Alison Faith Levy first came to attention of the kids music world as one of the members of the Bay Area band The Sippy Cups, which started out as a '60s-inspired band and eventually incorporated that sound into a big circus-like stage show and pulling in inspirations from the '70s and even the '80s.
The Sippys are on hiatus, but Levy has started her own solo kids music career, releasing the fine debut World of Wonder a couple years ago. Now she's working on a stage musical based on the album, a musical she hopes will be ready for the world next year.
So perhaps it's fitting that for Levy's entry in my "How I Got Here" series, in which kindie artists talk about albums that influenced them as musicians, she talks about The Who's Tommy, which could be considered the first "rock opera." The double album was eventually presented on stage and screen (and then stage again, this time on Broadway). I'm guessing that Levy's light show won't be as impressive as that Broadway production from 20 years ago, but you never know...
When I was a kid, I was lucky enough to have access to an incredible record collection – my parents’. They were still in college when I was born, and were always very progressive, artsy and culturally curious– my dad played piano and had been a radio DJ, my mom was an artist. They were, and still are, huge influences in my creative life and very cool people.
Their album collection was a treasure trove of '60s and '70s gems, which they played around the house all the time. The Beatles, Moody Blues, Donovan, Elton John, Simon and Garfunkel… but the first album that I remember becoming completely obsessed with was Tommy by The Who. This was the original studio album, not the movie soundtrack, and once I found this on my parents’ record shelf, my life would never be the same.
Although I had always loved music and been captivated by everything I heard on the radio and around the house, Tommy hit me in a way that I had never experienced before. I must have been in 4th or 5th grade when I found it (the album had been out for many years), and when I discovered it I was completely obsessed.
It was the first time I had heard something that was a complete piece, from start to finish – like a Broadway show, but with the visceral intensity of rock n’ roll. I could not get enough of it. The music was so complicated and beautiful, the feelings so intense – it bowled me over. I would come home from school and listen to it from start to finish, over and over, obsessing over the spooky cover with the blue latticework design and weird surreal photo collage art in the booklet. I would pore over the lyrics, trying to make sense of it and put the story together. I would bring my friends over after school to listen to it with me, and try to explain what was going on, even though the lyrical content and sophisticated subject matter were clearly beyond my scope of understanding. When it became clear that my friends would rather play with Barbies or watch TV, I got the hint that maybe this was a little beyond what they could handle. I then knew this would be the story of my life.
During this time, I would sing and act out songs from Tommy to entertain myself and my friends. I remember clearly that at one lunch recess, I jumped up on a bench on the playground at school and sang “Acid Queen” from start to finish for my bewildered classmates. They must have thought I was insane. I didn’t even know what it meant – I just thought the dramatic nature of the song was so amazing I couldn’t contain myself!
When I finally saw the movie, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed. It didn’t sound right to me, the music had changed, different people were singing the songs besides my beloved Roger and Pete (and a little bit of Keith). But I grew to appreciate some aspects of it, especially Elton John as the Pinball Wizard, who was my other big hero at the time.
Tommy ignited in me a lifelong love of the concept album. From there it was Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Dark Side of the Moon, and Born to Run. Then moving forward into artists like David Bowie, Tom Waits, and Elvis Costello – artists with albums that felt like complete works – that take you on a journey and pull you under their spell. I have always tried to create that in my work, even as a children’s artist – to take the listener somewhere that feels intentional, and meaningful, and dreamlike. So I have Pete, Roger, John and Keith to thank for that. The Sippy Cups even performed “Christmas” from Tommy in one of our winter spectaculars several years ago, complete with a snow machine – that was a pretty amazing moment for me. Tommy still gives me goosebumps whenever I hear anything from it, and that’s how an album should be.