Rock History 101: The Who’s Tommy

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    Editor’s Note: If you prefer, start the playlist below and read along for an enhanced experience.

    “Listen to Tommy with a candle burning, and you’ll see your entire future.”

    This is what appeared on a sheet of notebook paper after tearing through newspaper-comic-strip wrapping on my 19th birthday. The quote, a reference to one of my favorite movies, Almost Famous, was accompanied by The Who’s album Tommy on vinyl. The gift was a perfect complement to my newly received record player; so for kicks, I decided to indeed light a candle. I removed the record from its sleeve and carefully set it down on the turntable. Then, I gently placed the needle down on the outside of the record. With the candle flame aglow, the click of the needle on the vinyl resulted in a series of static-like snaps as the record spun around and around. When the music began, the future I saw in front of me was nothing compared to what I heard. The sound emanating from the record player was miraculous.

    Tommy, the double album for which the term “rock opera” was coined, is The Who’s fourth album and was released in the summer of 1969. Composed mostly by guitarist Pete Townshend, the album lightly weaves the tale of Tommy Walker, a deaf, blind and dumb boy, and his spiritual connection to music. It is said Townshend composed Tommy after being exposed to the teachings of Meher Baba. An Indian mystic who declared he was the incarnation of God, Baba enlightened Townshend.

    Billed as an opera, the first album opens with, “Overture”/“It’s a Boy”. The short and simple songs set the stage for Tommy’s life, in which his father is reported missing in action during World War I prior to Tommy’s birth.

    “Captain Walker didn’t come home. His unborn child will never know him. Believe him missing with a number of men. Don’t expect to see him again.”

    “Overture” begins with pizazz and “It’s a Boy” slows it down, as Townshend sings the part of a nurse, exclaiming the birth of a healthy baby boy.

    “A son! A son! A son!”

    By the second track, “1921”, also known as “You Didn’t Hear It”, four years have passed since Mr. Walker was reported M.I.A. He returns home to find his wife has found a new lover. Mr. Walker becomes enraged and kills the lover, who Tommy believed to be his true father until this point. Mrs. Walker’s maternal instincts take control as she realizes Tommy witnessed the brutal murder. Frantic screams ensue.

    “What about the boy? He saw it all!”

    The Walker’s decide it’s best to convince their son the murder never occurred. In the same manner in which a parent sits their child down to expose Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny, the Walkers tell Tommy what’s what.

    “You didn’t hear it. You didn’t see it. You won’t say nothing to no one ever in your life.”

    The traumatic experience results in Tommy becoming deaf, blind and dumb. It’s a wonder more children aren’t this traumatized once Santa’s red suit is removed to reveal an overweight, old man.

    “Amazing Journey”/“Sparks” reveals Baba’s influence, as a slightly grown (ten-years-old, according to the lyrics) Tommy learns to interpret any physical sensation in the form of music, and envisions himself as a tall, robed stranger.

    “Nothing to say and nothing to hear and nothing to see. Each sensation makes a note in my symphony.”

    Next, comes one of the few songs on Tommynot composed by Townshend, “Eyesight to the Blind”. Originally written by blues artist Sonny Boy Williamson, it was recorded in 1951 and released as Williamson’s first single on Trumpet Records. In addition, the single was one of the first recordings for Trumpet Records, which was started by Lillian McMurry in Jackson, Mississippi of the same year. Coming in as track number four, “Eyesight to the Blind” introduces the Hawker. Mrs. Walker brings Tommy to the cult-like leader in hopes of curing the boy’s affliction. The Hawker sings of an amazing woman that has the power to heal the blind …

    “Every time she starts to lovin’ she brings eyesight to the blind.”

    … the dumb …

    “Everytime we start shakin’ the dumb begin to talk.”

    … and the deaf …

    “Just a word from her lips and the deaf begin to hear.”

    Unfortunately for Tommy, the Hawker’s promises are false, which brings us to Tommy’s next brush with religion. In “Christmas”, the Walker’s drag Tommy to church to introduce him to Jesus, as he is unfamiliar.

    “ … Tommy doesn’t know what day it is, doesn’t know who Jesus was or what praying is.”

    The Walkers hope Tommy can be saved.

    “How can he be saved? From the eternal grave.”

    Another one of the few songs not written by Townshend is “Cousin Kevin”. Attributed to bassist John Entwistle, the song portrays Tommy’s interactions with Kevin, a school-yard bully. The Walkers leave Tommy with Kevin, who tortures Tommy. Tommy’s non-responsive attitude frustrates Kevin, until he eventually becomes bored with Tommy.

    “Maybe a cigarette burn on your arm would change your expression to one of alarm. I’ll drag you around by a lock of your hair, or give you a push at the top of the stairs …”

    After Kevin, the listener is introduced to a gypsy on “The Acid Queen”. Once again, the Walkers attempt to cure Tommy. The gypsy turns Tommy from a boy to a man by means of sex and drugs.

    “Give us a room and close the door. Leave us for a while. Your boy won’t be a boy no more. Young, but not a child.”

    “Underture”, an instrumental, follows as the longest track, clocking in at over 10 minutes. The sound of guitar strings being plucked signifies Tommy’s reaction to acid. Again, Baba’s influence on Townshend can be interpreted, as Baba was a strong opponent of marijuana and hallucinogenic drugs. In 1966, Baba had his thoughts published in a pamphlet entitled, God in a Pill?, in which he said drugs are physically, mentally and spiritually harmful.

    The third side of the album kicks off with the second and last tune penned by Entwistle on Tommy, “Do You Think It’s Alright?”/“Fiddle About”. In “Do You Think It’s Alright?”, Mrs. Walker questions if Uncle Ernie is a suitable character to leave Tommy with. The song reveals Ernie’s drinking problem. Inevitably, Mr. Walker decides it’s alright to leave Ernie and Tommy alone. “Fiddle About” narrates the abuse inflicted on Tommy by Ernie. As cousin Kevin took advantage of touting Tommy without fear of being caught, due to Tommy’s lack of communication, so does Uncle Ernie.

    “Down with the bed clothes, up with the nightshirt! … You won’t shout as I fiddle about.”

    “Fiddle About” is also a commentary on Townshend’s own upbringing, as he believes his maternal grandmother molested him when he was five and six-years-old. In 2003, Townshend was arrested for suspicion of possessing child pornography. He was investigated as part of Operation Ore, a British police operation started in 1999 in an attempt to crack down on child pornography viewers. Although the police found no evidence against him, Townshend claimed he accessed online child pornography to conduct research and perhaps, reveal forgotten memories from his childhood. Due to his claim, he was registered on the Violent and Sex Offender Register for five years. In 2007, investigative journalist Duncan Campbell discovered Townshend was falsely accused and while under intense pressure, he confessed to something he didn’t do.

    “Pinball Wizard”, the album’s first single, is one of the better known songs from Tommy, charting at number four on the UK charts. Although, Townshend has said the song is clumsily written. “Pinball Wizard” tells the story of Local Lad and his defeat at the hands of Tommy.

    “I thought I was the Bally table king. But I just handed my pinball crown to him.”

    Inspired by British rock journalist Nik Cohn, Townshend took the journalist’s advice that Tommy needed a break from the spiritual (Baba influenced) undertones  The pop sound and relaxed message carries the narrative of Tommy’s pinball victory and new found celebrity status quite nicely, which suits music fans well.

    For the third time, the Walkers seek help for Tommy. “There’s a Doctor” runs less than 30 seconds and conveys Mr. Walker’s wishes to use a more practical option to cure Tommy.

    “There’s a doctor I’ve found could cure the boy!”

    Once Tommy arrives at the doctor, “Go to the Mirror” offers the greatest discovery a listener could hope for, propelling the narrative forward in a positive direction. The second single of the album reveals Tommy’s problems are not physical, but mental. Tommy’s subconscious plays a role in this song, as he seeks help.

    “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me.”

    While Tommy is at the mirror, his mother becomes frustrated. In a motherly fashion she attempts to make things better in “Tommy Can You Hear Me?”.

    “Tommy can you hear me? Can you feel me near you? Tommy can you feel me? Can I help to cheer you?”

    Mrs. Walker’s frustrations mounts, culminating into “Smash the Mirror”.

    “Do you hear or fear or do I smash the mirror? … Do I smash the mirror? SMASH!”

    “Sensation” follows “Smash the Mirror” and explains Tommy’s reunion with reality. The public is delighted by the Pinball Wizard’s recovery, elevating Tommy to somewhat of a religious status. This is the first song in which Tommy’s point of view, not his subconscious, is sung.

    “I leave a trail of rooted people, mesmerized by just the sight. The few I touched now are disciples. Love as one, I am the light.”

    As the music from the third side of the record faded out, I eagerly jumped up to replace the album. Produced by The Who’s manager, Kit Lambert, Tommy was made into a film in 1975. The film included a star-studded cast, with the entire band claiming a role, as well as Eric Clapton and Jack Nicholson. Unlike other rock operas, the album was not dubbed over the film. Instead, the actors played a role and sang the respective song, which resulted in many musical alterations and extensions.

    The fourth and final side of the double album beings with a short “news piece” entitled, “Miracle Cure”. This song is shared by the Newsboy character.

    “Extra! Extra! Read all bout it. Pinball Wizard in a miracle cure! Extra, extra read all about it. EXTRA!”

    Tommy’s fresh religious status earns him a disciple. “Sally Simpson” is one of the more lyrically lengthy songs, and depicts Sally as devout follower of Tommy.

    “She knew from the start, deep down in her heart that she and Tommy were worlds apart. But her mother said never mind your part … is to be what you’ll be.”

    Sally decides to defy her parents, which includes a reverend, and joins other disciples to praise Tommy. Things get a bit out of hand, a lifestyle Sally eventually becomes accustomed to.

    “Sixteen stitches put her right and her dad said ‘don’t say I didn’t warn yer.’ Sally got married to a rock musician she met in California. Tommy always talks about the day the disciples went wild! Sally still carries a scar on her cheek to remind her of his smile.”

    It has been said “Sally Simpson” was inspired by true events. While Townshend was backstage at a Door’s concert, a security guard roughly handled a girl who was attempting to touch Jim Morrison, just as Sally was attempting to touch Tommy.

    The album’s third single, “I’m Free”, is often switched with “Sensation” due to the subject matter. By placing the song after “Smash the Mirror”, instead of after “Sally Simpson” it acts as a reaction to Tommy’s venture into reality.

    “I’m free – I’m free, and freedom tastes of reality. I’m free – I’m free, and  I’m waiting for you to follow me.”

    However, as it originally stands on the album, the song also acts as a call for enlightenment of the disciples. In the last lines of “I’m Free” a chorus asks Tommy, “how can we follow?” Tommy responds with “Welcome”, in which he invites his disciples to his home.

    “Welcome to this house, be one of us. Come into this house, be one of us. Come to our house. Come to this house!”

    After Tommy urges anyone interested into his house, it becomes filled to the brim with disciples, causing Tommy to find a larger place of worship for his followers. In “Holiday Camp” Uncle Ernie appears again, this time to oversee the campers.

    “I’m your Uncle Ernie , and I welcome you to Tommy’s Holiday Camp! The camp with a difference, never mind the weather. When you come to Tommy’s , the holiday’s forever!”

    Although “Holiday Camp” was written by Townshend, drummer KeithMoon received credit for creating the holiday camp setting. The holiday camp does not bode well with the disciples in the long run, as Tommy asks them to play pinball and become deaf, blind and dumb, to truly understand Tommy’s journey and reach a higher level of spirituality. “We’re Not Gonna Take It” is the disciples revolt against the cult-like leader Tommy has become.

    “We forsake you, gonna rape you. Let’s forget you … better still.”

    My 19th birthday has come and gone, and the record is about to end. As the static-like snaps resume, the work originally dedicated to Avatar (Baba) leaves my head spinning. In the span of two albums Townshend and company have taken listeners through the life of Tommy Walker, and it’s better and more addicting than an episode of True Life on MTV. It’s the epitome of a concept album.

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