The Who – Tommy

Tommy (1969)


1. Overture 2. It’s A Boy 3. 1921 4. Amazing Journey 5. Sparks 6. Eyesight To The Blind (The Hawker) 7. Christmas 8. Cousin Kevin 9. The Acid Queen 10. Underture 11. Do You Think It’s Alright? 12. Fiddle About 13. Pinball Wizard 14. There’s A Doctor 15. Go To The Mirror! 16. Tommy Can You Hear Me 17. Smash The Mirror 18. Sensation 19. Miracle Cure 20. Sally Simpson 21. I’m Free 22. Welcome 23. Tommy’s Holiday Camp 24. We’re Not Gonna Take It


Of all the bands who were around at the beginning of the 60s counterculture, I would think the Stones would be most likely to freak out my grandparents. You know, sex and long hair and all that. But musically, it had to have been the Who. Hell, even my grandpa, who surely ranks among both the most decent and kind but also the squarest people on earth, took my mom to see the Beatles. But the thought of him at an early Who concert being bombarded with squalls of dissonant feedback, shards of broken guitars, angsty lyrics, and piss poor vocals is just too much cognitive dissonance for my brain to take. Put aside the whole generational conflict and drugs and free love that are what really made Abe Simpson boo Hendrix and heckle, “Bring on Sha Na Na!” at Woodstock in that one Simpsons episode. From ’65 to ’67 or ’68, did anyone sound less like Frank Sinatra than the Who? Their music was loud, ugly, and defiantly unsophisticated. It was the punk rock of its day. Which makes Tommy sort of ironic, huh? What’s less punk than an opera?

Not that Pete tossed all irreverence out the window when he sat down to write this tale of a deaf, dumb, and blind boy who plays pinball and becomes a rock star-type spiritual guru. Keith’s caws of “shut up, it’s an opera, innit?” when they performed it live proved Pete and the gang were well aware of novel and even ridiculous making this long form, supposedly high brow piece of rock ‘n roll music seemed way back in 1969. But this ain’t no spoof – even considering its novelty elements, there’s no doubt that, with Tommy, Pete was trying to make a Big Statement the only way he knows how: overly labored and somewhat inscrutably.

I’m not going to be coy here and pretend like Pete isn’t one of my absolute idols, not only musically, but also intellectually. But, as far as pure story goes, Tommy is the one of his big concepts that I am least enthralled by. And I don’t think I’m alone in that… the few people willing to pay enough attention to the actual plot usually call it “stupid,” while I think all the vast majority of people know about it is, “that deaf, dumb, and blind boy sure plays a mean pinball” and see no reason to go much further. Maybe there isn’t any. I’ll be honest, even after listening to this album for a decade and watching the famous/infamous Ken Russell film, I’m still far from certain about all the plot points. (OK, honestly, I barely paid attention to the movie when I saw it. I watched it my sophomore year of high school on a laptop with this girl I was into at the time while sitting on a fire escape. There were many distractions… a couple of my friends were hanging out up there too, there was a soccer game going on directly below us, and the girl had HUGE tits). It’s not like has a libretto or anything like a real opera. Let’s see… Tommy’s dad goes missing and is presumed dead in some war (the end of “Overture”), and when he unexpectedly returns some years later, the guy who had taken up with his wife murders him (this is never actually explicitly mentioned in any of the songs, I’m just going by the movie and what other reviews say). Tommy witnesses the murder and is so scarred he loses some of his sensory faculties (“1921”). Without sight, hearing, or speech to distract him, Tommy achieves spiritual enlightenment (“Amazing Journey”) and spends most of his time either staring at himself in the mirror or playing pinball, which apparently he is very good at and becomes famous for (“Pinball Wizard”). Meanwhile, his mom and her murderous fella bring him around to bogus healers like “The Hawker” and “The Acid Queen.” And when they want to go out and have a date night alone, they leave Tommy with terrible babysitters like his sadistic cousin, who beats him (“Cousin Kevin”) and his sick, drunken Uncle Ernie, who molests him (“Fiddle About”). Then they find a doctor who they think can help, and who tells them that Tommy’s problems are merely psychosomatic. Finally, someone gets the bright idea to smash the mirror he’s always gazing into, and just like that, Tommy is freed from his shell. He then becomes a big time preacher/guru (“Sally Simpson”) and gains a big following (“Welcome”). When he tries to assert too much control over his disciples’ lives by telling them to stop smoking weed and stuff, they revolt against him (“We’re Not Gonna Take It”). Tommy sings his theme song (“See Me Feel Me”) and curtain.

Sort of a mess, sure, but I don’t think Pete’s main concern here was establishing a totally coherent storyline (besides, if you get lost, there’s a few tiny ditties on side 2 like “There’s A Doctor” and “Miracle Cure” that sort of give newscast-like updates on what’s going on in the plot). His aim was really to get across some of the ideas about spirituality and enlightenment that he’d gleaned from the teachings his newfound guru, Meher Baba. All I know about Meher Baba is that he didn’t speak for most of his life (by choice, unlike Tommy) and encouraged his followers to give up drugs and other material distractions in order to achieve inner peace and enlightenment. Or something like that. I’m just going by what I’ve read Pete say about him. Me being me, all that kind of zen stuff just sounds like dippy bullshit. But when compared to Scientology or something, I guess the quest for inner peace through the rejection of materialism isn’t such a bad thing, so long as it’s not all a big scam (and it definitely seems like Meher Baba was sincerely spiritual and never tried to scam or deceive his disciples, unlike the Beatles’ Maharishi of choice). Still, when the attendees of Tommy’s holiday camp rise up and reject him, his only crime was telling them to do the same thing Meher Baba told his followers to do: stop drinking, stop taking drugs, and try to let go of your senses. Maybe Tommy was just an asshole about it or something? Maybe I’m wrong, but what I take from the ending is that Pete actually was up on his high horse, trying to say that we should reject hedonism, and the disciples’ revolt is meant to illustrate that people in general are too stupid and materialistic to be able to accept true spirituality. Of course, Pete’s worst drug and alcohol abuses were ahead of him… it’s hard to be a rock star and actually follow such advice.

The whole Meher Baba-via-Pete ideas just aren’t the aspects of Tommy’s story that appeal to me. “Don’t want no religion,” indeed. I’m much more interested when Pete starts poking fun at the real world culture around him. For instance, in “Christmas,” he explores how religious people can be ignorant dumbasses even when their intentions are good. Why do Tommy’s parents want to try and cure him? Because they think his life might be more fun if he could, you know, see and hear and talk? No, because “he doesn’t know who Jesus was or what praying is.” They gotta save his soul! That’s obviously his main problem. He doesn’t know how to pray. Yeesh. Pete also sorta lampoons the hippies’ naïve, everything-is-free idealism with “Welcome”; the Who may have played Tommy at Woodstock, but, the zen undertones of this here rock opera notwithstanding, they were about as un-hippie a late-60s classic rock band as there was. Too much anger, not nearly enough acid. I also love one of the album’s more unsung tracks, “Sally Simpson,” which explores how tragic it can be when teenage girls become obsessed with their rock star idols. Surely Pete was writing from some experience with being on the receiving end of such devotion. On the other hand, he felt he had too much experience with bullying and molestation (he believes he was sexually abused as a child), so he tasked John with writing the songs about that stuff. Of course, the Ox tackles them in blackly comedic fashion with “Cousin Kevin” and the basstastic “Fiddle About.” As for the novelty bits—like pinball or the fact that Tommy runs a summer camp—I don’t find them dumb. They give the average listener something fun to latch onto in the midst of this loopy saga about spirituality. Did you know Pete only wrote “Pinball Wizard” and added the pinball thing to the storyline to please some rock journalist who loved pinball? That’s some serious pandering, my friends, and it ended up becoming the most iconic aspect of the album.

But let’s be honest here: even though I just expended approximately 700,000 words trying to dissect it, the story is not what makes Tommy so memorable and great. It’s all about the riffs, man. Pete came up with about a dozen transcendently catchy and rocking riffs for this project, each acting as a theme representing a different aspect of Tommy’s life. They recur at various moments throughout the album, adopting different moods, intensities, and instrumentations depending on what’s going on in the story. Like a real opera! You know what the best song on here is, besides maybe “We’re Not Gonna Take It”? “Overture.” Which is exactly what the title says it is. Because it collects all the riffs into one place. And they all rule. There’s also the fact that Pete is, like, the best acoustic guitar player in rock history. He once claimed that there’s relatively little electric guitar on Tommy because he realized he couldn’t compete with Jimi Hendrix and gave up trying… but Hendrix couldn’t strum like Pete. You probably know the awesomely spasmodic superfast strumming intro to “Pinball Wizard,” but Pete wows with both his lightning quick wrists and deft picking skills throughout. Don’t worry, he does crank up his Gibson now and again (the excellent rockers “Christmas” and “I’m Free,” and elsewhere). And let’s not forget Roger, who has finally found his voice. He’s not yet belting “See Me Feel Me” at the top of his lungs and turning it into an orgy of catharsis like he would on tour, but does an excellent job of inhabiting the role of Tommy. He’d only get better from here. And now I’ve created a wildly disproportionate review in which I spent five years talking about the spotty plot and one measly paragraph actually talking about the music, ie the thing that makes this album awesome. Whatever you get out of my analysis up there, all you really need to know is that Tommy is an important landmark in rock music, it’s really catchy, and you should listen to it.

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