Saturday, June 4, 2011

Shattering this Tommy’s mirror

In the summer of 1969 when I was 15, I spent some of my allowance on the Who’s album Tommy. I remember that my parents were out that day. Coming home to my small row house, 3 bedroom, one bathroom, 800 square foot mansion on McCarey Street in Chester, Pa., I unwrapped the cellophane from my treasure and placed it on the turntable of our Hi-Fi record player in the dining room. I listened to it maybe three times that afternoon and turned up the volume. My neighbor who was my age, Jeannie Frances knocked on the door and we listened together after she coached me to turn it down because her Mom was trying to take a nap. We liked it…a lot. She borrowed it and I remember getting it back scratched, which sucked, so I gave that copy to her and bought another.

I didn’t get, what we call today, the narrative; the story. I took that album, along with my copies of Sergeant Peppers + the first two albums by The Band, to college in ’71 and happily played cuts from those favorites on my radio show at our little FM station, WKDT (The Rock of West Point). We all have those favorite albums, right? Think back to yours…

I caught the Who’s Tommy tour at the Spectrum in Philly in 1970…pretty amazing…and along with Led Zepplin, after seeing these guys, to me I had found a sound I enjoyed a lot.

Fast forwarding to 1972…the orchestral version to me was “lame” (a modern word for what I probably called boring at the time)…then the 1975 version of the music, the soundtrack to the film…again boring to me. I really didn’t care about the story that much but thought some of the renditions were cool, like Tina Turner’s Acid Queen interpretation. But it seemed like a commercial remake machine at work and I had moved on to Live at Leeds, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia…Love Reign O’er Me…Mods and Rockers beatin’ the crap out of eachother?...a foreign concept to me.

Last night I saw the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s production of Tommy. Karen Paisley, the director, greeted folks as they came in; helping people find seats. She’s quite incredible. Like the well trained Catholic boy that I am, I took a seat in one of the “back pews”. She dragged me front and center, giving me a big hello hug. “Sit here where you can really see”. Front pew for me…close to the sweat, so close I could smell the greasepaint, and hear the actors breathe. I had a lot of fun…and I was confronted with Pete Townsend’s “narrative” and it almost shattered my personal memory of that afternoon with Jeannie in the summer of ’70.

Like Tommy, who sees and feels after his Mom shatters his mirror, this Tommy felt something very new watching folks who could be my children and grandchildren perform this rock-like operatic libretto and score. My experience with this music is now more elastic and meaningful, deep and resonant than ever before. This elasticity came though after some resistance. At intermission, I felt the first part was lame, overdone, and didn’t pay homage to my treasured 1970 LP. I listened to that Who in my head and held onto it hard. At intermission, I listened to the family behind me discuss the musical thus far…Mom, Dad (late 40s maybe) with four teenagers. They reconstructed the story, using terms like autism and PTSD. Man, I got pissed. Listen to the original album, I thought. I had to get away from the sociology lecture, go to the goodie table, get a coke and cookie and go outside to have some fresh air and a cigarette.

Outside, I let go. I decided to let go, or rather stretch myself a bit. Decided not to be such a stuck-in-the-past asshole holding on that image of Townsend smashing his guitar and amps at the Spectrum in 1970. The music had moved forward and I needed to as well. Tommy, you asshole…look how these folks are connecting to this! Smash your memory mirror and see, feel, and touch this. Live theatre does changes you, somehow...

I felt, saw, heard, got the heat, listened, “got the opinions”, and got really excited at the feel of the show and the actors six inches away.

You have two more chances to shatter your mirror at the MET...tonight and tomorrow...but good luck getting a ticket...look for a scalper on Main Street and be sure to get one of the cool yellow T-shirts...

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