Interpreting Tommy

I listened to The Who’s Tommy (1969) on the drive back home from NYC the other day. It is one of my favorite records to sing along to, esp. while driving. It has a good range of dramatic vocals and even some longish instrumental parts to give my vocal chords a rest while I drum along with Keith Moon on the steering wheel.

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My first exposure to Tommy was at age 14 when I saw the 1975 film version. I was entranced by its weirdness (like Ann-Margaret covered in baked beans, soap suds and chocolate writhing on a giant penis-like pillow) and its mix of what seemed to be Freudian and spiritual themes. I was not into any rock music at the time, but the musical theatricality and operatic sound drew me in. For a few years I’d listen to the soundtrack of the film version which I taped from a friend, and when I finally heard the original album version I thought it was really weird. Somewhere in the change over into the CD era, I lost my tape of the film version, got a CD of the album version and my memory of the former faded.

Watching bits and pieces of it now, it seems pretty terrible. The singing mostly seems kind of desperate and hurried, out of breath, the arrangements alternately limp and plodding. Maybe I need to re-watch the whole thing all the way through again, since I haven’t since probably the late 80s.

After my driving I did a little research about Tommy. The different productions of it, how The Who performed it in concert, etc. . . I have never seen nor heard the Broadway musical version, so I was curious if there was new songs or different orders or characters (apparently there are), but the thing that stuck out to me was the change in the story.

The clip below is an awesome mash-up of scenes from the 1975 film with the music from the original album version:

I guess since the film was the only played out version of the narrative I ever saw, it made sense to me that Tommy’s mother and her new husband kill Captain Walker (Tommy’s father), when he surprisingly returns from war after having been presumed dead. I never considered it would be or could be any different. . . Actually, I take that back. I never really took this part of the rock opera literally. I always figured that to Tommy, his mother’s remarriage was finally “killing” his missing father. I always imagined that what Tommy walked in on them and then was told that what he didn’t see it or hear it and that he’d not “say nothing to no one ever in [his] life” was his mom and step-dad’s sexual exploits.

I guess I saw it as kind of Oedipal in a Hamlet kind of way. The metaphorical killing (or even a literal one) interrupted and replaced his own Freudian desire to kill his absent father and possess his mother. The fact that in the film his mother is hot-ass Ann-Margaret and the way she affectionately dotes on golden rock god Roger Daltrey in the role of Tommy may have heightened my sexualized view of the story.

But it seems that in Pete Townsend’s original conception and in the Broadway version, it is Tommy’s mom’s new lover that is killed when Captain Walker returns, which does not appeal to me as much. I guess the Oedipal interpretation could still work from the perspective that Tommy feels estranged from the struggle for his mother’s love that he witnesses and the killing that is a result of that struggle is still something that he at base feels like he should be performing—but I prefer the metaphorical killing to the literal killing, and if there must be a literal killing, the death of a man already presumed dead seems easier to cover up than the death of the lover.

I guess it is just difficult for me to accept any of Tommy as literal, when you have a deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizard messiah achieving enlightenment. If it is all predicated on some Meher Baba influenced inward journey helped along by silence and mimicking the deafness to God’s call for compassion, to have the action based on a literal murder seems out of place and kind of melodramatic. The mundane confusions of a young man developing into a form of transfixed self-reflection (demonstrated through his obsession with mirrors) work better in my imagination as an extension of the amazing journey the song of the same name initiates him into.

But, I guess there is no reason why the metaphorical and literal cannot co-exist.

Anyway, my favorite song from Tommy (both versions) is probably “Sally Simpson.” You can see the film version above, which is mostly sung/narrated by Peter Townsend. The album version is sung by Daltrey, and which has a great piano part.

5 thoughts on “Interpreting Tommy

  1. Pingback: The Who’s “I’m a Boy” as Transgender Anthem | The Middle Spaces

  2. I have witnesses who’ll confirm I’ve been saying for years that the best way to interpret the murder scene in Ken Russell’s Tommy is that six year old Tommy Walker has a dream about his dead father coming to visit him. He’s not dead after all, he’s back! Tommy wakes and, not realizing it was a dream, runs into his mummy’s bedroom to tell her the good news. Suddenly his mother and Frank are angry and shouting at him that nothing happened here, you didn’t see anything, because they’re embarassed at having been caught in the act. But Captain Walker is nowhere to be seen. The confused six year old boy decides mummy and Uncle Frank have killed his father!

    Honestly, why would Ann-Margret be complicit in protecting Oliver Reed if he killed Robert Powell? Why was there no sign of a corpse? Why would Tommy forgive his mother and his father’s supposed murderer and acccept their union, instead of turning them over to the police? It all makes much more sense if his enlightenment leads him to realize there never was a murder after all.

    The idea that Tommy was actually terrified by the sight of his mother having sex may well have been what Russell had in mind…but it’s also complete twaddle. And as for Townshend’s original plot, well, he always had magnificent ideas but his sense of story structure was sorely lacking.

    One side note to Tommy is that before release it carried the subtitle “(1917-2000)” — having Captain Walker die in World War I and tying in with the song about his alleged return being “1921” and further suggesting that Tommy would live to see his eighties. This is another area where Russell’s collaborative version improved the story: moving the opening to WWII (and changing the song to “1951′) gives Tommy more in common with Townshend himself and makes Tommy better reflect his era.

  3. I like the idea of Tommy dreaming his father’s return. I like your interpretation a lot (which makes the Broadway version that much harder to swallow). But the part of your take on it that doesn’t make sense to me is why the idea of young Tommy being frightened of seeing his mom doing it being “complete twaddle” – to me it fits into the Oedipuian themes that I describe above perfectly.

    I think Russel’s version improves on the record version in a couple of ways even if overall it is not nearly as good: The foremost being the order of the songs, which I have l always wanted to change the tags on the MP3s of the record version and change the order. For example, “I’m Free” should come before “I’m a Sensation” and “Sally Simpson” after that. Also, “Christmas” (one of my favorite song) should come before “Eyesight to the Blind.” “Underture” should come right before “Pinball Wizard.”

    Thanks for commenting.

    • The problem with Tommy being traumatized by the sight of his mother having sex with Frank is that it’s trite and cliched. If that’s what Russell and Townshend had in mind there, and it may very well be, they were sticking with something that feels overly determined by a diagram of pop Freudian concepts. I can’t really defend my objection better than that; just a matter of personal taste.

      I should also correct myself and say that any Oedipal imagery may be just as likely to come from Townshend, who wrote out a revised storyline for Russell to work from, and Townshend did have some pretty serious mother issues. I was taken aback to read him saying in an interview that his solo track “Secondhand Love” — which has what might be his most blistering, searing, angry performance, a vocal that could be used to strip paint — was him expressing his anger at his flighty, neglectful mother. More recently, Townshend said that when he listens to his singing on the original version of “Acid Queen” he hears himself doing an impression of his mother’s voice. So, um, that’s kind of heavy.

      In the movie, Tommy’s mother has a lot more depth than she does in any other incarnation of the story, and that has a lot to do with how sympathetic and moving Ann-Margret is in the role. Her inner conflict, her guilt, her flashes of anger at her son followed by her self-recrimination over having been angry — you see it all on her face. She’s a proper character in her own right, not just “the mother figure.” It’s understandable that everyone remembers the soap and chocolate and baked beans, but as a result people too often overlook just how good Ann-Margret’s performance is.

    • I agree that Ann-Margaret’s performance is one of the strongest parts of the film version – she portrays a conflicted, loving, angry, passionate, sexual person as to be the most rounded of what are mostly cardboard characters.

      I have no problem with the Freudian elements. They work without subsuming the narrative. As I said in the original piece the literal and the figurative can coexist (though in this case, I am no fan of the literal), but that also means that a multiplicity of figurative skeins can also co-exist. I see the Oedipal thing as a trigger for a variety of deep seated relational and spiritual issues the opera explores.

      I want to get my hands on the Broadway score version, just to see what they did with the songs – but I am scared.

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful commenting. I appreciate it.

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