Townshend and Tommy in Toronto

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on March 6, 1995. Partner content is not updated.

The new production of the rock opera Tommy opens on March 1. It features an all-Canadian cast, including the talented young lead, Tyley Ross. And it marks a triumphant homecoming for the show's director, former Torontonian Des McAnuff, who worked with Townshend to adapt it for the stage.
This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on March 6, 1995. Partner content is not updated. The new production of the rock opera Tommy opens on March 1. It features an all-Canadian cast, including the talented young lead, Tyley Ross. And it marks a triumphant homecoming for the show's director, former Torontonian Des McAnuff, who worked with Townshend to adapt it for the stage.

Townshend and Tommy in Toronto

Tommy. He is the Peter Pan of the rock 'n' roll generation. A boy who refuses to grow up and flies off to pinball Neverland. He is an unlikely hero: a "deaf, dumb and blind kid," scarred by childhood trauma, who rises from the arcades of postwar London to become a pop idol - just by playing a mean game of pinball. An abused child who turns into an autistic saint. He has no love interest, no friends. Alone, he hangs suspended between his dysfunctional family and his adoring fans - mesmerized by his own wizardry with "the silver ball." Tommy is a prototype for the modern celebrity, the superstar as a freak of nurture. And since his creation 26 years ago by The Who's Pete Townshend, he is bigger than ever. His name, splashed across a bright yellow sign, has become a Broadway landmark. And now, a fresh coat of that same yellow, the color of crayoned suns and New York City taxicabs, covers a brick wall on the side of Toronto's Elgin Theatre.

The new production of the rock opera Tommy opens on March 1. It features an all-Canadian cast, including the talented young lead, Tyley Ross. And it marks a triumphant homecoming for the show's director, former Torontonian Des McAnuff, who worked with Townshend to adapt it for the stage.

Meanwhile, the man who started it all still seems to treat Tommy with fatherly concern, as a favorite son who needs protecting - and whose life oddly mirrors his own. Since Townshend first wrote and recorded Tommy with The Who as a double album in 1969, it has had multiple incarnations - as a series of hit singles, a Who concert extravaganza, an inflated Ken Russell film fantasy, a London Symphony Orchestra version and a dance piece by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. Now, as a hit musical, winner of five 1993 Tony Awards, Townshend's wayward prodigy has finally achieved a kind of maturity.

In fact, some critics have complained that, by making Tommy safe for the Broadway stage, by smoothing the rough edges, Townshend has betrayed the rock 'n' roll rebellion he once championed. Townshend rejects the idea. "What excites me about music theatre," he told Maclean's, "is that it does seem to be a place where you can take risks. You're not allowed to take risks in rock 'n' roll anymore. Rock is far more reactionary."

Of all the rock stars from the Sixties who have survived, few are as intellectually astute or as outspoken as Townshend. The philosopher-king of guitar heroes, the 49-year-old musician has been putting rock through analysis for as long as he has been playing it. The man who got yippie Abbie Hoffman to cut short his sermonizing at Woodstock by bashing him with his guitar has a contemplative side. He has published a volume of short stories, Horse's Neck (1985). He has worked as a book editor. He is 400 pages into writing his autobiography - in verse. And, in case anyone gets the idea that he is shying away from show business, he and McAnuff are currently negotiating with Warner Bros. to turn his latest rock musical, Iron Man, into an animated movie, which he hopes to then turn into a mega-musical.

The idea of Townshend resurrecting Tommy, a work he wrote at 23, may suggest a man who cannot bear to let go of his past. "But Pete always considered Tommy an unfinished piece," says McAnuff. "Brecht kept many of his plays alive and would come back to them. Tommy is his, and he has the right to do that. I think he also sees it as a duty."

Part of the duty involves doing publicity - explaining Tommy and himself to the world one more time. On a grey winter afternoon in Toronto, Townshend shows up for an interview in an empty lounge at the Elgin Theatre. The cast is rehearsing downstairs. He has just got off a plane, and he is fighting a cold - blowing the famous Pete proboscis, the dominant feature of a long, dour face with luminous blue eyes, a face that has acquired a totemic elegance with age. Bundled in layers under a navy windbreaker, keeping his coat on, Townshend sips a takeout coffee as he talks about his troubled childhood, his 27-year marriage, The Who, the future of rock 'n' roll - and whatever else occurs to him along the way. Onstage, as the scissor-kicking guitarist of The Who, Townshend always got straight to the point. But when he talks, his ideas unravel like long, parenthetical jazz solos.

From the first question, he goes off on a tangent. Asked about Tommy, he is suddenly talking - with a passion - about the movie Die Hard 2. "I saw it again the other day on a plane," he says, "and I remember not wanting to like it, but really liking it, and wanting to write Bruce Willis a note and say, 'You were f--g great!' And I realized that the scene that stuck in my head was when he walks on broken glass, and his feet begin to bleed. It's an incredibly spiritual scene. It evokes Indian yogis and these guys that carry the cross until they bleed all over." Finally circling back to the business at hand, Townshend adds: "Those things that you remember, those things that stick out, are very, very important. And Tommy doesn't really have those things - those big, corny brushstrokes."

Well, Tommy does not have anything as grandiose as the falling chandelier in Phantom of the Opera or the helicopter in Miss Saigon. But it does have some dazzling effects, from the video scaffolds that frame the stage to the computer wizardry that turns the theatre into a flashing pinball machine. As Townshend has pointed out, it is "the first musical with drums all the way through." The story, meanwhile, is a gimmick in its own right, a pinball narrative that ricochets through themes of war, murder, child abuse, drug abuse, autism, fascism, organized religion and celebrity narcissism. And beneath it all is the plaintive cry of a small boy - "See me, feel me, touch me, heal me."

What is remarkable is that it took Townshend so long to see the boy as a mirror of his own troubled childhood. Tommy, he now realizes, is "deeply autobiographical." Just before starting to work with McAnuff on the new production, Townshend broke his wrist in a cycling accident. "I couldn't play and I couldn't type," he says, "so I made a list of things to do and rapidly whipped through all of them. At the very bottom of the list was to go and interrogate my mother about a couple of missing years in my life." In 1992, he sat down with her and a tape recorder. Playing it back, he recalls, "was a very disturbing experience."

Growing up in West London after the Second World War, Townshend remembers "a wonderful early childhood." His father was a musician, his mother a singer, and he has fond memories of riding around with them on tour, "watching everybody get drunk, having a great time, my mother spending my dad's hard-earned cash on all the things you couldn't get during the war, silk stockings and fur coats."

But when Pete was 4½, his parents sent him away to live with his crotchety grandmother for two years. "She was clinically insane," he says, "and my mother just decided maybe we could help her by sending me to live with her. So, suddenly I was living with this madwoman on the seaside, getting weekly money orders from my father, who never came to see me. My mother used to waft in and out like Tallulah Bankhead every two weeks. She was incredibly glamorous." Adds Townshend: "For a long time, I was aimlessly angry with my mother, and today I'm slightly more angry at my dad [who died in 1987]. He was not very encouraging to me. When I asked to play a musical instrument, he gave me a mouth organ."

While creating Tommy, Townshend failed to see the connection between four-year-old Tommy Walker and his own pained childhood. "And in a way," he says, "thank God I didn't, otherwise I never would have written it." At the time, he saw the story as a spiritual journey. His spiritual guru, Meher Baba, who played a lot of marbles and Ping-Pong at his Indian ashram, liked spheres because they reminded him of the creation of the universe. "I wanted a game with a ball in it somewhere," Townshend recalls. "Early on, I tried using snooker." Then, he discovered pinball while hanging out with a young journalist who was writing a novel called Arthur the Pinball Queen, about an 18-year-old pedophile who haunts the arcades looking for pre-pubescent girls and boys.

Only decades later did Townshend realize that the pinball machine, with all its noise and flash, probably symbolized the electric guitar. It was McAnuff, he says, who first pointed out that pinball was a metaphor for rock 'n' roll.

When he set out to retool Tommy for the 1990s, Townshend admits, his first instincts were commercial. The rights to the piece, he says, "were valuable both for me and my family." And after Russell's delirious 1975 movie adaptation - featuring Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Elton John and Tina Turner - "I wanted to be very careful about the next move," he adds. "The film was quite a sobering event. I liked it, but the fact that nobody else did was a problem. It made money, but it was critically savaged. If it means anything today, it's as a kind of curio piece."

With McAnuff, Townshend overhauled the story. Tommy's parents and relatives, even the child-molesting Uncle Ernie, became more sympathetic than in the movie. "It ain't exactly Death of a Salesman," says Townshend, "but you can get some feeling that they're real people, not comic-book characters." The most contentious revision is to the ending. The film version ends with a Nietzschean vision of Tommy climbing a mountain and finding enlightenment after his fans suddenly desert him. In the play, he reunites with his parents, an ending that some critics - notably American novelist Brett Easton Ellis - have called a sop to family values.

And on this subject, the older, mellower Townshend begins to show a flash of his legendary temper. "In actual fact," he says, "it was a very radical thing to remove the hippy-dippy ending, which was incredibly flawed. Tommy's fans just suddenly get fed up and create an instant revolution? It doesn't happen like that. And then the poignancy, the aloneness of the individual - 'Hey, no problem, so I'm alone but I've got God' - it doesn't work. It has never worked. And anyway, God is not up the mountain. If He's anywhere, He's inside. Tommy has to go home because there's nowhere else to go." Townshend's voice rises in exasperation. "I wanted to make the end of the show not so much politically correct, but spiritually f--g correct!"

He is not finished. "You know," he says, shifting from anger to disdain, "a young punk like Brett Easton Ellis can walk in and make some comment about a Nancy Reagan ending. But the kid hasn't lived. He's not as old as I am. He hasn't been through the s-- I've been through." Besides, he adds, "I agree with Nancy Reagan. I would prefer to have a mom and a dad, and a slightly more down-to-earth, everyday type than the mom and dad that I had."

Aside from echoing his childhood, Tommy has also turned out to be a prophetic mirror of Townshend's ascent to rock royalty. "Tommy is only able to exist," he says, "because he's supported by the acolytes, the bodyguards, the people around him who eventually come and break the whole thing up the way they do in real life. I've been there. I've seen it happen. People die at rock 'n' roll concerts. And it isn't my fault. I stand on the stage and play my guitar and face the court depositions afterwards."

He is referring to the 11 fans who were killed in a crush as they tried to get into a 1979 Who stadium concert in Cincinnati. "If I feel guilty at all," he adds, "it's because of my inability to recognize that other people have feelings that are as large as mine. As a performer, I childishly see myself as the centre of a scenario like the Cincinnati disaster, as though it's my disaster. But it's not - it's their disaster. It belongs to those families."

The Who related to their audience differently than the other bands of the British invasion. If the Beatles were about love and the Stones were about sex, The Who were about power. They played anthem rock, songs aimed at a generation, and their fans were primarily male. "People come up to me and say, 'I grew up with Quadrophenia and it got me through my adolescence," notes Townshend, "and I'll say, 'What do you actually mean by that? ' And they'll say, 'When I was 17, my father was an alcoholic and abused my sister and threw me out on the street, so I stayed with my aunt, and I bought your album and realized that you and I were the same - that you understood me, and I understood you, and I wasn't alone.' "

So much of Townshend's music is about being alone, about the limbo between childhood and adulthood. Tommy, fashionably enough, is a parable of recovery and empowerment. And the payoff, the motivational epiphany, comes with the final song, which gives the whole play back to the audience - "Listening to you, I get the music ... from you I get the story."

As a songwriter, Townshend works like a storyteller, a dramatist. And he admits that in his songs, "moments of accepting intimacy as a possibility are rare." Even now, he finds it impossible to write a love song for his wife, Karen. "She's been nagging me for years and years," he says. "I can't do it. My friend Ronnie Lane used to come over and write them on the spot. We'd be sitting at dinner and he'd sing, 'Kaaaaren, you are so wonderful, ...' and she'd start to cry, not because of the poignancy of his song, but because I couldn't do it."

Living in the London suburb of Twickenham with Karen, an education researcher, and their five-year-old son, Joseph, Townshend tries to keep his road trips brief these days. But his daughters, Emma and Aminta, who are both in their 20s, don't seem to think the time I spent away was a problem," he says. "They were just terrified I was going to die, the way they saw people around me dying. Although I was never a perpetual drug user, I used to drink a lot."

Now, having compromised his liver - and his hearing - he is not about to leap back into the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. He says he turned down "a fantastically lucrative offer" to tour with the Grateful Dead this summer. And a Who reunion tour remains out of the question. "I could do it - I just don't want to," he says, adding that while singer Roger Daltry "is a great proponent of taking The Who out again," he is "actually a very fragile, frail man."

Meanwhile, Townshend has no shortage of projects to keep himself busy. He is pitching his children's musical, Iron Man (adapted from a story by British poet laureate Ted Hughes), to Hollywood. He is hoping to stage his most recent concept album, PsychoDerelict, at the New York's Lincoln Centre. He is working on a new series of songs titled Stella, based on an early incident in playwright Arthur Miller's life. And, in his idle hours, there is still that autobiography, written as pairs of sonnets alternating with free verse.

The man who once wrote "hope I die before I get old" has outlived his deadline. But while the Stones (his favorite band) test their longevity onstage, Townshend continues the legacy in his own way, as one of rock's founding fathers. "If Mick Jagger's got to be the flat tummy," he once said, "some people expect me to be the brain. And that's very, very difficult, because I'm not so much the brain as the minstrel."

After the interview, Townshend agrees to pose for pictures in the theatre lobby. It is clearly not a process that he enjoys. The photographer asks him to take off his coat. He refuses. Poses are struck, the camera clicks. The photographer waits for his moment. Then, very politely, he suggests that it would be nice to see Townshend slide down the bannister. Townshend refuses with a scowl. "I'm a f--g author!" he snaps. But one who still knows how to behave like a star.

Maclean's March 6, 1995