This month, in honor of Thanksgiving and the spirit of giving thanks, I will be highlighting works of art and events that have shaped & changed my life. Maybe they will change yours too.
Why am I suddenly writing about an album made in the 1960’s? Shouldn’t I just be updating you guys with new videos I make? I realized that I haven’t posted anything personal lately; it’s all pretty much been news and projects I’ve been putting out. A big reason why I make art is to connect with people, to share a part of myself in some small way. Why? Because art has connected ME to other artists out there. I see art as an exchange of ideas, discoveries, and dreams. I can think of many different movies, albums, etc. that changed my thinking the very moment I finished experiencing them for the first time. So why not use the month of November, known throughout the galaxy as the “month of giving thanks”, to highlight several of those works of art and explain why I am thankful for them.
“Tommy” – an album by the Who that changed my life
In September of 2006, I settled into a spare 1 bedroom apartment in my new city of Nashville, Tennessee. Previously, I had lived my entire life in a suburb of Oklahoma City in (you guessed it) Oklahoma. I moved to Nashville to pursue audio engineering with hopes of forming a new band where I could write songs, play guitar and record all of us. Like a new Jimmy Page (I know, I know…big ambitions there). I moved to this new place not knowing a single person. No old friends to rely on, no relatives to help pay for meals here and there. My apartment was hollow with only a TV, a coffee table and a couch. It had a considerable amount of echo since there were not many objects present to soak up the sound waves when you slammed down a drink from Jack in the Box at 3 am (while watching Conan O’Brien). This was it, the pivotal turning point in my life I had been salivating over for years.
Within walking distance of my apartment was a CD Exchange store that I knew I had to take a trip to. I spent my very first Friday in Nashville at that store, browsing while talking on my cell phone with a friend from back home. I’m sure I was glowing with this new sense of freedom to be myself, anywhere and everywhere, which is probably why I remember the workers being super friendly; who knows if they actually were. Going through the used CD section, I found a deluxe version of Weezer’s Blue Album with a 2nd disc of the original kitchen demo tapes (yes!). Behind it was a deluxe edition of Tommy, by the Who.
At that moment, I wasn’t really a fan of the Who. I was big into the Beatles, Hendrix, and the Doors, but not them. I had only heard snippets of songs, with the only full song being “Magic Bus” – not exactly their best moment. Normally I would pass over this sort of thing and think nothing of it but an old co-worker would not stop raving about that damn album.
The first job I ever had was at Pizza Hut and I worked there for 2 1/2 years. And for 2 1/2 years, an ex-New Yorker named Joey would not shut up about Tommy. He was an old school guy with feint brown curly hair and a heavy accent. The type of guy who would always go out of his way to take a shit at the KFC across the street instead of doing it at Pizza Hut. The type of guy whose left arm was far more tan than the rest of his body because it hung it out of his window every time he went driving. I was known for being a musician at Pizza Hut so naturally, we all talked about music quite a bit. Hell, on Fridays, we would even bring in our own CDs to listen to in the back while we cooked. But Joey didn’t really talk music because he didn’t listen to much of it. The motherfucker only had a tape player and consulted me several times on where the best place to buy a CD player would be (my answer was always “anywhere that sells CD players, it really doesn’t matter Joey”). Plus, he was a delivery driver, so he was usually in and out.
However, on Saturdays, we would have a lot more free time together in the mornings. I would sometimes open the store and he would be the first driver in. So naturally, the subject of music came up and he only had one recommendation: Tommy. Always about Tommy. He didn’t really go into too much detail about it other than the fact he thought it was fuckin amazing. He really wanted me to listen to it and I always forgot about it. The album never came up with anyone else I talked to. And it’s easy to be skeptical of someone who doesn’t really listen to music and only talks about one album. Those are usually the same people whose favorite movie is the Tim Allen remake of The Shaggy Dog, which, I shit you not, I had a lady tell me before.
Here I was on a Friday in Nashville high on life, staring at this album I had heard someone talk about so much you would think they lost their virginity to it. After debating whether to buy it or not, I took the chance (I’m a sucker for deluxe editions) and left the store. I’m not sure how long it took before I popped the in CD and listened to it…but I damn well remember how it made me feel. The album starts off with an instrumental overture rife with horns which melts into jangly guitar chords strummed on a lone acoustic guitar, all before you hear a single voice. And when that voice first comes on, it starts off with “Captain Walker didn’t come home, his unborn child will never know him.” Wait – these are the same guys who were singing about a goddamn magic bus the last time I heard them?
From there, I listened to Tommy’s birth (“It’s a Boy“) and the scene being set for the time this story took place (“1921“). Then it dawned on me – holy shit, this is all one story. Now, 18-year old me had listened to stories being told on albums before, especially considering I was so heavily deep into hip-hop. But those stories were usually contained in a single song – they didn’t usually spill out across an entire album. I was also familiar with concept albums, having already digested Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band over and over. But Sgt. Pepper had an overall theme, and a very loose one at that. Tommy was different. It was, as I would find out later, a pioneer of the rock opera.
JOEY NEVER TOLD ME THAT! What the fuck Joey, that’s kind of a big selling point don’t you think?! It’s such a simple concept but I had never heard anything like that before. That said, an album length story wouldn’t be worth very much if it were not backed by amazing music. And it was (and still is). The songs themselves jump from genre to genre depending on the portion of the story being told. The music and lyrics were fused together as if they came out of the womb as one single entity. As if there was no separation between the spark and the flame. You’ve got the surging fist pump of “Amazing Journey“. You’ve got the tom-tom funk of “Eyesight to the Blind“. You’ve got the fireside hippie folk of “Tommy Can You Hear Me?“. And it all flowed together in perfect harmony.
And that finale. Man, that finale. Hearing “See Me, Feel Me/Listening to You” was the ultimate climax to this grand tale. When it was finished, I knew it had changed me. I never thought a rock album could be made that way and it expanded my preconceived boundaries of what popular music can accomplish. It ignited something in me. It inspired me and still does to this day. It’s an album I throw on when I’m feeling boxed in, creatively speaking, or when I’m feeling like music has gotten stale.
(One of my favorite performances of “See Me, Feel Me/Listening to You”. Start at the 3:26 mark)
Oftentimes, music gets linked to specific moments in your life. Maybe a particular song was playing non-stop on the radio while you kissed your serious girlfriend for the first time. Or an album came out while you were in the depths of despair and it helped you cope with life. The funny thing is, although Tommy hit me at one of the most pivotal points in my life, I don’t necessarily link it to that moment. It transcends it. It exists parallel to my timeline. Simply put, it is timeless.
For these reasons and more, Tommy is currently my favorite album of all time. It made me a true fan of the Who and encouraged me to explore more of their catalog. It encouraged me to broaden my scope of what an album can do, what an album can be, and reinforced that YES, music is art, maaan! For that, I am thankful. So thank you, Pete, Roger, John and Keith. And thank you Joey, wherever you and your extremely tan left arm may be.
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