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?