With ‘Tommy’ Revival, Pete Townshend Is Talking to a New Generation

With ‘Tommy’ Revival, Pete Townshend Is Talking to a New Generation

As he entered a suite at the Carlyle hotel in Manhattan, Pete Townshend mentioned that an afternoon meeting had been canceled. “So,” he added, “we have lots of time to talk.”

Townshend is one of rock’s great singers, songwriters and guitarists, and he’s also among music’s pre-eminent talkers. Since the Who first took the stage 60 years ago, he has considered interviews to be an adjunct to his music, a parallel way for him to clarify or interrogate the ideas he pours into songs.

In 1969, the Who released “Tommy,” a rock opera written mostly by Townshend, although the bassist John Entwistle contributed the songs “Cousin Kevin” and “Fiddle About,” and the drummer Keith Moon suggested the premise of “Tommy’s Holiday Camp.” Townshend expected the double album to fade quickly, in the way of most records. Instead, it took root in pop culture, and in short succession was adapted by a ballet group in Montreal, the Seattle Opera and the London Symphony Orchestra. Then, most memorably, it was a delirious 1975 film directed by Ken Russell.

The “Tommy” hoopla had faded before it was adapted for Broadway in 1993, with a book by Townshend and the show’s director, Des McAnuff. In a review in The New York Times, Frank Rich called it “stunning” and “the authentic rock musical that has eluded Broadway for two generations.” It ran for two years, and garnered Tony Awards for McAnuff’s direction and Townshend’s score.

Last year, the pair revived “Tommy” in a reimagined version at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, where it drew candescent reviews, and on March 28, it opens at the Nederlander Theater, with Ali Louis Bourzgui making his Broadway debut in the title role.

Townshend’s plot revolves around Tommy Walker, who witnesses a murder when he is 4 and, in response to the trauma, turns into the “deaf, dumb and blind kid” described in the show’s most famous song, “Pinball Wizard.” Sexual abuse, narcissism, cults and celebrity are contemplated — all topics that connect the show to today. If anything, it’s more pertinent now than it was in 1969.

“Pete created the blueprint for an extraordinary, universal story,” McAnuff said in a phone interview. “Tommy is an antihero who rejects existence as we know it, and you can’t go much further than that, in terms of being an antihero.

“There’s enormous sophistication in the music, even though Pete was only 23,” he added. “He even used repeating musical themes, which Lerner and Loewe and Stephen Sondheim also did.”

At our interview earlier this month, Townshend, now 78, was dressed smartly in layers of muted colors, with a pocket square tucked into his blazer. He settled into an armchair with a cup of Yorkshire Gold tea, and for more than 90 minutes was, by turns, hilarious and troubled, tender and profane, candid and coy.

“I’m a great believer in conversation as part of the artistic process,” he said. “I talked my way through 20 years of the Who’s career.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

When the Who released “Tommy” in 1969, the record — and you — were described as “sick.” Was that because the topics were taboo?

They reacted almost as though I’d picked that subject because it was controversial. I picked it because I wanted to explain the human condition with respect to its spiritual potential, which is that we’re deaf, dumb and blind to our spiritual side. It was a metaphor.

Bullying, sexual abuse — these were topics that prevailed in my peer group after the war. In London, there were still buildings that were smashed by German bombs. Adults were very damaged by the war, and the damage led to damaged children.

In your 2012 memoir, “Who I Am,” you wrote about being abused as a child. When you were writing “Tommy,” did you have personal experience in mind?

It was always fresh in my mind, but I was unaware it was a component of “Tommy.” In 1993, on Broadway, I was doing 20 interviews a week. In one, I suddenly said, “This is my life story.” That idea that “Tommy” is a memoir in which I work out my childhood stuff — it probably is and I should admit that. The abuse I suffered as a kid was at the hands of my grandmother, not my parents, though my parents were neglectful and careless.

My father was a professional musician, and my mother was a young, beautiful singer. She farmed me out to be breastfed by the wife of a trombone player in my dad’s band.

I was a sickly child, and she sent me to the countryside to live with her mother, Denny, who had been dumped by a rich lover, and was sexually bereft. There were creepy men around all the time, and when I started school, I was bullied. I was bullied by [the Who singer] Roger Daltrey, and what’s sick is that when he asked me to join his band, I did!

It’s a personal and generational story, but audiences continue to relate to it. Why?

I was shocked in 1993, and I don’t know if I’d say pleasantly shocked. The idea that “Tommy” was locked in the postwar period was of no consequence to audiences. They were looking at the meat and potatoes of family life, and the way even the best parents can [expletive] things up, without overquoting [the poet Philip] Larkin.

I don’t want it to feel as though I think “Tommy” needs to be treated only seriously. It has lightheartedness and joy. It has the idea that whether you’re an abused child or a healthy child, we prevail ultimately, by turning toward the light. That’s simplistic but it’s also powerful, particularly when set to music.

Has its relevance to audiences changed in 2024?

Young people seem to be convinced they can look into their phones and get an answer. But I don’t want to make presumptions about how audiences will perceive it. We’re at the Nederlander, where “Rent” ran for so long. I saw it and thought, This is going to be on for a week. Sometimes I don’t get the showbiz system.

Rock singing and Broadway singing are very different. How theatrical can the “Tommy” cast get without altering the tone of the music?

I leave it to the experts. The only reason “Tommy” was turned into a Broadway show is that I had a bike accident and smashed my wrist. The surgeon said, “You will never play the guitar again. And you will never masturbate again with your right hand.” (Laughs) I was learning to write and play piano with my left hand when I got a call asking me to meet Des McAnuff.

The tradition of Broadway singing is its ebullience, isn’t it?

Which is the opposite of rock singing.

Yeah, but the function of rock ’n’ roll is similar: You come, we’ll make a lot of noise, and we’ll all dance together over your troubles.

Is it true that you asked John Entwistle to write songs for Uncle Ernie and Cousin Kevin, two of Tommy’s abusers, because you didn’t think you could write so darkly?

I didn’t know if I could be flip enough. John was one of my earliest friends. He recognized in me a musician, which nobody else did. My father wouldn’t buy me a guitar. “Stick to drawing. You’ll never make a musician.”

John’s father had abandoned him, and his stepfather was a brute of a man. I sensed he had the capacity to write these two songs. I said to him, “I want sexual abuse in there, but try to keep it light.”

John knew about my grandmother, because my parents brought this awful woman to live with us when I was a teenager. One day, John and I were playing music and she said, “Turn off that awful sound.” I picked up the amplifier and threw it at her.

There have been only two new Who albums since 1983, and your last solo album was in 1993. Do you want to be doing more new music?

I do and I think I will. It feels to me like there’s one thing the Who can do, and that’s a final tour where we play every territory in the world and then crawl off to die. I don’t get much of a buzz from performing with the Who. If I’m really honest, I’ve been touring for the money. My idea of an ordinary lifestyle is pretty elevated.

I’ve been immensely creative and productive throughout that period, but I haven’t felt the need to put it out. And if I can make it personal, I don’t care whether you like it or not. When “White City” came out [in 1985] and the sales were so slow, I thought, Screw this. Nobody wanted me as I was — they wanted the old Pete.

AC/DC made 50 albums, but all their albums were the same. It wasn’t the way the Who worked. We were an ideas band.

Did the reaction to “White City,” a solo album, make you feel like not releasing new songs?

I’ve got about 500 titles I might release online, mostly unfinished stuff. We’re not making Coca-Cola, where every can has to taste the same. And it’s turned out, surprise, surprise, that rock ’n’ roll is really good at dealing with the difficulties of aging. Watching Keith Richards onstage, trying to do what he used to do — it’s disturbing, heart-rending, but also delightful.

When I was a kid, my dad’s band supported Sarah Vaughan for two weeks. To me, she was really old and not sexy. Time shifts; I’m now older than she was. In every rock documentary, there are bald men who look 100 years old, talking about doing loads of cocaine with David Bowie. What do young people think?

The Who isn’t Daltrey and Townshend onstage at 80, pretending to be young. It’s the four of us in 1964, when we were 18 or 19. If you want to see the Who myth, wait for the avatar show. It would be good!

Do you find comfort in being onstage with Roger?

A few years ago, Des and I spoke about doing a one-man show like Bruce Springsteen did. We went to dinner, and I had a panic attack just thinking about it: A lot of Who fans come every night and eventually they’d be repeating what you say to them, which happened to Bruce.

It’s different when you’re in a band. I used to watch Roger knock people out if he didn’t like what they said. It feels like a gang. We did a show for fans at Christmas one year, and I said, “You’re a bunch of [expletive].” And they all went, “Yay, Pete!” They like me to hate them.

To me, Tommy’s response to trauma is both masochistic and sadistic. He’s denying himself the pleasure of being in the world, and he’s also torturing his mother.

Well, that’s worth doing. When I wrote “Tommy,” I didn’t know about my mother’s errancy. Years later, I asked her to tell me why I went to live with my grandmother, and she did. Rather than hit her, which would have been appropriate, I felt gratitude, because I had answers at last.

You’ve said that “Tommy” celebrates “the value of suffering and the transformation of suffering into joy.” Do you envy Tommy?

Envy a creature I’ve created? I don’t think of Tommy as anything more than a coat hanger on which to hang a whole series of ideas. It’s a smart quote, though. Thanks for giving it back to me.

What is the legacy of “Tommy”?

It’s the idea that pop music can have a function beyond just getting through the day. I’ve lumbered myself, in a sense, with the responsibility to honor “Tommy,” which happened within the Who framework and grew out of the chaos of a rock ’n’ roll life.

Stephen Sondheim came to see “Tommy” on Broadway and said: “It’s good. I’m glad you’re having fun. Prepare yourself.”

I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “It’s hell.” (Laughs)

Was he right?

Yeah, in a way. I had a musical called “Psychoderelict,” which I toured with in ’93, and it nearly killed me. I mean, literally. That year I also did a serious musical in London called “The Iron Man.” It was an utter disaster. So yeah, I understood what he meant.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *