Salon: Sharps and Flats

Published December 20, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

the who's "Tommy" has been through many reincarnations
since its birth, each one glitzier than before. The pioneering rock opera's tal
e of a victimized deaf-dumb-and-blind kid redeemed by pinball and then brought
down by his own messianic radicalism went from its pure origins in a 1969 doub
le album, to a 1972 version featuring the London Symphony Orchestra, to a medio
cre star parade in a mid-'70s Ken Russell film, to a baby-boomer identity quest on the Broadway stage in the '90s.

"The Who Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970" scrapes the glitter and the pomp away from "Tommy" and restores this music's raucous pop vitality. The live performance of "Tommy" that served as the heart of the Who's set at the time is also the centerpiece of this two-CD recording. The first live "Tommy" to be officially released, it drags this piece out of the rock mausoleum and displays it once more in its original form: an angry tapestry of adolescent victimization and grandiosity, executed roughly by three young musicians and a singer still very much in touch with those emotions.

It's easy to forget just how grueling the torments Pete Townshend assembled for his little hero were: after Tommy's Oedipal witnessing of his father's murder plunges him into autism, he becomes the plaything of Christian healers, LSD-peddling prostitutes, sadistic cousins, molesting uncles and more before his senses are finally restored by pinball-playing and mirror-gazing (symbols for a teen's best friends, masturbation and narcissism).

"Tommy" drew as much upon Gothic horror as Mod pop, and the music Townshend wrote for it -- with its delicately strummed motifs lending his power chords a frame of vulnerability -- remains a remarkable achievement, a high-water mark for the breadth of what can be expressed with guitar, bass and drums. It helped, of course, to have the bass propelled by the doggedly inventive John Entwistle and the drums pounded with the lunatic fervor of Keith Moon; together they fill enough aural space to render any additional instrumentation superfluous. With "Tommy," the Who showed how a power trio could brashly substitute for an orchestra.

"Wight's" "Tommy" is not complete -- though "Cousin Kevin" and "Welcome" aren't much missed, "Sally Simpson," a musical short story that bursts with empathy about the heart-flutters and -breaks of fandom, surely is. And the performance has as many off-key notes and flubbed harmonies as you'd expect from a set that began at 2 a.m. and continued toward dawn. But the goofs (listen to Daltrey stumble over the polysyllables in "Go to the Mirror") hardly matter as the band rolls through a tight, tense rendition of "Amazing Journey/Sparks," an athletic "I'm Free" and a genuinely cathartic version of the finale, "We're Not Gonna Take It."

"Live at the Isle of Wight" dates from the same year as the much-celebrated and recently reissued (with bonus tracks) "Live at Leeds." But the "Wight" performances of "Leeds" standbys like "Young Man Blues," "Substitute," "My Generation" and "Summertime Blues" are either noticeably inferior to -- or not much different from -- the ones we've listened to for 25 years. "Wight's" value lies in the way it brings back "Tommy," blinking and scratching, to gloss-free life.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at

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