A line from “Acid Queen”, one of the lesser famous yet wonderful songs from Tommy, The Who’s iconic 1969 rock opera, and the subject of my forthcoming article in the March issue of The Journal of Culture and Psychology. I reference the song “Acid Queen” in my paper, in a section that tracks the opera’s plot-line, thin that it is, plus its themes. The Acid Queen is a seductress, representing sex, drugs and rock and roll, that triumvirate of original rock and roll sin that, like the devil that once seduced blues musicians (the 20s and 30s blues myth), will tear the soul apart. In “Acid Queen”, a narrator ambiguously instructs that Tommy, or the listener, must “gather your wits and hold on fast”, for growing up, with or without rock and roll, is not easy. Straightforward narrative is not one of Tommy‘s strong points, yet a narrative replete with such ideas is what Pete Townshend wanted to give his music, and rock music in general.
In the 1960s, rock had an emerging narrative, albeit one that was mostly implied, and rarely made explicit. Previously, movies and books with a rock and roll ethos existed, but the most in-depth pop artifacts of the period (Catcher in the Rye, or On The Road) seem more like older cousins of the fledgling ‘rock’ sensibility. The groundwork for a different spirit lay in the context of the era: a relatively prosperous space following world war wherein youth had newfound access to disposable income, plus an evolving electronic media that would galvanize voices against the next war on the docket. I think those post-war kids demanded an art form to truly call their own, and rock and roll, more so than pop, jazz, or even blues, was it. In the 50s, rock and roll’s earliest fans, its infants, seemed to have modest needs, basic social needs: to go out and dance, and thumb its nose at adult squares; to have sexual freedom, and flex muscles. Social conscience, an awareness of life beyond borders of various kinds, of political or spiritual purpose: rock’s adolescent period, the now so-called classic rock period, developed a more mature (if still imperfect) outlook.
The Who weren’t the first, or even the most successful artists to push the limits of the form, or inspire society. Clearly, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and arguably several others were more impactful at the time. Also, The Who were unlikely heroes from the outset of their career: beyond rebellious, they were noisy, nihilistic, and sort of remote from the sexy, peace-loving milieu of the sixties. Boasting “I hope I die before I get old” in “My Generation”, they seemed the antithesis of mature in 1965. If you want proof of this, look no further than footage of their performance at the flower power-inaugurating Monterey Pop Festival of 1967. Observe the ferocity of their act, the extra layer of violence within their notorious instrument-smashing finale. The Who weren’t just breaking through to an American audience that night. They were staking out a position that ran against the grain.
Yet they were raised to fame alongside the aspirations, lies and traumas of the period, and despite the immaturity, the ugliness on the surface, they were as idealistic as any of their peers. Their violence, as oblique as an intelligent audience intuited it to be, was contained within their art and was therefore no more anti-social than a war movie or a western, but no less revolutionary than long hair or a picture of a Campbell’s soup can. Their loudness was an insistence upon being heard, at once petulant and logical; detonating of harmony yet music to the ears. Their legendary squabbles, conflicts of personality, were a microcosm of democratic values, rock and roll style. After a few years of roaming thus, on the road, from stage to stage (The Who were the first British Invasion band to build a following through incessant touring) they arrived at the decade’s climax, stealing the show at Woodstock, and delivering for an unsuspecting (even) larger audience a character–a mythic character–that was uniquely a product of the rock and roll experience.
Tommy Walker is a child of war: his caregivers are stolid and traumatized, and he is disoriented by their emotional absence. Acting out occurs, a crisis happens, and a secondary trauma concretizes insecure attachment, and begins the drama. Thereafter, Tommy goes inward, retreats from this older generation. Disillusioned (or some primitive version of that), he finds his own music within himself (a “vibration” that brings the raucous music of The Who to mind); he plays unusual games, discovers pinball, and becomes a bizarre celebrity through his talent–a rock star of sorts. He finds his voice, literally and symbolically, and seeks to redress social wrongs through spiritual awareness. And his celebrity, ultimately, is a different kind of hero. Not only talented, he is a unique voice, a social leader, reflecting the expectations of a new audience: that he be thoughtful; that he represent the values of youth, and be engaged with the world. Above all, that he be honest.