See me, feel me

A new generation’s psychedelic era

UC Davis students love Tommy, even if he can’t see them.

UC Davis students love Tommy, even if he can’t see them.

PHOTO by jeff perry

Have you noticed? Today’s college students—who live a large portion of their lives vicariously through their laptops and smartphones, downloading their music and keeping track of their friends via Facebook—seem to have a pronounced thing for the 1960s, the era of trippy psychedelic music on vinyl, as well as clunky telephones with rotary dials and airmail letters (both of which took a lot longer than Skype).

This came home to me in a big way two weeks ago, reviewing the UC Davis production of Tommy, based on the Who’s double-LP concept album from 1969. It was a lovely, large-scale production, driven by a solid electric band that had been put together by Graham Sobelman, who’s become the go-to guy for rock musicals in Sacramento. The show also featured a large cast, most of them college students … who were born right around 1990. So obviously, they’re relating to the 1960s through things they’ve learned, rather than things they’ve experienced.

Heck, even the parents of most of today’s college students are really too young to have fully participated in the late 1960s. I fall into this category myself (I’ll have two sons at UC Davis in the fall, and I was nearly 34 when they were born). Back when Tommy was released as an album in 1969, I was all of 13 years old. The well-worn copy of the album that I own (which my sons enjoy as a retro musical experience) was actually purchased by my father, who was in his mid-30s at the time, and working at a college in San Francisco. He was interested in the music that the college students he was working with were listening to, and he had enjoyed the Beatles albums of that era, so decided to try a record by the Who as well. By the time Who’s Next came out in 1971, I had turned 15 and was buying new records on my own.

That just-concluded production of Tommy came on the heels of other recent shows. The student-organized theater group at UC Davis, known as Studio 301, staged Hair about a year back. And for good effect, they made a point of using the show’s full title: Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. There was also a production of Hair in Sacramento not so long ago by the late, lamented group Artistic Differences. And of course the Whole Earth Festival, held each year in May, has become a local tradition, attended by thousands of young people who flock to the grassy expanse on a sunny spring weekend to live out a dream of an era that existed (all too briefly!) when their parents were probably in junior high school.

Let’s face it: Anyone who was 18 years old during the Summer of Love (1967) would have been 41 in 1990, when the current crop of third-year college students were born, and a bit past 60 now.

So what underlies the psychedelic era’s current appeal? Doubtless, the lingering association with free love, an abundance of mind-altering substances, tie-dyed halter tops and group nudity during summer rainstorms at Woodstock has something to do with it. And the hopeful/quixotic attitude of the time, questioning authority and believing that the world could be changed, has a continuing attraction as well.

Tommy is perhaps even better suited for revival than Hair, since Tommy revolves around a boy whose been shattered by adult experience, who eventually recovers the ability to speak and hear and feel (as the song goes).