Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1028
It was about 1967 that I started to think deeply about rock music and The Who's particular role in it. I began to believe strongly that we were being tied down too much to single records, to the 45s that had to be three minutes long, were released, got into the Top Twenty for a few weeks, then disappeared. I felt stifled and a bit frustrated. I felt that if I had to say everything on a record in three minutes maximum, then I wasn't ever going to say very much, in spite of the fact that I respected the limitations. A parallel situation, I suppose, would be someone like Ken Russell being restricted to making commercials. Or a novelist being tied down to writing only short stories. I felt, in fact, that rock music was being tied down by its own limitations and I wanted to find a way to 'stretch it' a bit more, without making it pretentious or pompous and without making it sound too much like classical music.
I've always felt and I still feel that rock has said more and has more to offer its audience than any other form of music that's ever come along. I think rock music is probably the only thing happening today which is in key with modern society. I don't think anything else is—certainly not any religion or political belief, even communism. There's nothing I can think of as much in keeping with the spirit of my generation as rock music. (pp. 18-19)
Some people have thought that I grabbed the most obvious painful subject for Tommy—a deaf, dumb and blind boy—and tried to wring the most I could out of it. But it's not like that at all. Unfortunately perhaps, I'm not that kind of opportunist. Sometimest I wish I was more immediate and able to grab at sensational things. But the only time I'm a sensationalist is when I'm on-stage. As a writer I'm careful and slow-bitten. It came about really because I wanted the story of Tommy to have several levels, just as I wanted it to have a rock singles level and a bigger concept level. I wanted it to appeal as a fairy story to young people and to be intellectually entertaining. But I also wanted it to have a spiritual message too. (p. 19)
Anyway, I decided to look for a way in which I could really get it across to people that Tommy was 'closed up', as it were, bound in his 'dream', and I started to think of possible devices. And I thought, instead of trying to make everything else, the things surrounding him, look false, why not just plunge him straight into something which is almost the equivalent of what we're all really at?… Thus when, by some miracle, he becomes cured, his awakening to what we regard as quite boring and everyday, is a fantastic and miraculous revelation. In this way, I would try to draw a parallel consciousness at our level—and a consciousness at a much higher level. Even though I'm not able to comment on higher consciousness, only being a mere mortal myself!
Then I started to get into the idea that Tommy's experience would be almost rather pure, that in his deaf, dumb and blind state, he would be quite protected in this way, Uncle Ernie's perverted caresses don't worry him too much because he can't see them, even though he can smell his foul breath. But he's not aware of all the evil trappings of Uncle Ernie that we can see. (p. 20)
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Acid Queen sequence, the introduction to drugs? That was, in a way, a comment to say that 'acid' or drugs are terrible things, that LSD is a terrible thing and they do do terrible things to people, but that the most terrible thing about it all is the society which almost forces it on people and then condemns them for using it. Drugs provide a mind-opener but without providing anything to fill up the cavern they open up in your head. In Acid Queen. I was trying to put across the point that Tommy was a special case because there are some people, some 'special cases', who actually do benefit from certain drugs. Because you have to remember that Tommy didn't have the side-effects, the trappings. Society has a way of tainting everything—no experience is pure to society.
Thus, during the period from the time he suffered the traumatic experience of seeing his father murdered to the time the mirror smashes and he becomes cured and 'free'. Tommy lives through a thousand life-times. And his experience when he's cured is such a sweet and marvellous one—when he can see and hear and speak again—that he not only becomes normal in our terms, but also transcends normally and sweeps ahead and becomes saintly in his selflessness.
Tommy is, if you like, a blanket cross-section of now, of the way people are now, of the way society is, of the way young people clutch at anything which seems as if it might help them along a bit quicker, whether it be rock 'n' roll, drugs, revolution, or whatever. They all want the short cuts, the easy way out, nobody's prepared to admit that life has a purpose, as such. Nobody's willing to admit that the individual is to blame for anything. In the story, Tommy's fantastic miracle is something the people appreciate, but also resent. Why weren't we deaf, dumb and blind, so that we could have become cured and purified and wonderful, just as Tommy is, they ask. (pp. 20-1)
Eventually, of course, Tommy becomes manipulated, like all the great saints and masters. Like Tommy, their first pure message of truth and love became perverted by churches and God knows what. I personally don't really see Tommy as an actual new Messiah—he's more of a saint, if anything. But we're none of us really qualified to say who is a saint and who is not. (p. 21)
Pete Townshend, "Who's 'Tommy'" (© copyright Eel Pie Publishing Ltd. 1975; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, June, 1975, pp. 18-21.