely admired figure in the music industry, was a figure of humility at the posh program. "I've been kind of a lucky guy in my life," the 82-year-old said. "I miss a lot of people. Many people have died on me -- and I miss them, John [Lennon] and George [Harrison] particularly . . . I'm sharing this with all those people. This award means a great deal to me, but it's them you should be paying tribute to, not me."

The tribute to the Who was also touched by poignant observations about tragic loss. Drummer Keith Moon died in 1978 and bassist John Entwistle in 2002, both joining rock's long list of drug casualties.

"Us old farts have to have a breath now and again, just in case we keel over," Daltrey told the crowd after a thunderous version of "Who Are You," which was one of the highlight performances for the band's drummer, Starr's son Zak Starkey.

The Who tribute was produced by VH1, which will broadcast an edited version Thursday as "VH1 Rock Honors: The Who," one of the cable channel's attempts to treat classic rock as both an archival treasure and a still-breathing creature in the contemporary music scene. For the latter, the channel tapped younger acts to interpret the Who songbook Saturday, with wildly different results.

The members of Pearl Jam, whose adoration of the Who is a foundation of their own sound, appeared as if they had waited their entire lives to sing their stormy-sea version of "Love, Reign O'er Me" in front of their heroes, while Gaz Coombes, the twitchy singer of the British band Supergrass, embarrassed himself by repeatedly flubbing the lyrics to "Bargain" even though he was reading them off a giant teleprompter with the subtlety of someone taking an eye exam.

The Flaming Lips performed an inspired medley of "Tommy" songs, while Foo Fighters opened with a brawny version of "Young Man's Blues."

The Who was always a reckless outfit, and VH1 never was, which led to some interesting moments.

Sean Penn, introducing Pearl Jam, took a vague and random shot when he said that the Who never sold out, "unlike some music channels." There was some R-rated humor from Adam Sandler too that won't make it on the air.

It will be interesting to see how VH1 handles a petulant exchange near the end of the show when Townshend, the primary songwriter of the Who, alluded to the small fortune he is making off the "CSI" television shows using the band's music as theme songs.

He told Daltrey, "You should try writing a song." Daltrey's acid reply: "You spoil me, mate, I tell you."

The vibe of the UCLA event was dry ice and arena lasers, but the defining ambience at the USC affair was dry martini and chandelier twinkle. For classic rock fans, the highlight was Beck, who delivered a show-stopping instrumental reading of "A Day in the Life" that burst with the distortion-drenched tones that distinguished him as such a soulful player.

Dave Grusin brought an exceptionally melancholy and introspective solo piano arrangement of "Yesterday," while jazz singer Kurt Elling not only gave "She's Leaving Home" a jazz spin but also miraculously found a way to interpolate "Thank you, George, for a lifetime of service to humanity" into the song's lyric.

It was quite a night on both campuses. It was a lot to take in, and not just for the fans in the audience. Harrison's widow, Olivia, smiled demurely when she crossed the red carpet leading into USC's McCarthy Quad. "George," she said, referring to Martin, "is not going to know what to make of this whole thing."