The Who’s ‘Tommy:’ What It Can Teach Writers

I introduced my son recently to The Who’s classic  rock opera, ‘Tommy.’ I bought him the CD and took him to see Roger Daltrey  perform the album in concert. Something I read in the liner notes that came with the CD struck me as relevant for writers.

Band historian Richard Barnes, who wrote the liner notes, relates the story about Pete Townsend’s inviting an influential rock critic to hear a rough mix of the album. Knowing the critic was a sports fan, Townsend came up with the idea of having Tommy play a sport. He floated the idea of having Tommy play pinball and the critic liked it. Townsend went home and wrote “Pinball  Wizard.” In his words: “I knocked it off. I thought, ‘Oh my God this is awful,  the most clumsy piece of writing I’ve ever done…It was going to be a complete dud, but I carried on.’”

Despite his initial reservations, Townsend took the  song into the studio and the band loved it. Of course, “Pinball Wizard” became  a classic and a signature song for The Who. So what does this have to do with  fiction writing?

There are two important lessons from The Who’s  ‘Tommy.’ First, don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Why would anybody in  his right mind have a deaf, dumb and blind boy play a sport? And pinball? What  was he thinking? The idea was completely counter-intuitive, but it worked. When  a character is not working, ask yourself, What kind of attribute can I give to this character that’s completely against type? Try it out and see if it works.

The second lesson has to do with Townsend’s vision.  What separated bands like the Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd from the pack was not just their estimable talent. It was the scope of  their ambitions. They weren’t looking to record snappy, three-minute pop songs.
They were bold in their ambitions, in their use of the studio and all of the  tools available to them to explore all of the dimensions of music.

And they explored big ideas: spirituality, enlightenment, our place in the universe. Critics were divided on the meaning of ‘Tommy’ but let’s hear what its composer, Townsend, had to say in an  interview with Rolling Stone magazine:

“One of the central themes of Tommy is the play between self and illusory  self. It’s expressed by Tommy (the real self) who can see nothing but his  reflection (illusory self) in the mirror -Townsend: “There had to be a loophole so  I could show this. The boy has closed himself up completely as a result of the murder and his parents’ pressures, and the only thing he can see is this reflection in the mirror. This reflection – his illusory self – turns out to be his eventual salvation.

“In general terms, man is regarded as living in an unreal world of illusory values that he’s imposed on himself. He’s feeling his way by evolution back to God-realization and the illusion is broken away, bit by bit. You need the illusions until you reach very pure saintly states. When you lose all contact with your illusory state, you become totally dead – but totally aware. You’ve died for the last time. You don’t incarnate again – you just blend. It’s the realization of what we all intellectually know – universal consciousness – but it’s no good to know until you can actually realize it.”

Talk about big ideas and ambitious themes. It’s the same with fiction writing. Early success can prevent writers from reaching higher. How many times have you read the first book by a famous author and then picked up another book by that author, only to be disappointed because he is
mining the same tired formula?

The point is this: writers can achieve great things when they reach higher. Writers can create more interesting characters when they stretch their imagination.

By the way, the Roger Daltrey concert was amazing.

How do your expand your imagination when you develop story ideas or characters?



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6 responses to “The Who’s ‘Tommy:’ What It Can Teach Writers

  1. this is good, very well timed for me actually.. thank you and I remember riding my bike to school through the nippy mornings, past the fishing boats, belting out Pinball Wizard at the top of my voice! and now it will be stuck in my head for the rest of the day too!! mm.. c

    • Cecilia,
      Thanks for your comment. Didn’t mean to put the song in your head for the entire day. That album is amazing and it’s neat to see my son experiencing it for the first time.

  2. I suspect, that writers write ABOUT, what they they think ABOUT.

    If they are constantly questioning and exploring within their personal lives, they will continue that exploration within their writing. If they are fascinated by one focus of attention, say mystery or romance, they will write about that, to the degree they explore it in their lives. And then there are the writers who simply write for income following a formula. They are thinking about money. And that’s okay too. There is no right or wrong, good or bad aspect of subjects and motivation, because there are many kinds of readers that match the various styles and intentions.

    As writers, all we can do, or should do, is be true to ourselves.


  3. Going in another direction about aspirations, a friend of mine went through the whole Iowa MFA writing degree and wrote an ambitious novel which was not recognized. He continued with his other passion, jazz, which he could play but not well enough to be recognized at that either. Finally, he wrote a marvelous long set of liner notes about a recording of post-Katrina New Orleans jazz and won a Grammy. Funny how life works.

    • Doug,
      Thanks for sharing this story. It goes to show you never know what direction your career you take. People often start in one career and end up in an entirely different one. A good rule is to follow your passion.


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