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My First Album Love: Tommy

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The first record I ever owned may or may not have been one that was cut from the back of a cereal box and played on my Fisher Price record player.

But the first record with which I fell in love was neither a cereal jingle, nor even a children’s album at all. When I was nine years old, I fell hard in love with The Who’s Tommy.

The album itself belonged to an older cousin. I remember pulling the record out of its sleeve and my cousin showing me how to properly handle a record album. As he placed my hands around the edge of the record and explained about fingerprints and dust and grooves, I read the titles. I asked him – what does “Overture” mean?

Mom and dad had this stereo at the time (this was 1970, we’re talking stone age here) that was part liquor cabinet, part music machine. It was piece of furniture that was an oblong, wooden box plunked down on spindly legs. On the top of the box on the right was a sliding door. Opening that revealed a turntable and a radio tuner. The box also had a sliding cabinet on the front left side which, when opened, revealed several bottles of gin and Harvey’s Bristol Cream.

My cousin showed me how to drop the record on the turntable. Until then, I had been using the Fisher Price system and was a bit haphazard about how I handled my cardboard records. He was almost reverent about it, holding the edges with his palm, placing the album gently on the turntable, dropping the needle on the groove by hand because he didn’t trust the automatic arm to do it right.

He turned the volume up. The unmistakable crackle and hiss of needle upon vinyl filled the room.

We listened to the overture and he explained that each time the music changed, it was a piece of another song on the album. As the overture ended and “It’s a Boy” came on, my cousin’s friends appeared outside and my music lesson abruptly ended. I asked him to leave the record and he did.

So I sat on our overstuffed living room couch that afternoon and listened to Tommy in its entirety. When the first side ended, I grabbed the vinyl with my palms, just like he showed me. I felt so much older than my eight years as I flipped the record over and gently laid the needle down. No more cereal jingles for me. No more Banana Splits or whatever cartoon music I had been listening to before then. I had discovered a new world.

I listened to the album all they way through twice. I listened to the music, to the words. I heard the story within. Yea, I was only eight, but even at that young age I had a way of grasping things my peers didn’t. I was reading, comprehending, understanding beyond them since I was a toddler. It’s just the way I was. And now I had discovered something else that they would not quite get.

It wasn’t until the second listen that I figured out there was a full story going on and not just random songs. I played it again, sometimes skipping over songs (“Go to the Mirror”), sometimes playing a certain tune twice (“Acid Queen”). On the third listen, my cousin (who was supposed to be babysitting me at the time but had disappeared with his friends) came back and was stunned to see I was listening to the album, and not for the first time.

For the next few hours, he sat down with me and went over the whole story, one song at a time. I remember him saying “I can’t believe you get this” about ten times. We talked about wicked Uncle Ernie and Cousin Kevin and how I thought in the end Tommy reminded me a lot of Jesus.

It wasn’t until five years later when we went to see Tommy the movie together that we talked about it again, and on a deeper level. Hey, to a 13 year old, a rock opera is about as deep as it gets.

By the way, we both hated the movie (with the exception of the Cousin Kevin/Uncle Ernie scenes). The vision of Ann Margaret rolling around in baked beans haunts my dreams to this very day.

And that was the first album I ever fell in love with.

Song selection:

“Tommy Can You Hear Me?”
“Cousin Kevin”
“I’m Free”
“See Me Feel Me/Listening to You”
“We’re Not Gonna Take It”

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About Michele Catalano

  • One day, I want to meet you, case of beer in tow, and talk about this album with you. I finally have met someone else who appreciates this masterwork as much as I do.

    And yes, I too hated the movie for the most part. Ken Russell will be Ken Russell, unfortunately.

  • Dawn

    Very nostalgic and well written piece, Michele.

    I only wish my first had been something as wonderful as Tommy, but alas, it was Houses of the Holy from my older sister’s record collection.

    I thought the album cover was cool, had no idea what was inside it. I did stumble on Who’s Next soon after though and played “Baba O’Riley” about a thousand times. Ahh, the joy of discovery.