The Who, Tommy (MCA, 1969)

From Kill Your Idols: A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsiders the Classics (Barricade Books, 2004, Jim DeRogatis and Carmel Carrillo, eds.)

By Steve Knopper

Captain Walker dies in the war. His wife gives birth to a son. Then she takes a lover. But it turns out Captain Walker didn’t die. He comes back and murders Mrs. Walker’s lover. Their infant son Tommy watches the whole thing without reacting.

Discussion questions: Was Mrs. Walker cheating on Captain Walker, or was she free to court a new man because she thought her husband was dead? Why didn’t they just send Tommy to his room?

Captain and Mrs. Walker browbeat Tommy into forgetting the whole ugly affair. Tommy goes deaf, dumb, and blind. While he’s helpless, his cousin abuses him, his uncle fondles him, the Acid Queen gets him stoned, and he learns to play pinball really well.

Discussion questions: Is it really possible to yell at somebody so aggressively that you make him lose his senses? Why would you bring a deaf, dumb, and blind child into an arcade?

Tommy beats all the local lads at pinball with his spiritual concentration and crazy flipper fingers. Later, his parents smash a mirror and reawaken his senses. Tommy leads a mass of followers to spiritual enlightenment, but they rebel, and he goes deaf, dumb, and blind again.

Discussion questions . . . You know what? Forget it.

The Who’s former manager, Kit Lambert, once said Tommy, the rock 'n' roll album attached to this story line, is "just like grand opera—it’s incredibly difficult to follow the story." People seemed willing to ignore this fact in the late ’60s. The Beatles and the Beach Boys had stretched rock’s artistic limits with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pet Sounds; rockers were starting to believe they should be taken as seriously as classical composers. Shallow oxymorons such as "rock opera" seemed to have extreme cultural significance. It was rock and opera. If you insisted on being hung up with concepts like plot and characters, maybe you just weren’t cultured enough.

Rock 'n' roll began (more or less) as a two-minute Elvis Presley single about hillbilly love in Kentucky, but by the ’60s, it was no longer allowed to tell a simple story and play on a jukebox. The Doors’ Jim Morrison couldn’t settle for bluesy rock songs full of good organ solos; he had to be the Lizard King. Bob Dylan opened the door for Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow: Rock had to say something. Otherwise, it was disposable junk culture, and the Baby Boomer free-love radical revolutionary youth culture simply couldn’t have that. Its music had to endure as high art, whether or not it made sense.

Who guitarist, primary songwriter and former art-school student Pete Townshend was vulnerable to the notion of pop music aspiring to classical music’s cultural credibility. Until 1969, the Who was a blue-collar band of angry, destructive British teenagers with big noses, ugly hair, and mod clothes. To get attention, they hurled their guitars and drums on the floor, creating explosions and smoke and massive repair bills. Townshend wrote brilliant, raunchy pop songs about speed, masturbation, sexual frustration, and hoping he could die before he got old. But mega-fame on the level of the Rolling Stones was still outside the band’s grasp as the decade ended. If the Who could only come up with a Big Statement. Townshend, by now an introspective follower of the Indian spiritual master Meher Baba, was up for the challenge. And thus was born rock opera.

Despite its glaring conceptual weaknesses, tin-can production, and timeless inability to rock, Tommy was immediately accepted by the sort of mainstream critics that Townshend was hoping to impress. The New Yorker, in a 1969 "Talk of the Town" commentary, referred to Townshend as a "composer and librettist" but noted that Tommy, "properly speaking, is not an opera but an oratorio." Newsweek’s Herbert Saal wrote: "From the rich Purcell-like overture—with Entwistle doubling expertly on the French horn—[the Who’s] rock beat is as pliant as a trampoline and they somersault around at will, visiting the minuet, the waltz, and a march." Added Albert Goldman in Life, "Considered as music, Tommy is magnificent, the final crystallization of the hard-rock style in an art as dry, hard, lucid, as unashamedly conventional and finely impersonal as the music of the most severe classicist."

These reviews started the unending Tommy snow job. The album continues to hold a place in the minds of Baby Boomer fans and critics as a watershed document in the history of rock ’n’ roll. "Not only a personal triumph for the Who," Paul Evans writes in the Rolling Stone Album Guide, "the record remains one of the rare fusions of classical music and rock that works." (His restraint in not using the words "librettist" and "Purcell-like" is admirable.) In fact, Tommy is a novelty, a classical-rock experiment as overwrought as ELO’s version of "Roll Over Beethoven." It has its charms, but it’s best if you accept it as camp and laugh at its indulgences. It’s like the early episodes of Star Trek: Much of the show’s appeal, then and now, is its dangling loose ends and corny contrivances—Capt. Kirk’s staccato speech patterns and Lt. Uhuru’s beehive hairdo. Tommy’s plot is as disjointed as the worst Star Trek episode but, somehow, it was always perceived as deadly serious.

It has been said that if a writer could spend his career fine-tuning his worst novel, with people paying top dollar for each revision, he would revise the thing until he dropped dead. Townshend has said his life’s curse was writing the line "I hope I die before I get old" at age 20; it doesn’t sound quite so charming once your hair falls out, your hearing begins to go, and punks start calling you an old fart. But Tommy is Townshend’s real curse; he still isn’t able to laugh at it, 33 years later. Even worse, he keeps tinkering with it, as if it’s just a few tidied-up subplots away from being perfect.

When Townshend first pitched Tommy to the rest of the Who, his bandmates were skeptical. The group had always despised pretension. Singer Roger Daltrey, a former boxer, joined the band because he liked James Brown and wanted to pick up birds. Bassist Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon were clowns who loved to play pranks on people who took themselves too seriously. But while he wasn’t a major fan of psychedelic drugs, Townshend did respond to the soul-searching of the late ’60s. In Meher Baba, he found a spiritual center, a disciplined way of life that emphasized love and compassion. "It’s something inside where all you want is for the things that seem so simple and fundamental to your life to mean something more than they appear to mean," he told writer Dave Marsh in the Who biography, Before I Get Old. Before Baba, Townshend went along with the Who’s straightforward goal of rocking in brutal and funny fashion. After Baba, he wanted to become one with his fans in a real astral hootenanny. But his expanding vision made the album an unfocused mess.

The dominant songs are the bland New Age spirituals. The trippy "Amazing Journey" is full of proselytizing: Daltrey, trained as a straightforward R&B singer, sounds daft spitting out lines such as "love as one I am the light," "loving life and becoming wise in simplicity" and especially "sparkle warm crystalline glances to show." (Go ahead: Close your eyes and try to envision a warm crystalline glance sparkling.) "Welcome," a song about a love-in where everybody is invited to Tommy’s house for tea and companionship, is so silly that even Townshend has deleted it from subsequent versions of his opus. And of course the album closes with Daltrey’s messianic mantra—"See me, feel me, touch me, heal me"—followed by the feel-good religious claptrap about getting excitement at your feet and seeing glory in your eyes.

Daltrey was the main dumping ground for Townshend’s spiritual waste. By the late ’60s, the singer was growing angry because Townshend was usurping his role as leader of the band and generally being recognized as the brilliant auteur. Then Townshend, in a genius stroke of office politics, gave Daltrey the lead role in his opera, stoking the singer’s ego and giving him a vested stake in making it work. Never exactly an Otis Redding, Daltrey had managed to stutter personably through "My Generation" and growl with adequate menace on "I Can’t Explain" and "Substitute." But he tackled the Tommy tunes in a wavering whine. Repeating, "See me, feel me, touch me, heal me," his voice is unnaturally thin and incapable of complementing Townshend’s Phil Spector aspirations.

Musically, Tommy uses three or four repetitive themes as a crutch. Whenever he’s at a creative loss, Townshend inserts the frantic guitar strum that opens "Pinball Wizard," tells Daltrey to go into his "See me, feel me" bit or rehashes the same five chords that fill up "Overture," "Underture" and "Sparks." "Tommy, Can You Hear Me?" devolves into a bouncy chant that repeats the name "Tommy" over and over until the band finally tires of it and fades out. And this comes after the Who has already run the chant into the ground during "Christmas."

Then there’s the filler. "It’s a Boy," "The Hawker," "There’s a Doctor," "1921," and "Miracle Cure" are Townshend’s flailing attempts to make the plot more cohesive. Instead, they make things even more complicated, and they’re among the worst Who songs ever recorded. (A possible exception is "Now I’m a Farmer" from Odds and Sods, with the chorus "and I’m diggin’, diggin’, diggin’, diggin’, diggin’.") How the Who progressed from "I’m a Boy," the wonderful 1966 single about psychological child abuse and forced cross-dressing, to Tommy's "It’s a Boy" is one of the great mysteries of the ’60s. "It’s a boy," a nurse sings to Mrs. Walker at the beginning of the opera. "It’s a boy, Mrs. Walker, it’s a boy." As if there was still some doubt, Townshend emphasizes the point with the chorus: "A son! A son! A son!" These songs are intended to function onstage as narration explaining what has transpired, but they just take up space.

Covering Sonny Boy Williamson’s Chicago blues classic "Eyesight to the Blind"—which Townshend renamed "The Hawker" and stuck in because of its references to being deaf, dumb, and blind—should have been a natural for a band that started out playing blues at smoky British nightclubs. But Daltrey sings it in a high, characterless pitch, and Townshend’s hooting backup vocals add to the confusion. (Those vocals return with a horrible vengeance on "Christmas," when Townshend actually sings this chorus: "Hubba hubba hubba hubba hubba.") To say "The Hawker" robs Williamson’s original of its grit is a serious understatement.

Much to the frustration of Daltrey, Moon, and Entwistle, Tommy took half a year to record, which was almost unprecedented for a rock album at the time. "I can’t believe we spent six months doing it—that’s studio time and that’s talking about it, discussing it, arranging it, producing, and writing it," Moon said in Marsh’s book. "Recording it and then saying we could do it better and recording it again. Six months, continuously, in the studio." But the album was scheduled to come out before a tour that had already been booked, and in the end, the band wound up rushing to finish it. Lambert was an "ideas man" who had very little technical studio skill. Entwistle’s bass and Townshend’s Phil Spector-inspired string and piano arrangements sound like they’re performing simultaneously in different ZIP codes. (This was especially irritating for Entwistle, who was big into post-recording studio overdubs, but didn’t have time to make crucial touch-ups.) The French horn is supposed to sound regal, but it comes across as scrawny. Recorded much too cleanly, Townshend’s guitars have none of the wonderful punk-sludge effect of "My Generation." At least Moon’s drumming sounds as messy as it’s supposed to sound.

Whenever the songs get too repetitive, Moon invents new rhythms or tries as usual to play all of his drums and cymbals at once. His playing is the album’s biggest reward for repeated listening, but there are also points where he seems to deliberately undermine the mood of the music. In "Overture," when a flock of pretty acoustic guitars swoops in, Moon sounds like a collapsing building. He’s great, but he doesn’t fit, and he often makes Tommy sound nervous and at odds with itself.

There are a few good songs here, but they account for only about 20 percent of the double album. "Pinball Wizard" is still all over classic-rock radio, in part because it uses Townshend’s dramatic power chords at least as well as the early Who hits "I Can’t Explain" and "The Seeker." Divorced from the spiritual hoo-hah, the song’s narrative about a deaf, dumb, and blind kid who crushes the local slackers at pinball works like a rock ’n’ roll comic book, offering up a superhero to stand beside Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode or the Ramones’ Sheena the Punk Rocker. The Who’s great strength was in writing straightforward rock anthems, rallying cries for disenfranchised youth that built the foundation for the Sex Pistols and the Clash. "I’m Free" showcases Moon’s explosive drumming and Daltrey’s liberating screams, and the album’s convoluted story makes perfect sense in exactly one place, when Tommy’s mother finally returns Tommy’s senses with a dramatic crash in "Smash the Mirror." The other standouts are Entwistle’s demented songs, especially the sadistic "Cousin Kevin," in which Tommy’s cousin lists all the clever forms of pain he plans to inflict on the child. (Pause for a fantasy: It’s 1973 and a disgusted Entwistle drags Townshend into the bathroom to snuff a cigarette out on his arm, drag him around by the hair, and dunk his head under the scalding water from the bath.) Similarly, "Uncle Ernie" invents a derelict relative. The dirty old pedophile offsets all of Townshend’s holy pretensions with evil perversions, chanting "fiddle about" as he diddles with helpless Tommy.

And about that Uncle Ernie: Until, oh, the fall of 2002, I always inexplicably interpreted "Fiddle About" as a funny song, envisioning a toothless, overcoat-wearing Keith Moon clowning his most lovable role. But Townshend's arrest in England for allegedly accessing a pay-per-view child pornography website made me return to the lyrics with a more discerning eye. An excerpt:

"I'm your wicked Uncle Ernie/ I'm glad you won't see or hear me

As I fiddle about, fiddle about, fiddle about.

Your mother left me here to mind you. Now I'm doing what I want to.

Fiddling about, fiddling about, fiddle about.

Down with the bedclothes. Up with your nightshirt.

Fiddle about, fiddle about, fiddle about."

Now, I'm not the type to take corny rock lyrics too seriously. And I realize that, in the context of the convoluted Tommy story, Uncle Ernie is an unsympathetic villain who violates the heroic narrator. But the song doesn't come across that way on the album or on live Tommy bootlegs from that era. (Check out the gleeful, Entwistle-sung version on The Who: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970, which came out in 1996 with an excerpt of Tommy that stomps all over the original album.) Uncle Ernie is a cuddly cartoon character, and the Who often played him that way in the old days by letting the lovable Moon voice his parts on stage. Given Townshend's recent revelations -- and it should be noted the British police decided to drop their investigation of his alleged child-pornography-buying habits -- you have to wonder if Uncle Ernie was based on a real person in Townshend's life. (According to Who lore, Townshend conceived the character and gave the song to Entwistle, by then well-respected for his dark humor.) And if that's the case, why didn't the Who conceive "Uncle Ernie" as a dark song, or at least one that in performance frowned on its evil subject? "Cousin Kevin," which is about physical and psychological, rather than sexual, child abuse, has the same issue -- but the difference is Kevin comes across as a menacing criminal rather than a lovable uncle. When I was a little kid, listening to Tommy over and over, I remember laughing at Uncle Ernie while feeling a little scared and queasy around Cousin Kevin.

I was born the year Tommy came out. My older brother, Mark, played it constantly, along with his other favorite prog-rock LPs: Yes' Tales of Topographic Oceans, Emerson, Lake and Palmer's Works, Frank Zappa's Apostrophe and even Peter Frampton's Frampton Comes Alive. Mark's musical dogma, then and now, is you have to know how to properly play your instruments to make great music. (To his credit, he makes exceptions for the Ramones, the Velvet Underground and occasional others.) For years, as I grew up with Tommy as aural wallpaper in our suburban Detroit home, I bought into that philosophy. Ringo Starr sucked! Neil Peart of Rush ruled! But when I got older, and friends introduced me to the Replacements ("I hate music! It's got too many notes!"), the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, I made a U-turn and stopped believing you had to be schooled in classical music to innovate in rock. Those lofty old albums -- Tales, Works, Frampton Comes Alive -- sound irritatingly pompous today, divorced from their composers' then-widely-documented ambitions. Yet I've maintained an obsession with the Who, and Tommy in particular.

Like Townshend, I've gone through phases where I wished to rewrite Tommy into a cohesive story. But I never quite got that far because 1) Around high school you realize sitting around rewriting old rock operas doesn't get you any dates; and 2) The central, maddening contradiction of Tommy is it retains musical power because the story makes no sense. Townshend has, unfortunately, never come to this realization. The Who could have acknowledged this fatal glitch and moved on. Instead, Townshend kept fiddling about -- with plot, presentation, characters and the music itself -- and continues to this day. I wish he’d stop. Instead, every few years, he and the band offer variations. To wit:

  • Tommy as Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chambre Choir with Guest Soloists (Ode, 1972)
  • The Who’s weak links were Daltrey’s singing and Townshend’s occasional indulgences. This 1972 triple album, with dreamy cover paintings of scenes from Tommy, cuts out Moon’s drumming and Entwistle’s bass playing and replaces Townshend’s trademark power chords with violins. Who gets to stay? Daltrey, the star of the show. His voice sounds even weaker underneath the big orchestral arrangements, and guests Rod Stewart and Steve Winwood add nothing to the Who’s originals. Folk singer Richie Havens, as he often does, turns "Eyesight to the Blind" into a children’s sing-along.

  • Tommy, the movie (1975)
  • In this laughable psychedelic trivia question of a movie, director Ken Russell asks aging actress Ann-Margaret to bite her lip and stare pensively into the camera as simulated Who music plays in the background. It’s like a bad cartoon. The "Amazing Journey" scene is filled with Warholian statues and icons of Marilyn Monroe. Fighter planes morph into cemetery crosses, possibly making the point that war is bad. A confused Eric Clapton wears a flowing white robe and sings an unnatural version of "Eyesight to the Blind" as Russell’s camera goes kaleidoscopic. Only the hungry Tina Turner manages an inspired performance as the Acid Queen, fondling young Tommy (played as always without charisma by nappy-headed Daltrey) and dosing him with hallucinogens. Then she puts on a giant silver Darth Vader helmet and things really get silly. The flick makes Ann-Margaret’s last bad rock movie, Viva Las Vegas with Elvis Presley, seem like The Deer Hunter.

  • The Who’s 1989 tour.
  • Out of ideas and frustrated with their lack of cash flow, the Who grudgingly agreed to one "last" lucrative spin through the stadium circuit. Guess what album they decided to revive? A far cry from the legendary fury of Tommy during shows in the late ’60s, on this tour, Townshend was flanked by a platoon of session musicians, and he cowered in a quiet corner of the stage so he wouldn’t aggravate his hearing problems. I kept envisioning Moon’s ghost striding onstage to kick his boring ex-mates in the rear and take the show to the next level. But these English gentleman, like the Rolling Stones, were above that sort of primal rocking by this point.

  • Join Together (MCA, 1990)
  • This terrible two-disc set is a collection of live recordings from the 1989 tour. The first disc contains Tommy in its entirety, minus a few of the filler songs. Imagine an old, boring Who with no Moon, no explosions, and no passion—and stupid me bought it anyway, even after the disappointment of the live show. It almost made me nostalgic for the London Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Who’s Tommy
  • The ’90s dawned with Townshend searching desperately for his fading creative spark. He put out one bad album, The Iron Man, which proposed the sing-songy euphemism, "Live your future—be friendly!" ("No future?" Take that, Johnny Rotten!) His book, Horse’s Neck, was famous only for its author’s admission, "I know how it feels to be a woman because I am a woman." What to do? Tommy to the rescue, of course! This time, to great critical acclaim and lots of friendly publicity, Townshend stuck the old dog on Broadway. The plot still sucked, but producers added a bit more focused dialogue, fancy lights, loud sound effects, parachuting Army men, bucking broncos and, of course, a stage full of giant pinball machines. The songs were spit-shined for theatre, and the plot transformed into a feel-good fairy tale instead of an exercise in frustrating contradictions and troubling loose ends. It was a big hit, and won five Tony Awards.

    For years, after Moon's death should have broken up the band once and for all, the Who struggled as solo artists. Townshend’s last few albums—including The Iron Man and Psychoderelict, rock operas both—were critical and commercial flops. Daltrey embarked on a "Daltrey Sings Townshend" tour, which stiffed. Entwistle tried to tour and release albums, some of them not half-bad, but his record company was busted by the FBI and his career stalled. What could bail them out? For Townshend, Tommy, of course! Townshend exported "The Who's Tommy," the Broadway show, to cities (and rave Boomer reviews) all over the country. ("This thing has legs. You wonder: Is The Who's Tommy our generation's Oklahoma!?" wrote The Boston Globe's Jim Sullivan in one of the few skeptical feature stories about it. The answer: Townshend should be so lucky.)

    For the rest of the Who, mercifully, Tommy did not return. Instead, the Who returned to the Quadrophenia well (in 1996) and Townshend revisited his long-aborted Lifehouse project again (in 2000) before Entwistle died in late 2002. But it’s only a matter of time before the Who once again returns to the undead Tommy, his confused and confusing parents and his lovable-molester uncle. There are still myriad approaches left untried, not to mention new and developing technologies. How about Tommy: The Interactive CD-ROM or, where any schmo with a computer or wireless device can plunge into the story and create his or her own plot twists? My suggestion: Tommy finally dies before he gets old.