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The things not yet said about Tommy

And there are some things still unsaid, believe it or not. So, in the aftermath of my book’s publication (The Psychology of Tommy) plus the satisfaction of receiving a good review in Kirkus magazine (made their Indie books of the month list for June—yea!), I’ve decided to provide a summary of the book’s psychological theories as they relate to the opera. This idea stems largely from the comments of my Kirkus reviewer, who admired the overall flavor of my book, the quality of the prose, as well as some of my ideas about The Who, but clearly felt lost with respect the psychoanalytic theory that inhabits the book’s center. This was to be somewhat expected as the reviewer is a literary critic, not a psychologist, but what may be deemed “minutia” or “esoteric” needn’t be so intimidating to the average reader. But the material should nonetheless be important to an interested reader, for in my opinion, if you’re a fan of Tommy and you’re not interested in its psychological themes, then you’re not really a fan of Tommy. Therefore, without detailing (yet again) the entire plot of Tommy, here are the main theoretical points of the text, uniquely applied to the rock opera, as in not previously explained either by an artist, music critic or any social science observer.

  1. Firstly, whenever commentators casually observe themes in Tommy, they tend to notice something relating to Narcissism, either because of the ubiquitous presence of mirrors, or else because of the protagonist’s introversion. Narcissism is a concept that is much diluted by popular opinion and lay definitions. In the book I point out that while Tommy is given to spells of grandiosity as a young adult, he is not exploitative or unempathetic as a character, contrary to what is commonly observed in Narcissistic personalities. His earlier self-absorption is more Schizoid or trauma-based in its quality and his Narcissistic wound is comprised of repeatedly pronounced and frustrated needs: to be seen, to be heard, to be touched.
  2. Secondly—also important—Tommy is not autistic, nor is the opera an allusion to autism, and this is not a matter of dismissing a speculative diagnosis based upon developmental material that simply isn’t provided. Tommy is not autistic because that is a neurological deficit that is biologically-based, and Tommy’s psychosomatic affliction is clearly linked to the prohibitions expressed in the song “1921”: you didn’t hear it, you didn’t see it, you won’t say nothing…
  3. Next, continuing the repression theme, I observe that Tommy exudes mythic status, recalling at least two classic literary myths that are embedded in the collective unconscious: Hamlet and Oedipus Rex. The essence of Hamlet is perhaps less famously downloaded as an explanation of the human mind, but in my text I argue that Tommy’s dramatic crisis is similar to that of the Danish prince. He has been traumatized by the loss and then return of his father, plus an inexplicable crime that follows, and in addition, he is told that he must deny the senses that witnessed this event (or intuits it), hence the deaf, dumb, and blind condition, plus a generalized insecure attachment, exacerbated by an insecure narrative—the problem of secrets. How this dovetails with the Oedipus Rex myth pertains to the following devices: the condition of blindness as a metaphor for denial; Tommy’s thwarted sexuality (he is unseduced by the Acid Queen, and is benignly rejecting of Sally Simpson, a would-be partner); his compromised identification with patriarchs and male figures in general, because they are either absent (father), murderous (father), or abusive (uncle and cousin). His solution in the absence of earthly models is spiritual, though the opera at best implies that God, the ultimate patriarch, will not let the hero down. Repression, denial of sexuality, failure to integrate a Super-ego: three features that informed Freud’s theory of neurotic psychosexual development.
  4. And what of the Narcissism of matriarchs, you may wonder? Theoretical attention to this matter emerged less from Sigmund Freud than from Melanie Klein, the second most famous figure in the history of psychoanalysis and arguably the originator of modern Object Relations Theory (though the theory of objects—meaning caretaking other—being incorporated into ego is properly derived from Freud’s 1917 paper, “Mourning and Melancholia”). In Tommy, mirrors as physical objects are rivals to the boy’s mother, who exudes jealousy and ultimately rages at these symbols of her replacement. In her “smash the mirror” anger, she manifests a split-ego: on the one hand, behaving herself like an un-mirrored child; on the other hand, inhabiting the coercive role that her own caregivers once likely played. As a male, Tommy must go to extremes to separate from her, yet the positive turn in the opera lies in his yearning—at first internal and muted, and later explicit—which is best conveyed in the “Listening to You” passage that appears both halfway and at the end of the album. In all of the sources I’ve read about Tommy, no one has remarked on the likely meaning of the “You” that is indicated here: a fusion of self and other; a dyadic phenomenon of self that is forged by a dynamic with another. This is attachment theory’s prevailing notion of what is means to develop most plainly…a self. In my book, I further assert what Who fans might see coming if they read this: that Tommy’s story parallels what Townshend the songwriter, plus The Who as a group, attempted during their career, especially during their early halcyon days. Paraphrasing critic Dave Marsh, they sought to entertain and to express themselves, but more importantly, they sought to represent a complex, yearning and troubled audience.
  5. Repetition and trauma. The essence of this theme is that history repeats, especially painful events. This means that they re-occur and that history is therefore cyclic and not linear, as humans often prefer to believe (progress!). It means that we feel compelled to repeat, or to re-experience (the parlance of trauma) so as to maintain attachment, versus remembering symbolically (in psychoanalysis, symbols mean words). So Tommy doesn’t remember his past, just as Pete Townshend, The Who and their audience struggled to remember their pasts, though they may have been obsessed with the past (think of the line, “the past is calling…” from an ethereal passage in the later Quadrophenia). Tommy re-enacts, plays games, finds pain and joy and then pain again upon an inner journey. In this way, he is liberated from pain but old residues linger, leading him to repeat forebears’ mistakes: he is naïve with his dreams, expects too much, is didactic and bossy when his followers won’t play his way. This climaxes in a revolt, though the denouement is a peaceful, disappointment-containing and sober end.
  6. The last psychological theme to explain from my book is that of implicit memory and fragmented, pre-verbal unconsciousness. For those concerned with narrative drama, the supposed flaws in Tommy lie in its thin storyline and vagueness. I argue that whether intended or not, the incomplete expressions in the opera reflect the dissociated mind of the protagonist, which allows for a similarly unconscious experience in the listener—a kind of absorption into experience that an analyst named Wilfried Bion wrote might occur between analysts and patients. The best example of this fragmented yet evocative expression again lies within the song “1921”, in which the implied crime that ignites Tommy’s deficit condition is repeatedly and exclusively referred to as “it”. Tommy was born amidst war, like the Mods of West London and The Who were born amidst war. What they saw and heard will have been unfathomable once, and what may have been fleetingly clear may have been censored. Meanwhile, what they felt was vibration and noise, and what they later did with that was rock and roll.

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Outside of time

 

I loved Max Raabe’s one-liners last night, including his deft allusion to Donald Trump just prior to the encore. With it, he nearly brought the house down at Davies Symphony Hall, though upon reflection, I was glad he didn’t take it further.

If you don’t know who Max Raabe is or why he might be relevant to this blog, especially the recent entries about The Who and Tommy, then bear with me: a few years ago I had no idea who Max Raabe was, but his cultish appeal now grips me, has me delighted in a new form of escapism, ruminating upon that which exists outside of time, lurking in vintage elegance. You see, Max Raabe is a jazz singer, one who exists in a time warp, taking his audience back to an earlier time, circa 1930, when top hats, black ties, silk scarves and reefers were the tailoring alongside the songs of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Bertolt Brecht, to name a few. “Max parties like it’s 1929” is a tag-line that promotes the German baritone singer, who performed Tuesday night with his Palast Orchestra. For two hours, listening to Max and his 13-piece band, you can sink into their ambience, conjuring a night amongst the one percent of another era, and soak up the cabaret. In between numbers, Max deals comic soundbites in a deep, Bela Lugosi voice that has people laughing before he’s even delivered a punchline: “Tonight we have some lovely music for you all; songs that ask the questions, where can we find love? How do we find one another? How to get rid of each other?” His delivery is slow, offbeat, as in unusual, but also timeless. His joke about Donald Trump was buried in an anecdote about Samson and Delilah, relating to a song I can’t remember (I guess the joke was more memorable). Max told the story of Samson, the ancient Israelite hero, whose vigor and authority derives from his hair and who is betrayed by his lover, Delilah, who orders a servant to cut Samson’s hair. Max’s cryptic yet readily understood punchline stemmed from a subsequent musing: why would strength or moral authority be bestowed upon those with unusual hair?

The quip received the biggest of many laughs on the night. Clearly, the San Francisco audience was in sympathy with Max’s implications, and it was the only joke of the night to reference contemporary politics. That it did so in the guise of ancient mythology is important as it allowed Max and his orchestra to maintain their pose of disinterested observers, wryly commenting on the world but remaining detached, a bit like Joel Grey as the master of ceremonies in the similarly-themed musical, Cabaret. For Max Raabe to maintain his cultish outsider status, his ride upon the periphery of pop culture while paradoxically achieving success, he must maintain his distance. To enable escapism, he must be coy and oblique. To be relevant, which he apparently chooses to be, he must comment on the era in which he actually lives, but do so through the veil of allusion.

In 1968, when The Who were themselves cultish, as in not yet superstars, Pete Townshend set about the task of writing Tommy, a rock opera about a boy whose drama exists outside of time, and whose story is now part of the rock and roll mythology. Except The Who’s music did not harken back to an earlier time, but rather to the future. Indeed, at that time they were as cutting edge as anyone, making a noise the likes no one had ever made before, much less think of as entertainment. If you need evidence of this, give a listen to the recently released The Who at Filmore East 68′ CD. Twenty minute jam sessions based upon an original 3-minute single were nobody’s idea of rock and roll in the 50s, but that’s what the kids wanted in 68′, apparently. And The Who, poised to blow those kids’ minds with a new form of pop narrative and not just their glorious noise, were set to oblige.

The story of Tommy bends time to fit a surrealist framework, allowing for imagination and a stirring of feeling. Townshend introduces a dramatic point, an altercation that happens in the year 1921, with the background context being that of World War I and the absence of a father. As The Who’s members are all children of the WWII era, the setting of Tommy is allusive, designed to conjure links but not be explicit. The unnamed crime of 1921 is cryptic, operating as another allusion: what are the atrocities that follow war? What are the traumas that continue, such as the next wars on the docket (Vietnam?), or the crimes that exist upon war’s periphery, like assassinations (MLK? Two Kennedys, Malcolm X?). Hmmm? What might this otherwise unsubtle and loud British group be saying about our world, some might have wondered?

Beyond 1921, the timeline of Tommy drifts apart as if chronology doesn’t matter. This story, like a myth, could happen at any time, anywhere, so it doesn’t matter that we don’t know where the boy grows up exactly; where he becomes a pinball champion and later a spiritual leader; it doesn’t matter whether his stardom coincides with the 1930s, whether his fans are drafted into WWII; where his so-called holiday camp is. I read somewhere that Tommy’s story was meant to end in 1984, which is perhaps an allusion to Orwell, but that mooted time-frame would also be time-bending, as Tommy still seems like a young man with something to learn at the opera’s climax. He strikes me as being the age of his author–a mid-twenty-something–with an uncertain, though promising future, but one that isn’t frozen in time. The Who will be touring again this year, plus recording a new album, to my pleasant surprise. I doubt Max Raabe will be their supporting act. Too quiet. I further suppose that music is supposed to take us forward and back, with something to remember, and then something to look forward to.

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We do it for them

 

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.

 

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Thoughts on Queen, then The Who

 

In the early eighties I liked the band Queen. I didn’t love Queen but I liked them more than most groups, and before my addiction to The Who took off, Queen were probably my favorite band. However, they weren’t that fashionable at the time, this being 82′ thru 86′, roughly. My sister owned their ‘Greatest Hits’ record, which I borrowed regularly, and remembered the now chestnuts, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “We Are The Champions”, “We Will Rock You”, and so on, from a few years earlier. But none of my friends listened to Queen. I wasn’t hearing them on the radio anymore. By 84′, when they released The Works (album) and received modest attention for the quirky “Radio-Ga-Ga” plus a comic video where they dressed up in drag, they seemed eclipsed by slightly younger rock heroes. Van Halen and AC/DC, in particular, plus a host of other metal acts, seemed ahead of Queen in the line of popularity. That was with boys, anyway. Girls didn’t seem into Queen either, instead listening to Duran Duran and Depeche Mode, or the soon-to-be feminine icon, Madonna.

I wasn’t sure as an early teen, but I held the vague impression that Queen were deemed uncool in the United States. I didn’t know that Freddie Mercury was gay or bisexual, and I likely would not have cared but for the prospective embarrassment of being told that my musical tastes were “gay” and therefore wrong. It will have been that strange, subtle homophobia that stilled my tongue, preventing me from extolling Queen’s virtues, or blasting one of their songs from a stereo if my friends were around. My male friends seemed to like bands, music, that “kicked ass” in a way that Queen didn’t, I guess. Girls seemed to want sensitive lyrics and some manner of posturing that they might swoon over, but this was an implicitly heterosexual arrangement and Queen didn’t seem to fit that either. Now, thirty years later, long after Mercury’s passing, a revival seemingly kicked off by a clip in the film, Wayne’s World, and a clearly more sympathetic attitude, perhaps even celebratory attitude towards icons who represent sexual minorities, Queen are as in as any act under the Classic Rock umbrella. In fact, I saw an internet poll over the holidays that ranked Queen as the #2 group in rock history, behind only perennial favorite, The Beatles.

I’m not sure that homophobia was the reason for that eighties window of dipped popularity–that’s just my impression, my memory. Music, performers, even sensibilities, go in and out of fashion, it seems. Some might recall that Queen were briefly controversial because they played in South Africa (in 84′) when most other western performers were cooperating with economic sanctions against that once apartheid-practicing state. But who remembers, for example, the vitriolic feeling aimed at Queen by the once hip rock critic, Dave Marsh. In reference to their 1978 album Jazz, Marsh literally called the members of Queen a bunch of creeps, thinking their music pompous, arrogant. Queen, Marsh wrote, were perhaps rock’s first truly “fascist” group. Whoa! I once reacted, thinking that “Bicycle Race” was a just cute, funny song. However, as I read Marsh’s opinion and thought of some of Queen’s songs, not so much the ones on Jazz but rather “We Are The Champions” and “We Will Rock You”, I thought…well, he kinda has a point.

Marsh is an old school rock critic, the kind who wrote for Rolling Stone in its heyday. Perhaps best known for writing about Bruce Springsteen, Who fans should know his biography, Before I Get Old, published in 1983, soon after The Who’s first so-called retirement. BIGO is an exhaustive, celebratory yet critical look at The Who, its audience and the historical context that enveloped them. To read it cover to cover and absorb it is to understand what rock n’ roll meant to audiences of the now-dubbed Classic Rock era: it reflects a period wherein R & R was meant to speak for youth, represent democratic ideals (at least implicitly) in a way that it hasn’t done as much since. Bands like The Who were flagbearers of a new way to be famous; a new way to bond with and represent an audience. In Lambert & Stamp (2015), a documentary about The Who’s early talismanic managers, director James D. Cooper makes a similar point, portraying The Who as perhaps the first act in rock history to not have a self-contained identity, as in one that seems separable from an audience that discovers it. The Who were more or less conceived as that which reflected its audience–the Mods of West London in the early-to-mid-sixties–in its tacit as well as not-tacit ways of being. They didn’t so much have an audience as a constituency, one they–especially Townshend–felt answerable to. How this kind of phenomenon recapitulates, or seeks to correct early childhood attachment and personality development is more important, even more profound, than anyone in pop culture realizes. Not sure what I mean? Think of this: an artist chooses to express himself, but more importantly, he chooses to express the other, seeing his audience. That audience experiences this, sees itself in the mind of the artist, and resonates, beginning a back and forth, a cycle; a dynamic. Hopefully growth. Sound familiar?

I think it fair to express that Queen, unlike The Who, or even Queen’s contemporaneous punk rock peers, were not looking to represent anyone but themselves, which is not a criticism, necessarily, though it’s strange to view them, or Freddie Mercury, now being cast as someone who reflected individuality in the face of adverse public tastes. My sense is that he and the band blended in with glam rock extravagance, cocktail hour jazz, rockabilly and disco ambience, thinking they’d simply entertain and ever stay one step ahead of the pigeon-holes. Far from outspoken, opinionated like Pete Townshend, Mercury was a reticent man publicly, yet perhaps garrulous and a fierce social critic behind closeted doors. I’m pleased that time has been kind to Queen, and that windows of relative exile, like what I perceived in the 80s, are closed behind them. But for me, the movie or book, or Ken Burns series, or whatever it is that will truly express what R & R means or meant to its audience in its renaissance period, has yet to materialize. For me, it will star The Who.

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Graeme on the radio

More on Tommy: this time a conversation with fellow therapist and Who enthusiast, Joe Peroni. Enjoy

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Graeme presents Tommy in Santa Fe…at last

From August, 2017, this presentation was part two of a project that culminated in my book, The Psychology of Tommy, published in May.

 

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Who Cares

 

Been gone from this for a while. Several reasons: I wrote two blog articles for psychecentral.com, both of which called for some extra time and attention. Next, I’ve thought to give Blended some time to breathe—that is, to let the six or so entries devoted to it a chance to sink in. Fat chance, I think sourly, which leads me to the most personal reason for my absence: a certain discouragement and torpor. Nothing special, just the standard writer’s self-importance, feelings of petulance…immaturity.

Another priority was the preparation for January 4th, my latest chance to talk Tommy before an audience. I’d been wanting to present at Mechanics’ Institute (MI) in San Francisco for ages, and I said as much at the outset of my talk. Thursday night I had my moment before an eager crowd of sixty, there because of MI’s capable marketing team. I got paid nothing for my time and labor. That’s what I’ll say if the tax or music copyright watchdogs ever ask, and the truth is I’m not doing it for the money. The reason I talk is the reason I write. I want someone to hear me. I want an audience.

“Are you ready to rock?” exhorted my host, the activities director at MI. She’s a nice woman, supportive and interested. More than myself, even, she’d observed the potential for a discussion about The Who’s Tommy to bring out the fans amongst the MI membership. Actually, I’m not sure how many in the crowd were MI members. Maybe that doesn’t matter, but I’m grateful someone knows what people want to hear. Anyway, six o’clock on Thursday rolled around. I knew my material, was ready to talk, and as I stood in the wings, waiting for the audience to take their seats, I felt close to stardom, I think. I almost noticed how it felt, rather like I did in Santa Fe in August. Then I began.

Fifteen minutes in, all was going well. My voice, ordinarily dry and halting when speaking to groups, felt limber and relaxed. I paced languidly before my audience, gazing out casually, leaving pauses for effect, breaking into a slight lilt when reciting pertinent song lyrics. I stared over heads a lot—a technique designed to limit distraction, preempt anxiety. I played one or two samples of songs from Tommy—did my arm-windmilling bit, aping Pete Townshend, The Who’s songwriter and creative engine. The darkened room at MI made eye contact difficult. The few pupils I did meet seemed attentive and expectant, yet respectfully patient. An hour ahead of a promised Q & A session, I sensed the gathering of opinion. There was a handful of voices in the audience ready to challenge, to question or to share. I had suggested such an exchange at the beginning, right after the host’s rockin’ announcement. These people at MI: they weren’t like the staid crowd at the Creativity and Madness Conference in Santa Fe. They might have known less about psychology than doctors or therapists. Indeed, they likely gave less than a shit about John Bowlby or Melanie Klein, or James Masterson and Allan Schore. But they did care about Tommy. They had a lot to say about The Who.

Some just wanted to share how they’d been at Woodstock, and watched in amused awe as Pete Townshend stuck his knee into Abbie Hoffman’s groin. A political comment, sort of. Another man chuckled as he relayed a Jimi Hendrix/Who anecdote. I played along, knowing it would be the infamous Monterey Pop episode wherein the two bands tossed a coin to see who would get to play first, blow hippie minds and make rock history destroying things. One is meant to guffaw in concert at these tall tales, finding humor in the macho interplay of legendary rock stars. Truth is, I find this kind of jocular reminiscing slightly painful. After all, what I’d shared was, as far as I was concerned, a rich, layered analysis of a celebrated pop icon, yet still the kind of treatment The Who had thus far been denied. I didn’t want to merely reminisce with fellow fans. I wanted to muse with them, bring a sense of historical texture, intellectual interest wrapped in love and passion. I wanted to spark thought on something they had enjoyed over time but not truly examined.

Thankfully, the storytellers weren’t the only faction in the audience. One or two had read Townshend’s autobiography, Who I Am, and wanted me to speculate on how Tommy related to its author’s history of child abuse. Questions like this were a welcome challenge, but it was nothing compared to a penultimate query that has stuck with me since. Seated behind a man who had shared apocryphal stories about The Who’s early Mod days was a slender, brittle, middle-aged woman. Wearing a frown, she raised her arm, waited her turn, but upon being called, made a chiding comment that The Who were “a band for men”, and further offered that their love songs, few and far between as they were, seemed fraught with themes of abuse and exploitation. Punctuating this comment was a leading question directed at me: as a therapist, surely I thought (The Who) an unbalanced and harmful icon (something like that). Through the dim light, I looked into this woman’s angry eyes, saw the withering incomprehension of a staunch Beatles fan, a feminist revealing her barely male-tolerating ire. I didn’t want to answer her question per se. I wanted to spend another hour on the subject.

Collecting my thoughts, I noticed that we were towards the end. My host, the MI events organizer, might have glanced at her watch. I thought of “Sally Simpson”, a lesser famous song from Tommy that some critics abhor, for reasons I’ve never understood. The song is about a girl who falls in love with the guru-like Tommy character from afar, and gets hurt trying to touch him at a speaking event. Stood before the crowd at MI, with the seconds spinning by, I knew what I wanted to say at my slightly parallel event. I just had to organize myself. Moments later I was sharing an anecdote: a story about the inspiration for “Sally Simpson”; an incident in 1968 when The Who supported The Doors on tour, and Townshend witnessed the uber-petulant Jim Morrison kick a female fan in a melee. The incident sparked Pete’s sympathy, plus a memory, perhaps, of how he’d once envied the attention other bands (like The Beatles) garnered from screaming, clinging girls. The Who’s early songs were as female-bashing as anyone’s, I admitted on their behalf to that angry-looking woman in the MI crowd. But the following lyrics from “Sally Simpson” show what Tommy and great rock n’ roll are all about, ultimately:

She knew from the start

Deep down in her heart

That she and Tommy were worlds apart

But her mother said never mind, you’re part is to be what you’ll be

 

We grow up

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