Though decades have passed since Pete Townshend's childhood in London, watching the Stratford Festival's revamp of his hit rock opera Tommy nonetheless stirs up difficult memories from his working-class, post-war upbringing.
The rock legend travelled to Stratford, Ont. this week to preview the revival by friend, Tony-winning stage creator and former festival artistic director Des McAnuff.
"They're an extraordinary company. They certainly know how to rock. The technology is great. The show looks great. I'm in a sense still reeling from the impact of it. It's quite a journey," he told Jian Ghomeshi, host of CBC Radio's Q cultural affairs show, this week.
"When I sat and watch the show yesterday, there are always moments when I have to — I'm sorry to admit it but it's true — fight off a bit of tears because I do feel I was exposed to quite terrifying abuses when I was a child: bullying, authoritarian humiliations."
'I decided that I may as well go for broke and try something audacious and mischievous and new and dangerous, which was to string a bunch of pop songs together to try to tell a story that dug deeper into what it was I felt had set my generation into motion'—Pete Townshend on Tommy
Townshend, lead guitarist and songwriter for influential rock troupe The Who, already had a host of hit songs under his belt when he embarked on an experiment to expand the group's horizons by creating the rock opera Tommy. The bestselling album inspired an Oscar-nominated movie in 1975 and, in 1993, a Tony-winning rock musical helmed by McAnuff.
By the late 1960s, "I was out to change things with The Who, a lighthearted, colourful pop band who smashed guitars and wore pop-art clothing — that was our gimmick. But our lineage was that we grew up in a time of very serious R&B music that we latched onto in the U.K.," explained Townshend, who celebrates his 68th birthday on Sunday.
"When the singles stopped selling… I decided that I may as well go for broke and try something audacious and mischievous and new and dangerous, which was to string a bunch of pop songs together to try to tell a story that dug deeper into what it was I felt had set my generation into motion."
He and his bandmates wove the disaffection of post-war youth as well as stories and experiences of sexual abuse into their wild, rollicking musical tale of a traumatized boy who becomes an instant celebrity worldwide after becoming a "Pinball Wizard."
"For a while in the early days of The Who… I remember looking round at the guys in the band and thinking 'Oh my god, these guys just aren't going to get it," Townshend recalled.
"Got what?" Ghomeshi asked.
"Got the fact that what we were doing was art and would have a deep effect on the people around us. It might take time but that it was more than just rock and roll," he replied.
In the audio clip above, Townshend talks to Q about Stratford's updated Tommy (which opens May 30), dealing with success as well as scandal in his lengthy career and being an aging artist still creating new work. In the video, he discusses his affinity for Canadian fans and how Tommy resonates in the era of Justin Bieber.