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, especially 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.
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 were 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 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, what he was told that that he didn’t see or hear, and was made to promise to 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 he witnesses for his mother’s love, and the resulting killing is something that he subconsciously 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) works 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.