The Who were pure electric rock energy personified, most definitely Rock Gods in their time and after, and certainly the progenitors of the Punk movement that followed. They were an utterly fantastic band in concert; performances where you felt that at any time the guys might just levitate off the stage. The music was pushed to the very limits of what rock could acheive. As the 1960s came to a close, The Who released their masterpiece Tommy (1969). This seminal recording introduced the concept of a “rock opera,” delivering a complete story spanning the length of two albums, kicking off the 1970s movement that led to expansive, meaningful rock epics. The album made the band in America and all over the world, with its deeply spiritual message of hope, love and self-reliance.
I was just ten years old in 1970 when I first got a cassette tape of Tommy. I must confess I didn’t understand it then; it was too deep, sometimes overtly disturbing and parts of it actually scared me. I listened to this tape on a crappy cassette player over and over again for about a year, finally putting it away forever. I probably only heard the hits “Pinball Wizard” and “I’m Free” for the rest of the decade, and since that time. As I realize now, a big part of the album was just too disturbing for me to process then.
Now I realize that my aversion to this work was because at that time my family was also in somewhat of a crisis. My brother Bill, who was 19 years old in 1969, was part of that generation’s “perfect storm.” He had lost his way in life to drugs, a failed attempt at college and the Vietnam War draft. He suffered from a deep seated anger, and finally found peace through Paramahansa Yogananda’s teachings at the Lake Shrine, a beautiful retreat on Sunset Boulevard near the Santa Monica beaches, soon becoming a monk in the Self Realization Fellowship (SRF) church. He had been terribly troubled, and left home to find peace. I was not yet in my teens. We only saw him twice a year after that, sometimes visiting him at the SRF church in Los Angeles, or sometimes when he could come back to our house. All I could comprehend was that he went away to become a monk, and was gone. It seemed to my young mind that life was somehow so challenging and dangerous that powerful emotions could cast you out of society, changing your course eternally. Pretty heady stuff for a preteen.
Once I got older I realized that while so foreign to our Christian family, this departure from “normal” society saved my brother. The teachings of SRF were to help students gain a “direct experience of truth” as opposed to blind belief. Those messages and their practices changed Bill forever. I knew the lyrics to Tommy were plumbing the same territory, and again, at that young age I was alternately drawn in, yet somehow repelled by its powerful messages. Today I also realize that this album was and remains one of the most transformative, important records of our time.
As I prepared to write this article, I experienced a coincidence that has to be telling me to look inside myself for some truth as well. My wife and I just purchased a historic landmark property in Santa Cruz, California. There is a “yogi temple” on the property, a decorative archway as an entry, and other structures built by a mason named Kenneth Kitchen in the 1940’s. No one over the years seemed to know what his architectural influences where – they seemed vaguely Indian or Turkish. I was somehow drawn to this property; the structures spoke to me, and I kept coming back to the idea of going through with the purchase for more than a year, despite the challenges I knew we would face. Just after we bought the property, a historical architect in the area sent us a book he was working on. Get this. Kenneth Kitchen had terrible “anger management issues” as we might say today, just like my brother did thirty years later. In Kenneth’s case, his brother took him down to the Yogananda’s temple in Los Angeles where he stayed and studied in the SRF church (yes, the same church my brother retreated to in his time of need!) When he returned to Santa Cruz he bought the property I now own, and built these structures as homage to the SRF church and the peace he attained from his studies there. Reportedly he raised goats, sold their milk, did his brick work, and tried to live a more simple, humble existence. Was I drawn in to this mysterious property and its structures because of my long lost memories of visiting my brother at the yogi temple, and the sights therein? Or was I ready to move a bit outside of the Silicon Valley, to focus a bit more internally, a bit outside the hustle of hi tech? I think so.
In a similar way, after learning of Townsend’s motivation for writing Tommy, I have been drawn back into that work. I’m not making this up people, it’s been a bit overwhelming and I’m listening now. You might know the story of Pete Townsend’s pathway to his ultimate masterpiece, which itself is informed by a spiritual teacher from India.
By the end of the 1960s, principal composer, guitarist, and vocalist Pete Townshend and the band, Roger Daltrey (vocals), John Entwistle (bass), and Keith Moon (drums) felt that it was time to develop something more substantial than the short pop songs they had been releasing. At the time, The Who was a singles band that felt they were going nowhere. The challenge was on to move past the short singles into something more substantial. Pete could write for a bigger stage, something more serious. Many believe this was the moment that saved the band. Townshend in particular knew that rock fans, and people in general were searching for answers to the woes of the day, the spiritual emptiness that accompanied sex, drugs, and gratuitous behavior. Co-manager Kit Lambert was completely behind his artist, even helping with the story’s development and other matters. Similarly, the band remained steadfastly behind their leader. “Nothing was off limits…I knew it would be okay… [and] that Pete would go on to write this kind of work,” explained Daltrey in retrospect.
As Townshend relays the situation, he experienced a “bad trip” after taking the powerful hallucinogenic LSD while on an airliner from the States back to Britain, and felt he left his body. “There was nothing good about it” he said later. But it suggested to him that there was more to life than what we see, because at some point during the trip, “he was not his body.” As Townshend went looking for answers, a friend told him about spiritualist Meher Baba and the book, The God Man: The Life, Journeys and Work of Meher Baba with an Interpretation of his Silence and Spiritual Teaching, by C.B. Purdom. The book and its messages struck Townshend as containing answers to the questions going on in his head. “It was the simple stuff, I liked. It was, don’t worry be happy, do your best, leave the results to God. All the pieces came together and I was able to start on Tommy in earnest,” he later stated. Tommy would tell the story of a spiritual journey; “a boy that grew up in difficult circumstances, becomes a teacher, and misuse his powers, paying a price” said Townshend.
As most readers will know, the arc of the story begins with Tommy’s mother and lover killing his father right in front of him. The trauma causes the boy to become deaf, dumb and blind. Tommy suffers unbearable traumas, including child molestation, the kind of subject matter that was taboo at the time. He becomes an iconic pinball wizard, and loses his way spiritually, becoming a type of false prophet. In the end, Tommy regains his senses, and he and his followers gain spiritual enlightenment by learning to look inside of themselves for the answers to life’s mysteries. Townshend summarizes, “We are deaf, dumb and blind when it comes to our inner spirit. One life is all I know. The present life. And yet because of my ignorance, of the infinite, I cannot enjoy it. I am sad, poor, wrapped in indignity.”
Townsend’s epic story of Tommy strikes me as a bit like the story of Kenneth Kitchen and of my brother Bill, and I’m feeling open to these messages. After watching the documentary about the making of Tommy, I did grab a fresh copy of the double LP and couldn’t believe I had set this one aside for so many years. It’s full of beautiful songs mostly featuring acoustic guitars, gentler, thoughtful placement of electric punctuation, creative bass leads, and the roiling drums of Keith Moon behind it all. Roger Daltry’s vocal performance and that of the work’s principal composer, is amazing, their voices still young, belying innocence yet wisdom beyond their years. In studio, then on stage, Daltrey began inhabiting the role of Tommy, delivering the impactful lyrics with an amazing power and grace. And, now, so many years after my brother gave me the book “Autobiography of a Yogi,” I think it’s time to read it.
The Who performed most of the album in concert many times around the world, at a time when some of the largest rock festivals were staged. It was perfect timing, as the band played Monterey Pop, Woodstock and two years in a row at the Isle of Wight. South of my hometown in Los Angeles, they played Anaheim Stadium on the 14th of June 1970, just one month after releasing one of the most revered live albums of all time, Live at Leeds. Fortunately, the festivals, and some defining Who concerts have been filmed over the years and there is a wealth of documentation on the band, certainly one of the richest and varied celluloid collections of any rock band before U2, including media darlings The Rolling Stones. Arguably the best of these is the film capturing the band in full flight at the Isle of Wight.
Live at the Isle of Wight (1970) Eagle Rock, 85 min., 1.33:1, DVD
The Who topped their Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock appearances with this amazing concert at the Isle of Wight Festival. Taking the stage early in the morning, they played several songs, then most of the Tommy album to 600,000 people.
Tommy (1975) Sony Pictures, 111 min., 1.85:1, DVD
Love it or hate it, this Ken Russell film is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest rock films ever made. The film adaptation stars lead singer Roger Daltrey and features Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Jack Nicholson and Elton John. The imagery in this film, which includes Ann Margaret rolling around in gushes of pork ‘n beans, no doubt fuelled my aversion to it’s strange content at the time! But hey, it’s only a movie, and only rock ‘n roll….or maybe, it does mean a bit more…