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Townshend On 'Tommy': Behind the Who's Rock Opera

After years of promising its completion, 'Tommy' is done, and Pete Townshend discusses its many aspects

Pete Townshend in the recording studio at his home in Twickenham, London.
Chris Morphet/Redferns/Getty Images
July 12, 1969

At long last, Tommy is with us. Pete Townshend's been talking about doing his opera for years. And now we have a double album set that's probably the most important milestone in pop since Beatlemania. For the first time, a rock group has come up with a full-length cohesive work that could be compared to the classics.

The central character is Tommy himself. Born during the First World War, he becomes blind, deaf and dumb after seeing a murder by his parents in a mirror, becomes a pinball champion, reaches a state of grace, regains his senses and starts his own religion, is eventually discarded by his disciples somewhere in the far distant future, finds himself as isolated as he was in the beginning. The opera is, apart from being some of the best rock yet, a statement of Townshend's philosophy. "It's about life," he says.

Pete has often spoken of his opera in the past. Pieces from a projected bigger work appeared on A Quick One and The Who Sell Out, but Tommy, which took two years to complete, owes little to these. The germ of the opera in fact came from a single, "Glow Girl," which was never released.

"Glow Girl," explains Pete, "led me to the idea of 'It's A Boy,' 'Mrs Walker' (the first song on the album). But that would have been too blunt an opening, so I did the "Overture." This clues you in to a lot of the themes and gives a continuity to the individual tracks – you think you've heard them before because they've been stated in the overture. It gives more of a flow and strengthens the whole thing."

One of the central themes of Tommy is the play between self and illusory self. It's expressed by Tommy (the real self) who can see nothing but his reflection (illusory self) in the mirror – "There had to be a loophole so I could show this. The boy has closed himself up completely as a result of the murder and his parents' pressures, and the only thing he can see is his reflection in the mirror. This reflection – his illusory self – turns out to be his eventual salvation.

The Who's Opera: 'A Loud Deafmute'

"In general terms, man is regarded as living in an unreal world of illusory values that he's imposed on himself. He's feeling his way by evolution back to God – realisation and the illusion is broken away, bit by bit. You need the illusions until you reach very pure saintly states. When you lose all contact with your illusory state, you become totally dead – but totally aware. You've died for the last time. You don't incarnate again; you don't do anything again – you just blend. It's the realisation of what we all intellectually know – universal consciousness – but it's no good to know until you can actually realise it.

"Tommy's real self represents the aim – God – and the illusory self is the teacher; life, the way, the path and all this. The coming together of these are what make him aware. They make him see and hear and speak so he becomes a saint who everybody flocks to.

"The boy's life starts to represent the whole nature of humanity – we all have this self-imposed deaf, dumb and blindness – but this isn't something I'm over heavy on," says Pete. "I'm more concerned about what actually happens in his life."

Having lost most of his senses, Tommy feels everything simply as rhythms and vibration. Everything reaches him as music.

"He gets everything in a very pure, filtered, unadulterated, unfucked-up manner. Like when his uncle rapes him – he is incredibly elated, not disgusted, at being homosexually raped. He takes it as a move of total affection, not feeling the reasons why. Lust is a lower form of love, like atomic attraction is a lower form of love. He gets an incredible spiritual push from it where most people would get a spiritual retardment, constantly thinking about this terrible thing that's happened to them.

"In Tommy's mind, everything is incredible, meaningless beauty."

The songs in the opera, then, have to convey an amazing amount. It's possible that all that's in Townshend's mind won't come across by simply sitting down and listening to the album. There's too much, on too many levels, for a casual listener. But on the simplest level, the songs are magnificent, simply as rock.

"You see, each song has to capsule an event in the boy's life, and also the feeling, what has ensued, and cover and knit-up all the possibilities in all the other fields of action that are suggested. All these things had to be tied up in advance and then referred back to. I can tell you it was quite difficult."

Touch is the one sense that Tommy still has in the early part of the album. McLuhan says that touch is a combination of all the senses at once: "Yea, I read that. I went into McLuhan quite deeply once. For someone that can see, sight has an absurdly high percentage over the other senses in terms of mental concentration. But if you can't see or hear, touch must come totally alive. The most excruciating thing known to man isn't blazing light – it's pain. The heights of pleasure are felt through touch – at least on a physical level – and the early part of the opera is on physical level."

The Who Finish Rock Opera

All but three of the songs were written by Pete – one by Keith Moon and two being by John Entwistle, "Fiddle About" and "Cousin Kevin." Says Pete: "I didn't want to do them. I didn't think I could be cruel enough. They're ruthlessly brilliant songs because they are just as cruel as people can be. I wanted to show that the boy was being dealt with very cruelly and it was because he was being dismissed as a freak."

One of the lines is: "There's a lot I can do with a freak." Pete explains, "I would have avoided that, but it's nice to have it in."

This leads to the general subject of freakishness, and Tiny Tim is brought into the conversation: "Seeing through the shit to the talent is the answer. Practically every talented person spends most of his time hiding his talent – or freakiness. This fascinates me. Some hide it behind the aura of being a superstar in glittering show business. The reason is the remoteness it creates – the more remote they become, the more powerful they are as star figures. Rock is built on it. I mean, I speak to Mick Jagger on the telephone all the time, and I still can't be normal with him – well, because he's him."

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