I vividly recall the afternoon in May 1969 when I bought The Who’s “Tommy.” I was 15 years old, and eagerly plucked that two-record LP out of the bin at a St. Petersburg, Fla., department store after school on my way to work at McDonald’s.
I couldn’t wait for that three-hour dinner shift to end so I could clock out, rush home, put those platters on the record player and explore Pete Townshend’s groundbreaking concept of a “rock opera.”
Five decades later, I still get chills whenever I hear the opening chords of the overture.
The realization that “Tommy” will turn 50 next year makes me feel old. But for two hours last week at the Stage Theatre for a performance of “The Who’s Tommy,” I felt like a teenager again.
Townshend’s musical genius and his timeless story of the “deaf, dumb and blind boy” who became a Pinball Wizard was so compellingly performed, my 23-year-old son — who shares his father’s love for The Who — walked out of the theater and said, “That was awesome.”
When “Tommy” first came out, I was already obsessed with The Who. I had seen the band at the Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg in July 1967 when it was on its first American tour and I was 13. It was my first concert, and The Who was a warm-up act for Herman’s Hermits.
I walked into that arena a Hermits fan and walked out a Who fanatic.
Those were the days when The Who musicians ended sets by destroying their instruments while playing “My Generation,” the song with the line, “Hope I die before I get old.” Their on-stage destruction seems mindlessly rebellious now, of course, but for a nascent teenager, it rocked my world.
“Tommy” was an incredibly ambitious project, and the more time passes, the more remarkable I find it. Townshend was only 23 years old when the band began recording the album; the timing was propitious. The Beatles had made their American debut on the Ed Sullivan Show only five years earlier, but they were already nearing their end. “Abbey Road,” their second to last album, was released four months after “Tommy.”
Three months after “Tommy” came out, The Who played much of it at the historic Woodstock music festival in upstate New York, and shot to rock and roll super-stardom. The original album sold 20 million copies.
In the story, Tommy goes deaf, dumb and blind from the trauma of seeing a reflection in a mirror of his parents committing a murder. After that, the only thing Tommy can see is his reflection in that mirror. He becomes a wizard at pinball because he still has a sensitivity to vibration and can play with no distractions.
His pinball success makes him a star with a massive fan following, but then he regains his senses after his mother smashes the mirror in frustration. Tommy starts a new religion, but his followers soon reject him because they don’t like his message of self-awareness.
“Tommy’s real self represents the aim — God — and the illusory self is the teacher; life, the way, the path and all this,” Townshend told Rolling Stone in an interview published in July 1969. “The coming together of these are what make him aware. They make him see and hear and speak so he becomes a saint who everybody flocks to. The boy’s life starts to represent the whole nature of humanity — we all have this self-imposed deaf, dumb and blindness … .”
“The Who’s Tommy” stays true to Townshend’s story, although he set “Tommy” in the aftermath of World War I and the stage musical sets it after World War II. The change makes sense given the passage of time.
There is also a nice bit of writing late in the show when Sally Simpson asks Tommy how his followers can be more like him. He points her to the things they took for granted while growing up that he lacked while locked in his 15-year sensory isolation.
“These are the true miracles,” Tommy replies, “and you have them already.”
I walked into the theater more interested in hearing the music than watching a stage play — I’m just not much for musicals — but I thoroughly enjoyed director Sam Buntrock’s take on the story. So did my son, a film student who said the show made him feel empathy for Tommy’s parents in a way the album never did.
Tommy is well-played by Andy Mientus. Carson Elrod is exceptional in bringing comic relief to the role of evil Uncle Ernie, and Lulu Fall is terrific as the Acid Queen.
The music, of course, stands the test of time. The crowd applauded a stirring rendition of “Pinball Wizard,” and I felt tingles on the back of my neck every time we heard the recurring notes of “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me,” especially on one particularly mournful turn.
My youth was far from a teenage wasteland, but The Who was a special part of it, and it was a treat to revisit “Tommy” with a son who loves it as much as I do.
“The Who’s Tommy” runs through May 27 at The Stage Theatre in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets start at $35 at denvercenter.org.