Tommy has become rock's "Pirates of Penzance" in only ten years of exposure to the public, through the Who's performances onstage, their original album, Lou Reizner's album with the London Symphony Orchestra, Ken Russell's film, the ballet of the Royal Canadian Ballet and dozens of minor exploitations such as "Electric Tommy," the music played on synthesizer, and "Marching Tommy," the music scored for college brass bands.
The above, in a simple way, illustrates how as a rock composer and performer I was dragged into the world of light entertainment and into the world of high finance. The Who's original Tommy album sold very well indeed in comparison to their early record sales, and as a result the band was baled out of terrific debt and given a new lease on life in many ways. As for the reference to light entertainment: Tommy was never ever really meant to be as "heavy" as, say, "My Generation." We joked as a group about Tommy being true opera, which it isn't, but the Who's audience, and many of the rock press took it very seriously indeed. It was this seriousness that turned Tommy into light entertainment.
Many Who fans feel the Tommy film is not what the Who is about, or even what Tommy is about. In truth, it is exactly what it is about. It is the prime example of rock & roll throwing off its three-chord musical structure, discarding its attachment to the three-minute single, openly taking on the unfashionable questions about spirituality and religion and yet hanging grimly on to the old ways at the same time.
I enjoyed doing the Tommy film. I liked the opportunity to rework some of the music, and bring it up to date soundwise, and I genuinely admired and respected Ken Russell, who is stimulating company but an obsessive worker. Being sympathetic to that strange condition, I suppose I allowed myself to work beyond my capabilities.
We spent about six weeks preparing the tracks before shooting began in April 1974. During the second week of the actual filming, I declared to Bill Curbishly, our new manager, that I would never work on the road with the Who again. I think I might even have said that I felt the Who was finished.
I was mixed up by my two professions: as writer and musical director on the film, and as performer with the Who. I think I perhaps blamed the Who's live work for bringing me to such an emotional abyss. In retrospect, I know that it is only from the Who's live concerts that I get energy freely for doing practically nothing. I play guitar, I jump and dance, and come off stronger than when I went on. Walking offstage after a Who concert, we each feel like superhumans. It's easy to mistake this very genuine and natural energy high for innate stamina of some God-given talent for an endless adrenalin supply.
After my total downward spiral during the filming of Tommy, and after living with the desperate fear of further humiliation of the Madison Square Garden variety, I did a few interviews with the London-based rock press. My final undoing was to see among them a face I knew and to imagine that it belonged to someone who cared about me more as a person than as a rock performer. I should never have expected that.
Blaming the group, I blurted out my fears, my depressions and woe to a couple of writers whose sympathies were, to put it mildly, a little to the left wing of rock journalism. When they appeared in print, the results were catastrophic. Roger was understandably outraged, and retaliated to my abject misery in his own interviews published a few weeks later. "I knocked Townshend out with one punch." I think I was already dead before it connected.
I feel now as though we were both, to an extent, manipulated by a skillful and opportunistic reporting chain, that the derision handed out to me by Roger for my weakness and indulgence did me a lot of good. It hurt me at the time, but when you're so far down, so the saying goes, the gutter looks up. I had, after all, been derisive of Roger in print many times.
Roger went to work on another Ken Russell film, Lisztomania, which I managed to avoid. I got my head down to try to write a bit for the coming album (The Who by Numbers) and came up with some reality tinged with bitterness. It was hard for me to admit what I knew as I was composing: that what was happening to me was an exorcism. Suicide notes tend to flush out the trouble felt by the potential ledge jumpers. But once the truth is out, there's no need to leap.
I also felt curiously mixed up about my state of mind. "Slip Kid" came across as a warning to young kids getting into music that it would hurt them – it was almost parental in its assumed wisdom. "Blue, Red and Gray" was a ukelele ditty with John Entwistle adding brass band to the misty middle distance. It was about nothing at all; it reminded me of an old Smiley Smile Beach Boys number. "A Hand or a Face" was cynical and tried to cut down the growing dependence I had on mysticism and psychic phenomena. All the songs were different, some more aggressive than others, but they were all somehow negative in direction. I felt empty.
Recording the album seemed to take me nowhere. Roger was angry with the world at the time. Keith seemed as impetuous as ever, on the wagon one minute, off it the next. John was obviously gathering strength throughout the whole period; the great thing about it was that he seemed to know we were going to need him more than ever before in the coming year.
Glyn Johns, who was producing the album, was going through the most fantastic traumas at home with his marriage. I felt partly responsible because the Who recording schedule had, as usual, dragged on and on, sweeping all individuals and their needs aside. Glyn worked harder on The Who by Numbers than I've ever seen him. He had to, not because the tracks were weak or the music poor (though I'll admit it's not a definitive Who album), but because the group was so useless. We played cricket between takes or went to the pub. I personally had never done that before. I felt detached from my own songs, from the whole record; though I did discover some terrific sportsmen in our road crew.
After we finished recording in August 1975, we had a month off. I decided to try to get some spiritual energy from friends in the U.S.A. For a few years, I had toyed with the idea of opening a London house dedicated to Meher Baba. In the eight years I had followed him, I had donated only coppers to foundations set up around the world to carry out the Master's wishes and decided it was about time I put myself on the line. The Who had set up a strong charitable trust of its own which appeased, to an extent, the feeling I had that Meher Baba would rather have seen me give to the poor than to the establishment of yet another so-called "spiritual center."
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