September 24, 2020

1993-04-19 – The Age

1993 04 19 The_Age_Mon__Apr_19__1993_

Townshend finds the real substitute

Pete Townshend wrote 'Tommy‘ in
1969. But a new Broadway
production of the rock opera has
helped him realise he was writing
about himself.

JON PARELES reports.

Broadway production of the Who’s

rock opera ‘Tommy'. performers
and friends are halt-dancing in the
basement 0! the West Bank Cate while
the show's leads sing 'Pinball Wizard'
and 'l'm Free'.

Sitting in with the band is a middle-
aged man with the short hair and bony
carewom face 0! a penitent in a Hier-
onymous Bosch painting. strumming an
acoustic guitar.

IT'S star time. At a party tor the

When he steps forward to sing ‘Save
it for Later' by the Beat. his voice is a
choirboy tenor. and as the song revs up
he suddenly fixes the audience with a
stare lrom his earnest blue eyes. The
song‘s chorus repeats “Don’t Let Me
Down" perhaps a dozen times. and he
is soon singing the line with baletul sin-
cerity. turning the phrase into a com-
mand and a plea to those who will per-
form 'Tommy'. his 1969 magnum opus.
Once again. Pete Townshend has made
a catchy pop song yield wrenching hon-
esty.

it wasn't as easy as it looked. in a
conversation the next morning at the
rehearsal hall. Townshend said play-
ing the guitar had been agony. “It hurt
like bloody hell." he declared.

Townshend. who is 47. has been
spending his days perched on a stool
observing and advising at rehearsals.
Every so often he will break his silence
to confer with a singer or Des McAnufl.
the show's director. with whom he co-
wrote the book tor the new production.

The story of Tommy Walker — who
is struck dear. dumb and blind. is
cured. and becomes a kind of messiah
— is a parable of innocence and disillu-
sionment that was embraced by the
Woodstock generation.

'Tommy' has already been a multi-
million-selling album. a concert staple
tor the Who. a production featuring the
London Symphony Orchestra. a hallu-
cinatory Ken Russell film (in 1975) and
a West End theatrical (in 1979).

The pain in Townshend‘s arm helped
bring 'Tommy' to Broadway. ln Sep-
tember 1991. he tell on a bike and
"smashed up" his wrist. it took a long
time to get back his flexibility. He still
can't twist his hand in certain ways or
turn the palm upward. “It's a problem
for playing the guitar. because now
there are certain things I can't do. On
the upstroke. the angle is wrong. and
the pick gm flying out of my hand. My
great vanity was that l could do things
on the acoustic guitar nobody else
could. little flamenco—y things. and l

“——

w

Ir‘»

can't do them anymore."

While recuperating. Townshend
finally took notice 0! one of the many
requests for rights to present ‘Tommy'.
The resulting production opens on
Thursday on Broadway with a cast
of 30.

As the songwriter and guitarist for
the Who from 1964 until the English
band's retirement in 1982. Townshend
changed the course of rock music. The
Who’s early singles were explosive
hard rock. with Roger Daltrey's ter-
vent tenor and the pealing aggression
oi Townshend's power chords above
the volcanic splash and rumble of
Keith Moon's drumming.

it was the sound of chaos barely held
at bay; in its early days. the Who would

smash its equipment at the ends 01 sets.
as it that chaos had broken loose. But
the noise entolded carefully made
sonfi in which Townshend captured
the confusion. bravado. frustration and
terror 0! adolescence: songs like 'My
Generation.‘ 'Substitute' and ‘I Can't
Explain'.

By 1967. when Townshend began
thinking about 'Tommy'. the Who had
mastered the making of hit singles.
“The Who were desperate." Town-
shend says. “We'd had a fun pop-group
career. a string of hits all of which
were wonderful — we never made a
bad record — and suddenly we ran out
0! song. 1 couldn't come up with the
material.

His generation: above. Pete Townshend. Roger Daltrey. John
Entwht'stle and Keith Moon posing for a Who portrait in 1964; and, left.
Townshend today: “I see myself at the moment as part of a Broadway

thing. But I'm going to pass through it."

"Psychedelic drugs were changing
everything." he recalls. “All of the old
crattsmanlilte values oi' pop songwrit-
ing were disposable. People like Syd
Barrett of Pink Floyd were coming
along. stringing up l4 echo chambers.
taking a tab of acid and playing! I
thought. ‘What I'll do is I'll string num-
bers of three- and tour-minute singles
together. and hopefully it will create a
long enough. sinuous enough. seamless
enough wash of music for these new
audiences to flow with."

'Tommy'. a double album in 1969
that cost a previously unthinkable
836.000 to make. marked Townshend's
new ambitions.

The story of ‘Tommy’ has everything
from child abuse to media trenzy. not
to mention oblique commentary on
Townshend's own life and career.
which continued after the Who's break-
up with solo albums that mercilessly
examined Townshend's adult lite.

'Tommy' remains a marvel of long-
form rock. elegantly proportioned and
full of good songs; it has enough recur-
ring themes. plus an overture and an
”underture". to justify the grandiose
term “opera". And while many rock
compositions are best performed ex-
clusively by the people who wrote
them. 'Tommy' has had a life 0! its own
outside the Who.

In the 19605. Townshend had consid-
ered Tommy an invented character.
and wrote about him in the third per-
son. "1 had always thought that ‘Tom-
my' was the exception. that it was the
spiritual piece. And the other stuff.
from the Who's tirst records up to the
present day with my solo writing. was
about this guy who was 15 or 16 years
old in Shepherd's Bush in 1964. and is
now about 50. I'm his voice. I still write
for him. he‘s my Holden Caulfield and I
don't want to write about anybody else.

“But in discussions with Des (McAn-
utt). I realised ‘Tommy' is the same
story. the same voice. The deat-dumb-
and-bllndness becomes a metaphor. it
you like. for that dynamic between con-
frontation and escape that goes on at
the moment of teenage rebellion.
which is what rock and roll is about. As
a teenager. you're never alone. ever.
You're never responsible for yourself.
Whether you confront, whether you es-
cape. whether you stay or whether you
go — in the words of the Clash -— the
critical moment for you as a teenager
is when you realise you're on your
own."

The ending to ‘Tommy' when his
erstwhile followers sing ‘We’re Not
Gonna Take It' has changed with vari-
ous productions. 0n the album. it seems
Tommy becomes a crackpot guru.
imprisoning his would-be disciples in
‘Tommy's Holiday Camp' and forcing
them to play pinball with blindfolds.

earplugs and gags.

In Ken Russell's ‘Tommy’. in which
Daltrey plays the title character. his
tans pursue him up a mountain of gar-
bage until he swims away in a symbolic
baptism. For Broadway. the ending has
again been reworked.

ln Act ll. Tommy becomes close to a
rock idol. until his audience turns on
him. It's a situation that Townshend re.
latw to. "At times." he says. "the audi-
ence becomes like an abuser. lt
demands submission from the celebri-
ty. and it demands submission on its
terms. and if you change those terms
you will stop being a celebrity. You are
rich. you are famous. you are a hero.
but you have no part in it."

Yet Townshend has no plans to leave
rock and roll. “I see myself at the
moment as part 0! a Broadway thing.
But l’m going to pass through it."

— New York Times