Oh, my fucking god.
I hadn’t heard Tommy in ages, and after the first run-through I was ready to throw in the proverbial towel. However, my conscience reminded me that I have made a commitment to my readers to listen to anything I review three times, and I’m a person who firmly believes in the motto, “Do what you say you are going to do.”
Note to self: Be more careful when making commitments.
After the final fade of “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” I got my dad on the phone.
“What the fuck?”
I heard a sigh. It’s so nice to have parents who can understand my shorthand.
“I don’t know. We were all so proud that one of us had created an opera. It gave us legitimacy—anything you can do, we can do better—that kind of thing.”
“But I thought you were all revolutionaries. What need does a revolutionary have for legitimacy? And how does using an art form of the upper crust square with all that down-with-the-ruling-class crap you were into?”
Another sigh. “To borrow a phrase, ‘I Can’t Explain.'”
“Well, then, can you explain why someone thought it was a good idea to make it into a movie—a pretty crappy movie at that—and a Broadway musical?”
Sigh. “Let’s just say it was an important cultural event and leave it at that.”
I pondered that last comment for a while before deciding it was as good an explanation as I was going to get. Nothing about Tommy makes the least bit of sense.
Let me put it bluntly: Tommy is a half-baked piece of crap. There are more holes in the narrative than in the biggest whorehouse in Nevada. “Pinball Wizard” was written and inserted into the story after a critic with a passion for pinball had a lukewarm reaction to the preview—The Who felt they needed this guy to sell records, so Tommy got a new favorite pastime. Wow. The plot was so badly constructed that the movie reversed who killed whom in “1921” and it didn’t make a bit of difference . . . not that you could tell that anyone was killed at all by listening to the song. Imagine Shakespeare turning Iago into Desdemona’s murderer and tell me it wouldn’t change the meaning of Othello just a teeny-weeny bit. Later The Who changed the track order for live performances to emphasize “I’m Free” as the moment of liberation, another sign that Townshend had a germ of an idea and no clue about how to turn the idea into a coherent narrative that anyone could actually follow.
I loathe Tommy. Not the album (okay, I loathe the album, too), but the lead character. As difficult a feat as it is, Townshend managed to make a blind, dumb and deaf child completely unsympathetic, even before the magic cure that turns him into a messiah. When in his allegedly helpless state, Tommy never convinces me that he’s anything more than a self-pitying fakir. He becomes absolutely insufferable after he is healed, for after years of alleged isolation from humans and society, his first thought is how to capitalize on his miracle cure (“I’m a Sensation”). I guess he wasn’t so dumb after all! He naturally becomes messiah to the gullible, then strangely recruits Uncle Ernie, who molested him, to aid him in his efforts. So much for the belief that sexual abuse of children is a traumatic experience.
Now that I think about it, there isn’t a single character in Tommy who is halfway likable. The father’s a murderer, the mother an accomplice, the neighbor kid a sadist, Uncle Ernie a sicko, The Acid Queen a megalomaniac . . . it’s more of a horror story with no heroes to save us from the evil monsters.
As far as the music is concerned, the record starts out somewhat promisingly with “Overture,” although the transitions between themes are anything but smooth. They lose me pretty quickly with “Amazing Journey” and the purposeless insertion of “Eyesight to the Blind (The Hawker),” a song “borrowed” from Sonny Boy Williamson. “Christmas” is sentimental tripe, “Cousin Kevin” creepy, “The Acid Queen” intensely annoying and “Underture” is a rehash of “Rael” from The Who Sell Out saved only by the improved recording techniques that make John Entwistle’s magnificent bass playing more audible. It’s followed by the Uncle Ernie sequence and then “Pinball Wizard.” Intellectually I appreciate the power in Daltrey’s vocal in this song, but to be honest, this song has been played so much on the radio that I can barely stand to hear it anymore.
After that we go on a scavenger hunt for a narrative with a series of fragments that lead to Tommy’s transformation into greedy savior. The music in this sequence is choppy and uninteresting. “Sally Simpson” is one of the more pleasant melodic pieces, but it’s followed by the aimless wanderings of “I’m Free” and then the entire camp scene. From a musical perspective, the ending is as strong as the opening, giving Tommy the musical structure of two decent bookends between which you’ll find twenty or so books with empty pages.
The lyrics are not well thought-out and sometimes unintentionally comical. Whenever I hear “I get excitement at your feet” I picture a boot-licking foot fetishist. Does anyone have any idea what the line “My warm momentum throws their stance” means? We’re also constantly and unnecessarily reminded that Tommy is blind, deaf and dumb as if Townshend assumed his listening audience consisted of people with short-term memory problems. The “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me” line becomes rather maudlin after repetitive use, and the lines from the climax are very badly worded and as empty as the rest of the album.
My theory is that Pete Townshend had some personal psychological issues he needed to work out, but instead he turned Tommy into a massive avoidance mechanism and disguised his lack of courage with all the rock opera hype. Not one to learn from his mistakes, he would repeat them in Quadrophenia, an album I loathe even more than Tommy, if that’s possible.
Preceding each of those disasters, The Who produced my two favorite Who albums, The Who Sell Out and Who’s Next. Most artists go into a slow and steady decline, like The Beatles and The Stones. The story of The Who is instead marked with wide swings, stunning inconsistency and inexplicable twists and turns . . . just like Tommy.
What an amazing journey.