Pete Townshend: So Why Did a Guy Who Hates Pinball Write a Rock Opera About it?
The Man Behind “Tommy” Speaks
The Chicago Tribune | Sunday Arts Section
By Jessica Seigel | Tribune Staff Writer
LOS ANGELES-- Pete Townshend meekly protests as he is dragged in front of a pinball machine for a photo shoot promoting the national tour of "The Who's Tommy," the rock opera he wrote nearly 30 years ago.
Slight problem. He hates pinball.
"I never really liked it at all," he says, falling into classic playing stance anyway. The metaphorical implications are truly mind-boggling, and so is the dire condition of his flipper technique. One ball after another zooms straight into the bowels of the machine.
"Money," he calls, sending the publicist scurrying for more quarters.
Let the record show that whatever Townshend says now, at age 49, he used to play a mean pinball. When he was 23, his game rivalry with a local London rock critic gave him the idea for "Tommy's" central symbol.
Strains of "He's a pinball wizard, there's got to be a twist . . ." periodically spill from the machine. All chrome, flashing lights and bells, the game was designed as a merchandise tie-in for the 1990s stage version of his 1960s musical parable about false prophets.
Townshend's lips purse into a bemused smile. That same sly look can be seen in grainy old television interviews when he was spouting some outrageous comment as the bad-boy intellect behind The Who. "Our music doesn't have any quality," he once deadpanned. "It's just musical sensationalism."
Irony always was his shtick. It suits him well in his latest incarnation, as an eminence grise of rock 'n' roll. There was a time when he came to resent "Tommy's" fame, which propelled The Who to superstardom in 1969 and remained (to him) annoyingly popular for years after. But the work has returned to rejuvenate Townshend in middle age, opening doors to a new career in musical theater.
Developed at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, the stage adaptation of "Tommy" went on to win five Tonys on Broadway last year, including best musical score. The national touring show opens Wednesday and runs through the 30th at the Auditorium Theatre.
As The Who's brooding songwriter from 1964 until the British band's breakup in 1982, Townshend composed such classics as "I Can't Explain," "I Can See for Miles," "Behind Blue Eyes" and "Who Are You?" The ultimate hard-core bang-up group called it quits after drummer Keith Moon overdosed on drugs and manager Kit Lambert died of a brain hemorrhage. They had lived up to Townshend's famous lyrics-"Hope I die before I get old"-from his youth anthem "My Generation."
Townshend says he can't remember what he thought turning 50 would be like. Today he carries a portable phone in one pocket of his worn denim jacket and a little red book in the other. It is not Mao's little red book, but a guide to local Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Los Angeles, where he has dropped in for the touring show's local premiere. Except for the occasional bender, he says, he has been sober for more than a decade.
Once ambivalent, even hostile, toward the Who years and his bygone superstardom, Townshend has come to feel grateful for both. But another reunion tour like the one in 1989 is still out of the question, he says, even if the Rolling Stones are doing it.
Backstage at the Universal Amphitheater, Townshend is gracious and self-effacing to cast members who gather to chat and get autographs between acts. After writing "You were O.K." on one cast member's playbill, Townshend pauses just long enough for dramatic effect before adding "until you joined the show."
As in his early days as The Who's whirling dervish guitar player, Townshend is still thin, though no longer gaunt. His graying hair is close-cropped. Time has filled in his face; the prominent nose that always made him feel self-conscious blends in more. His mournful eyes are as blue as ever. He still chews at his fingernails, which are bitten to the quick. Occasionally, he smokes.
Bleariness hangs in the air backstage on the day Townshend visits. The cast is hung over from the previous night's opening-night party. Several of them say they are nervous about going on while the master himself is in the house. Eyes follow Townshend as he walks around checking sound levels, which need adjusting. He suggests one non-technical explanation for the problem.
"Maybe it's love," he fondly jokes of the sound engineer's new romance with one of the actresses.
The cast doesn't know that Townshend is bleary-eyed himself, jet-lagged after flying in from London, where he attended the college graduation of his younger daughter, Aminta. His older daughter, Emma, is studying for a Ph.D. at Cambridge. He and his wife of nearly 30 years, who have survived troubled times in one of rock's longest marriages, started a second family in 1990 with the birth of their son, Joseph.
"I have to warn you, my brain isn't entirely in gear," Townshend says. According to friends, though, Townshend doesn't need jet lag as an excuse for his customary digressions in between insights.
What's it like to be the father of a 4-year-old at his age? He says it keeps him from becoming a couch potato.
"This may be absurdly philosophical, but if life has any purpose at all, it is not to stop," he says. "It almost feels like part of a plan. Whoever started this bloody mess never thought how to stop it. It's about keeping going."
The going hasn't always gone so fast. After The Who split up, Townshend gradually faded from public consciousness as a rock icon and settled into life as a book editor with his own imprint before signing on at the sophisticated London publishing house Faber & Faber. While commissioning works with artistic themes, he wrote a collection of cryptic autobiographical stories, "Horse's Neck," in 1985. Last year, the modest U.S. tour for his new album, "Psycho Derelict," was considered a success.
Only after "Tommy's" Broadway triumph did he make the connections and gain the know-how to mount a musical at London's Young Vic Theatre adapted from his 1989 album "The Iron Man." The story is based on a 1968 fairy tale by Ted Hughes, who was married to poet Sylvia Plath. Now Townshend is working on several ideas for original musicals, which he won't discuss just yet.
Of course it was ironic that once again "Tommy" arrived to help out. When he began writing it in 1967, Townshend thought of the song cycle as a last gasp for The Who. Known for bashing their instruments after every performance, the group was going broke from the expense while trying to compete with the peppier sound of the Beatles. Then "Tommy" went gold 10 times over.
Initially written as a joke, then crafted into a series of thematically linked songs, "Tommy" is the story of a boy who goes blind, deaf and dumb ("See Me, Feel Me") after witnessing a murder in the family. Through intuition Tommy Walker becomes a pinball champion before regaining his senses ("I'm Free"). Followers revere, then reject him as a messiah ("We're Not Going to Take It"), leaving him to find his own redemption.
Billed as the world's first rock opera, to the scowls of serious music critics, "Tommy" became the first rock music performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The 1970s adaptations of the work included a ballet, numerous stage plays and a surreal movie by Ken Russell starring The Who's frontman, Roger Daltrey, as Tommy, Elton John as the dethroned pinball champ and Tina Turner as the Acid Queen.
For years, Townshend tried to forget "Tommy," which he came to view as a millstone weighing down his creativity. "I let it go by sitting on it," he says. "I sat on it and stopped its growth in the public eye and waited for it to be time."
The time came in 1991, when Townshend shattered his wrist in a bicycling accident and (wrongly) feared he would never play guitar again. Only then did he grant a long-standing rights request and begin working with Tony Award-winning director Des McAnuff to adapt and update the work.
"What brought us together on the piece is, we both saw it as a drama, not as a fantasy," says McAnuff, who directed the Tony-winning "Big River." "('Tommy') doesn't need tie-dye and psychedelia to soar."
Taking a more realistic approach to the story, Townshend went to speak with his mother, a former singer, to learn more about his own troubled childhood and his early memories of witnessing her love affairs. He regrets that his father, who once played saxophone for the Royal Air Force Band, did not live to see him make it to Broadway.
The modern self-confessional world of "Oprah" and other talk shows, Townshend says, brought a new relevance to the story about Tommy as an abused child. "Somehow because there were real people standing up and saying 'I was abused' or 'I am damaged' . . . suddenly you could put 'Tommy' on the stage and it could be seen to be real and tangible," Townshend says.
Originally, Townshend said he conceived of pinball as a metaphor for the hypocrisy of institutionalized religion, a topical theme in the 1960s. With hindsight, he sees that pinball was really a stand-in for rock 'n' roll. The pinball machine was a Fender Stratocaster guitar. And he was Tommy Walker.
"When you have time to look back on your work, you suddenly think, 'My God, I didn't realize I was wearing my heart on my sleeve to that extent.' I went into a kind of shock," Townshend says. "In actual fact, what I had done was told my (expletive) life story and projected it into the future."
The stage adaptation pinned down the dates of the story to make Tommy Walker a child of World War II, just like Townshend. To emphasize the narrative importance of the parents, the father murders the mother's lover instead of the other way around. At the end, Tommy returns to his family, grown more sympathetic, rather than ending up alone.
"The reconciliation with the family is undoubtedly new; it was necessary for me," says Townshend. "Time changes everything." What has changed is that Townshend identifies more with the parents in "Tommy" because he is now their age and a father himself.
The 1990s Tommy is a reluctant, rather than egomaniacal, prophet whose followers reject him because he insists they think for themselves, not because he is absurdly demanding.
In the original, Tommy spoke harshly to his fans: "My name is Tommy and I became aware this year. If you want to follow me/ You've got to play pinball/ So put in your ear plugs/ Put on your shades/ And you know where to put the cork!"
Today, the same song has been modified into a self-help homily: "You wanna be like Tommy? I'm glad you're not, I hope that's clear/ You shouldn't try to ape my show/ It isn't just pinball/ You don't need to claim/ A share of my pain/ You're normal after all."
The revisions might surprise those who still know the lyrics by heart, so get a grip now. "Pete's maturing and doesn't need to do the funky chicken. It's often the guys with the biggest pot belly who want to keep the sacred cows of 1969 intact," McAnuff says. "I would like to point out that Bertolt Brecht went back to his plays and rewrote them until he died. This is an artist's right. It's his work."
Many critics have gushed over the stage adaptation. Frank Rich of The New York Times wrote that " 'Tommy' is at long last the authentic rock musical that has eluded Broadway for two generations."
But some dissidents have complained that Broadway sapped the original of its piercing social commentary and raucous energy. A Time magazine critic wrote that "there's not much emotional depth or adolescent rebellion left in the granddaddy of rock operas."
But the criticism that "Tommy" onstage doesn't live up to the "Tommy" performed by The Who is no criticism, according to Townshend.
"It's just a statement of fact. The Who were a fantastic band and there won't ever be a band like them again."
October 2, 1994