#96: The Who, "Tommy" (1969)

96 Tommy.jpg

“We create so many circles on this straight line we’re told we’re traveling. The truth is, of course, that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.”

               -   David Bowie


“Tommy” seems to always have been in my life, but in periphery.

I remember being in the back of a minivan, nearly preteen, when my childhood friend first played me “Pinball Wizard.” “This song is awesome,” he probably said while flashing me the latticed, sky-blue cover on his iPod Touch. The memory is kind of hazy, but maybe I took an earbud, maybe I laughed while my friend mimicked guitars and sang along, maybe the minivan was packed with both of our families, maybe my mom or his mom was driving. I just know for a fact he showed me that song on his iPod Touch in the back of a minivan.

I remember when my older sister first moved back home after dropping out of college and how she would go out all the time. There’s a stack of memories in my mind where she would do her makeup in her room before going out while a record played. They all blend into each other as essentially the same singular memory, but when I try to recall a single one, I see her putting on mascara at night in front of her mirror, I’m sitting on her bed watching, and “Overture” is playing in the funny speakers of the silver record player her first boyfriend got her. There is a lingering scent of the candles she lit, and before she leaves she asks me to put them out.

I remember watching Almost Famous on a bootleg stream in middle school. I remember lying on my stomach in bed late at night when I saw That Scene on the tiny screen of my iPod Touch. The capital “T,” capital “S,” That Scene where a young William flips through the albums his older sister left behind for him when she left home. He traces Joni Mitchell’s face on Blue and flips past Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde before coming across a sideways Tommy. In the gatefold, his sister leaves a book of matches and a note that says “Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you will see your entire future.” Cue “Sparks.”

That scene is burned into my brain because at the time its strong awakening was something that hadn’t existed for me in the same cinematic way it existed for William, but I had a desire to know the feeling.

In high school, there always seems to be at least a few (typically white) teenage boys that are really, really into classic rock. I was friends with a few of them in high school, some of my friends dated them, they were in bands. They would sail through hallways in T-shirts that showed off what was always playing in their headphones. When I talked to them, I never felt like I knew or would know as much as them. I couldn’t understand the undying love for Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, and because of this I constantly felt like I didn’t know or love music in the same fierce undying caliber that they did. I would file Tommy under this seemingly inaccessible category for years.

In those years I circled through so much music. There was a lot of dubstep, a Muse phase, emo bands whose T-shirts I bought to try to impress someone else, a ton of Hipster Runoff greatest hits, bedroom pop, indie darlings like Frankie Cosmos and Real Estate, and then an eventual swing right back to classic rock. The circling taught me to figure out what I got out of music and how much I needed from it. I built confidence little by little and came of age with an official soundtrack. Albums will often come and go like friends, and life is too terrifying and difficult to think that something will last forever. But some will come back.

The special thing I always feel like a jolt when it comes to music is that the take that makes it into the song and the song that makes it into the album is a moment in time packaged and produced, essentially crystallized to be played anywhere at will. Everyone with internet access has this new incredible power to summon any song when you please, and it will live in the cloud indefinitely. But we’ll keep making new stories for the people who listen to that song or that album. A song from long ago will keep returning like a comet to be delivered so seamlessly to someone who has never heard it, in the form of a YouTube suggestion or an automated playlist, and it will dislodge something inside them. Listening to a song from before you were born and really feeling it is like a time machine.

A little while after I was hearing hot takes about albums being dead, LPs came back in their solidly square shape. You can find them in Walmart now, which seemed foreign and impossible ten years ago. And my sister’s copy of Tommy eventually became mine when she moved on from owning her record player.

I played it on Spotify on my laptop for the first time in a long time, despite owning a record player, and I finally feel like I understand those boys in high school, my friend in the minivan, and William in Almost Famous, because I forgot all about them at the time. I was constantly trying to see it in their eyes and to experience it like they did, which I saw as the “right way” to love it, that I didn’t listen to the space between just the record and me. I grew up so terrified of not knowing enough and not trusting my tastes and my gut, of not looking the part, of not liking the correct things, of not listening to certain songs and albums at the correct time in my life, that I froze up and shut up. Thawing out took quietly pawing through a lot of music and finally admitting to myself that I liked what I liked and if I don’t like it now, perhaps later. I realized that I don’t need permission for music to feel like it belongs to me. It just does. Staring at my white ceiling, the songs fading into the next, I felt so present in my bedroom while I built my modern cathedral around the moment. I projected images onto the ceiling from memories that were too hazy they could be dreams, and dreams too real they could be memories. I don’t know if I saw my future, but I hope my future feels the same.

What I love most about Tommy is that it is so solidly an album. It is the perfect kind of operatic and epic with the twang and shimmer of rock music. I literally can’t tell you what song is my favorite, because they all seamlessly blend into one another that I just end up listening to the whole damn thing. But I can tell you that I love the little moments that circle back throughout. The desperate “Tommy, can you hear me?” The same stuttering guitar riff that always comes back. The grand horn section. I’m glad these things come back to me.

I am excited for when Tommy leaves me this time because it might come back. I know it will sound the same, but it will inevitably feel a little different.

—Sarah Kimura