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

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Does Townshend consider himself a freak? "I suppose so. I don't know. I did very much so when we first started. But I don't really want to talk about me and my freakiness."

A recurring theme in Tommy is the boy's repeated outburst: "Feel me, touch me."

"We can't play it on stage for laughing now, but when I first wrote it, it brought tears to my eyes. It's meant to be extremely serious and plaintive; but words fail so miserably to represent emotions unless you skirt around the outside, and I didn't do it enough there. You can circumscribe an emotion with a lyric – by telling of an event and leaving out one important chunk – and that can contain an emotion and put it across. This one fails because it actually comes out and says it. But there's so much circumscribing in Tommy that I wanted to get to the crunch a number of times."

Some people have read the album as being sick.

"That's great! As far as Tony Blackburn's concerned, forget it! But for the average intelligent person, that's what it was meant to be. The kid is having terrible things done to him, because that's life as it is, although perhaps not to the extremes that happen in the songs.

"Pop is a light medium. A pop song about the horrors of war is out of place . . . this means the sick things have a pre-emphasis. We hope that people's preconceptions will get screwed around by this. This sick humour thing which John has got is so important to the album. The songs aren't completely within the continuity of the album musically, but the perfection of the album lies in other areas. "Fiddle About" represents a whole feeling of family callousness and lack of respect for the kid because he's not like they are."

100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Pete Townshend

There is a song called "The Acid Queen" – who may be another route to Tommy's salvation. "The song's not about just acid; it's the whole drug thing, the drink thing, the sex thing, wrapped into one big ball. It's about how you get it laid on you that you haven't lived if you haven't fucked forty birds, taken sixty trips, drunk fourteen pints of beer – or whatever. Society – people – force you. She represents this force. On a number of occasions I've got this sinister, feline, sexual thing about acid, that it's inherently female. I don't know if I'm right . . . it's fickle enough."

But once you know of the existence of these things – sex, drugs, drink, how do you resist?

"It isn't built into man; it's the dare or the challenge for most people. About acid: I feel that there's a spiritual process going on in every person's head that's so overwhelmingly complex and so beautifully balanced, and acid just feeds on the distortion of that balance. People find pleasure in distorting the balance. But the human being is such a beautifully equipped piece of machinery that it's very spiritually disturbing to topple it and think that it's good.

"If you know you're throwing yourself out of balance, like when you're drunk, you hate yourself, so that's alright. But when you trip, for some reason you love yourself. You don't realise you were better equipped as you were. Each trip is just a sidestreet, and before you know it, you're back where you were. Each trip is more disturbing than the one that follows, till eventually the sidestreet becomes a dead end. Not only spiritually, which is the most important, but mentally it can stop you thinking physically. It can fuck you up. People are falling out of trees and all this bullshit."

But doesn't acid turn a lot of people on to the spiritual side of life?

"Acid has happened and there was obviously a purpose for it – the acceleration of spiritual thinking – otherwise I believe it wouldn't have happened. So I'm against what it has done. Actually, I did enjoy my trips . . . but the acid song is supposed to show the potential of acid as a spiritual push and knock it down as a danger in reducing the power of man in society."

"Pinball Wizard" has already been notably successful as a single, though it wasn't tailored for that purpose.

"The whole point of "Pinball Wizard" was to let the boy have some sort of colourful event and excitement. Side Three is supposed to be really explosive. Suddenly things are happening, it starts to move really fast. "Pinball Wizard" is about life's games, playing the machine – the boy and his machine, the disciples with theirs, the scores, results, colours, vibrations and action."

Does Townshend see games people play as negative or positive?

"Definitely not negative; and Tommy's games aren't games. They're like the first real thing he's done in his life. I play games – an incredible number. But I do real things as well. No . . . this is Tommy's first big triumph. He's got results. A big score. He doesn't know all this; he stumbled on a machine, started to pull levers and so on, got things going, and suddenly started getting incredible affection – like pats on the back. This hasn't happened to him before, and the kids are his first disciples.

"It's supposed to capsule the later events, a sort of teasing preview. It's meant to be a play off of early discipleship and the later real disciples. In a funny sort of way, the disciples in the pinball days were more sincere, less greedy than later on, when they demand a religion – anything to be like him and escape from their own dreary lives, do things his way and get there quicker."

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