“The apparent is not real. Under many of life’s complicated problems are hidden some of the simplest truths which the veil of ignorance obscures from human vision.” –Meher Baba
“If I told you what it takes to reach the highest high you’d laugh and say ‘nothing’s that simple’, but you’ve been told many times before, messiah’s pointed to the door and no one had the guts to leave the temple.”- Pete Townshend
Today, one of rock’s most influential guitarists and songwriters, Pete Townshend turns 70. Earlier this year also saw the 40th anniversary of one of Townshend’s greatest accomplishments: The Who’s Tommy. As a longtime fan of The Who, I can attest that there are few things cooler than rock operas, and there is no rock opera grander than The Who’s 1969 concept album, Tommy. Conceived by Townshend after studying the teachings of Indian spiritualist and self-proclaimed Avatar of God, Meher Baba, Tommy follows a “blind, deaf, and dumb kid” into adulthood as he struggles with familial neglect, abuse, stardom, consumerism, and messianic power. As one of the first albums to tell a story across songs, Tommy proved to be majorly influential to the music genre and proof that rock n’ roll could be used for a greater purpose than creating 3 to 6 minute radio hits. But, it was one of The Who’s radio hits that first introduced me to the band.
I was twelve the first time I heard “Pinball Wizard” and I immediately fell in love with the song. Really, it was the song that introduced me to classic rock. But I had no context for “Pinball Wizard,” I wasn’t even aware that it was a piece of a larger narrative. At the time, it was only a catchy, albeit nonsensical song. Even after hearing a number of The Who’s hits, it was years before I listened to “Pinball Wizard” in its rightful place, as track #13 on Tommy. A bit more of the story began to come together, but I’ll admit it was still difficult to parse out the details of the plot, yet alone gather any sense of meaning. Still, it was and is a great album, and perhaps an even better musical experiment. This experimentation continued in 1975 with a film that truly showcases the full narrative scope of Tommy, making it not clear, but at least more thematically resonant (I’ll never hear “Fiddle About” the same way again) and ultimately powerful.
After years of searching for a reasonably priced copy of the film, I finally watched Tommy and man oh man, what a trip. Made by Ken Russell and what I’d imagine was a metric shit-ton of acid, Tommy adapts the album into a lavish, artfully directed, and outright insane production that’s unlike any other musical. Musicals, as much as I enjoy them, already exist in a weird space and have to be enjoyed with a certain amount of separation between presentation and representation. But Tommy takes things to an even weirder place (yes, even weirder than The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and it results in something that’s less of a traditional film-musical, and far closer to a pop-art treatise on the relation between popular culture and religion.
Tommy, played by The Who’s lead singer Roger Daltrey, witnesses the murder and subsequent cover-up of his assumed-to-be-dead father by his step-father (Oliver Reed) and mother (Ann-Margaret). The psychological shock causes Tommy to become blind and deaf after his parents repeatedly tell him “you didn’t see it, you didn’t hear it.” As he grows up, Tommy is placed under the care of various family guardians who physically and sexually abuse him while his parents go on vacation. He also has sex with Tina Turner inside a knight’s armor that draws blood through syringes in one of the film’s weirdest sequences. Eventually Tommy discovers a pinball machine and becomes a world champion by defeating The Champ, played by Elton John in giant Doc Martens (John only agreed to be in the film if he could keep the giant shoes). And just when the film seems to reach its climax, it only leads to a series of stranger events including Ann-Margaret rolling around in baked beans and melted chocolate (she was nominated for an Academy-Award for this film and won the Golden Globe), and a cured-Tommy becoming a modern Christ. All this and scenes featuring Eric Clapton and Jack Nicholson make Tommy a massive collection talent and a massive mess of a movie. It’s kind of a brilliant mess, but since I don’t do drugs, it’s also impossible for me to even attempt to understand all of the film’s creative decisions. But I can at least attempt to tackle some.
Underneath all of the 70s spinning camera shots, seizure-inducing flashing lights, and decisions that probably resulted in lifetimes of substance abuse, Tommy still manages to be quite meaningful. Ultimately, the film shows the plight of one man’s efforts to make people take responsibility and find enlightenment while coming to terms with his own power and the power above him. It’s a spirtual exploration of a decade transformed by people who held rock stars as gods, and ones who claimed to want peace but who would ultimately reject it (see The 1969 Altamont Free Concert featured in Gimme Shelter). Tommy, in all its delirium holds up a funhouse mirror to the late 60s and early 70s and the result is fascinating but difficult to see clearly. Whether or not that’s the point, there’s no doubt of Pete Townshend’s brilliant ability to weave together spirituality, music, and film in order to create something that’s just as interesting to explore in its separate parts as it is as a whole.
And as a final note: Make a double-feature of Tommy and Norman Jewison’s 1973 Jesus Christ Superstar and you’ll probably transcend.