Rant ‘N’ Roll: Tommy Can You Read Me?

The Who’s rock-opera Tommy originally came out in May of 1969. I didn’t buy it until November. I remember that because that year at Thanksgiving I made my whole family listen to it. I bought Arthur by The Kinks, though, the day it came out in October. I was 18. That’s why I erroneously always thought Arthur came first. I remember many stoned-out arguments on that exact subject. I was wrong. Still, this seminal work has now transcended into the realm of iconic musical theater akin to West Side Story or Chicago.

Tommy and Arthur—along with albums by Led Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, 10 Years After, Bee Gees, Taste, Moody Blues, Joni Mitchell, Sly & The Family Stone, Phil Ochs, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Traffic, Procol Harum, Jeff Beck Group, Doors, Yes, Jethro Tull, Harry Nilsson, Santana, Stones, The Band, Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd, Johnny Winter and Free—were the soundtrack to my life. They all came out in ’69. What a year for music. I wore out a path to Alwick’s Record Supermarket in Elizabeth.

I bought them because I had money from singing in a Jersey cover band—The Rock Garden. I’ll never forget how I’d do whiskey shots during the five 20-minute breaks in-between the five 40-minute sets we played. I was 18. The drinking age in Jersey was 18 (up to 21 in 1983). By the time we lugged our heavy equipment back up three flights of stairs to our practice room—tired, half-drunk and joking about a road crew we’d have someday—it’d be 4:00 a.m. We never did have a road crew.

But I digress.

Tommy has stayed with me on into my current golden years. After the album came the live album, the live shows, the movie, the Broadway show, and I’ve loved them all as I got to know the deaf, dumb and blind protagonist kid who could play pinball on his way to becoming a spiritual leader.

Tommy tip-toed back into my life last month in a re-release of a 1972 recording by The London Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Choir on Lou Adler’s Ode Sound & Visual Records. (Adler’s the guy with the beret who always sits next to Jack Nicholson at Laker games.) It’s been cleaned up, dusted off, re-mastered and is also available on grey vinyl with the original libretto in an illustrated 20-page character study. And what characters there are! Merry Clayton’s the acid queen. Richie Havens is the hawker. Roger Daltrey’s Tommy. John Entwistle is the horrible cousin Kevin who tortures the poor boy. Ringo’s the evil uncle Ernie who does even worse. With Rod Stewart as the “local lad” and actor Richard Harris as the doctor, the guest spots are well filled. Add Sandy Denny as the nurse, Graham Bell as the lover, Steve Winwood as the father, Maggie Bell as the mother and Pete Townshend as the narrator, it’s the proverbial all-star assemblage.

Townshend has always maintained that the original ’69 four-sided album was a rather skeletal reading of what had much more potential. “I always saw The Who’s version of Tommy as more of a sketch,” he’s been quoted as saying, “and felt there was more that could be done with it. The London Symphony project, I think, paved the way for more to come.”

Although I still love what seems like now as a bare-bones ’69 original and always will, this has to now be considered the ultimate Tommy. I missed it in ’72. I swear, I don’t even remember it at all ever coming out. I guess my tastes had changed. The soundtrack to my world in ’72 at 21 was ZZ Top, Elton John, Allman Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, T-Rex, Todd Rundgren, Randy Newman, Miles Davis and Paul Simon, who all had albums out that year that I just had to buy. It’s amazing to me how all those albums have stood the test of time. When did pop music start getting so shitty?

For the record, the soundtrack to my world now is Leonard Cohen, Wynton Marsalis, Willie Nelson, Delbert McClinton, Los Lobos, Rosanne Cash, Shelby Lynne, Hot Tuna, Bruce, Dr. John, John Prine, Leon Redbone, Steve Earle, Merle Haggard, Brian Wilson, Wayne Shorter, Buddy Guy and, of course, all my favorite dead people who are quite alive in my household.