October 22, 2020

1993-04-25 – Arizona Republic

1993 04 25 Arizona_Republic_Sun__Apr_25__1993_ 2

Rock opera
‘Tommy’ hits

—IO0K. from page E!

be said, for the first time in 11 years.
Dressed in a casual denim outfit. he
attempted to restore his equilibrium
with a beer; when that didn’t work, he
shifted to bottled water to fend off the
demons of dehydration.

But the moming-after blues (even
in the late afternoon) did not deter the
voluble Townshend from carrying on
an enthusiastically digreseive conver-
sation about Tommy and what it all
means now that it's on Broadway

From the start, rock purists have
had their doubts about Tommy,
preferring the rebellious-youth an-
thems of such mid-‘605 Who singles as
My Generation and The Kids Ate All
Right to a thematic work that just by
virtue of being called a “rock opera"
implied a certain un-rock bloatedness.

But Townshend has always had a
fondness for more elaborate musical
constructions. The 1967 album Happy
Jack included what Townshend
dubbed a “miniopera” called A Quick
One. And around 1970, Townshend
attempted a science-l'iction music-the-
ater piece called Life House. The
grandeur of Townshend’s staging
ambitions got the best of that. But the
songs he wrote for it became Who’s
Next (1971), widely regarded as one
of the 10 or 20 greatest rock albums.

In 1973, The Who released a song
cycle with story called Quadrophenia.
an album (and movie) that looked
back at the British “mod” culture of
The Who’s formative years.

But neither Townshend nor The
Who ever quite nailed the theme
album as directly as they did with
Tommy. It is about a child who,
bullied and abused by relatives and
acquaintances. becomes “deaf. dumb
and blind“ after a childhood trauma.
Nonetheless. he becomes a “pinball
wizard“ in the score's most famous
song. and after literally coming to his
senses ( in the pre—climactic I ’11) Free)
he becomes a messianic figure, only to
be eventually rejected by his followers.

When Townshend wrote Tommy,
its abuse theme was considered
metaphorical — a parable of how the
emerging youth culture was abused by
mainstream adult culture — especially -
in light of its release at a time when
anti-war activism and escalation in
Vietnam were at fever pitch.

“I think Tommy is one of the most
fascinating contemporary heroes in
terms of characters, in that he's
basically this empty vessel into which
we can pour ourselves." said Des
McAnufT. the director and, with
Townshend, co-author of the stage
show. McAnufi' is artistic director of
the La Jolla Playhouse near San
Diego, where the work was premiered.

‘Surprised at the anger’

In 1969, few asked whether
Tommy was a manifestation of its
creator's personal pain. Ask Town-
shend that question now, and you get
two answers that are more comple-
mentary than contradictory.

“I am surprised at 'the anger
Tommy carries," he said. “In the
prayer at the end (of the show), the
idea is that this anger, this sense of
injustice, is so enormous that only
God can solve the problem. and only

' selflessness through worship can refo-
‘ cus the human spirit. I think that's
‘ something I very much felt in the ‘60,
1 and it‘s ever more important today."

Townshend volunteers that much

, of the general anger in the mUsic

derites from rage at war. and not just
19605 variety. The story, after all.
begins in Britain during World War
II. In the new stage version. when the
war ends and Tommy's father is
liberated from a prison camp. he
returns home. a scuffle ensues. and
Tommy witnesses his mother‘s new
beau being shot dead by his father.
”The things Tommy was sufienng
were the result of his parents’ being

Q brutalized by the fact that they fell in
‘ loye during the war." Townshend

said. “The kids who grow up in this
atmosphere tend to suffer not from
specific abuse but from 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

It was a feeling echoed by such ‘505
films as Rebel Without a Cause, and it
carried what Townshend believes to
be an essential subtext: “If that‘s not
what started rock and roll.“ he said.
“I don't really know what did.“

But the man who has an elaborate
answer for almost every question
seems slightly stumped by one: What
has given Tommy its lasting power‘.‘

“I can only speculate." he said.
“Maybe the fact that it was the first
rock story. It‘s got some great music
in it, too. It punctuated. and was
punctuated by. some great moments
in rock and roll. Woodstock gave
Tommy some extra life.

“It was a good piece of rock theater
work at a time when the theaters
themselves changed, trom dance Joints
to sit-down joints. where people would
sit down and listen to music.

“That doesn‘t really explain it. I‘m
just getting used to the fact that it has
a life very much outside me and The
Who I fought that for a long time. I
think now I‘ve stopped worrying
about that. It’ s not my piece anymore
People have projected a lot of their
own ideas into it. which it seems to
quite-happily carry.“