December 5, 2020

1994-02-12 – The Des Moines Register

1994 02 12 The_Des_Moines_Register_Sat__Feb_12__1994_

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w N ow hear thls: ‘Tommy’ on road


“it‘s a pretty far-out thing, actual~

'Pete Townshend's 1967 assess-

' ment of his idea for the rock opera

"Tommy“ doesn't come close to real-
izing how far it would actually go.
And how domestic it would even-

' tually become.

“Tommy." The Who's album about
Townshend's deaf, dumb and blind
character, emerged in 1969 as an
ethereal rock ‘n' roll wonder. Dubbed
an opera, it was a song cycle about
the stricken boy. It was trippy
enough to fit the times and oblique
enough to invite interpretation.

Was it a parable about spiritual
quest? A study of celebrity? A cele-
bration of individuality? A state-
ment of rebellion? A metaphor for
the late-‘60s generational schism?
Yes — and no — to all of those.
“Tommy‘s" meaning has been mal-
leable; even Townshend's explana-
tions have changed over time as
“Tommy" has become a symphonic
work and a feature film.

Unexpected Meaning

Now in its American tour comes
”The Who's Tommy," a flashy,
Tony-winning stage production.
Now it has a clearly stated and whol-
ly unexpected meaning. From the
haze of the rock opera, Townshend
and director Des McAnuff have cre-
ated a musical that celebrates the
normality of daily existence and the
sanctity of family life.

This message is handed to the au—
dience near the end of “Tommy.“
Until that point most of the story is
the same as Townshend and his Who
mates originally came up with.
Tommy‘s father, a fighter pilot, is
shot down and presumed missing
during World War II.

He returns to find that his wife
has taken a lover and kills the man.
Tommy witnesses the murder, but
when his parents tell him ”you
didn‘t see it/you didn’t hear it/you
won’t say nothing to no one." he be-
comes deaf. dumb and blind.

Despite his disabilities. Tommy
proves adept at pinball. When he fi-
nally emerges from his autistic state.
his local celebrity explodes into a
messianic cult. But the stage
“Tommy“ switches gears when the
title character tries to explain to his
followers that he offers neither great
insights nor philosophies.

“Why would you want to be more
like me?" he sings. “For 15 years 1


" ’ m

Long a ponderer of
great issues personal,
political and social,
Pete Townshend leans
heavily on his life for

was waiting for what you've already
got. . . . Those are the true miracles,
and you have them already."

At another point he exclaims ”I‘m
free — I‘m free! And freedom lies
here in normality.“

And later. in a drastic rewriting of
the show's finale, Tommy tells them.
“You don‘t need to claim a share of
my pain. . . . You're normal after all. "

”It really felt to me that l was
faced with an inevitability that I had
to end ‘Tommy,‘ to close the loop,“
explains Townshend. 48. who wrote
the music and lyrics for all but. three
of “Tommy's" songs.

“I had to remove the metaphysical

A scene from‘the movie version of “Tommy” has The Who’s R

' vomnc..w;~ - ' - w

““3 .

stuff from the show because there's
no basis for it anymore; there's no
authentic and decent strain of it hap-
pening right now. What we have is
David Koresh in Waco and other
manifestations of that kind of meta-
physical bunkum.

“It‘s very different from the time I
started to write ‘Tommy.’ Back then,
there was real hope for metaphysi-
cal bunkum. In California. you had
your choice of 200 what looked like
very smart gurus. Where are they
now‘.’ We don‘t know. do we?"

Family Values

It‘s not surprising that Townshend
would now seek to celebrate family
values with “Tommy." Long a pon-
derer of great issues personal‘ politi-
cal and social. Townshend leans
heavily on his life for inspiration.

His most recent solo album. “Psy-
choderelict,” was about an aging
rock star and a manager’s plot to re-
vive his career. Then with its
fleshed-out script and softened musi-
cal bite. the staged “Tommy" can be

oger Daltry in the title role. H .

seen as a venting of lessons learned
during Townshend‘s youth. His par-
ents separated when they were
young — sending Townshend to live
with a strict grandmother —- only to
reunite, have more children and live
what Townshend calls a "normal
family life." .

Or it can be seen as a reflection'of
Townshend's own domestic situa-
tion. He's been married 25 years and
has three children: two daughters in
their early 205 and a 4-year-old son.
Intoxicated by “Tommy's“ stage suc-
cess. Townshend says he's “pulled
by the siren song of show biz."
though he loathes the separation
from his family.

“I don‘t see myself as a good
father or even a decent man," he re-
cently told Rolling Stone. "When'l
talk about the importance of family
(in Tommy"). I'm just saying, ‘I wish
I could do that' "

Ultimately. McAnuff says. Town-
shend's involvement in reeasting the
opera validates any of the changes
— and the musieal's message.