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Theater Dead, 'Tommy' Lives

Of course it's dramatic, but at least it's good

July 23, 1970
Pete Townshend leaps in the air on stage at Falkoner Centret in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Pete Townshend leaps in the air on stage at Falkoner Centret in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Jorgen Angel/Redferns

BERKELEY — The Who is the best blend of theatrics and music that I have seen since the Rolling Stones.

And like any kind of stage presentation, when it works it works and when it doesn't, it is a drag.

At the Berkeley Community Theater, the Who's performance worked in every respect, as far I am concerned. They were dramatic and they were visually funny; they produced a sensory overload of the kind that leads to euphoria by their sound and the individual performances of the three instrumentalists were superb. Peter Townshend has never played so well (for me) as he did during the second of his two concerts in Berkeley and the impact of the Who's music, especially but not exclusively Tommy, was precisely the kind of thing I go to hear rock for. It wiped me out and I left that hall cursing the insensitive cat who put Crosby, Stills & Nash on the sound system, not because I don't dig their albums but because there was nothing to put on after the Who. Not unless you are, like Tommy, deaf.

The Who has the same kind of reckless, even careless, stance that the Stones have. It is reflected in many ways, the throwing of a harmonica over Roger Daltrey's shoulder when he is finished with it; the tossing of empty cups over the amps by Keith Moon and Peter Townshend's direct and ruthless handling of guitars and electricity.

But it has, just like the Stones, a kind of street beauty in addition to its ruthlessness. Tommy may or may not be an opera (calling it one does not make it one) and the Who may play loud (they do, don't they?); nevertheless when their music works, like all performance art, it works all the way.

What has kept me over the years from getting into the Who has been, I now suspect, the lack of a chance to really see them do it. At their San Francisco concerts in the past they were not as visible on stage as they were at the Berkeley Community Theater. Music should stand on its own, of course, but with the Who there is an added dimension of importance in seeing each little touch.

The ballet of Townshend and Moon, for instance who indulge in tongue-in-check actions synched to the music structure throughout the entire concert, their movements in a dance with and in contrast to Daltry's almost obscenely awkward antics (Joe Cocker? And did Daltrey ever see Billy Stewart throw around a mike? That was artful.) and John Entwistle's cool.

Of all the young rock players, only Jorma Kaukonen and Eric Clapton can make the guitar function the way Townshend does and I find his movements, far from detracting from what he plays, give me more reason to dig it.

Daltrey's performance (he is a good singer who was particularly moving in "Feel Me," etc.) is much more acceptable if one conceives of it as satire. I would prefer it that way. On the other hand, the group has now been together so long that movement and stance have become interrelated not only among the four members of the group but within a kind of full concert choreographic line.

Sometimes Daltrey seems to disappear altogether either by merely stepping backwards behind the invisible cords that connect Entwistle to Moon and Townshend, or sometimes by turning his back upon us. In any case, the full musical complement of four shrinks to a visual three in several ballet sequences in which Entwhistle's immobile, cool stance is directly linked to Moon's hamming from a locked position and then to Townshend's active body movement which floats all over the stage. Daltrey's satirical flamboyance enters and leaves this tableau periodically and it has become (or rather as the concert progresses it becomes) quite effective.

It is theater, of course, but I think it is good theater and I know it turned me on. None of it is any good without the music (not even Townshend's lovely remark "Don't you wish you had a nice friendly Queen?"). The music is what makes it all work, and the controlled frenzy of the huge rush of the Who's sound became a whirlwind that swept all over us in its intensity that night.

This is not a rebuttal to Al Aronowitz. I only wish he had seen the show I saw. He would have dug it, just as I feel sure the one he saw would have left me cold, too. The Who, like all electric groups, takes terrible chances. The night I saw them, the chances all worked and I am grateful.

The result, of course, was magnificent, one of the best concerts I have been at and one which points the way to utilization of music and theater in new sounds way past Hair and such really old fashioned concepts. The theater is dead, for all intents and purposes. Rock music is incredibly alive and even the addition of a slight story line (as in Tommy) is enough to hold an audience entranced. But only when the music makes it, and this is the clue.

This story is from the July 23rd, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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