As Who fan for 20-some years, I’ve been quite familiar with what is arguably the seminal rock opera, Tommy. By contrast, I’ve only recently discovered Pink Floyd’s The Wall. By radio play alone, I’ve heard and was very familiar with perhaps as much as half the The Wall’s songs. But listening to it all the way through and reading up on it, I was surprised at the similarities in themes and even some of the plot between these two, which are among the most revered concept albums ever made.
To try to get a grip on these similarities, I did some extensive searching for summaries or synopses of the stories told by each album. The following were, I feel, the simplest but most helpful.
British Army Captain Walker is reported missing in action during World War I, and is not expected ever to be seen again. Shortly after his wife, Mrs. Walker, receives this news, she gives birth to their son, Tommy. Approximately four years later, Captain Walker returns home and discovers that his wife has found a new lover. Captain Walker confronts the two and kills the lover. Tommy witnesses this through his mirror. To cover up the crime, Tommy’s parents tell Tommy that he didn’t see it, didn’t hear it, and he will say “nothing to no one ever in [his] life”. A
traumatized Tommy becomes deaf, dumb, and blind.
Tommy’s subconscious reveals itself to him as a tall stranger dressed in silvery robes, and the vision sets him on an internal spiritual journey upon which he learns to interpret all physical sensations as music.
His thoughtless parents leave him to the care of his cousin, Kevin, who tortures him and later to the care of his uncle Ernie, an alcoholic child molester. Uncle Ernie, like Kevin, takes abuses Tommy (in this case sexually) knowing he will not be caught.
Tommy’s brilliance at pinball is discovered, and quickly defeats the game’s tournament champion, making him an international celebrity, really like a rock mega-star.
His parents find a medical specialist to once more try to understand and cure his symptoms. After numerous tests, they are told that there is nothing medically wrong with him, and that his problems are psychosomatic. However, as they are trying to reach him, Tommy’s subconscious is also trying to reach out to them. Tommy’s mother continues to try to reach him, and becomes frustrated that he completely ignores her while staring directly at a mirror. Out of this frustration
she smashes the mirror. The smashing of the mirror snaps Tommy back into reality. Tommy’s cure becomes a public sensation and he attains guru-like status. Thereafter he assumes a quasi-messianic mantle and tries to lead his fans to an enlightenment similar to his own.
Tommy opens his own home to anyone willing to join him, and urges them to bring as many people with them as they can. His home ultimately turns into a “holiday camp” run by Uncle Ernie, who is apparently motivated by greed and not spiritual enlightenment. Tommy demands that his followers play pinball and blind, deafen and mute themselves in order to truly reach their spiritual height, but the heavy-handedness of his cult and the exploitation of its followers by his family and
associates cause his followers to revolt against him. Abandoned by his followers and worshipers, Tommy gains a new enlightenment.
Adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tommy_(album)#Story_in_chronological_order
From the outset, Pink’s life revolves around an abyss of loss and isolation. Born to a war-ravaged nation that takes his father’s life in the name of “duty,” and an overprotective mother who lavishes equal measures of her love and phobias onto her son, Pink chooses to build a mental wall between himself and the rest of the world so that he can live in a constant, alienated equilibrium free from life’s physical and emotional troubles. Every incident that causes Pink pain is yet another brick in his ever-growing wall: a fatherless childhood, a domineering mother, a country whose king signs his father’s death certificate with a rubber stamp, the superficiality of stardom, an estranged marriage, even the very drugs he turns to in order to find release. As his wall nears completion, each brick further closing him off from the rest of the world, Pink spirals into a void of insanity, cementing in place the final brick in the wall. Yet the minute it is complete, Pink begins to realize the adverse effects of total mental isolation, helplessly watching as his fragmented psyche coalesces into the very dictatorial persona that antagonized the world during World War II, scarred his nation, killed his father, and thereby defiled his own life from birth. Culminating in a mental trial as theatrically rich as the greatest stage shows, the story ends with a message that is as enigmatic and circular as the rest of Pink’s life. Whether it is ultimately viewed as a cynical story about the futility of life, or a hopeful journey of metaphorical death and rebirth, the Wall is certainly a musical milestone worthy of the title “art.”
Is it just me, or are there some amazing similarities? Here are those that jumped out at me. Both Tommy and Pink lose their fathers who fight for Britain in a world war. Tommy’s father is only presumed dead so long for his mother to take a new lover; Pink’s father is forever lost.
Most startlingly, the cruelty of parents, relatives and authority figures in general twist and warp the minds of the characters. Tommy’s parents, indifferent and distant at best, turn him over to be tortured by a bully cousin and sick and twisted uncle. Doctors torture him with ineffective “cures.” Pink endures his overbearing mother and viciousness of wicked teachers.
Stardom is the temporary salvation, or at least solace, of each character. Their celebrity, Tommy’s as a “pinball wizard” (really a rock star) and Pink’s as a rock star, bring them the fame and glory, make them little gods. As is often the case in real life, that glory eventually becomes their emotional and psychological undoing.
While both arrive at their end point by extremely divergent paths, both cult-like figures, are taken down by their followers. Tommy’s holiday camp attendees overthrow him. Pink is “tried” in some fashion of a court for what in essence amount to war crimes. Tommy is booted from his throne. Pink’s wall is torn asunder.
At the risk of overstating the importance or depth of these works, there’s no doubt a more scholarly look at them might find more interesting and detailed similarities. I’m neither a music nor literature expert. My eyes are untrained to find themes, moods, tone and so on. Nevertheless, there appear to be enough points of likeness between Tommy and The Wall to merit mention. I’d love to read anything others might have said on the subject and welcome lots of feedback.