How many great characters has modern music given us? Not many. While there has been, without a doubt, some amazing music in the last 80 years, it’s been focused more on mood and less on story telling.
There are rare exceptions to that though, the most notable being The Who’s Tommy. Released in 1969, this rock opera is an album that tells a very unconventional story. Written mostly by Pete Townshend, Tommy would go on to become a phenomenon, inspiring a movie, a broadway musical, and even an ice show!
At the center of the story is Tommy born to a woman who believes her husband died as a pilot in World War I. Years later, Captain Walker returns home and discovers his wife has taken up with another man. In the ensuing altercation, Walker kills his wife’s lover, right in front of little Tommy. To cover up the crime, Tommy’s parents drill it into his head that he “didn’t see it, didn’t hear it.” Traumatized, Tommy becomes blind, deaf, and dumb, lost to the world.
Tommy lives his life in a semi-catatonic state, practically dead to the world, but inside his head he is very much alive. To his parents he’s become a burden, and they take every chance they can to leave Tommy with their disturbed relatives. Tommy is abused by his sinister cousin, Kevin and molested by his creepy creepy Uncle Ernie. The Walker’s subject their son to all sorts of radical treatments to snap him back into the world, even allowing a prostitute called the Acid Queen to pump him full of hallucinogenic drugs. Nothing works.
Tommy is not trapped entirely within himself though, he has one outlet: Pinball. He soon becomes a sensation, a blind, deaf and dumb boy who becomes a pinball champion. This brings him to the attention of a doctor, who recognizes Tommy’s symptoms are not physical but psychological. He tells the boy to “go to the mirror,” and Tommy becomes obsessed with staring at his own reflection. This irritates his mother to no end, a constant reminder of her son’s defect, and so she destroys the mirror. Tommy is looking into. This somehow snaps Tommy back into the waking world.
This “miracle cure” makes headlines all over the world, and Tommy becomes a messianic figure in the eyes of lost souls all over the world. Uncle Ernie capitalizes on this and opens “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” where his disciples can gather. Believing they will be offered sex, drugs, and rock & roll, Tommy actually has no interest in the physical world and encourages everyone to block out their senses and play pinball so they can experience what it was like inside his head. His followers reject Tommy, and he retreats back into his own mind.
The 1960s was a time when everyone talked an awful lot about spirituality but were far more interested in hedonism. Townshend and his bandmates recognized this and wrote Tommy as a rebuke of their generation. Released at the very end of the 60s, Tommy predicted the fall of the flower children in the 1970s and their eventual corruption in the 1980s.
At the center of the story is a fascinating main character who, at first glance, seems impassive. In actuality, Tommy is a hero, creating a world within his mind where he discovers a truth the rest of us will never know, and perhaps not want to know. Tommy isn’t afraid of that truth, however. He embraces it and desires to share it with the world, only to be rejected by those who seek only a physical existence. He’s a guru in the truest sense of the world, lost in a world obsessed only with what they can see, feel, and touch.

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