Listening To You

 

So I conclude this four-part introduction to my paper on Tommy with a reference to its finale: a pop hymnal that Rolling Stone author Dave Marsh once described as “a moving passage expressing that all power emanates from the mob”. For new listeners, “Listening To You”, a refrain attached to the song, “See me, feel me”, might sound a little like the “Let the Sunshine in” passage from Hair, which ran contemporaneously on Broadway in 1969. The sentiments of these songs are indeed similar: an uplifting message of hope for the future, set against the backdrop of a circular musical theme.

The layered meaning of “Listening To You” is addressed in the second half of my paper, which traces the drama of Tommy, proceeding from the opening crisis (the murder of Tommy’s mother’s lover), which his parents cover up, which half-intentionally generates the deaf, dumb, and blind condition which in turn is a manifestation of Tommy’s dissociative withdrawal/silent protest against all that is dishonest. Living his life, Tommy finds a talent, pinball, and becomes a champion of the game and a kind of rock star. Later, as was de rigeur in 1969, he becomes something more than an exponent of light entertainment, something closer to a spiritual leader, inspiring youth in particular. In the midst of this, he is “cured” of his solipsistic withdrawal, transforming from a figure of eloquent silence to one that is socially engaged, if rather didactic in his promotion of “awareness”.

This latter development, to which I had listened casually for years prior to writing my paper, led me to consider other aspects of Tommy’s psychology beyond the effects of early childhood trauma while retaining consideration of that early history. In the service of this task, I turned to the writings of James Masterson and Harry Guntrip, two figures from the psychoanalytic family tree who, like John Bowlby, were writing about things like attachment and loss, schizoid withdrawal, and/or schematics of intrapsychic structure around the same time that Tommy was being made.  Drawing upon Masterson’s model of intrapsychic structure of self disorders, I played with the idea that Tommy Walker emerges as an adult displaying the features of Narcissism and Schizoid personality disorder (the combo presentation is more precisely delineated by Guntrip).

To explain, Masterson’s model is one of so-called object relations units, featuring representations of self and other, which constitute an individual’s false self (a kind of strategic way of being in the world, consisting of an aggregate of experience). According to Masterson, a person’s representations of self and other are nuanced depending upon the nature of their disorder: Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid are the three main personality types his model outlines. Tommy’s Narcissism is exhibited in several ways: initially, his preoccupation with his image in mirrors seems the most obvious indicator; he is lost in himself. Later, he seems grandiose in his emergence as a star, in  his upbraiding of followers, and in his general sense of himself as a “sensation”. Like a tragic hero, he seems destined for a fall. It happens in the penultimate song, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” in which disillusioned (kids?) rebel against the restrictions of the rather farcical “holiday camp” and revolt against Tommy’s leadership. The lyrics bring to mind the kind of scenes that might have happened had fans of Woodstock not tolerated sitting in down-pouring rain, suffering lack of food, overcrowding and poor hygiene conditions for days upon end. Meanwhile, Tommy seems like an aloof figure: essentially withdrawn, somewhat paranoid and alienated, still fearful of being appropriated for others’ needs. His lingering schizoid dilemma is that of seeking attachment while protecting himself from harm, real or imagined.

The hopeful conclusion suggests a resolution of such conflicts, a transcendence of false self strategies such that Tommy and his followers can listen more intently to both outside and internal voices, integrating complex experiences of self and other instead of merely reacting against fate. More plainly, the finale promises that artists and their listeners can learn to move on from trauma, grow up, and deal with life’s triumphs and travails. If that all sounds rather trite or precious, then it may be, but at least it’s more positive or mature than “hope I die before I get old”. Then again, the opera’s libretto (if I may use that term) suggests more or less the same as what “My Generation” did four years prior to Tommy: that The Who would bond with its audience (the mods of the mid-sixties), and reflect their values, dreams, including the nihilism; their love and their hate. So Tommy ends with a refrain that you can sing in the shower, sing from behind the wheel of your car; sing by yourself or sing amongst a crowd. Take your pick, but while you sing, listen:

Listening to you, I get the music

Gazing at you, I get the heat 

Following you, I climb a mountain

I get excitement at your feet

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