Saturday, September 29, 2012

Tommy Who?

It’s hard to fathom now, but back in the Sixties, Rock was still a relative new kid on the music block: wild-eyed, hair unruly, a trace of dirt under its nails. “Music” meant Classical or Easy Listening, Sinatra’s Reprise albums, Dean Martin or Wayne Newton. Rock instead was rude loud and insistent, anti-Establishment, anti-Vietnam. If you hadn’t bonded with the Beatles, gotten folked with Dylan, or phlipped out for Psychedelic San Phrancisco, you were hopeless--no better than deaf, dumb, and blind…

Cue Pete.




Pete, that’s right.

(Yelling) Who do you mean?

Townshend, yeah. Pete. Guitarist. Brains of that band.

(Furious, screaming) What are you talking about!?!

No, no, not What. Who-o-o-o!

And blithely into said countercultural minefield strolled Townshend of the Who, carrying his brain-child--all "felt" mind and h’opera’n’rock--that “deaf, dumb, and
blind kid” Tommy. As I wrote in the article back in mid-1969, “What, exactly, is a ‘rock opera’ anyway? Mezzo-sopranos in mini-skirts and basso profundos with shoulder-length hair? Electric guitars in place of violins? La Boheme set in the Fillmore East?”

After dismissing the silly hit musical Hair (offering “the flesh but not the spirit”), I summarized the weird plot of Townshend’s work, then continued:

On record, anyway, this freakish plot is much less important than Townshend’s musical transcendence of it. By turns funny, frightening, beautiful and grotesque, Tommy exhibits great inventiveness and range, from the shrieks and swoops of backward tape-loops in “Amazing Journey/Sparks,” to the tough blues-rock of the old Sonny Boy Williamson number, “Eyesight to the Blind,” to the moment in “Christmas” when Tommy first “speaks” (“See me, feel me, touch me, heal me”), to the final Gotterdammerung of “We Won’t Take It.”

Great rock, but is it opera? (I had asked.) My question was answered in the late-May interview with Seattle Opera’s Glynn Ross, after he’d had a week to listen to the Tommy album (available at that point for only a few days to the public). “Ross’s reaction… was unabashed enthusiasm”:

“I want to give this both barrels,” he told me. “We’re already in the works trying to get clearance and permission, trying to get the Ford Foundation or Model Cities to move on it. I see this as staged in the Moore Theatre, maybe even with all the seats pulled out, so the audience has a completely new experience, something half-way Opera House and half-way Eagles Auditorium [Seattle’s Fillmore].

According to Ross, Tommy is “definitely basic operatic material, it’s very elemental in its emotions and themes--life, death, procreation. In fact, Tommy is only a break musically speaking; basically it’s still conventional theatre. If I had to be negative, I’d say that sometimes there’s a certain sameness about the Who’s music--but the same thing could be said about Mozart!

“Oh, it’ll be fun to stage,” Ross went on, chuckling. “I’ve got it all in my mind’s eye. We’ll make Tommy a mulatto, and his mother’s lover black. We’ll keep the rock band on stage and use rock singers rather than legitimate singers. And we’ll involve the audience by having them join in with the stage chorus of Tommy’s followers..."

And that's when I took my leave, and my Tommy album back. Ross was still musing aloud, convinced that everything would fall into place. I figured the odds of that happening were against him but, just in case, I asked Ross to send me a couple of tickets as thanks for the tip if his Seattle Opera production actually happened. He murmured, “Sure, of course…” and I left.

Deadline met, the article appeared in that July issue… to no effect. The universe blinked and moved on… except that Tommy had taken on a life of its own.

More singles pulled from the album led to increased interest in the concept and the whole two-record set. So the group kept playing bits and pieces and bigger chunks of Tommy as they toured over the next year. Album sales climbed, then settled high on the charts for several months; and the Who prospered. Townshend and the others suddenly were famous and in demand, selling out much bigger venues, moving into what’s now known as “Stadium Rock.”
Moreover, all four became millionaires.

The first wave of the Tommy phenomenon, in the United States anyway, culminated in a pair of concerts produced at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York on June 7, 1970--the complete musical score, but performed yet again by the Who only, still without opera staging--followed by a lengthy U.S. tour.

Meanwhile, out in Seattle, Ross and the production team he’d hired were hard at it, working to mount a full-scale production as promised. Booked to play the Who's music was an unknown group by the name of Cannon Ball. More familiar to Seattle, the psychedelic light show-experienced band Crome Syrcus were brought in as well. Actors and singers were chosen--no big names, but some had been in Hair; and straight (so to speak) from singing cabaret
at the Men’s Baths in New York came a promising young vocalist named Bette Midler.

All that hair and bathing, the be-ins and new-found “artistic freedoms,” must have inspired someone behind the scenes, because there was nudity and close-to-it conspicuously enlivening Seattle’s Tommy too by the time it opened for a three-week run at the Moore Theatre in May 1971. Slickster Glynn never did send me tickets--not even a "thank you"
note--but reading old reviews of the production reveals a mixed, quizzical reaction ranging from enthusiastic praise for the Who’s score (the band was absent otherwise) and the adventurous spectacle
(mountains to climb! cliffs to leap off of! Psyche-delicate images trampling Art Deco sets!), to negative marks for the obscurity of the plot, and re-marks along the lines of “No nekkidness, please; we’re Seattlish." One disapproving critic actually went so far as to blame the the production's flaws on (my words are kinder here) Bette's inadequate acting and over-adequate breasts!

Three weeks and gone: the Moore lessened; the very first fully staged version of Tommy, years ahead of the pack, filed away and forgotten…

Still, that deaf, dumb and blind kid had struck a chord heard ‘round the world. Who
lead singer Roger Daltrey sang the part of Tommy in scores of full productions for three decades, became an okay actor in the process, and an even better pig farmer-landowner. Fierce creative force Pete was addicted to drugs for a few years, then broke free--“but that’s as may be because all the while” he was writing copiously, songs, poetry and prose, rock journalism, cooperating on movie scripts, producing, engineering, issuing solo albums, hoovering the studio, making English “brekky” for the lads and other pub-crawlers, nattering on (like this) while slowly losing his hearing. (Much may finally be revealed--or not--with the mid-October publication of his 700-page autobiography, Who I Am.) But Pete never did
succeed with his Lifehouse project, which got lost in the stratospheric success of Tommy; on the other hand, most of those crackerjack songs and mad-jack synth pieces were salvaged for the great album Who’s Next.

The other Who two fared less well. Fine, funny, and frighteningly out-of-control, manic drummer Keith Moon was unstoppable and ever-rockable, another crazy diamond shining brightly whatever company he was in; yet he drank himself into oblivion and then, in September 1978, to death. Droll and phlegmatic, Who bassman John Entwistle--one of the best and most influential bassists in the history of Rock--was both Moon's sometime minder and Pete’s regular righthand man and, at the same
time, a more silent and reserved homebody; but "the Ox" too was struck down, felled by a (possibly drug-induced) heart attack in 2002.

Two other principals complete the cast of this unprincipled tale of abuse, silence, music, and revenge—and I’m not talking about Tommy and his followers. Impresario and main-chancer Glynn Ross moved on eventually, to the sunny Southwest, where he helped kickstart a statewide opera company for Arizona. He died several years ago.

As for Tommy’s Mother, who doubled as the Gypsy Acid Queen, well, the young Bette Midler soon became… BETTE MIDLER!! And she pays us a visit in Act Three.

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