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Townshend Says ‘Tommy’ Reflected His Traumatic Childhood

Pete Townshend
Rick Diamond, Getty Images

With The Who’s Tommy stage revival now in a six-month run at Canada’s Stratford Festival, Pete Townshend took time to look back on his first rock opera. Townshend, who wrote nearly all of the music and lyrics to the piece, told that due to the sexual abuse he suffered as a child, he needed to hand some of the more disturbing plot twists in the storyline to bassist John Entwistle to compose. Townshend explained, “(Uncle) Ernie isn’t about specific sexual abuse, it’s about the threat of it, the inference if it, the fear of it. I actually asked John Entwistle to write that one, because I couldn’t deal with it. I’d had my own bad time with my grandmother. I had been eroticized at an early age and I’d had to learn to deal with.”

Townshend explained that dealing with such topics in his art was cathartic — but only to a point: “I found that this is something that is not unique to me. It’s a worldwide syndrome. And I couldn’t write about a purely spiritual journey. I had to deal with hideous social scars that touch all of us.”

He recalled that he wrote Tommy at a critical point in the Who’s career: “Everybody thought we were a hot band, but suddenly we stopped selling singles. I knew we couldn’t just keep going like we had been. I decided I would have one last bash, if you like, throw everything into the washing machine and see what we came up with.”

When asked about what Tommy means to him 45 years after writing the piece, Townshend said: “Sadly, not a lot has changed. There’s still a sense that the family is in trouble, that the way religion operates is still in trouble, that the celebrity system is still in trouble and that all of these things. . . well, they’re all the same. There’s a poignancy to that. I think about my generation and think that it’s sad that things were as they were.”

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