Tommy is the Who’s first full-length rock opera and it deals in a serious manner with the same themes that “A Quick One While He's Away” deals with comically, plus a few others. The plot of Tommy is pretty simple:
Captain Walker is missing and believed dead. His wife takes on a lover. Captain Walker comes home, discovers his wife with the lover, and kills the lover. Young Tommy witnesses the killing and is told by his parents he didn’t see it, didn’t hear it, can’t tell anyone about it. Psychologically traumatized, Tommy becomes deaf, dumb and blind. We, the audience, know from the music (“Amazing Journey”, “Sparks”) that Tommy is leading a very active inner life2; his parents, however, worried about his eternal soul (“Christmas”), try various ways of curing him (The Acid Queen; The Doctor) none of which work. Meanwhile, Tommy is discovered to have a talent for playing pinball and he gains some “disciples” based on this talent. Tommy is abused sexually by an Uncle and physically by a cousin. Tommy’s mother, tired of his constant staring at himself in the mirror, smashes the mirror and Tommy is finally brought out of his state of catatonia. He becomes even more famous because of this “Miracle Cure” (he was already famous for his pinball talents) and believes himself the Messiah. He gains even more followers and preaches that they must make themselves deaf, dumb and blind – shut their senses down – to reach enlightenment. His disciples, learning this, abandon him.
And that’s the basic story.
In Tommy you see the usual Pete Townshend obsessions on display. Child abuse. Inside/Outside/Mirrors/Reflection. Generational conflict. Betrayal. The search for spiritual enlightenment. The question of personality – who’s really there? Is Tommy a false messiah? Truly enlightened? Exploiter? Exploited? An abused victim? An abuser? All of these things? Why does anyone follow him? Why do they so suddenly abandon him (at roughly the 1:06 point of the 7:09-song in which he tells them how to follow him)? Are any of these issues resolved at the end of the opera?
Play “Christmas”, “Go to the Mirror!” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It”
Note the structure of both “Christmas” and “Go to the Mirror!” The tempo slows down as the song becomes more contemplative, as we are given an inside view instead of looking in from the outside. Often in Pete’s songs this structural shift and shift in view is accompanied by a literal change in voice: In "Christmas", “Tommy Can You Hear Me?” (Outside) is sung by Pete, while “See Me Feel Me” (Inside) is Roger. This structural arrangement of songs becomes more pronounced in future songs like “Bargain”, “Dr Jimmy and Mr. Jim”, “Behind Blue Eyes”, etc. (Although in the latter two, Rogers sings both parts. The literal change is voice doesn't occur; but the figurative change does.)
In “Go to the Mirror”, Pete sings the slower “See Me Feel Me” part (the “inside” part), while Roger sings the “outside” parts of the doctor and the father. Note that the father’s lament:
I often wonder what he's feeling.could be any parent’s question about his or her adolescent child, right? (I’ve wondered this on many occasions about my own 10 year-old son and I know my parents asked me these questions roughly every day of my life after I turned 12 or 13.) These are at heart generational questions, not just the kind of questions a parent of a special needs child would ask. Indeed, aren’t they questions anyone could ask about anyone else?
Has he ever heard a word I've said?
Look at him in the mirror dreaming
What is happening in his head?
Listening to you I get the music.
Gazing at you I get the heat
Following you I climb the mountain
I get excitement at your feet!
Right behind you I see the millions
On you I see the glory.
From you I get the opinions
From you I get the story.
which he evidently sings to himself in the mirror is, oddly, what he later sings to the backs of his retreating followers, who have just abandoned him, during the album's coda.
What are we to make of this?
The three-part harmonies in the "Listening to you" sequence are astoundingly good, especially the version sung at the end of the album3. Few other popular groups of the time could match The Who for elaborate harmonies – The Beatles and The Beach Boys come immediately to mind, but after that ...? Nobody in The Who has an outstandingly good voice (Roger is a great rock singer, but not an especially good singer overall), but their voices blend well. Not just on this song, but also on "Tommy Can You Hear Me?" and "Do You Thinks It's Alright?" and many others.
I also happen to think the final lyrics on the album Tommy are some of the most inspirational lyrics Pete ever wrote and the irony of their being sung by a "Messiah" who has just been abandoned by his acolytes and followers should not be lost on the listener.
1 Yes, eagle-eyed (and most likely imaginary) Rabid Who Fan/fourinoneblog Reader: I skipped right over the Magic Bus album. Perhaps some other time. I like the song "Magic Bus" – with its slowed down Bo Diddley-beat and trippy lyrics and the way it O-so-unsubtly rips off the Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour". But the album is not the greatest, and I really just wanted to get to Tommy.
2 "Sickness will surely take the mind/ Where minds can't usually go" ("The Amazing Journey") is one of the more bizarre claims made on this album. I mean that in the good sense. It's true enough, I suppose – I've had one or two grievous agues in my time that have caused me to pert-near hallucinate, but I never viewed those hallucinatory episodes in a positive light, afterward ... or at the time, for that matter. But Tommy's "sickness" – psychosomatic deafness, blindness and inability to speak – is affirmatively asserted, in "The Amazing Journey", as a positive boon to Tommy's intellectual and spiritual well-being ("Come on the Amazing Journey/ And learn all you should know").
Of course, in the 1960s, the belief that you needed to go inward to discover the real meaning of what was out there was a commonplace, to the point of being nearly cliché . "Thinking is the best way to travel," the Moody Blues assure us. (Personally, I used to like to change these lyrics to "Drinking is ...etc.") "Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream," John Lennon counsels us. Eastern meditation became Big back in the day, and the recently converted are always the most ardent proselytizers:
Deaf Dumb and blind boyStill, lyrics such as these set up some of the essential conflicts in Tommy: Should we pity him, or he us? Do we, with all of our senses, have a better connection with what is "real" or does "poor" deaf, dumb and blind Tommy? Denying or overcoming the desires of the flesh and withdrawing from the society of others is one of the paths, if not THE Path, to enlightenment in a lot of religions that are still extant (hello there (e.g.) Ascetic Christians and Anchorites!). Tommy does a pretty good job of exploring that ... without totally buying into it or entirely rejecting it.
He's in a quiet vibration land
Strange as it seems his musical dreams
Ain't quite so bad.
Ten years old
With thoughts as bold as thought can be
Loving life and becoming wise
3 The harmonies were never quite this good live, but reproducing of this level and quality of harmonization is really asking a lot, even of The Who, whose concerts tended to be pretty exciting and high-quality, even when on record. (Listen to the live album Live at Leeds to get an idea of what I mean; but really, just about any live recording of The Who will prove my point.) Still, The Who's live harmonizing was pretty impressive, too — and it was typically the mixes of the voices that tended to be off: Somebody's harmony vocal, e.g., would be too prominent, burying the lead vocal a bit and rendering the sound just a bit off.
But vocally, The Who had incredible range; John Entwistle in particular. John sings the high/falsetto, nearly contrapuntal "You are forgiven" harmony in "A Quick One While He's Away"; but that is also John singing the super-low, proto-death metal "Borrrrrr-is the spiderrrrrr" growl of that song. Neither of which is easy to do.