A right versus left brain argument


If you want to know how this will relate to Tommy (as surely all things do!), scroll down if you’re feeling impatient. It’s unclear if that’s either a right brain or left brain quality—impatience, I mean. Indeed, wouldn’t it be ironic if assessment of binaries was neither a left brain nor right brain faculty?

The following rumination was triggered by an argument relayed by a man who likely identifies as a right-brain dominant individual. He is disinclined towards categories, which is a right-brain characteristic…I think. He didn’t know about these sorts of things, so he was nonplussed and on the back foot when pressed by his wife to make sense of things they were discussing. She, the presumptively more intuitive, empathetic and therefore right-brain person (so she asserted), bristled at his description of her as…well, he couldn’t remember what he’d specifically said about her. That became the core of their debate: he couldn’t give examples to substantiate his claims. He could relay his impressions, roughly, though his articulation let him down on the details. No matter, he thought, though the result was a conflict: something he’d wanted to avoid.

The semi-meaningful anecdote was parked in working, as in retrievable memory while a conversation moved on between men to a discussion of right and left brain thinking. My right brain observed that one man became a bit haughty as he outlined the differences between the functions of the right and left hemispheres. In his commentary, this man seemed to emphasize the qualities of the human left brain, which he seemed to think holds a privileged position in society, and is thus ripe for a right brain revolution. Interestingly, I can’t recall how he characterized right brain functioning, just that it’s more important for social discourse in the 21st century. About left brain functioning, he was succinct: “It’s about rules. The left brain is all about rules.” And rules, he further implied (exercising a right brain function, I think), are a problem: they foster rigidity and limited imagination and are likely ruining the world.

Something like my imagination stirred on this subject over the following hours or days—autobiographical or linear memory is probably a left brain function, and not one of my stronger qualities. Anyway, I was dissatisfied with this “rules” explanation of mental functioning, thinking it either verbose, imprecise, or too grey area and therefore right-brained in its perspective. The conflict relayed by our mutual friend came back to me, retrieved from some mental pocket, as my right brain intuited relevance. So, in our next conversation, I referenced that man/wife, vaguely gender-stereotyped debate of theirs and asked of my gently haughty friend the following: “when she challenged him to give concrete examples of the negative trait that none of us can remember, she was asking for concreteness, and thus imposing a rule”. My friend cautiously agreed but seemed to wait for more. “But the rule she imposed was tacit: if you’re going to make a generalization, you must substantiate, otherwise the impressions are not valid. Right?” I had sought validation. My friend faintly nodded, giving little. Still, I continued: “But that begs another observation: what if the application of tacit rules is a right-brain function, because it requires an intuitive sense to perceive the rule that is not explicitly declared. Therefore, it’s insufficient to say the left brain is all about rules”. This elicited a chuckle from everyone listening, which meant they agreed with me…I think with more of my right brain. Probably.

Wait, I remember: I was supposed to relate all of this back to Tommy—not because that was a rule per se—but rather because I’d promised that I would, which implied another rule that seems to cut across societies: follow through on what you promise. So, I think I had a further statement to make about how right versus left brain functioning is depicted in Tommy, perhaps with respect to the lyrics versus music dialectic in my book, which is about how words convey some of the story but the music carries the weight of the deaf, dumb and blind boy’s implicit message—that sort of thing. There was something else I think about Tommy that was relevant to this weird essay about right and left brain functioning, explicit and implicit memory. Something happened that, like the argument between my friend and his wife, stirred associations that were perhaps blocked for reasons unknown. It’s in my mind somewhere, parked in my senses amid other things gained and lost. I’ll go quiet about it for a while, wonder if it’s dangerous to write or speak about. Maybe something will happen later, stir me to greater freedom.






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The things not yet said about Tommy

And there are some things still unsaid, believe it or not. So, in the aftermath of my book’s publication (The Psychology of Tommy) plus the satisfaction of receiving a good review in Kirkus magazine (made their Indie books of the month list for June—yea!), I’ve decided to provide a summary of the book’s psychological theories as they relate to the opera. This idea stems largely from the comments of my Kirkus reviewer, who admired the overall flavor of my book, the quality of the prose, as well as some of my ideas about The Who, but clearly felt lost with respect the psychoanalytic theory that inhabits the book’s center. This was to be somewhat expected as the reviewer is a literary critic, not a psychologist, but what may be deemed “minutia” or “esoteric” needn’t be so intimidating to the average reader. But the material should nonetheless be important to an interested reader, for in my opinion, if you’re a fan of Tommy and you’re not interested in its psychological themes, then you’re not really a fan of Tommy. Therefore, without detailing (yet again) the entire plot of Tommy, here are the main theoretical points of the text, uniquely applied to the rock opera, as in not previously explained either by an artist, music critic or any social science observer.

  1. Firstly, whenever commentators casually observe themes in Tommy, they tend to notice something relating to Narcissism, either because of the ubiquitous presence of mirrors, or else because of the protagonist’s introversion. Narcissism is a concept that is much diluted by popular opinion and lay definitions. In the book I point out that while Tommy is given to spells of grandiosity as a young adult, he is not exploitative or unempathetic as a character, contrary to what is commonly observed in Narcissistic personalities. His earlier self-absorption is more Schizoid or trauma-based in its quality and his Narcissistic wound is comprised of repeatedly pronounced and frustrated needs: to be seen, to be heard, to be touched.
  2. Secondly—also important—Tommy is not autistic, nor is the opera an allusion to autism, and this is not a matter of dismissing a speculative diagnosis based upon developmental material that simply isn’t provided. Tommy is not autistic because that is a neurological deficit that is biologically-based, and Tommy’s psychosomatic affliction is clearly linked to the prohibitions expressed in the song “1921”: you didn’t hear it, you didn’t see it, you won’t say nothing…
  3. Next, continuing the repression theme, I observe that Tommy exudes mythic status, recalling at least two classic literary myths that are embedded in the collective unconscious: Hamlet and Oedipus Rex. The essence of Hamlet is perhaps less famously downloaded as an explanation of the human mind, but in my text I argue that Tommy’s dramatic crisis is similar to that of the Danish prince. He has been traumatized by the loss and then return of his father, plus an inexplicable crime that follows, and in addition, he is told that he must deny the senses that witnessed this event (or intuits it), hence the deaf, dumb, and blind condition, plus a generalized insecure attachment, exacerbated by an insecure narrative—the problem of secrets. How this dovetails with the Oedipus Rex myth pertains to the following devices: the condition of blindness as a metaphor for denial; Tommy’s thwarted sexuality (he is unseduced by the Acid Queen, and is benignly rejecting of Sally Simpson, a would-be partner); his compromised identification with patriarchs and male figures in general, because they are either absent (father), murderous (father), or abusive (uncle and cousin). His solution in the absence of earthly models is spiritual, though the opera at best implies that God, the ultimate patriarch, will not let the hero down. Repression, denial of sexuality, failure to integrate a Super-ego: three features that informed Freud’s theory of neurotic psychosexual development.
  4. And what of the Narcissism of matriarchs, you may wonder? Theoretical attention to this matter emerged less from Sigmund Freud than from Melanie Klein, the second most famous figure in the history of psychoanalysis and arguably the originator of modern Object Relations Theory (though the theory of objects—meaning caretaking other—being incorporated into ego is properly derived from Freud’s 1917 paper, “Mourning and Melancholia”). In Tommy, mirrors as physical objects are rivals to the boy’s mother, who exudes jealousy and ultimately rages at these symbols of her replacement. In her “smash the mirror” anger, she manifests a split-ego: on the one hand, behaving herself like an un-mirrored child; on the other hand, inhabiting the coercive role that her own caregivers once likely played. As a male, Tommy must go to extremes to separate from her, yet the positive turn in the opera lies in his yearning—at first internal and muted, and later explicit—which is best conveyed in the “Listening to You” passage that appears both halfway and at the end of the album. In all of the sources I’ve read about Tommy, no one has remarked on the likely meaning of the “You” that is indicated here: a fusion of self and other; a dyadic phenomenon of self that is forged by a dynamic with another. This is attachment theory’s prevailing notion of what is means to develop most plainly…a self. In my book, I further assert what Who fans might see coming if they read this: that Tommy’s story parallels what Townshend the songwriter, plus The Who as a group, attempted during their career, especially during their early halcyon days. Paraphrasing critic Dave Marsh, they sought to entertain and to express themselves, but more importantly, they sought to represent a complex, yearning and troubled audience.
  5. Repetition and trauma. The essence of this theme is that history repeats, especially painful events. This means that they re-occur and that history is therefore cyclic and not linear, as humans often prefer to believe (progress!). It means that we feel compelled to repeat, or to re-experience (the parlance of trauma) so as to maintain attachment, versus remembering symbolically (in psychoanalysis, symbols mean words). So Tommy doesn’t remember his past, just as Pete Townshend, The Who and their audience struggled to remember their pasts, though they may have been obsessed with the past (think of the line, “the past is calling…” from an ethereal passage in the later Quadrophenia). Tommy re-enacts, plays games, finds pain and joy and then pain again upon an inner journey. In this way, he is liberated from pain but old residues linger, leading him to repeat forebears’ mistakes: he is naïve with his dreams, expects too much, is didactic and bossy when his followers won’t play his way. This climaxes in a revolt, though the denouement is a peaceful, disappointment-containing and sober end.
  6. The last psychological theme to explain from my book is that of implicit memory and fragmented, pre-verbal unconsciousness. For those concerned with narrative drama, the supposed flaws in Tommy lie in its thin storyline and vagueness. I argue that whether intended or not, the incomplete expressions in the opera reflect the dissociated mind of the protagonist, which allows for a similarly unconscious experience in the listener—a kind of absorption into experience that an analyst named Wilfried Bion wrote might occur between analysts and patients. The best example of this fragmented yet evocative expression again lies within the song “1921”, in which the implied crime that ignites Tommy’s deficit condition is repeatedly and exclusively referred to as “it”. Tommy was born amidst war, like the Mods of West London and The Who were born amidst war. What they saw and heard will have been unfathomable once, and what may have been fleetingly clear may have been censored. Meanwhile, what they felt was vibration and noise, and what they later did with that was rock and roll.

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My response to the Tommy book review


Gratified, of course. That’s my basic response to the review that Kirkus magazine gave my long-incubating book, The Psychology of Tommy: How a Rock Icon Reveals the Mind. In short, everything about it was what I expected, and more or less what I’d hoped. I tend to wish for more detailed analysis, less of a synopsis. I tend to want more prose to be referenced, various features and tidbits that may delight to be praised. What I’ve come to expect is something more functional, more reader-friendly. Get to the point, the reader asks of Kirkus. Is this thing worth reading?

And the answer with respect to my book is yes, apparently. Although, Kirkus doesn’t think that many people will read my Tommy book. Again, I expected that. That, after all, is the reason I self-published the book instead of finding a traditional outlet. I’d spent a year writing the book while soliciting agents and academic publishers–more the latter than the former, due to feedback from commercial agents: “too academic” they said. They couldn’t “sell” it. Academic publishers were less instructive. Save for one who praised my writing and asked me to submit my next manuscript to him (yeah, sure, I’ve got 5 in the can good to go!), most academics were sniffy and dismissive, saying the manuscript didn’t fit their lists, whatever that means. I could’ve spent another year looking for a publisher and might have found someone interested, not to mention risk-taking. But then I’d have missed this 50th anniversary moment. It was time, I decided, to publish my hybrid of memoir, art and psychological review.

But, back to the review. My sympathetic critic devoted much print to the observation that I love The Who. No kidding, I thought churlishly, thinking this not a compliment, necessarily. Then the review indicated my “intriguing” ideas: that Tommy and The Who impact audiences as modern mythology, and that pinball and mirrors had become part of rock’s archetypal system. Most gratifying was an observation of the following idea: “The Who were perhaps the first act in rock history conceived as a reflection of its audience rather than a self-contained performing act”. I get used to critics of my books missing subtle ideas, instead focusing on whether my prose and subject are engaging, or whether my narrative makes sense in some basic way. I quibble with the macro-accented interest that is assigned to the average reader. But here attention was leveled at one of the more important ideas of the book, one that I will paraphrase here.

Basically, it’s trite to argue that a performer or artist is a reflection of his or her audience. I can think of some who distance from their fans, usually in uninteresting ways, but even the few who are critical of audiences think themselves a mirror. The Who not only thought themselves a mirror of their audience, they thought they’d get famous only by mimicking them, and later expressing them, not themselves so much. Unlike The Beatles, whose management thought that dressing up the band would make the lads respectable, The Who’s principals intuited audience narcissism. They observed an audience that wanted itself represented, not just entertained. They were hungry, restless, anonymous amongst themselves, yet identified as a group. Mods, they were called, and The Who were their band.

So, The Who copied their dances, mimicked their gestures. While accidentally breaking a guitar, Pete Townshend noted audience excitement, and though initially embarrassed, he further did as he was implicitly told; hence, The Who’s auto-destructive act and an early feature of their legend. Soon thereafter, Townshend began writing songs in earnest, though not so much for himself as for those desperate, excitable “faces” in the crowd. The later Tommy character, with his deaf, dumb and blind condition that ironically renders him more open, seems to indicate The Who by manifesting its self-negating, absorbent self. The rest is rock history, and I respectfully challenge anyone to cite an act (pre-1964) whose initial rise to fame was achieved or even conceived in this fashion. I appreciate Kirkus for giving me a thumbs up, and for maybe helping me find a readership that it thinks will be hard to find. Regardless of whether that happens, I’m thankful for landing an idea not previously beaten to death; for making an impression on one reader, no matter how many others I obtain.




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So, we’re getting close now. Six weeks from now will be the 50th anniversary of Tommy, the landmark rock opera by The Who. On or around that time, I will publish my non-fiction, The Psychology of Tommy: how a rock icon reveals the mind. Those who have followed this blog or seen videos of my public appearances will know that I’ve been writing this book over the last two years, but in truth the project as a whole has lasted over a decade.

The personal aspects of the book, such as the story of my 2016 academic paper, or my presentation at the 2017 Creativity and Madness Conference, bookend the narrative alongside reflections from my upbringing about rock and roll, growing up in the seventies and eighties, becoming a fan of The Who as they entered a then seven year hiatus. I hope that informed or hardcore fans of the group, especially those of my generation, enjoy and identify with my ruminations on this history.  Among other things, I express how difficult it is to capture the essence of The Who: “we’re a one million piece band”, Roger Daltrey once said of himself and his mates—so multi-faceted were they; so mercurial, contradictory; so unlikely a success story in many respects. The contradictions were evident in my early exposure to them. In the late seventies, when I was a child, I only knew of them, as this was a period when they were rarely on TV. They were a group that made noise and destroyed their instruments. They were famous for this, I was told. Huh? Actually, in the late seventies, amid the nihilistic punk rock zeitgeist, this formula for success seemed quite plausible. Little did I know that The Who had paved the way for this kind of success.

When I first saw a video of The Who I was confused. “You Better You Bet” was anything but noisy, and no instruments were broken in their performance. Watching them on MTV I will have gleaned that the group had grown up if not yet old; that I was watching an older, more “mature” version of band. They were tuneful, wrote smart, moving lyrics. They were men. I loved and have always loved this side of The Who, but I don’t necessarily prefer it to the proto-punk side of them that I discovered later, and still listen to today. As recently as a month or so ago, I was re-discovering the sheer noise of The Who having gotten around to buying The Who at Filmore East 68′. I have since revelled in the sinewy din of the group in its prime. Listen to the thirty three minute version of “My Generation”, sit back and conjure the moment: the backdrop success of rivals Cream and Jimi Hendrix; the implicit angst of an audience straining against Vietnam, against generalized political turmoil. Against that backdrop, the chaos of The Who seemed apt. And yet it wasn’t just a cacophony.

Though essentially a jam upon a baseline riff, the performance writhes like a snake, building intensity, following an insistent rhythm, and then resting in delicate interludes, diminuendos. A harbinger of “Sparks” from Tommy, the improv showcases a vital, dynamic act on the cusp of its breakthrough. As the playing wonderfully drifts, my thoughts drift with it. I think of vicissitudes of energy, of danger and beauty, and of a mind’s journey. Thoughts turn to Tommy, of course, but also to the likes of Freud, Melanie Klein, John Bowlby, Wilfred Bion, D.W.Winnicott, James Masterson, Allan Schore. If you don’t know most of the names on this psychoanalyitic line-up of stars, you will do after reading my book. This is the meat of my project: an analytic review of Tommy, plus the implicit qualities of The Who, which I argue mirror the implicit lessons of psychoanalysis. This can and should fascinate, this meeting of pop art and academics, though I’m aware that readers will bring varying degrees of interest in or knowledge of psychology.

“Instincts and their Vicissitudes” was a famous paper by Sigmund Freud, published in 1915. In my book, I cast The Who as an artful embodiment of life and death instinct, of repetition compulsion, of trauma reenactment, of implicit memory, of Id, ego, and later, rock and roll Superego; of a parent-child dyad. I describe Tommy as the child/gnome in them and in us, The Who’s audience: bewildered, rendered inert by adult horrors, hipocrisies, yet possessing a spark that may ignite, releasing a passionate, articulate voice. I write about myself because I’m a long-time fan nurtured by the gaze of an unusual artist at whom I gazed back and learned something over time. Born in 1964, The Who were arguably the first pop act conceived as a reflection of its audience. They copied the dances, listened to what the audience said, observed how it acted; even when drowning us out with noise, they mirrored us. Who more than Pete Townsend has written about or talked about the dynamic between fan and performer? Who thinks about what performers say to its audience, and visa versa? Who learns?

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Hanging out with Jim


Talking to Jim is not easy sometimes. We hung out last weekend, observing his birthday. Jim’s much older than me but some of his tastes coincide with mine. I asked him if he wanted to watch a movie and he said yes, choosing The Graduate, a film released in 1968, the year I was born. I said “cool” thinking this a good choice, being a fan of the story and of its famous soundtrack by Simon & Garfunkel. Jim and I had spoken of The Graduate many times in the past. In passing, he’d call it one of the all-time greats, sometimes placing it in his private list of the top ten films ever made. Sometimes that list gets expanded, as there seems to be nearly fifty films, by my estimation, that he says merit inclusion in that list.

Anyway, as we started viewing the Netflix download or whatever he made familiar comments about the film’s stars and its music. The song “Sounds of Silence” sets the tone for a melancholy experience, alongside the image of Dustin Hoffman playing Benjamin Braddock, looking stoned, bereft, or both coming off a plane and heading for home. He’s the graduate, we’re meant to infer–an unhappy achiever, it seems. Jim didn’t seem to notice or recall this. He just liked the song, and relayed a memory of being at a party wherein this song was played, alongside songs like “Cecilia”, another song from the movie, he said. I used to correct Jim on points like this, but it no longer seems important whether The Graduate and S & G’s final album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, are separate entities. When Anne Bancroft (playing the iconic Mrs. Robinson) appears, Jim further enthuses, remarking on her class and style. “She can come to any party of ours,” I quip, referencing one of his signature phrases.

During these early scenes, Jim continues to enjoy the comic or sexy elements of the film: he delights in another famous moment wherein a family friend takes Ben aside at his graduation party (hosted by his parents), and seems to advise him about future investment prospects. “Plastics”, the man says, prodding a finger into Ben’s chest. The future is in plastics. This classic moment of absurdism heralds the social satire in The Graduate, which Jim seems to enjoy but not notice simultaneously. As Mrs. Robinson starts putting her moves on young Ben, Jim laughs, finding the diffidence in Ben hilarious and the sexiness of the older woman classy beyond everything. As Jim appears to find each succeeding moment of Ben’s humiliation amusing, I wonder what kind of sadism or masochism is being played out here. Is Jim identifying via memory with Ben Braddock, and privately recalling a time in which he’d been seduced by a Mrs. Robinson-type. He won’t tell me these things, as he’s quite dismissive of his own romantic past, but he betrays this past anyway, it seems to me, by how he reacts to things.

Jim doesn’t seem to care one way or another about Benjamin Braddock through The Graduate’s first half. Meaning, he doesn’t seem to identify or sympathize with Ben’s wayward manner, or with his implied disillusionment with the American Dream. This film’s criticism of middle-to-upper class Western life, circa 1968, seems either lost on Jim or else it’s a point of indifference. As we enter the film’s middle third, he complains that they’re aren’t enough S & G songs in the film yet, as if he’s becoming bored with the story. His indifference towards Ben turns to dislike, however, in the sequence wherein Katherine Ross, who is playing Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, is introduced to the action. Pressured to ask her out by his parents (because the Robinsons are business partners), Ben begrudgingly agrees, but in doing so he violates a command by Mrs. Robinson, who had previously demanded that he NOT date her daughter. On the surface, it seems reasonable that she, as Ben’s lover, would object to his dating her daughter. But something deeper is happening–something that Ben infers, taking personally her prohibitive demand. “I’m not good enough for her?” he complains.

Now the story is complex, has social and psychological layers that are intertwined, and Jim doesn’t like it. “I don’t like this next part”, he says ominously. That was an understatement. As Ben acts arrogantly and aloof on the forbidden date, taking the Ross character to a strip club among other things, Jim begins a diatribe: “This isn’t right what he’s doing. She doesn’t deserve this. If I had my way, I’d cut his balls off for behaving like this!” At this point, Jim is hot-tempered, as if he has left the fiction and is speaking to something deep within himself. His focus remains external, however. As I carelessly ask, “Do you wonder why he’s doing this?”, he flatly replies, “No. It doesn’t matter”, as if offended by my question. I take a moment to recall that when Jim is annoyed by something, his curiosity abandons him. He’s not interested in Ben’s motivation, or the unconscious wishes or conflict that his behavior is acting out. In this way, Jim and I are quite different.

The remainder of the film passes with an air of disappointment. A few more S & G songs on the soundtrack lighten the tone somewhat, reminding Jim of the groovy vibe he’d once thought this film represented. Otherwise, watching The Graduate has been a disillusionment for him. His past, 1968, or that entire era, perhaps, was not what he thought it was, it seems. It isn’t just a party, this film seems to be saying, of the era in which it was made. I don’t bother inviting this discussion with Jim. Gingerly, I venture that the film is not what he remembers, and he sort of agrees. He didn’t get that it was a satire, he comments. In saying this, he doesn’t mean that he didn’t understand. He means that he chose not to notice that aspect of the film, and he has no problem with that, he is further saying. I hold my tongue on a riposte: that’s like watching Laurel & Hardy not getting that it’s a comedy, I want to say.

I don’t say that. Like I said, talking to Jim is not easy sometimes. So sometimes we just hang out.



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Outside of time


I loved Max Raabe’s one-liners last night, including his deft allusion to Donald Trump just prior to the encore. With it, he nearly brought the house down at Davies Symphony Hall, though upon reflection, I was glad he didn’t take it further.

If you don’t know who Max Raabe is or why he might be relevant to this blog, especially the recent entries about The Who and Tommy, then bear with me: a few years ago I had no idea who Max Raabe was, but his cultish appeal now grips me, has me delighted in a new form of escapism, ruminating upon that which exists outside of time, lurking in vintage elegance. You see, Max Raabe is a jazz singer, one who exists in a time warp, taking his audience back to an earlier time, circa 1930, when top hats, black ties, silk scarves and reefers were the tailoring alongside the songs of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Bertolt Brecht, to name a few. “Max parties like it’s 1929” is a tag-line that promotes the German baritone singer, who performed Tuesday night with his Palast Orchestra. For two hours, listening to Max and his 13-piece band, you can sink into their ambience, conjuring a night amongst the one percent of another era, and soak up the cabaret. In between numbers, Max deals comic soundbites in a deep, Bela Lugosi voice that has people laughing before he’s even delivered a punchline: “Tonight we have some lovely music for you all; songs that ask the questions, where can we find love? How do we find one another? How to get rid of each other?” His delivery is slow, offbeat, as in unusual, but also timeless. His joke about Donald Trump was buried in an anecdote about Samson and Delilah, relating to a song I can’t remember (I guess the joke was more memorable). Max told the story of Samson, the ancient Israelite hero, whose vigor and authority derives from his hair and who is betrayed by his lover, Delilah, who orders a servant to cut Samson’s hair. Max’s cryptic yet readily understood punchline stemmed from a subsequent musing: why would strength or moral authority be bestowed upon those with unusual hair?

The quip received the biggest of many laughs on the night. Clearly, the San Francisco audience was in sympathy with Max’s implications, and it was the only joke of the night to reference contemporary politics. That it did so in the guise of ancient mythology is important as it allowed Max and his orchestra to maintain their pose of disinterested observers, wryly commenting on the world but remaining detached, a bit like Joel Grey as the master of ceremonies in the similarly-themed musical, Cabaret. For Max Raabe to maintain his cultish outsider status, his ride upon the periphery of pop culture while paradoxically achieving success, he must maintain his distance. To enable escapism, he must be coy and oblique. To be relevant, which he apparently chooses to be, he must comment on the era in which he actually lives, but do so through the veil of allusion.

In 1968, when The Who were themselves cultish, as in not yet superstars, Pete Townshend set about the task of writing Tommy, a rock opera about a boy whose drama exists outside of time, and whose story is now part of the rock and roll mythology. Except The Who’s music did not harken back to an earlier time, but rather to the future. Indeed, at that time they were as cutting edge as anyone, making a noise the likes no one had ever made before, much less think of as entertainment. If you need evidence of this, give a listen to the recently released The Who at Filmore East 68′ CD. Twenty minute jam sessions based upon an original 3-minute single were nobody’s idea of rock and roll in the 50s, but that’s what the kids wanted in 68′, apparently. And The Who, poised to blow those kids’ minds with a new form of pop narrative and not just their glorious noise, were set to oblige.

The story of Tommy bends time to fit a surrealist framework, allowing for imagination and a stirring of feeling. Townshend introduces a dramatic point, an altercation that happens in the year 1921, with the background context being that of World War I and the absence of a father. As The Who’s members are all children of the WWII era, the setting of Tommy is allusive, designed to conjure links but not be explicit. The unnamed crime of 1921 is cryptic, operating as another allusion: what are the atrocities that follow war? What are the traumas that continue, such as the next wars on the docket (Vietnam?), or the crimes that exist upon war’s periphery, like assassinations (MLK? Two Kennedys, Malcolm X?). Hmmm? What might this otherwise unsubtle and loud British group be saying about our world, some might have wondered?

Beyond 1921, the timeline of Tommy drifts apart as if chronology doesn’t matter. This story, like a myth, could happen at any time, anywhere, so it doesn’t matter that we don’t know where the boy grows up exactly; where he becomes a pinball champion and later a spiritual leader; it doesn’t matter whether his stardom coincides with the 1930s, whether his fans are drafted into WWII; where his so-called holiday camp is. I read somewhere that Tommy’s story was meant to end in 1984, which is perhaps an allusion to Orwell, but that mooted time-frame would also be time-bending, as Tommy still seems like a young man with something to learn at the opera’s climax. He strikes me as being the age of his author–a mid-twenty-something–with an uncertain, though promising future, but one that isn’t frozen in time. The Who will be touring again this year, plus recording a new album, to my pleasant surprise. I doubt Max Raabe will be their supporting act. Too quiet. I further suppose that music is supposed to take us forward and back, with something to remember, and then something to look forward to.

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We do it for them


A tense moment between a man and a woman: they’re watching a film together—some cutting edge Netflix drama, filled with clever yet vulgar twists and dialogue—and a villainous character gets her comeuppance. The watching man lets out a bray that celebrates the moment and directs a slur at the character. His guest fidgets, discomforted, thinking the outburst rude, and beyond that, deeply offensive. They argue. His remark was demeaning, especially to women, the woman asserts. She should lighten up, he counters. It’s only a show and he doesn’t act like that in real life.

The latter comment intrigues because it appeals for something that some will allow and some won’t: some space that appears on the cusp of privacy versus the public domain wherein an “objectionable idea” as Freud once put it can live and breathe. As I helped the woman think through her options, which consisted of “letting things go” versus “standing up” for principles of decency, I challenged her framework, pointing out that her binary view didn’t represent the intermediary place that art holds in society. Inadvertently, perhaps, her male adversary was speaking to something that many will fiercely protect. He wants art to do its job and act as a container for human impulse. He wants to live vicariously through the actions of others thoughts and feelings that are forbidden. He wants leakage through his repression barrier; some release of pent up tension lest it build up and then burst through that wall, causing a flood.

The woman gazed back at me as if I were speaking of alien needs, not those of average human beings. She had no such desires, she insisted—no aggression, on that level anyway. She didn’t relate to vengefulness, to hateful impulses; to that which degraded people, exhibiting ugliness. Taking my point about art, she asked, what about beauty, or positive ideals? Shouldn’t good art inspire, not destroy? She shook her head, knowing I was merely representing another view, not engaging a polemic, necessarily. But it was a problem because it had caused a divide, this matter of what art, popular or not, should induce. Moments later, she brightened, thinking of another point, this time one that re-posited me as an opponent. It wasn’t so much the show itself, she reminded me. It was her partner’s reaction to it—his inconsiderate outburst—that shook her. Isn’t that a different phenomenon, she inferred? Even if a writer, an actor, a filmmaker, or even a musician expresses something ugly or provocative, isn’t it the audience’s responsibility to stay in reality versus the fantasy realm, for the sake of an ordered, safe and civil society? Isn’t it our (the audience’s) job to not extend what happens on screen or on stage into our daily lives?

Interesting that she mentioned the role of musician. For a few moments, my mind associated—drifted, as I write in my Tommy book—about a certain musician who used to speak of this a lot, albeit obliquely. “We do it for them,” Pete Townshend once said in an interview, regarding violence, and beyond that, the expression of frustration. This was during the The Who’s early days, when they were ubiquitous on the club and concert hall circuits in Britain, playing for mid-sixties Mods, that post-war faction of kids who blended nihilism with neo-consumerist habits. Townshend was speaking of two things: firstly, of the auto-destructive elements of The Who’s then-act, which climaxed with each group member (save John Entwistle, usually) ritually smashing up his instrument; secondly, his comment was about the volume and general ferocity of The Who’s rock and roll, surely unprecedented at the time, yet heralding alternative sub-genres of rock music, including heavy metal and punk rock. The Who’s noise and littered stages were a nightly release for their fans, though for the most part, the damage didn’t leave the stage, much less those clubs and other venues. As far as we know.

There may have been exceptions. Actually, it may have been fortunate that The Who didn’t break through to a wide audience until 1965, after the success of singles like “I Can’t Explain”, and especially “My Generation”—so expressive in its hate, its fear of aging. Had they been a hit a year earlier, their Mod-stirring anger and flamboyance might have been blamed for the riots between gangs of Mods and so-called Rockers on the south coast of England in 1964. Fifteen years later, when The Who were one of if not the biggest rock group in the world, their macho image and violent ambience was partly blamed for what was then one of the worst disasters to strike the world of rock. I’m referring here to the incident in Cincinnati in 1979 wherein 11 fans were trampled to death because of a pre-concert stage-rush by fans. On the one hand, this was not a deliberate act of violence. As far as anyone knows, no one set out that night to harm anyone, to start a riot, for example. In retrospect, that tragedy seems to have revealed something else in the rock and roll audience: states of altered consciousness, the delirium of drunkenness, dissociation, jadedness; not caring about people.

It has been mine and most Who fans’ observation that Pete and the boys did indeed care about people, their fans especially. It’s hard to substantiate such a statement, not that this is my responsibility. Perhaps their widely known charitable infrastructure, The Teenage Cancer Trust—not a unique way for artists to demonstrate caring, necessarily—is one exemplar of this impression. As I further write in my book, the rock opera Tommy was a watershed moment for them, dramatizing as it did the consequences of war, everyday violence, lack of truth, and authoritarianism. Otherwise, it has been the implicit qualities of The Who, their various gestures and overall demeanor that has yielded a lingering image that juxtaposes their one-time violence and anger with an enduring sense of love. Young men once smashed guitars and bled the ears of their fans. Those fans shouted back, shoved and pushed one another maybe, while the gentler types stepped away and found other heroes to enjoy. Maybe those different types get together at times, and like The Who, work things out and grow old.


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