It may have been the Who's guitarist, Pete Townshend, who wrote the words ''Hope I die before I get old,'' but it was Keith Moon, the band's drummer, who lived them. When ''Moon the Loon'' died at 31 on Sept. 7, 1978, from a drug overdose, rock & roll lost its most beloved eccentric.
Since joining the band in 1964, Moon had embodied the Who's reckless intensity. During concerts he would whip off breakneck fills, twirl his drumsticks, and madly leap about behind his kit-a performance that usually climaxed in his toppling and destroying his drums on stage. ''He could do things with drums that haven't been done since,'' said the Who's first producer, Shel Talmy. ''Complete nut case, but a great drummer.''
In a band full of volatile personalities, Moon was court jester. He entered restaurants dressed as a Nazi, posed in drag for journalists, and raised hotel trashing to an art form (he was estimated to have spent $400,000 on hotel repairs). Still, he never failed to amuse, and friends dismissed his antics as ''Keith's nature.'' In fact, he was a hopeless alcoholic. As the '70s progressed, his behavior became more bizarre, his playing more ragged. While recording 1978's Who Are You, singer Roger Daltrey and bass-ist John Entwistle were ready to fire him; on the album cover, a smirking Moon sits in a chair stenciled ''Not to Be Taken Away.''
On Sept. 6, Moon attended a party thrown by Paul and Linda McCartney at a London restaurant, where he joyously announced his engagement to Swedish actress Annette Walter-Lax. He went home (to the same apartment where Cass Elliott of the Mamas and the Papas had died four years earlier) at 4:30 a.m., took several tablets of Heminevrin, a powerful muscle relaxant used to curb the appetite for alcohol, and went to sleep. Rising at 7:30, he had breakfast and another handful of pills, then returned to bed. At 4:30 p.m. his fiancee found him dead.
His bandmates were saddened but not surprised. ''Keith appeared so close to blowing himself up,'' said Townshend, ''that we became used to living with that feeling.'' In a more charitable moment he said, ''We have lost our great comedian, the supreme melodramatist.'' But rather than mourn for long, the Who looked ahead. In November they hired ex-Faces drummer Kenney Jones. ''The Who had been simply grinding to a halt,'' said Townshend. ''From a group point of view, (Keith's death) was the most positive thing that could have happened.''