“1921” begins as a sentimental ballad, one of the few in The Who’s catalogue. The line, “I had no reason to be over-optimistic, but somehow when you smile I can brave bad weather”, is one of my favorites. Then, without reference to anything specific, the song turns: “What about the boy! What about the boy, he saw it all!”. Now, if Pete and the boys had plans to enact whatever “it” was, they didn’t let on. Actually, The Who toured with Tommy for at least two years without giving the slightest effort to elucidate the plot, at least not on stage. So it seems symbolic, this thing that Tommy Walker witnessed and shouldn’t have. Anyway, it’s more about the reaction than the event. In the next song, “Amazing Journey”, the opera introduces the famous deaf, dumb, and blind boy motif, which is the implied result of the trauma indicated but not specified in “1921”.
This incident, understood to be the murder Tommy’s mother’s lover by Tommy’s father (or the reverse for those who may have watched the film first), leads to the presumed psychosomatic reaction, manifest as Tommy’s disability. In my paper (reminder: due to be published in The Journal of Culture and Psychology next month), I don’t dispute this popular interpretation, but rather color the event in psychoanalytic theory, and open the matter of Tommy Walker’s early developmental history to further discussion. In covering the possibilities, I employ the theories of Melanie Klein, John Bowlby, plus the observations of researchers Jude Cassidy, and Besel Van der Kolk. Fancifully, I compare Tommy to Hamlet in so far as both protagonists suffer trauma that is as much about secrecy and lies as it is about violent horror. In the refrain of “1921”, Tommy’s parents, anxious that their son has witnessed their crime, exhort him, “You didn’t hear it, you didn’t see, you won’t say nothing to no one ever in your life”, and so on. Like many trauma victims, Tommy absorbs the message but extends the parameters of the injunction. He develops pervasive habits of dissociation, acting out, avoidance.
Then again, it’s possible that the crisis of “1921” is culmination of an already insecure attachment, perhaps established during Tommy’s infancy. Bowlby would at least argue that such a predisposition is attributable to external events: the back-drop of World War, the likely depression of Tommy’s mother in the aftermath of her husband’s earlier disappearance. Bowlby’s followers would assume that Tommy is afflicted with the consequences of maternal unavailability. Attachment researchers might speculate that his symptoms constitute avoidant, ambivalent, or most likely, disorganized attachment. Kleinians, meanwhile, might suggest that Tommy’s deaf, dumb and blind condition is an attack upon bad objects, and at least imply that such aggression, experienced within the murky back and forth of intrapsychic projections and introjections, had been within him since birth.
Cassidy’s paper, “Truth, Lies, and Intimacy”, is the centerpiece of an argument that Tommy suffers not so much from witnessing a murder, but from the distorted narrative that surrounds this horror. She and others, including Bowlby, suggest that distorted narratives lead to a profound confusion which prevents individuals from storing memories properly, hence flashbacks, nightmares, and other disturbances linked to complex PTSD. Of these, none are clearly indicated by Tommy’s affliction. Beyond defiant, he is like the early Who, lost in his own world and marching to the beat of a different drummer (BTW: rock has never known a more different drummer than Keith Moon), and his residues are behavioral, while his internal world is opaque. More than harmed, he is broken, alienated from society, even reality, and it’s hard finding a way back. This idea is axiomatic for many artists, psychologists, and historians, who reflect on this phenomenon, knowing it personally, but extrapolating, imagining collective obsessions around unresolved pieces of historical narrative: the assassination of JFK, the subjugation of Native Americans; conspiracy theories relating to area 51, even 9-11.
Now, had the narrative of Tommy lingered on things like flashbacks, nightmares, or broken alienation, the opera might have ground to a halt, become a drag, as the contemporaneous hippies might have thought. So credit Townsend for staying in the context of light entertainment, making it fun, giving Tommy a talent–pinball–for him to play with (his therapy), instead of wallowing in self-pity and gazing at himself in mirrors. How very rock and roll, I say. Then, when he’s either bored or emptied by games, he grows up a little, notices that his fans relate to him, and decides to broaden his message, speak out. He becomes a spiritual guru. How very late sixties, I say. So, rock stars mature. The paranoid-schizoid becomes a depressive, and it’s all fun and games until–well, someone gets hurt–and then something must be done, though what that something is…is unclear and problematic. After all, the play’s the thing.