Pete Townshend Explains 'Tommy'
A Tutorial Before Broadway: A 1993 Interview
I don't think I learned more from anyone I interviewed than Pete Townshend, the guiding spirit of The Who and rock's greatest theorist. Each conversation was more like listening to a master teacher in a private seminar. Not the usual volley/return of question and answer: More like question, text, subtext, digression, return to text. No one has verbalized rock music: what is is, what it means, how it works, with the depth, awareness, and experience of Pete Townshend. It helps, of course, that he helped bring it back to life in the early 1960s, along with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. They are the trinity of rock's 1960s British resurrection: the Beatles, the Stones, and The Who, mind, body, spirit.
He's done this musically, too, from the start. No one articulated the emerging, liberating power of rock and adolescence with more directness and awareness than The Who's 1965 single "My Generation." Though it peaked at No. 74 on the Billboard singles charts, everyone who needed to hear it heard it, understood it. For me, to be 14 years old and hear "My Generation" was like holding a hand grenade, pulling the pin, and keeping my fist around that live piece of ammunition. I was uncertain whether to throw it, where to throw it (at my parents? my house?), or just hold on and blow myself to kingdom come.
"You know that great scene in 'East of Eden,' where James Dean is standing in the doorway, and [Dean] doesn't know whether to smash his father in the mouth, his father doesn't know whether to smash him in the mouth, to stay or go...that kind of moment is what rock is founded in. It's very much a universal postwar thing," Townshend told me in early 1993, as he was preparing Tommy for its Broadway musical debut. His collaborator was Des McAnuff, who had mounted a successful stage version of Tommy in 1992 at the La Jolla, Ca., Playhouse. McAnuff won the Tony award in 1993 for Best Direction of a Musical for The Who's Tommy.
The Who were not properly recognized at first, and that goes for its most famous single work, Tommy, released in 1969. A "rock opera." An oxymoron? A dangerous conceit? The songs told a story of an abused deaf, dumb, and blind boy with one glorious skill: He was a "Pinball Wizard." We'd been through swinging London and the rise and fall of Haight-Ashbury. We'd smoked our weed, dropped our acid, done our spiritual search, protested the war, were demanding our freedom of sexual expression. In 1969, we'd gone to the moon, went from the peace and love of Woodstock to the death and destruction of Altamont in less than four months. Tommy was an attempt at something deeper: To exorcise the adolescent pain that smoldered in the expression of James Dean. It was the undertow against which Townshend, the Who's windmill-stroking, guitar-smashing guitarist, swam as one of rock's premiere songwriters.
When The Who performed Tommy at New York's Metropolitan Opera house, for two shows (matinee and evening) on June 7, 1970, cultural confusion and role reversals were abundant. Rolling Stone magazine (with Dylan friend Al Aronowitz assigned the hit-piece) was vicious and angry; the New York Times (which assigned both a reporter and future Pulitzer Prize-winning classical music critic, Donal Henahan) was solicitous and mostly charmed.
The controversy was all in the nomenclature. Aronowitz for Rolling Stone treated the Who like narcs in a college dorm. "Tommy is no more an opera than Albert Goldman is Renata Tebaldi, and to place the Who at the Met was less a contribution to music than to showmanship," Aronowitz wrote. Imagine that, a rock band engaging in "showmanship." Albert Goldman was the New York rock academic later reviled for his condescending biographies of Elvis Presley and John Lennon. The antithesis of Rolling Stone "hip."
Henahan, by contrast, called Tommy, by formal musicological definition, "an extended ballad in concert form." Yet the Times critic said that Tommy was "one of the most successful attempts by aging pop performers to move past the standard rock concert or even transfigure it." (Townshend was born in 1945, making him 25 at the time of the Met show.) If they wanted to call it a "rock opera," he could bend the definition to accept The Who's performance. There was "enough overt and covert symbolism to keep it from seeming as feeble as most of the things you can find in the Victor Book of the Opera." Henahan also spoke profoundly and accurately about the sense of loneliness and alienation the youth culture was feeling at the time. It is worth reading now.
Concept album, opera, whatever. "I think it's important to define what makes a rock sound a rock sound," Townshend said in our 1993 interview, regarding the possible "loss of authenticity" that a Broadway production of Tommy might bring. "It's very much about the harmonic structure of the writing, and not always its simplicity. In my case, I use groups of chords, with several notes deliberately missing, several parts of the chord deliberately missing, that gives a particular sound, and I was doing that around the time of Tommy."
"The way that I define rock is to talk about what's it's about, or what its function is, rather than what kind of music it is. What I was worried about, which I've ceased to worry about, was whether or not doing Tommy as a theater production, I would be misappropriating it, denying it as a Who vehicle."
The cue for Townshend to stop worrying about Tommy was the 1989 revival of the work by The Who in concert. They had not performed it for 19 years. On June 27, 1989, during a comeback tour following a farewell tour, The Who played Tommy at Radio City Music Hall in New York, and again at Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles August 24. They were benefits earmarked for charities for autistic and abused children. Tickets were $1,000 each, at least for the good orchestra seats. Long Island music mogul Charles Koppelman invited my wife and I to be his guests. My Newsday colleague and avid Who fan Stephen Williams got my single press ticket, for which we may have paid $500, and he reviewed the show.
"It was Roger's [Daltrey's] idea to make Tommy the centerpiece of that show," Townshend said. "And it really was a vigorous piece." (After Tommy, the band performed another set of songs from the Who's vast repertory.) Having reestablished the place of Tommy in that repertory, Townshend then felt he could do more with his composition.
WR: Were the others reluctant to part with it?
"Sadly, they don't own the rights," Townshend said. "I do. The bit of the Who they've been reluctant to part with is me. Can't help them there. I think Roger is possibly worried abut the idea that the Tommy that I see, that I wrote, is a combination of voices and characters, and the public visualization of Tommy is one that very much, up to now, he has definted. In a brilliant way, I think."
Daltrey even sang and played the part of Tommy in Ken Russell's perfectly imperfect, delirious 1975 film version, which featured Tina Turner as "the Acid Queen," Elton John as the Pinball Wizard, and Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, and Jack Nicholson to give a potentially wayward ship some Hollywood ballast.
In the Broadway show, Townshend was trying to carefully thread a needle, between Tommy as rock performance piece and what theater audiences mostly want. He had many ideas about that.
"What a show like this does is focus attention on great work the Who did," he said. "To some extent, rock and roll thrives on spectacle and chaos, in a publicity sense, and we had our share of that . . . The kind of rock and roll moments you can get away with, the license you have in rock and roll, doesn't transfer to theater."
At this point, I am going to just let the Emeritus Professor Townshend continue his exegesis on the meaning of Tommy, rock, theater, film, art, and life, as he explained it to me at a New York hotel in 1993, picking up on that idea of "license,"
". . . because that license is something that Tommy tends to carry. What I would be worried about is not whether or not we [The Who] lose the piece, but our ability to do it our way. For it to be seen as it was always seen, with a rock 'n' roll ending, in other words, with no ending, no conclusion. With the loop unclosed. Because that's very important in rock. That you don't lecture. That you share ideas, address concepts, you talk about various things you feel, that you've carried from your teenage years, the years you were founded."
"I've come to believe that the rock 'n' roll moment is when you first realize you're alone. You focus on that time perpetually, particularly if you're given a continuum like rock 'n' roll, which allows you to do that, to continue to address it, to continue to feel sentimental, nostalgic, and involved in it as you grow older. Now, I think when people hear the record of Tommy, if they've seen the show, they'll think of Uncle Ernie as a true family member, and not a cipher, not a metaphor for all abusers. He'll be a specific man, and this will probably be true of the mother and father and Tommy himself. I don't think the film did that. I don't think the film closed any of the loops. The film was so surreal and colorful and crazy, it didn't settle any of the questions."
"Do you get what I'm saying? In rock, we try not to say, 'we're worried about pollution, and there's an answer. You just say, we're worried about pollution, and then you dance. And know that tomorrow you have to go to work and do something about it. Life is where the work gets done; rock 'n' roll is where the expression and effusion takes place. Theater's not quite the same. Theater is expression and effusion and having release and abandon and all of those things, but when you get up to walk out, what you want to do is talk about it, debate with yourself and your friends, whether or not the people who put the show together have got it right."
WR: Well, a good show should have a beginning, middle and end.
Townshend: That's right. What Tommy had was a beginning, a middle, and a long fade (laughs).
WR: Tommy also dealt with some explosive issues that weren't discussed at the time. At the time, the abuser was more metaphorical: the younger generation felt abused by the older generation. When you wrote Tommy, were you dealing with abuse as a metaphor, or from personal pain?
Townshend: "If there is any pain, I'm not quite sure. I am surprised at the anger Tommy carries, and it's only sublimated in the end. Everybody's angry in Tommy. In the prayer at the end, the idea that this anger, this injustice, is so enormous that only God can solve the problem. And only Selflessness through worship can refocus the human spirit. I think that's something I very much felt through the sixties, and I think it's ever more important today. . . I don't know if any religion, or organized faith . . . seems to jigsaw very well with modern living. And the speed with which you can start a war and dispose of huge parts of the population, and the speed with which you can destroy huge swaths not just of the surface of the planet, but also its atmosphere. So that issue is very much the same."
WR: What is the source of the pain, or the anger, that Tommy feels, and that so many people at that time identified with, overtly or subliminally?
Townshend: “In the case of Uncle Ernie, what was specific was not just sexual abuse, but unfeeling interaction with children. I always talk about the time I was tickled by this friend of my father until I thought I would die, and I started screaming hysterically. He was a bit drunk and didn't realize it. He was upset that he made me cry, and I was howling at him, and I was furious he had done this to me. And my father came in and told me off for shouting at his friend, and tried to use it as a moment where he could demonstrate how loyal he was to his friend."
"Tommy was suffering the result of his parents being brutalized by the fact that they fell in love during a war. After the war, they wanted to rebuild their lives, and to have fun, and to be free. What they actually got was complicated, much harder work than they thought. A sense of anticimax, a hunger in a sense for the melodrama, and the drama, of being involved in a war. Perhaps some of the friendship and kinship, there was a tremendous spirit and camaraderie, and suddenly, you're alone."
"The kids who grew up in this atmosphere tend to suffer not so much from specific abuse, but a decaying neglect. It's not to say I wasn't well-cared for. But you always felt you were in the chorus, that you weren't one of the principal players in your family, you weren't one of the major protagonists. If that's not––and here comes the subtext––if that's not what started rock 'n' roll, I really don't know what did."
Critical Conditions by Wayne Robins is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a paid subscriber.