'Tommy' Does Not Vindicate The Who

The Who ride on gimmicks, but that's not enough

The Who
Jorgen Angel/Redferns
The Who perform at Falkoner Centret in Copenhagen, Denmark.
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NEW YORK — The Who is a group that was nurtured in gimmickry. I remember five years ago Brian Jones calling me up on the trans-Atlantic phone to play me the Who's first record from London. "That's not atmospheric interference you hear," he said. "That's the guitar player banging his guitar on the amp."

How far has the Who progressed since then? Their latest achievement has been to become the first rock group ever to play on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, an event which turned out to be as transparent as all the fancy, tiedyed silken see-throughs it attracted.

To see through one see-through is not to see through them all. Tommy is no more an opera than Albert Goldman is Renata Tebaldi, and to place the Who at the Met was less a contribution to music than to showmanship. In the end, it is the music that must stand on its own feet. The booking at the Met was just another gimmick.

Let this not be an indictment of promoter Nat Weiss, who arranged it all, like some hip homeroom teacher who keeps thinking up far-out field trips so the class won't lose interest in him. Can you imagine 4,000 stoned kids on their first visit to the Met suddenly being retracted up from the golden ceiling as the house lights dimmed? This was the moment that brought the most spontaneous applause of the night. All the rest was conditioned response, like Pavlov's dog.

Put a group of rock stars on a stage for a performance and the audience will keep applauding until there's an encore or a reasonable explanation for the lack of one. That is, if the group has at least enough hype going for it.

At the Met, the demand for the encore went on for some ten minutes before the Who's Peter Townshend came back out to tell how exhausted the group was after doing two shows. "Boo!" someone in the front row hollered out. "After two fucking hours, boo to you, too," Townshend answered, and, angrily, he threw the mike down into the crowd.

It wasn't the only untoward incident. The event was presented by Weiss in association with Bill Graham and the Fillmore East, who provided special ushers to act as trouble-shooters when the Met's regular staff didn't know what to do. "Shall we call one of the Fillmore ushers, or what?" you kept hearing the Met's ushers ask one another each time a problem arose. At one point, Bill Graham himself helped eject a gate crasher, storming out after him into the crowd on the promenade. When the crowd started calling Graham a fucking capitalist, he answered that he'd take them on five at a time. When Sid Bernstein rushed into the crowd to pull Graham to safety, Graham pushed him away.

"I work for my money," Graham shouted at the kids. "I work 24 hours a day. I work around the clock. What do you guys do? Do you get out of bed in the morning?" Graham won the argument.

Oh, what a gala night it was, with the smell of reefer so thick that the Met's unaccustomed ushers had to hang onto the railings to keep from being pulled up to the ceiling along with the chandeliers. Outside, the ballet customers at the New York State Theater kept ignoring the curtain bell to jam the second-floor terrace so they could watch all the hippies parading across the Lincoln Center plaza beneath them. Beneath them? Of course, beneath them.

Was it the Who that drew this crowd or was it the what? As Townshend, in a new John Lennonish haircut, explained to the audience, this was going to be the final performance of Tommy in its "full extravaganza." The Who was tired of doing it and who could blame them? From the audience, there were calls of "Louder! . . . Louder!. . . ." "It gets louder later," Townshend replied. Actually, it got so loud it hurt your ears and you still couldn't hear anything being sung or said.

Tommy is the story of a boy who became deaf, dumb, blind and mute after witnessing the murder of his mother's lover by his natural father, who has just returned from among the missing at the close of World War I. Before he is cured to become a religious leader, Tommy turns into a pinball wizard, gets molested by a perverted uncle and is slipped some LSD by an unscrupulous gypsy. We learn all this from the program. Otherwise, the whole thing may as well be sung in Italian. Not that Tommy doesn't have its moments.

"See me . . . feel me . . . touch me . . . heal me," Roger Daltrey sings in one of the few intelligible and truly moving episodes. But then how can you take Daltrey seriously when he persists in fulfilling some 16-year-old's image of what a pop star should look like, with his frizzly hair and bare chest and idiot attempts at twirling the microphone on its cord, like a rookie cop still trying to learn how to swing his night stick?

When the Who first came on the scene, with Townshend smashing his guitar to bits while the rest of the group blew off smoke bombs and committed other acts of destruction, the Underground hype machine extolled this practice as some sort of symbolic revolutionary act. It was alright with Townshend, who later admitted he didn't really want to have to do it every night, but guitars were cheap enough.

All right, so now he's a star.

Even Cassius Clay confesses he used to have to do a lot of dumb things to get everybody to pay attention to him. But Cassius knew he could put his fists where his mouth was. As John Mayall says, "The more power you get, the more important things you have to say. That's the obligation and, more important, that's the oportunity of being a star . . . When you have that much power, then you want to make damn sure that what you're saying is worthwhile."

Townshend may be an expert with pirouettes, entrechats and other dazzling leaps in his jump suit, but is that his music standing on its own feet? The Who is going to need more to vindicate itself than Tommy.

This story is from the July 9th, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 62: July 9, 1970
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