Okay, so what’s the deal with the comedy? Why this thing about flippancy versus an appropriately sober and earnest tone, one might ask? Well, first of all, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Mine and Joe Farley’s book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction, is filled with serious comment, academic rigor, and “getting real”, thumb-on-nose zeal. We have over a hundred references in our bibliography—perhaps close to one fifty—reflecting a studious approach and a whole lotta reading. And I think Joe read at least one book about sex addiction. But seriously, what’s there to be serious about? Who said that being serious was the thing to be when discussing controversial subject matter? When did humor get cast away to the deleted files, and who or what institution made that call, anyway? I get that most psyche lit is dry and pedantic. Sometimes it’s plaintive and proselytizing, offering nomenclature with assumptions about reader literacy—like thinking he or she knows words like nomenclature. Read analytic literature and all this is on another level: words and terms that may be obscure or unexplained are rampant and oblique turns of phrase are ubiquitous. Take phrases like Winnicott’s “going on being” or Wilfrid Bion’s “attacks on links” (actually the title of a paper). This is well-known verbiage to students of psychoanalysis. In a recent article by analytic writer Arthur Nielsen, the concept of projective identification (PI) is explained with sentences like, “inducers, by contrast, continue to be involved with the projected qualities in what Meltzer and Fisher have felicitously termed a bifurcation of experience.” Yes, in English please, I hear the reader ask.
Actually, it is English, and Nielsen’s article in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association is a pretty interesting, if complex take on why one in five marriages in the US will fail in the first five years. Hey, that’s not that bad, I think, given what I notice in couples that come to my office. The PI is off the charts, back and forth and all over the place. I’m near dizzy after an hour with a couple in a PI mess. I’m in need of a good joke, and I’m often tempted to make one. Not a stand-up joke. I don’t mean a “hey did you hear the one about the…” overture, or an ice-breaking aside for a couple who walk in with stony expressions like they’d just been sitting in ice. No, I mean the kind of plays upon words that circle back to previous things said in a session; to matters raised in some other context but which might be raised again, thrust into a new moment and therefore given an altered and—if the satire takes aim—a diminished, possibly diffused meaning. Satire. Now there’s a word. Again, that’s a concept that doesn’t belong in a serious discussion of psychology or mental health problems, and in a sensitive moment, one ought to be careful with humor lest anyone get their feelings hurt versus diffused. Humor can hurt. Truth hurts is a permutation on this theme. Humor as truth: is that your point, Graeme? No, I reply to invisible heckler X. Actually, it might have been Sigmund Freud’s idea. Seriously, I don’t think he ever decreed that analysts should abstain from using humor like they were meant to abstain from sex (with patients that is).
See, Sigmund taught that the unconscious is a free reservoir of instinct, feeling and ideas, albeit largely objectionable ideas. There is no “no” in the unconscious; it knows no limits, doesn’t get endings, of pleasure especially. That’s the ego or Superego’s job, to effect limits in the case of the former apparatus; impart morality and civilized order in the case of the latter. Humor represents that which has slipped from the truthful, as in uncensored, unconscious realm of our mind. It’s contrivance as a quip, a witticism, or an infantile gesture is a compromise, one that grants distance but at the same time allows a glimpse of what is really on a person’s mind. Many a true word, wrote Shakespeare, and there are many true words in Getting Real About Sex Addiction. Some of my favorite writers and filmmakers are comic in their style, thinking this the best way to provoke or inspire. Meaning, they determine that the best way to convey reality is through absurdism. Go figure. This brings to mind (again) Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, about which I’ll be giving a talk in Charleston, South Carolina of all places, next spring. One of my bullet points to be is to point out that Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy, cold-war classic was preceded or released contemporaneously with ponderously sincere fare like 1959’s On The Beach, or 1964’s Fail-Safe. Back in the fifties and sixties, producers thought audiences wanted to be soothed and orated to by the likes of Gregory Peck and Henry Fonda. Who woulda’ thought that nebbish Peter Sellers playing three ridiculous roles, all of them with a latent smirk, would be the one to deliver the most impactful messages of social warning: we’re all gonna die so let’s have some fun while we talk about it.
In co-writing Getting Read About Sex Addiction, I took a similar approach after having read so many books and blogs about sex addiction that left me deadened and therefore needing some fun to rouse me; or, I’d listened to TED talk or You Tube mini stars, speakers who took themselves, it seemed to me, a bit too seriously. It’s not all fun and games, our book. Much of it’s a trauma, or has been, for someone, or maybe everyone. No laughing matter, but the contradictions in the field are what’s funny. You’ll see, or read. I dragged Joe and his infectious giggle with me on this thing, and he soon got into the spirit of drive and mischief, calling me up with mock-homophobic questions like “what are you wearing?” and joining me in this simultaneously, ambiguously serious yet irreverent endeavor. I’ll continue in this vein for a while in blog-space, gauging when to laugh and when not too. If I offend, either in the book or in these pages I’ll take a return joke on the chin, thinking that will be fair play, maybe hate play. Or I might circle back to something I’ve said or written before, because ultimately, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, most people are still laughing about sex.
So, like I wrote before, I’m writing about sex. Or rather, I just got done writing about sex, only there keeps being more to say about it, kinda like there will ever be more sex to be had not long after sex is done. Sex never stops. It never really goes away.
So I invited a friend of mine, Joe Farley, a fellow therapist and “Mastersonian” (more on that…I don’t know, sometime), to write a book with me, about sex addiction (SA). I’d written about this subject before, allusively, in a novel entitled Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole. Not many read it so it won’t matter too much if I repeat myself, though now the context will be non-fiction, and the very non-fictional context that is my private practice work. I asked Joe to join me on this project because a year ago, as I was finishing up the Tommy book that would later win the hearts of Kirkus reviewers, he seemed to be thinking and talking a lot about how couples in his practice weren’t getting along—I mean, really not getting along: about how women were too angry and men were too detached and wounded or something. Much of this comment was tangential to the subject of sex addiction treatment, which Joe and I have a foot in the door of, sort of, and which I had been planning to write more about for some time. Neither of us are specialists in this area, which doesn’t mean we don’t know much about sex addiction, or even that we don’t know as much as anyone else in the field of psychotherapy, necessarily. It means that we don’t have the certificate one gets if taking a few CEUs pertaining to the concept of SA, which means learning some facts about widespread the problem is, plus a few strategies on how to address the matter with afflicted individuals and the loved ones that are impacted by it all—basically, how to be nicer than society generally is about the matter of sex addiction but still not nice enough so as to inform would be sex addicts how their behaviors are actually not very nice in a destructive way, and especially not nice for their long-suffering partners.
Please excuse my flippancy. Know that I’m at least sincerely flippant. My year-long toil on this project has left me feeling a bit like Stanley Kubrick as he prepared to film Dr. Strangelove: as seriously as I take this subject, I can’t stop laughing. Joe and I bring our respective attitudes to our writing, which included thinking that most of the literature we’d read over the last decade about sex addiction was dull, officiously directive, and simple-minded. Moved to draw upon our not inconsiderable experience and to offer a perspective from the psychodynamic road less traveled (at least, when addiction is being talked about, anyway), we set about the task of assembling vignettes, explications of theory that were actually represented in typical sex addiction treatment models, only they weren’t being properly credited in our view. As the sex addiction concept and label is quite controversial, we’d write from within its framework and around it, describing people who didn’t necessarily identify as sex addicts, and situations that weren’t plainly circumscribed by the sex addiction idea. I further found that the more I researched, reviewed cases, and wrote, the more I thought that the issues to be confronted were polarized around gender.
The following is a stereotypical presentation immortalized in popular culture, and after twenty years, roughly, of treating couples, I think I understand its infamy.
In this scenario we have on the one hand what I think is a woman preoccupied in her attachment style: she is clinging, fretful in relationships, and sometimes distancing in bursts. She is prone to sudden break-ups with men, dramatized by diatribes that are embroidered by quasi-feminist cant: she is “empowered” as she gets rid of the jerk who keeps hurting her feelings, whether he intends to or not. Along with him, she evacuates her feelings with the dirty bathwater, and announces an end to an affair. Only it’s not an end. It’s a time-out. Or, it’s a rupture that the unwitting partner is meant to repair. Either way, it’s simply an event within continuity, and the relationship, which hasn’t really ended as a result of this turmoil, is the thing.
The ever shrugging, baffled male partner will soon be making his stolid counter-point, re-enacting an iconic sit-com moment with the line, “We were on a break!” or the expanded incredulity of “She broke with me!” To explain away an alleged infidelity, he is uber rationalist, committed to logic and order—the common sense of his sense, that relationships end and therefore people move on. *Cue the bit where the woman responds by casting this aloof, freedom-privileging stance as that of a trauma-inducing, Gaslighting partner—a rebuke coached by her sex addiction specialist therapist. As for the man, all his commander Spock-like affectation might seem real if it wasn’t punctuated with impulsive or pleasure-seeking behaviors: clandestine hook-ups carelessly referenced on social media; altered states of intoxication, and destructive displays of temper. Ordinarily, as in by the light of day, his inner experience—his uncertainty—is concealed beneath his affectless front. It is suggested by the likelihood that aspects of his pleasure seeking, like flirting or engaging sexually with women other than his preoccupied mate began sometime before the “break up” that subsequently justified that same behavior.
In our forthcoming book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction, scenarios like these are mostly discussed in the context of addiction, and not so much the broader, protean world of sexual mores that authors like Esther Perel are commenting upon and thus stirring the modern pot. But there are passages in our text where the space opens in the treatment plan, and the conversation drifts from orthodoxy to what’s happening between people who are in intimate relationships but do not understand one another. In our view, the sex addiction concept complicates but sometimes narrows the discussion around sexual conflict, framing an issue so that sides are chosen rather than problems understood.
I have a response to ubiquity. After a three month absence, I have a response to something that’s happened. It just all happened so quickly, so pervasively. No days off, I notice. And I don’t mean anything specific or even topical, necessarily. I don’t mean the impeachment business (whichever one we’re on now), or the Syrian debacle; I don’t mean Brexit or climate green deals, or wildfire alarms that hit close to home, literally; I don’t even mean the pathos of a shooting at an airb&b. Anomalously, I might have attended the Who concert last month—perhaps the last time they will perform in my unburning neck of the woods—and meant something lamentable in my time-is-passing reverie. Once I would have thought The Who ubiquitous. Or inviolate. Something not to be taken away, as the sign on Keith Moon’s chair once read. Something that will be with us, always.
I don’t mean this in a temporal sense, of course. I don’t mean that aging doesn’t exist and that icons don’t die before they get old. Smokey The Bear just turned seventy five, I hear—how timely, I think, not realizing how much we need him and his message. As I tell knowing friends or colleagues, I didn’t miss The Who this time. I never miss The Who, those closest to me know, because they are never far away from my mind. They are incorporated, as psychoanalysis teaches us: that means something like downloaded to those who think in cybernetics. They are introjected, which means something broader, more meaningful in an abstracted sense. Once, when I was a kid, as in last week, I played with the gestures of performance, swinging my arms in a Pete Townshend-like arc, doing the windmill thing, as it was once dubbed. My second favorite is a Keith Moon act, which looks like a Muppet maneuver: the arms flap about like those of a manic chef attacking his waiters with knives, or a symphony conductor who has lost track of the beat. There was no idea in this per se. There was no thought as we think of it. Behind these elements, however, is some manner of scripture. There is a story that began (and even this is arbitrary) in the 1940s, in West London during World War II, and was itself shaped by intergenerational trauma.
Yes, what isn’t? Trauma was ubiquitous in the 1940s, as it is today. The difference was that trauma was lesser spoken of back then. It was dealt with, however, with play of an exciting yet dangerous kind: enactments, repetition. War. And maybe sex, Freud’s preferred obsession, though The Who, my incorporated objects, had less to say about sex. At the time, non-masturbatory sex was being written about, or sung about by everyone except The Who. For their dominantly male audience (they even included the male symbol in their original logos), mimesis about something else was the original, and aptly primitive mode of communication. It was also reciprocal. Pete and the boys copied the Mods’ narcissistic dances, and he wrote lyrics that mirrored them, not himself. He held them, a Winnicottian might say—taught that their experience was no illusion. Whatever is happening is real. “I” or they couldn’t explain, he first expressed. No words, just action, based upon loneliness and confusion. The links had been attacked and destroyed, says a Bionion interruption, by bullets and bombs, and later prohibitions that stretched through the fifties…no, don’t, and STOP. Something primal didn’t stop, and a baby boom followed. That’s what follows war, I glean: life. Only life changes, gets electrified, and eventually, mass produced and consumed. That meant, among other things, that things don’t matter. Guitars and drums, for example, don’t matter. They are no longer precious artifacts, so they can be destroyed, or sacrificed in the name of an as yet unidentified human phenomenon.
What fans later introjected from The Who were a repertoire of gradually articulated ideals: they were anti-war, anti-material, egalitarian, and implicitly tolerant of the different, the wild and the marginal (I mean only that the members of The Who were very different in their individual personalities, thus enacting a symbolic democracy). At the same time, their ongoing mental illness was manifest and wrought casualties: they acted out their traumas, their early abandonments and abuses, doing some damage amid the entertainment, it has to be said. Do I mean anything specific? When eleven fans died in a concert stampede in Cincinnati in 1979, The Who incurred ambiguous responsibility, being part of the machine that made money and killed. As Keith Moon and talismanic manager Kit Lambert played out their respective self-destruction, The Who played on, not knowing what else to do, perhaps? In the 21st century, they are ghostly hypocritical, serving as an echo of inchoate principles—their gestures of performance and expression lingering like totems of an exploded generation.
21st century life is beyond electrified. It is digitized, and our heads (and personal info) are up in the clouds; it is relentlessly solipsistic, and I don’t like change or floating, or burning. I occasionally look up from my phone, and I’m doing something The Who didn’t do so much: I’m writing about sex. I’m writing about excess, which The Who did indulge, and in the context of sex that means sex addiction, plus the treatment of it, because when the play is over, the pieces have to be picked up and looked at by someone. In my forthcoming book, entitled Getting Real About Sex Addiction (plus a subtitle that hasn’t been worked out yet), the treatment of sex addiction or its synonymous terms are thought about alongside a whole lot of ubiquity. Honesty, I didn’t know where to begin. I just mean that I did.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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…
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.