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.