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.

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.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

News of the World

My lovely lady Cassandra, light and love of my life for, lo, these 28 blessed years—a very personable but stubbornly personal woman who much prefers that I not mention her at all when blogging—today had to make her own wake-up cup of coffee, and her portable second one as well (for the ferry commute into Seattle). Usually I brew separately, singly, each cup and go-cup, allowing her to casually, studiedly prep to depart, but on this sunny September morn my collapsed-spine, pinched-nerves back was boorishly reluctant to reassemble itself.

As she darted back and forth, room to room to room—my own chipper sparrow, loosed and alert and alive—I sat propped up in the library, reading bits here and there in poet Robert Hass’s much-prized essays on the poetry of others: brilliant, beautifully written, elegantly eloquent, astonishing in his ability to find connections, discuss
them in a seemingly makeshift but wise and amusing manner, juggle effortlessly, for example, Lowell’s “Quaker Graveyard,” Roethke’s "Lost Son,” and Ginsberg’s “Howl” all at once, without dropping any missed-toss piece relevant to those complex long poems.

Of course, a smooth unwrinkled surface—a carefully assembled piece of writing that shows no seams—hides the hard work that went into its creation. Yeats explains this in his wonderful how-to poem called “Adam’s Curse”:

I said, “A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all of these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world."

In another essay Hass quotes William Carlos Williams, who could be philosophically obscure when not focused tightly on a red wheelbarrow or other sense image… but not here:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there----

Rather than "unacknowledged legislator," the 20th century's poet became a kind of "investigative reporter"... until there was a further shift, to "spiritual counselor" aiding victims, overstressed common folk, and sensitive confessional poets. (I'd say we're stuck there still, unable to move on.)

Hass is too smart, too canny an artist, his antennae too attuned to the Zeitgeist, to fall into, and be trapped in, some narrow vein of mannered poetry--whether bare bones text or surreal flight of fancy--choosing mind over style, rejecting style over-mined. He rides updrafts of inspiration, glides down currents of workaday existence,
snatching up each poem’s "news," his magpie intelligence and sharply intuitive beak piercing the surface of things and plucking out the significants within, building the nest of the essay bit by bit by bit.

So it's big news that he has just published another book of criticism, What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World; and I was dipping into his earlier ones, rediscovering the easily assimilated mixture of astonishments and simplicity that distinguish his essays—and prepping myself to convince the lady of the house (before she departed it) that we really need Hass’s new book as well.

But when I bestirred myself and staggered into the kitchen, as fleet afoot as any Fred Astaire, we were both thinking of my back and wondering what those intolerable bones will demand in months and years to come—reminded, on a wondrously gorgeous morning, that aging and changing circumstances (me retired, she still
commuting to work) have taken away pieces of us. This day’s particular of loss was how we always used to sit together in bed, talking and reading, with our cups of coffee and tea… which I can’t do comfortably now, curse the back.

A couplet phrase popped into my head--invented or remembered, I don’t know—and I said aloud: “God rot/What God wrought.”

Then I tried to explain Bob Hass, attempting to mimic the graceful dance of his mind at work. (“At play” might be more accurate.) Of course I didn’t nearly do him justice, but it didn’t matter really. Cassandra was hurriedly gathering up the load she bears each day, already halfway out the door.

I saw and felt and said, “You’re looking especially beautiful today.”

She gave me her mock frown and, nearly simultaneously, her skittery embarrassed
quick-smile. (This woman in broader terms has the knack of thinking, sorting out, planning, and doing, many things at once; neither Hass nor anyone else can match her there.)

She might have been instantly misty-eyed too, just the tiniest bit, but she countered, leaving, “That’s just your eyesight getting worse.”

But I was thinking to myself, “Don’t play into that Afterlife/got religion/curse God and die stuff.” So I called after her, “Better to say: ‘God rot/What got wrought’.”

So long as I can see her and read Hass and whoever else, it’ll be okay.

* * * * *
Searching for visuals for this sudden piece, I discovered two things: Hass in his younger days vaguely resembled the young Yeats; and the older that Williams got, the more he began to look like Roethke. (Is that coincidence or warning?) As for Lowell and Ginsberg, there was no facial resemblance, but they did both thrive in spectacles. (Burlesque rimshot, ba-da-boom. Blackout.)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Smoke and Mirrors: Suite Enough

And so we come to the final section (Parts 4 and 5) of Suite Mystic, my misbegotten, long a-growin', tired-of-the-runnin' attempt to capture in a multi-part poem some of the complexities of US, our perceptions, misconceptions, and ill-conceived
lives--nostalgia, memory, and small-t truth; Southern blunders and manners, Yankee sneers and blinders, racism South and North--and still wrap it all in a version of poetic language both gruff and lovely. Did I fail (again), or have I at last achieved some degree of success? Like it, hate it, I'd appreciate your comments...

4. Some Blues

Work song’s for daytime, sugar, blues come on at night
Work song till sundown, baby, blues run all the night
I jus’ can’t figure out why you never treat me right

Tobacca leaves low an’ green, corn stand yella’ an’ tall
Tobacca barn stackin’ green, corn still yella’ an’ tall
Blackstrap molasses make the sweetes’ sugar of all

See brown bug in the cotton, there’s trouble in the fields
Boll weevil in the cotton, Lord, be trouble in the fields
Folks can’t chop no squares when they force’ to kneel

You scorn me an’ mistreat me, but I am with you still
Scorn me an’ mistreat me, you know I’m with you still
Ain’t but the one road… goin’ up this hill

5. Smoke

And suddenly I am eleven, huddled
On the hardpack dirt floor of the smokehouse,
Hiding out in hickory-scented black, odd shapes
Dangling from the rafters--ribs and hams, sides
Of bacon, strings of hot links… and darker
Meat: fresh-bled pigs, huge slabs of beef,
Intestine-wrapped remains, fat-melt spilling
Down home-butchery gone hog wild.

Outside, the air shimmers, night scrubbed
From the landings, morning bleached pearl-white,
Rinsed clean, wrung and hung out... yet limp
Already, sweat-soaked even as it dries.
Tin tub, washboard, and wringer steam.
Falling-water light splashes workbench
Stains, down plump brown hens pecking
Grit in the shadow of the chopping block.

But I am safe in darkness, freed from my place
In the tobacco barn’s black crew—lone white boy
Sorting, stacking, grading; hanging harsh
Leaves for curing and blending; carcasses
Strung-up, whispering a violent story
I can’t redeem and cannot ignore…
The sun burns long. The days hum down.
The country kin accept me. But I am

The Yankee city kid come calling; misplaced,
Weighed down by choices I am pressed
To make. We gather on porches, in shade,
To talk and eat and remember a gracious
Past… the Mansion, yes, its crinolined belles,
Gallant beaux, quartered slaves defining
The edge of Southern elegance. Nothing
Mean-spirited is said; my kinfolk are good

Manners personified. Yet the smokehouse
Draws me in. No dissembling here
Among shapes I nearly see… blood fresh,
Black complete, curative ashes smoldering…
And still spreading hickory fumes
In the darkness of memory now,
A haze of blood and smoke and ash
Obscuring the Mystic I lost.

* * * * *
Next time, a tale of Tommy and Who knows what else... oh, so you wanna Bette?