Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Who Staged Tommy

Critics working in the arts regularly yearn to demonstrate their elevated importance--the unarguable “rightness” of the positions they’ve taken, the brilliance of their supporting arguments, the polished wit exhibited in their prose and, once expressed, the clear and present power of their opinions.

Legends in their own minds (as the modern saying goes), each imagines himself/herself as, say, NYTimes drama critic Brooks Atkinson (or maybe Frank Rich) “opening” one new Broadway show with an upstroke of his expensive pen, then closing another while still in rehearsals, in a clatter of falling-back typewriter keys; or Clement Greenberg instructing the philistine masses in the how’s and why’s and means by which to embrace Rothko, Pollock, Motherwell, and others from Abstract Painting’s New York School; or Pauline Kael in a darkened screening room contentiously discerning unimagined depths in the moral ambiguities and amoral pas des deuxs of Bonnie
and Clyde, Jules et Jim,
and… oh, let’s say… Walt Kelly's Pogo and Albert(ine).

On the one hand, pertinacity and persuasion; on the other, pretentiousness mixed with the pretense of objectivity… taken together these provide the not-so-new clothes for each pretender to the throne of Emperor Critiquus. There was a time when I tried on that uniform, imagining that I might become--or (he said modestly) already be--one of the new pop culture power brokers known as “Rock critics.” Over the course of a decade I pontificated and mocked and interviewed and listened relentlessly, reviewing records and concerts, publishing portraits of Rock’s artistes--pillorying the unfriendly ones--and generally telling readers (of Rolling Stone, Fusion, Phonograph Record, Ramparts, Seattle’s Helix, and various others) what I thought they should think.

I got my first comeuppance in 1969… well, no; actually the taking-down of peg occurred some years later. But the tale, the long and winding road of it, began in the
Spring of 1969, when England’s next-best hard-rock group the Who released the two-disc set (vinyl records, folks; compact discs had not yet been invented) introducing “Tommy,” that deaf, dumb and blind kid, playin’ a mean pinball--aka Tommy, the world’s first recording to claim the category of “Rock Opera.”

Guitarist and main songwriter Pete Townshend had already recorded two slightly extended, multiple-tune suites, but this was his first attempt at going beyond three chords, four yobbos, and a big attitude, to fancier chords, recurring themes, plot and music lasting over an hour… in short, a grab for the brass
ring, albeit not for The Ring of the Nibelungen and Wagner. At that time I was writing an occasional Pop/Rock piece for the original Seattle Magazine, and I decided that Tommy and the concept of Rock Opera would be worth investigating, and that I should rope in some opera expert, since I wasn’t.

The Seattle Opera Association was a young, struggling concern back then (world renowned now) led by a salesman hustler type named Glynn Ross, who it was said would do almost anything to publicize that specialized art, from skywriting to street theatre to handing out flyers himself. I
thought, Well, why not start right at the top? It’s all downhill from there if Ross sends you packing…

But he didn’t. Instead he invited me to his office, and when I explained more fully the idea and the band and the potential audience (not to mention the publicity), we had a listening session right then and there. Ross reacted with immediate enthusiasm and some typical braggadocio: It sounded remarkably in tune with some ideas Seattle Opera people had been discussing. They wanted to mount a new production both avant garde and electric; Ross claimed already to have approached Beat poet Michael McClure, Italian composer Luciano Berio, and the Grateful Dead! (Even now, 40-plus years later, that’s a mind-boggling threesome.)

But he wanted to listen more and do some more thinking, so I left him there
clutching the record album’s slight libretto, with the plan that I would return in a week for a serious interview--and to reclaim my white-label promotion records and deluxe package housing that first Rock Opera. (Hey, it might turn out to be collectable someday. Who knew? Or maybe they did!)

* * *

Forty years ago, magazines were produced according to slow but tightly controlled schedules, with a lead-time five or six weeks ahead of publication. The issue of Seattle
cover-dated July 1969 (with my Tommy piece in it, available on newsstands throughout that month) would have been written, edited, typeset, and so on between approximately May 20 and June 1, then fine-tuned with photos, headlines, ad spaces bought and assigned, and others left open for last-minute buys, followed by the magazine designer’s (un)inspired additions and the proofreaders’ corrections, either of which might lead to more text changes... But that design dance had to end, with all pieces of the puzzle in place, by June 10 or 12, giving the print shop about three weeks to schedule times on the big-sheet printing presses, and prepare a printed test copy called a “blue line,” for final proofing and approval. Then the printer would print, assemble finished
copies, and deliver them... wherever... so the distributor could distribute all by July 1; and the process, already in motion, could proceed with producing the next issue.

The particular dates and processes associated with them matter in comparison with the totally different schedule by which the Tommy album was being released and promoted. The Who had recorded most of the two-record set at sessions held in January and February of 1969, and issued a strong single from those sessions (“Pinball Wizard”) in early March. The fearsome Who-sum began playing Tommy excerpts in early May along with their various hits (and misses), as they toured major U.S. cities--not Seattle--until late June, when they flew back to England.

Meanwhile the Tommy album was finally unleashed on May 23, in the U.S. and U.K. both… except that deejays and Rock critics and other friends of Decca Records had received promotional copies--like the one I left in Ross’s care--a week or two earlier. Say I’d received a copy as late as the 17th or 18th, did some listening and research, and was seeking Ross’s opinion by the 21st. Giving him a week to listen and
form an opinion puts the interview--whatever he thought of Tommy and Rock Opera and the Who--around May 28 since I was working to deadline. (I was not inclined to push the Editors’ buttons unnecessarily.)

These dates, whether precise or just approximate, suggest that Seattle Opera’s Glynn Ross would have been reacting ahead of the acquired knowledge curve, winging it, going on his showman's gut instinct. They also offer evidence that Ross may well have been the first opera professional--outside of England at least, and possibly anywhere--to give serious attention to Tommy as a work for the stage.

No one yet knew how the two-record, more-costly album would fare. In mid-1969 the four Who-ligans themselves weren't thinking much beyond their next gig, and
Who's turn it was to get the drinks in! Even creator Pete Townshend was about to focus more on his vision for a longer and grander work, to be titled, maybe, Lifehouse.

* * *

Coming up in Part 2: What Ross said and what happened after that--plus how two decades later, some of us got our "coming-up-ances" at last.


Pops said...

Great post! Thanks!

Ed said...

works for me. (Reet, petite, and gone.)