INTERVIEW : The Resurrection of 'Tommy' : With a clearer insight to his past, Pete Townshend revives his messianic rock opera in a staging for a new generation

Michael Walker is a free-lance writer whose stories about pop music have appeared in Calendar and the Los Angeles Times Magazine.

Fresh from an epic trans-oceanic flight, Pete Townshend sits in the La Jolla Playhouse's administrative compound, conducting his first interview in what he calculates is "a long, long, long time." Outside the window, stagehands grapple with freakishly mismatched props: a World War II fighter cockpit, a sinister-looking apothecary table, a pinball machine.

"What we're trying to do is create a new kind of rock event," says the Who's erstwhile guiding light in his gentle, Rock-Eminence-on-Thames inflections as a circular saw screams. "A lot of people that loved rock all their lives have had it with rock 'n' roll in live performance. Because they grew up on rock and now happen to like opera as well, they feel they've outgrown it. Maybe this will help bring them back."

"This" is the La Jolla Playhouse's production of "Tommy," Townshend's storied rock opera about an autistic boy mistaken for the new messiah, which opens Thursday at the Mandell Weiss Theatre. Released by the Who in 1969 as a concept album, "Tommy" was performed by the band in concert settings--the last time in 1989 at the Universal Amphitheatre with several guest stars. It also has been performed by entities ranging from the London Symphony Orchestra to marching bands; Ken Russell, with Townshend's participation, directed a bombastic film adaptation in 1975. Although theater companies great and small have mounted productions over the years, including South Coast Repertory and Saddleback College, Townshend was never directly involved with any of them.

The La Jolla production, however, boasts Townshend's creative counsel and, during final rehearsals and on opening night, his presence. (Former Who-mates Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle will also attend the premiere.) Although Townshend is described by the theater's staff as unfailingly low-key and affable, having a bona fide Monterey and Woodstock alumnus on campus has had predictable results. "When he came in it was like the Red Sea parting," says Michael Cerveris, who plays Tommy. "I'm sure he's used to it, but for the rest of the rehearsal he couldn't bat an eyelid without everyone noticing."

Directed by La Jolla's artistic director, Des McAnuff, who collaborated with Townshend on the adaptation, this latest "Tommy" is strictly legit. Where previous stage productions scraped by with little more than the album's lyric sheet for artistic guidance--the original "Tommy" never had a libretto or score--there is at long last a Townshend-approved book. He and McAnuff clarified passages in the story that have baffled listeners, such as the crucial moment when Tommy apparently witnesses the murder of his mother's lover and is struck deaf, mute and blind by the adults' rejoinder to "never tell a soul / what you know is the Truth."

La Jolla might seem an unlikely venue for the first official "Tommy" adaptation, given the gaping geographical and cultural chasm between London, where Townshend lives, and Southern California. On the other hand, the theater is one of the few regional playhouses that regularly presents large-scale musicals--the McAnuff-directed Broadway hit "Big River" developed there--and it has already hosted a British rock legend in the person of the Kinks' Ray Davies, who wrote the score for La Jolla's 1988 musical version of "Around the World in 80 Days." McAnuff, a guitarist himself, has directed several other rock-based theater productions. "A frustrated rock star," Townshend characterizes his collaborator.

The seven-member band--composed of two guitars, two keyboards, bass, drums and French horn--includes veteran musicians who have played in everything from studio sessions to symphony orchestras. Conducted by musical director Joseph Church, the band will perform in a pit directly in front of the stage and will play from scores created by Church and Steve Margoshes, who orchestrated "Big River" on Broadway. "We approached it with great care," says Margoshes, who first met Townshend during rehearsals. "The music demanded a certain purity be maintained, yet we had to find a way to theatricalize the sounds." The guitar parts, especially, he says, were little changed--one of the guitarists plays a vintage Les Paul expressly to mimic Townshend's distinctive voicings.

Given his composer's role, Townshend actually had little involvement in adapting the music. He was not involved in choosing the musicians and saw the band for the first time just last week. "Me and the guitar players I'm sure will have lots of conferences on chord shapes and guitar sounds and stuff," he says. "But apart from that, really, they can do it." Drummer Luther Rix, he adds, "is doing what is required rhythmically to give you a Keith Moon feel, but without blowing the walls off."

Townshend had resisted adapting "Tommy" for the theater, he says, to "let it breathe. The way I let it breathe was to block its use for a number of years. I even tried to prevent minor stock productions." But he began to rethink his embargo after "Tommy's" warm reception on the Who's 25th Anniversary Tour in 1989.

"He kind of let it be known he was interested in getting involved in a stage adaptation," says McAnuff, who learned of Townshend's interest last year through a fellow member of Dodger Productions, an organization of theatrical producers based in New York. A meeting was arranged between McAnuff and Townshend at a London hotel. "We really hit it off," says McAnuff. "We more or less ballparked a structure at that meeting."

McAnuff and Townshend agreed to return to the album's story, which had been radically reshaped in the Russell movie. "We're going back in a way--and this was really more to do with Des' feeling than my own--to honor and investigate the original record," says Townshend. Adds McAnuff: "It was basically him clarifying a few things, filling in some gaps, without fussing too much with the original. It's not like we added a great deal of book. It's amazing how much was already there, what a lucid story it is."

Adds Townshend: "I was saying to Des, 'If "Tommy" is flawed, I hope we've dealt with the flaws and not created more.' But certainly the record was flawed. It was incomplete when we released it. We ran out of time, we ran out of money. We spent 15 thousand pounds ($36,000), more than anybody had spent on a recording--'Sgt. Pepper' was made for 12.5."

For Townshend, the "Tommy" adaptation coincided with a wrenching epiphany that served to eliminate some of the original story's ambiguity.

"I had a conversation with my mother just before I met with Des in which she revealed something about my childhood which was really seminal, emphatically important to me, which was that when my mother and father broke up temporarily when I was about 6, my father was (responsible for) getting them back together again. Now, I didn't know that. I thought that he'd sat on the sidelines and that my mother had simply had a fling or two and then we'd gone back to him. But it wasn't that way at all. And that gave me an answer to a question I'd always carried with me, and my father had died before I was able to confront him with it. So I had to confront my mother with it--this fact that he had rebuilt the marriage out of nothing, that he was the cuckolded one, that he actually had to go back and put that together for my sake."

The revelation was very much on Townshend's mind during his and McAnuff's discussions. At hand was the matter of who, in the opera's murder scene, had prevailed: father or lover? "In as much as 'Tommy' is autobiographical, I now know what really happened," says Townshend. "It's definitely the father who survives. It's definitely the father who usurps the lover. The father destroys the lover and stabilizes life again. What you get from the story now is this feeling of it being about real people and a real family. And it was very important to me when I was dealing with this, that I had somebody as precise in his dramaturgy as Des. I mean, I would just stride around the room talking about my childhood. He was getting it down on paper."

The songs for the original "Tommy" album--Townshend wrote them all, save two by Entwistle and "Eyesight to the Blind," a Sonny Boy Williamson blues chestnut chosen partly because its lyrics mention the words deaf, dumb and blind--were scarcely produced under ideal conditions. Despite a string of stunning Top 10 singles now regarded as classics--from "My Generation" to "Pictures of Lily"--the Who suffered from the fiscal ups and downs that plagued other early British rock bands.

"Suddenly, after less than two years, we were finished, the group was dead ," says Townshend. "In the background was financial chaos, because we smashed all our equipment. So I actually sat down with our managers at the time, and said, 'Listen, if we make one more last-ditch attempt, what we should do is make it massive. It should be so gross, so pretentious, so dangerous, that we'll get respect and attention. If it's good, it will last and if doesn't, it doesn't matter.' Really, what we were dealing with was destitution or some kind of survival for maybe another couple of years. I wasn't trying to write something that would last 30 years. I just wanted to write something that would save our skins."

Townshend, one of rock's most erudite practitioners, was acutely aware of rock music's enormous power, which informed "Tommy's" themes of messiah-seeking gone wrong. The sheer volume that the Who and other rock bands could suddenly muster through enhancements in amplification served to empower musicians as never before. "It was such a big jump," Townshend marvels. "It meant people like us could go play really dangerous places. Because the power of the instruments was conferred back on us. I often think about the fact that we used to challenge audiences with our machismo. You know, we were four weedy guys. Nobody ever attacked me on stage; nobody's dared. Somebody firing a machine gun, even with no bullets in it, straight at your stomach, I don't think you'd walk up to them. I think that's what drew the line. Maybe that's being oversimplistic. But me and my guitar and my amplifier were omnipotent in a way that me and my bike and my cricket bat were not."

The messianic angle of Tommy's story--the protagonist is hailed, and then rejected, as a savior after he regains his senses--was heightened by Townshend's deep involvement with the Indian spiritual master, Meher Baba (listed as "Avatar" on the album's credits). "I was 22 years old," says Townshend, who still considers himself a Baba devotee. "The pop music business had failed for me. I thought, 'Rock 'n' roll's not going to do it for me, but maybe he will.' In the '60s he was established as somebody who stated, 'I am the messiah.' I had to take that on board. After I'd made the commitment to him, it didn't really matter to me whether he was or wasn't. I just liked him. I thought he talked sense.

"The experience we have in what I call the gross world--mundane daily life--is not the experience that forms us," Townshend continues. "So what I was trying to say was, 'Listen, we're so screened from what's actually happening to us we might as well be deaf, dumb and blind.' What I was getting Tommy to move toward was that, in his life, he's being taught. But in his spiritual life, he's being guided toward a moment when the things that he feels and the things that are happening to him actually coincide. And that seems to me to be what we're moving toward all the time--when we can make what we actually, physically do in our lives the only things to which we are responsible. And therefore be in absolute control of our lives.

"With 'Tommy,' what I've said is here's an autistic child--I wouldn't want it seen as absolute allegory--but what he goes through is symbolic of what we all go through between birth and death, that we mistake what we're seeing and feeling for reality when in a way it's not; reality is what we end up with, reality is what we cause, reality is what we kind of build up."

The La Jolla adaptation forced Townshend, who since the Who's retirement has published a book of quasi-autobiographical writings and worked as an editor at the London publishing house Faber and Faber, to re-examine some of the opera's core themes.

"In a way what I have to confront is, 'Well, what do you believe, Townshend? What is Tommy there for? There's going to be an audience sitting there, they're gonna see this guy rise up. Is this all just an allegory for what happens in show business?' And to some extent I think that's what it reduces to. What Tommy is, he's a star. I was at an editorial meeting at Faber, and I said to two of my colleagues, 'Listen, we look after these books that don't fit into the Faber mainstream. What unites them all?' It's stars. It's celebrity. What we call popular culture is actually just another word for celebrity. I thought, 'Well, yeah, at least now I know what I'm doing, I'm dealing with celebrity.'

"When stardom is instigated, we all want the rules to be broken and the rules never are. We all really want Madonna to win this battle and really control her own destiny. But she's already lost it; she's our property. She belongs to us, she's a product of our imagination, not her own. The problem is she doesn't control me as an individual, but I as a member of a mass control her. In a way, then, what she becomes for each of us, and what deepens our need for her just to live on and be slightly happy, is that now we really care about her because she's a tragedy. And I decided what I didn't want Tommy to be was a tragedy. I didn't want him, having exhausted stardom on Earth, to go look for it in the heavens, which is what happened in my original reading.

"So Tommy is about the way an individual is made into a star, and the way he deals with that. And hopefully (about) the fact that he deals with it in a very wise way. What I'm trying to say is that it's fools who become stars; it's wise folk who don't. It's people who stick to the tried-and-tested roads; it's people who stay with their group, who value their family and friends and things they've actually done, more highly than dreams and visions and fantasies. And what happens at the end of 'Tommy' is that, being given this mantle of people saying, 'Listen--you're the boss,' what he then says is, 'Thanks. Thanks for that, but it's not right for me. I've had weird things happen to me, but, you know, it's what I am. That's what I am, not what you're trying to make me.' He's just saying, 'I'm gonna live my life, you're gonna live your life.'

"I know some people are going to come in with their own interpretation of the ending and be pissed because we haven't honored that," concludes Townshend. "But I think my interpretation--in the brief moment of wisdom I'm passing through--is the correct one. We have to be pragmatic. Drama is about giving people temporary respite from the difficulties and joys of living. I'm not pretending here that what 'Tommy' can do is what I dreamed both rock and 'Tommy' could do in the '60s, which was to raise people up. I actually believed that. I think that was a mistake, and I learned that lesson quite quickly. I think we all did, didn't we?"

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