October 29, 2020

1993-04-26 – The Journal News

1993 04 26 The_Journal_News_Mon__Apr_26__1993_ 2

‘Tommy’ brings pinball
wizardry to Broadway

continued from C1

with cast and crew afterward and
indulged excessively in drink, he
said, for the first time in 11 years.
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

But the morning-after blues
(even in the late afternoon) did not
deter Townshend, perhaps the
most articulate conceptual thinker
in rock history, from an
enthusiastically digressive
conversation about “Tommy” and
what it all means now that it’s
here on Broadway.

From the start, rock purists
have had their doubts about
“Tommy." preferring the
rebellious youth anthems of the
early Who singles such as “My
Generation” (1965) and “The Kids
Are All Right” (1966) to the
thematic work that by virtue of
being called a “rock Opera”
implied a certainun-rock
bloatedness. ‘

But Townshend has always had
a fondness for more elaborate
musical constructions. The 1967
album “Happy Jack” (the Who's
first moderate American success)
included what Townshend dubbed
a “mini-opera“ called “A Quick
One." And around 1970,
Townshend attempted a science-
fiction music-theater piece called
“Life House.“ The grandeur of
Townshend‘s staging ambitions got
the best of “Life House." But the
songs he wrote for it became
“Who's Next“ (1971), widely
regarded as one of the 10 or 20
greatest rock albums ever. with
songs of spiritual exploration
(“Baba O‘Riley”) and political
skepticism (“Won’t Get Fooled
Again") so perfectly written and
passionately performed that they
remain staples of today’s “classic
rock" radio repertory.

Later, Townshend and the Who
would again conceive and execute
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’m Free") he
becomes a messianic figure, only
to be rejected by his followers.

When Townshend wrote
"Tommy," in 1969, its abuse
theme was considered
metaphorical. It was interpreted
as a parable about how the
emerging youth culture was
abused by “square” mainstream
adult culture, especially in light of
its release at a time when anti-war
activism and escalation of the
Vietnam War were at fever pitch.

“1 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 McAnuff, the
director and. with Townshend, co-
author of the stage show. McAnqu
is artistic director of the La Jolla
Playhouse near San Diego, where
the current “Tommy” was first

In 1969, few asked whether
“Tommy” was a manifestation of
its creator’s personal pain. Ask
Townshend that question now, and
you get two answers more
complementary than

”I am surprised at the anger
‘Tommy’ carries.” Townshend
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 refocus the
human spirit. I think that’s
something I very much felt in the
’60, and it’s ever more important

Townshend volunteers that
much of the general anger in the

music derives from rage at war,
and not just the protesters-vs.-
Pentagon variety of the 1960s. The
story, after all, begins in Britain
during World War II. In the new
stage version. Tommy’s natural
father is missing and presumed
dead. There is a new man in his
mother’s life. When the war ends
and the 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
suffering were the result of his
parents’ being brutalized by the
fact that they fell in love during
the war,” Townshend said. “After
the war they wanted to rebuild
their lives, and to have fun and be
free. And what they actually got
was complicated, much harder
work than they thought. 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
family. You weren’t one of the
major protagonists.”

It was a feeling echoed by
films such as “Rebel Without a
Cause" in the 19505, and it carried
with it 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.”

There were many painful
childhood memories that surfaced
as a result of Townshend’s
hundreds of hours of discussions
with McAnuff about how to adapt
the “Tommy” story to the stage.

“I decided to talk to my
mother about two or three years
of my life I couldn’t remember
anything about, when I was about
5 or 6,” Townshend said. It turned
out his parents had split up at that
time, and he had been sent to live
with a grandmother who, he said.
was later diagnosed as severely
mentally ill.

These realizations helped
resolve the story of “Tommy,”
which for 24 years really didn’t
have a conclusion.

Townshend did compose one
new song for the show, “I Believe
My Own Eyes," which is sung by
Tommy's parents. It couldn’t have
been easy to do for many reasons.
the least of which being that he
shattered his right wrist when he
fell off a bicycle on a Friday the
13th in 1991.

It’s not all back; he says he can
no longer do the “Pinball Wizard”
flourishes that were his
trademark. Townshend was still to
complete a new solo album, called
“Psychoderelict,” which will be
released June 15 by Atlantic. And
though he expects to tour to

promote the album, the Who. .
which broke up in 1982 but
performed “Tommy" again in

1989, is history.

“I could see a continuum for
me, I just couldn’t see one for the
Who,” Townshend said. “I thought
the Who was very tied to and
driven by a magic which was
already exhausted by the time
Keith (Moon) died (in 1978), which
is not to demean Kenny Jones’
contribution to the band.”

But the man who has an
elaborate answer for almost every
question you toss his way seems
slightly stumped by one issue:
What has given “Tommy” its
lasting power?

“I can only speculate,”
Townshend 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
end roll: ‘Woodstock’ gave
‘Tommy’ some extra life. It was a
good piece of rock theater work at
a time when the theaters
themselves changed, from 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.”