Even at a benefit concert like Thursday's star-studded performance of "Tommy," put on by the Who at the Universal Amphitheatre, it's easy to find cynics.
Mindful of the current Who tour's controversial brewery sponsorship, one wag suggested that maybe the rock opera's troubled title character could appear in a beer commercial--as in, maybe, "That deaf, dumb and blind kid sure can knock 'em back!"
Cheap shot. Uncalled for. Irascible.
But then, "Tommy" itself was a fairly acerbic work, especially for its dreamy, idealistic year, 1969. If the Who's world-weary anthem "Won't Get Fooled Again" later served as the final benediction for the '60s, then the enduringly brilliant "Tommy"--and its song of rebellion against the spiritual path, "We're Not Gonna Take It"--may have been cynical enough to be the era's first real musical death knell.
Its climactic vision of a nation of young seekers giving up on the search and rising up against their ascetic pop guru was plenty prophetic, whether you want to relate it to a generation deserting its ideals or simply to songwriter Pete Townshend's eventually disassociating himself from his own avatar of the time, Meher Baba, who was credited with helping inspire "Tommy."
Some of the anger and disillusionment that may have fired the original "Tommy" still came across in Thursday's sold-out performance (which was seen nationally as a pay-per-view TV event, in addition to the estimated 6,000 who paid from $75 to $1,500 to witness the show in person).
There was some fire and brimstone there. Townshend even menacingly aimed his guitar neck at the audience, Tommy-gun style (ahem), during a rat-a-tat-tat passage of "We're Not Gonna Take It," mirroring the experience of a public taking up arms against its artists and prophets.
But this run-through of the most famous of all rock concept albums was not big on emotion, nor geared toward theatricality. Clearly, the Who was not relating to "Tommy" as a moving story with big themes so much as just a piece of music to be played for old time's sake.
And to be played around with, for new time's sake. What the three surviving Who members, their 12 back-up musicians and their five celebrity guests did to rearrange the work probably didn't add up to any Who fan's ultimate "Tommy," but it was a gas nonetheless, and not just for sentimental reasons.
The pageant of guest stars may have distracted and detracted from the piece's thematic strengths, but their presence no doubt nudged along the Who's willingness to have a little fun with the musical aspects.
The evening's most radical rethink: Steve Winwood's rendition of "Eyesight to the Blind," which, backed by five horns and three singers, suddenly sounded very much like a slick, up-tempo R&B rave-up that wouldn't have been at all out of place on his own "Back in the High Life" album.
Most electrifying vocal: With Who lead singer Roger Daltrey not quite at his finest, honors easily went to Patti LaBelle as the viciously seductive Acid Queen.
Best typecasting: Bad boy Billy Idol as the nasty Cousin Kevin, liberally sprinkling his promises of baseless cruelty to little Tommy with profanity. Underneath this, the big band found a musical intensity of almost metallic proportions.
Most game guest: Phil Collins as the child molester Uncle Ernie, the only performer of the evening to attempt to actually act out his role. Even the stone-faced Townshend had to break up at the sight of Collins in a raincoat and boxer shorts, sporting one of those "comb-over" hair jobs--with the hair combed over down \o7 front\f7 , to approximate bangs.
Letdown: Elton John, usually a galvanizing presence on any stage, surprisingly subdued reprising his movie role singing "Pinball Wizard."
You'd have to be as single-minded as Tommy himself to focus on the story amid this parade of celebs, not to mention Daltrey's still-swell microphone-swinging and Townshend's leaps. Nevertheless, it holds up as a sprawling epic that moves with admirable cohesion from pulp melodrama to a saga of cruelty to a spiritual odyssey to a satirical commentary on pop/religious culture.
Meanwhile, how's this for an unhappy ending: For the climactic "Listening to You," the "cast" rejoined the band--dominated by a self-impressed Idol bounding about, bound and determined to be as obnoxiously omnipresent as possible. Was this his show or the Who's?
The hour-plus "Tommy" presentation was followed by a generous greatest-hits set, anticlimactic only in that the Who seems less willing to "fiddle about" with the arrangements of its other material than it does with its lovable-albatross rock opera.
The organizations benefiting from the performance were the Gilbert W. Lindsay Children's Center at California Medical Center Los Angeles, United Friends of the Children, MacLaren Children's Center, Westside Children's Center and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation.
The Who will perform many more of its hits, along with a condensed "Tommy," tonight at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.