The Who’s Tommy Goes On Exhibit Today

Tommy, the Who’s 1969 rock opera, is the subject of the largest exhibit ever dedicated to a single work at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Tommy: The Amazing Journey, which opens today, fills two floors of the Cleveland museum with guitars, handwritten lyrics, poster art and concert footage. “You’ll hear and feel this exhibit,” says its designer, Matthew Smith. “It will rock and feel like a concert.”

Pete Townshend conceived Tommy — the story of an abused “deaf, dumb and blind kid” so good at pinball that people come to think he’s a prophet — as a cautionary tale about false idols. The album reached Number Four in the U.S. and stayed on the charts for nearly a year on the strength of songs like “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” The exhibit traces Tommy through its various incarnations as a movie, a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, a London Orchestra production and even a ballet. “Tommy brought rock a kind of critical respect it had never received,” says curator Howard Kramer.

Townshend lent the Hall of Fame revealing early manuscripts. A draft of the “Sally Simpson” lyrics shows that Townshend originally named the album’s title character Danine. The exhibit also features excerpted recordings from an hours-long interview that Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann S. Wenner conducted with Townshend in 1968, when Tommy was still in the works. “Fans get to see the creative process at its earliest moments,” says curator Craig Inciardi.

The Amazing Journey promises a visceral experience. The first floor is set up to resemble a pinball machine, with display cases in the shape of bumpers. A mock stage on the second floor displays the band’s Tommy-era costumes and instruments, including the Gibson J-200 guitar Townshend used to write “Pinball Wizard”; above the stage, footage from the band’s legendary 1970 Isle of Wight show will play on a twelve-foot screen.

Other highlights include correspondence from Townshend — such as a letter sent to Tommy film director Ken Russell, suggesting that Lou Reed, Tiny Tim and Frank Zappa be cast — and Keith Moon’s silver Premier drum kit, played at Woodstock. Particularly rare is the Gibson SG guitar that Townshend played onstage in 1968. “In those days,” says New York collector David Swartz, who donated it, “Pete broke most of them.”

Source rollingtone.

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