Monthly Archives: April 2019

Symbiosis

 

So, we’re getting close now. Six weeks from now will be the 50th anniversary of Tommy, the landmark rock opera by The Who. On or around that time, I will publish my non-fiction, The Psychology of Tommy: how a rock icon reveals the mind. Those who have followed this blog or seen videos of my public appearances will know that I’ve been writing this book over the last two years, but in truth the project as a whole has lasted over a decade.

The personal aspects of the book, such as the story of my 2016 academic paper, or my presentation at the 2017 Creativity and Madness Conference, bookend the narrative alongside reflections from my upbringing about rock and roll, growing up in the seventies and eighties, becoming a fan of The Who as they entered a then seven year hiatus. I hope that informed or hardcore fans of the group, especially those of my generation, enjoy and identify with my ruminations on this history.  Among other things, I express how difficult it is to capture the essence of The Who: “we’re a one million piece band”, Roger Daltrey once said of himself and his mates—so multi-faceted were they; so mercurial, contradictory; so unlikely a success story in many respects. The contradictions were evident in my early exposure to them. In the late seventies, when I was a child, I only knew of them, as this was a period when they were rarely on TV. They were a group that made noise and destroyed their instruments. They were famous for this, I was told. Huh? Actually, in the late seventies, amid the nihilistic punk rock zeitgeist, this formula for success seemed quite plausible. Little did I know that The Who had paved the way for this kind of success.

When I first saw a video of The Who I was confused. “You Better You Bet” was anything but noisy, and no instruments were broken in their performance. Watching them on MTV I will have gleaned that the group had grown up if not yet old; that I was watching an older, more “mature” version of band. They were tuneful, wrote smart, moving lyrics. They were men. I loved and have always loved this side of The Who, but I don’t necessarily prefer it to the proto-punk side of them that I discovered later, and still listen to today. As recently as a month or so ago, I was re-discovering the sheer noise of The Who having gotten around to buying The Who at Filmore East 68′. I have since revelled in the sinewy din of the group in its prime. Listen to the thirty three minute version of “My Generation”, sit back and conjure the moment: the backdrop success of rivals Cream and Jimi Hendrix; the implicit angst of an audience straining against Vietnam, against generalized political turmoil. Against that backdrop, the chaos of The Who seemed apt. And yet it wasn’t just a cacophony.

Though essentially a jam upon a baseline riff, the performance writhes like a snake, building intensity, following an insistent rhythm, and then resting in delicate interludes, diminuendos. A harbinger of “Sparks” from Tommy, the improv showcases a vital, dynamic act on the cusp of its breakthrough. As the playing wonderfully drifts, my thoughts drift with it. I think of vicissitudes of energy, of danger and beauty, and of a mind’s journey. Thoughts turn to Tommy, of course, but also to the likes of Freud, Melanie Klein, John Bowlby, Wilfred Bion, D.W.Winnicott, James Masterson, Allan Schore. If you don’t know most of the names on this psychoanalyitic line-up of stars, you will do after reading my book. This is the meat of my project: an analytic review of Tommy, plus the implicit qualities of The Who, which I argue mirror the implicit lessons of psychoanalysis. This can and should fascinate, this meeting of pop art and academics, though I’m aware that readers will bring varying degrees of interest in or knowledge of psychology.

“Instincts and their Vicissitudes” was a famous paper by Sigmund Freud, published in 1915. In my book, I cast The Who as an artful embodiment of life and death instinct, of repetition compulsion, of trauma reenactment, of implicit memory, of Id, ego, and later, rock and roll Superego; of a parent-child dyad. I describe Tommy as the child/gnome in them and in us, The Who’s audience: bewildered, rendered inert by adult horrors, hipocrisies, yet possessing a spark that may ignite, releasing a passionate, articulate voice. I write about myself because I’m a long-time fan nurtured by the gaze of an unusual artist at whom I gazed back and learned something over time. Born in 1964, The Who were arguably the first pop act conceived as a reflection of its audience. They copied the dances, listened to what the audience said, observed how it acted; even when drowning us out with noise, they mirrored us. Who more than Pete Townsend has written about or talked about the dynamic between fan and performer? Who thinks about what performers say to its audience, and visa versa? Who learns?

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Hanging out with Jim

 

Talking to Jim is not easy sometimes. We hung out last weekend, observing his birthday. Jim’s much older than me but some of his tastes coincide with mine. I asked him if he wanted to watch a movie and he said yes, choosing The Graduate, a film released in 1968, the year I was born. I said “cool” thinking this a good choice, being a fan of the story and of its famous soundtrack by Simon & Garfunkel. Jim and I had spoken of The Graduate many times in the past. In passing, he’d call it one of the all-time greats, sometimes placing it in his private list of the top ten films ever made. Sometimes that list gets expanded, as there seems to be nearly fifty films, by my estimation, that he says merit inclusion in that list.

Anyway, as we started viewing the Netflix download or whatever he made familiar comments about the film’s stars and its music. The song “Sounds of Silence” sets the tone for a melancholy experience, alongside the image of Dustin Hoffman playing Benjamin Braddock, looking stoned, bereft, or both coming off a plane and heading for home. He’s the graduate, we’re meant to infer–an unhappy achiever, it seems. Jim didn’t seem to notice or recall this. He just liked the song, and relayed a memory of being at a party wherein this song was played, alongside songs like “Cecilia”, another song from the movie, he said. I used to correct Jim on points like this, but it no longer seems important whether The Graduate and S & G’s final album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, are separate entities. When Anne Bancroft (playing the iconic Mrs. Robinson) appears, Jim further enthuses, remarking on her class and style. “She can come to any party of ours,” I quip, referencing one of his signature phrases.

During these early scenes, Jim continues to enjoy the comic or sexy elements of the film: he delights in another famous moment wherein a family friend takes Ben aside at his graduation party (hosted by his parents), and seems to advise him about future investment prospects. “Plastics”, the man says, prodding a finger into Ben’s chest. The future is in plastics. This classic moment of absurdism heralds the social satire in The Graduate, which Jim seems to enjoy but not notice simultaneously. As Mrs. Robinson starts putting her moves on young Ben, Jim laughs, finding the diffidence in Ben hilarious and the sexiness of the older woman classy beyond everything. As Jim appears to find each succeeding moment of Ben’s humiliation amusing, I wonder what kind of sadism or masochism is being played out here. Is Jim identifying via memory with Ben Braddock, and privately recalling a time in which he’d been seduced by a Mrs. Robinson-type. He won’t tell me these things, as he’s quite dismissive of his own romantic past, but he betrays this past anyway, it seems to me, by how he reacts to things.

Jim doesn’t seem to care one way or another about Benjamin Braddock through The Graduate’s first half. Meaning, he doesn’t seem to identify or sympathize with Ben’s wayward manner, or with his implied disillusionment with the American Dream. This film’s criticism of middle-to-upper class Western life, circa 1968, seems either lost on Jim or else it’s a point of indifference. As we enter the film’s middle third, he complains that they’re aren’t enough S & G songs in the film yet, as if he’s becoming bored with the story. His indifference towards Ben turns to dislike, however, in the sequence wherein Katherine Ross, who is playing Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, is introduced to the action. Pressured to ask her out by his parents (because the Robinsons are business partners), Ben begrudgingly agrees, but in doing so he violates a command by Mrs. Robinson, who had previously demanded that he NOT date her daughter. On the surface, it seems reasonable that she, as Ben’s lover, would object to his dating her daughter. But something deeper is happening–something that Ben infers, taking personally her prohibitive demand. “I’m not good enough for her?” he complains.

Now the story is complex, has social and psychological layers that are intertwined, and Jim doesn’t like it. “I don’t like this next part”, he says ominously. That was an understatement. As Ben acts arrogantly and aloof on the forbidden date, taking the Ross character to a strip club among other things, Jim begins a diatribe: “This isn’t right what he’s doing. She doesn’t deserve this. If I had my way, I’d cut his balls off for behaving like this!” At this point, Jim is hot-tempered, as if he has left the fiction and is speaking to something deep within himself. His focus remains external, however. As I carelessly ask, “Do you wonder why he’s doing this?”, he flatly replies, “No. It doesn’t matter”, as if offended by my question. I take a moment to recall that when Jim is annoyed by something, his curiosity abandons him. He’s not interested in Ben’s motivation, or the unconscious wishes or conflict that his behavior is acting out. In this way, Jim and I are quite different.

The remainder of the film passes with an air of disappointment. A few more S & G songs on the soundtrack lighten the tone somewhat, reminding Jim of the groovy vibe he’d once thought this film represented. Otherwise, watching The Graduate has been a disillusionment for him. His past, 1968, or that entire era, perhaps, was not what he thought it was, it seems. It isn’t just a party, this film seems to be saying, of the era in which it was made. I don’t bother inviting this discussion with Jim. Gingerly, I venture that the film is not what he remembers, and he sort of agrees. He didn’t get that it was a satire, he comments. In saying this, he doesn’t mean that he didn’t understand. He means that he chose not to notice that aspect of the film, and he has no problem with that, he is further saying. I hold my tongue on a riposte: that’s like watching Laurel & Hardy not getting that it’s a comedy, I want to say.

I don’t say that. Like I said, talking to Jim is not easy sometimes. So sometimes we just hang out.

 

 

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