I wasn’t quite on a high. On Friday morning, the day after my presentation, I strolled back to the conference center to hear at least one more speaker. I felt relaxed, sort of pleasantly drained, and because my own talk had gone well, I was spared the figurative hangover that otherwise may have left me sour or sluggish. The first talk was about children and trauma; specifically, it covered the story of a garrulous seven-year-old boy who enthused about movies depicting paranormal activity—movies that his mother watched obsessively at home, and that he watched or listened to because he had little choice. Ostensibly, the boy was a fan, but at night he wasn’t sleeping; instead, he was experiencing nightmares, was suffering injuries at school, hitting himself inexplicably. Self-harming. Dissociation. As I listened I thought of Tommy Walker, the fictional subject of my previous day’s talk, who might have shown similar symptoms had The Who’s famous rock opera been fleshed out with more vivid detail. Halfway through this Friday presentation, I was referenced out of the blue: the speaker was making a point about synchronicity, that Jungian/Joseph Campbell cosmic or spiritual construct, and reminding the audience of a biographical tidbit from my talk: that I was born around the time Tommy was in production. I can’t remember the context in which synchronicity was raised, and I had eschewed a spiritual focus in my talk, but as this other speaker continued I chuckled, and not just because my name had been mentioned. For me, this would be a day of synchronicity.
The afternoon would be anything but relaxing. Upon leaving my hotel, I left for the airport, bidding a fond farewell to Santa Fe—a gentle, artful little town, I must declare. At the conference center, in the airport lounge, and even on the plane to Phoenix, I was enjoying the aftermath of Thursday’s success: people were walking up to me, giving me nice compliments, thanking me for giving them a positive, educational experience with my Tommy lecture. I was basking but I was nonetheless anxious. One of my flights had been delayed, forcing me to wait two hours in Phoenix before catching the next flight, a late afternoon shot to Vegas. I’d never been to sin city before and I wasn’t planning to stay long. One night only: see a show, sleep in; then head home the next day. That was the deal. However, my flight was due into Vegas at 6:30, only ninety minutes before show-time. That would make things tight if disembarking, wading through a terminal, finding a shuttle or taxi, traveling downtown, checking in at another hotel, and then zipping over to a concert venue, all before the lights dimmed.
I wasn’t helped by airline seat assignments, or rather, by the lack of them. Southwest books passengers in groups of three, filling their 737 aircraft with roughly one hundred people for each flight. Technically, I was in boarding group C, passenger 35, or something like that. As far as I was concerned, my ticket might as well have read, boarding group no fucking chance. Anyway, someone or thing was looking out for me. I got a seat, right at the back, and was second to last off the plane, exiting around ten to seven. I made it to the taxis at ten minutes after the hour, got to my hotel twenty minutes later still, and—seeing a line that resembled the security check congestion at airports—decided to stash my luggage with bell staff, leaving check-in until later. The walk over to the concert venue was short, just a quick dash over a foot-bridge that overlooked the strip, but it was long enough to stir impressions that would continue over the ensuing twenty-four hours.
In some respects, Vegas was what I’d expected: a hot, steamy oasis, covering me with thick air and adult Disneyland ambience. It was heavily perfumed, with a tobacco fringe—the whiff of a dinosaur demographic, fused to slot machines. And those totems were everywhere: at the airport, in the lobbies of hotels, even next to restaurant entrances. I was half-surprised to not find them in bathroom stalls, where they would have been aptly placed, it seems to me. Beyond that tractor beam pull, sex was on alternative display. At Caesar’s Palace, within a vast lobby area, a phalanx of young women, mostly unattached, prowled in heavy make-up, ignoring men like me and wearing tight dresses that looked about as comfortable as scuba gear. The men seemed fewer, but they also traveled in groups and gazed about a lot. Like the women, they looked like they’d worked hard to be in Vegas: looking good, but more comfortable than their imminent sexual partners. You see, their pain was over. They’d given at the gym, not in the effort to wear clothes or walk in ridiculous shoes.
Past that display, I made it to Caesar’s coliseum, where I was amongst my element, sort of. Scores of middle-aged men, plus their similarly-aged women, mingled and then filed into the arena, there to see—you guessed it—The Who. A year ago, I met Pete Townshend, the band’s songwriter and guitarist, after a sturdy performance in Oakland. He autographed the paper that served as the basis for the Santa Fe lecture, and we spoke briefly. A special moment. This time, seeing The Who was my reward following a job well done, but there would be no private audience with Pete, despite the synchronicity of our shared presence in the desert. Seeing The Who was another peak experience–a spiritual one, or close to it–and the perfect, even predestined climax to a gratifying, triumphant week. Like many others in the audience, I knew their songs by heart; I danced (in place, sort of) and air-guitared like I did during my presentation; I sang along with lyrics like they were the pieces of hymns.
I’m back home now, with my feet on the ground, and my head more or less focused on the week ahead, the hours of listening that I’m privileged to practice. The Who have followed me and are playing this weekend at a festival in Golden Gate Park. A PBS radio commentator remarked that “Won’t Get Fooled Again” features the greatest scream in rock and roll history. It still gives him goosebumps, he said. Amen, I say.
To my surprise, “Who Are You” was the first song of The Who’s set at the Oakland Arena last Thursday night. I was taken aback. Having attended several of their concerts over the years, and observed numerous set-lists from different eras of their remarkable fifty-year history, I had expected the familiar choppy chords of “I Can’t Explain”, or maybe “Substitute”—two mid-sixties gems to warm up the crowd. “Who Are You”, with its thoughtful narrative, reflecting the bands mature, late seventies outlook, seemed misplaced as the opening number; a reminder of a once concert-climaxing provocation. According to legend, the lyric recounts the story of a lost night on the town by its writer, Pete Townshend. He wakes up in a Soho doorway, a policeman knows his name. He says “you” (Townshend) can go home (in lieu of being incarcerated), if he can get up and walk away. The Who of this late seventies period were addled, about to lose Keith Moon, and struggling to keep up appearances as dignified, veteran rockers competing with up-and-comers, the emerging punk rock tsunami. The song reflects upon aging, being jaded with fame; feeling broken and undeserving of love. Its refrain poses a question—Who Are You?—that seems a cousin of “Listening To You” from Tommy, written several years earlier, only this time the creator/performer is not so much celebrating the feedback of listeners as much as he is staring back, at once bewildered and knowing, appealing for answers amid spiritual crisis.
Last Thursday, the fierce, youthful eyes of The Who’s original line-up—Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, Keith Moon—gazed out at the arena audience from a giant screen montage of the band’s storied career. Their eyes could see for miles, as their first American hit proclaimed in 1967. Their four distinctive, rock-prototype personalities seemed to look out over time, holding in their minds the dreams and expectations of their audience. With druidic presence, they performed a brutal yet playful music that set them apart from others of their era. Yet despite their bravado and bonhomie, they were ever more frail than we, the audience, knew or could tolerate. Waywardness, collapse, and mortality were always close at hand with The Who. As early as forty years ago, just a decade into a career they once thought wouldn’t last a year, there was already a casualty list, and a mooted retirement just around the corner. At that tired, apparently mid-career stage they seemed to check their purpose, looking to the crowd, to people like me, asking, what the fuck do you want? In 2016, time is truly running out, finally. “Who Are You”, a now relatively callow musing of a thirty something, might as well be an opening number, however relevant it may still be. Half the original band is gone. The remaining Who or Two are in their seventies. There are no new albums, rock operas or not, on the horizon. No more hits. Now it’s about playing for a legacy, and manifesting old rhetoric about caring, having a social conscience: hence a robust, charitable infrastructure, especially for its teen cancer trust; The Who’s heartfelt commitment to serving the age-group they once observed so astutely.
I arrived at the arena last Thursday in a bad mood. I’d had a tough week. I was tired, also feeling jaded, and my once fanciful belief that rock and roll can save the day was waning. The Who came onstage sometime after 8:30 in the evening and played for two hours. Another surprise was the lack of encore, but in terms of song selection, the performance, there will have been few complaints. As The Who’s ensemble band (Daltrey and Townshend, plus about a half a dozen others) left the stage and the lights came on, fans started trudging towards the exits, still feeling the concert high. I moved against the stream of traffic, towards the stage, where a cabal of security guards presided. I’d decided upon this action just as Townshend launched into “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, The Who’s traditional set-closer, and despite the surprises, my cue that the show was nearly over. You see, the concert wasn’t even the highlight of the evening. That was still to come, or so I thought. Three months earlier, six months since I’d sent a final draft of my Tommy paper to The Who’s management office in London, I received an e-mail from Pete Townshend’s personal assistant, saying he wanted to meet me. I’ve been alternately giddy and dissociative ever since, and that’s when I let myself think about it.
At eleven o’clock the moment arrived. Stoic security men directed me to the back of the arena, where the private room indicated on my pass was. This was the green room, or NIC room, whatever that stands for. Anyway, taking my wife’s hand, we moved with the crowd, exited the main floor, only to find ourselves in front of more security people, now herding most out the back passage while a few fans stood off to the side. This was the privileged group of visitors: special guest, VIPs. There was about two dozen of us shepherded down a second hallway to a pair of rooms, one inhabited by the band as a whole, the other—this ‘NIC’ room, off to the side—designated for Pete Townshend’s guests. Inside, the pleasant personal assistant named Nicola, with whom I’d exchanged e-mails earlier, welcomed my wife and I, gestured to a table of wine glasses, a fridge containing sodas, and invited us plus the ten or so other guests to relax, wait a few minutes, and Pete would soon be with us.
He appeared without fanfare, his back to me at first, his balding egg-shaped head unmistakable. Looking around at the assembly, gauging the energy, the quiet mood, I knew immediately that this meeting would not match my fantasy: it would last a minute, if that; it would feature a few words, platitudes about a great show (and it was), the years of pleasure and obsession stretching behind me—and a hand shake. The first people Pete spoke to seemed like music biz folk: those who worked on the road crew during the 1989 tour, or something like that. I felt out of place, being about as close to the music biz as an out of tune yodeler. He approached, looking weary, of course, and softly took my hand, saying ‘hi’ in a whisper. His personal assistant introduced us, as he didn’t know who I was. Who are you? I thought he might ask, and then ask it again, with attitude. In some ways it made sense, his torpor. He’d just finished a two-hour show, had given his all, as ever—the whole swinging arms, power chord all. He was, as my dad would say, knackered, and ten times more than myself, was not in the mood. Or, he wasn’t in the mood to talk about my paper, or Tommy, as he has done actually, repeatedly, for almost fifty years. But he asked to meet me, I can’t help thinking, also repeatedly. After a nice photo opportunity, a signature on my paper, a warm ‘good luck with that’, he turned and walked, ready to greet the next lucky fan. Have you ever met a celebrity, an idol—dreamed of such a moment, anticipated the moment as reality approached—and then experienced the aftermath: the point when you realize the moment is over?
I’m not sour. I’m not jaded. I have moods. I’m mildly disappointed, but I know what I’ve achieved and what I haven’t. I know who I am. I’m still hopeful. I still hope Pete reads my paper, because I don’t think he has. If you read this blog, I hope it moves you to buy my paper, give it a read. You might learn something about psychology, music, culture, rock and roll and what it, The Who, yourself, mean to people.
*Photo by William Snyder
No essay, just a link. Check it out…
and read the following blogs: “Ever since I was a young boy”, “Your mind must learn to roam”, “You didn’t hear it. You didn’t See it”, “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
“1921” begins as a sentimental ballad, one of the few in The Who’s catalogue. The line, “I had no reason to be over-optimistic, but somehow when you smile I can brave bad weather”, is one of my favorites. Then, without reference to anything specific, the song turns: “What about the boy! What about the boy, he saw it all!”. Now, if Pete and the boys had plans to enact whatever “it” was, they didn’t let on. Actually, The Who toured with Tommy for at least two years without giving the slightest effort to elucidate the plot, at least not on stage. So it seems symbolic, this thing that Tommy Walker witnessed and shouldn’t have. Anyway, it’s more about the reaction than the event. In the next song, “Amazing Journey”, the opera introduces the famous deaf, dumb, and blind boy motif, which is the implied result of the trauma indicated but not specified in “1921”.
This incident, understood to be the murder Tommy’s mother’s lover by Tommy’s father (or the reverse for those who may have watched the film first), leads to the presumed psychosomatic reaction, manifest as Tommy’s disability. In my paper (reminder: due to be published in The Journal of Culture and Psychology next month), I don’t dispute this popular interpretation, but rather color the event in psychoanalytic theory, and open the matter of Tommy Walker’s early developmental history to further discussion. In covering the possibilities, I employ the theories of Melanie Klein, John Bowlby, plus the observations of researchers Jude Cassidy, and Besel Van der Kolk. Fancifully, I compare Tommy to Hamlet in so far as both protagonists suffer trauma that is as much about secrecy and lies as it is about violent horror. In the refrain of “1921”, Tommy’s parents, anxious that their son has witnessed their crime, exhort him, “You didn’t hear it, you didn’t see, you won’t say nothing to no one ever in your life”, and so on. Like many trauma victims, Tommy absorbs the message but extends the parameters of the injunction. He develops pervasive habits of dissociation, acting out, avoidance.
Then again, it’s possible that the crisis of “1921” is culmination of an already insecure attachment, perhaps established during Tommy’s infancy. Bowlby would at least argue that such a predisposition is attributable to external events: the back-drop of World War, the likely depression of Tommy’s mother in the aftermath of her husband’s earlier disappearance. Bowlby’s followers would assume that Tommy is afflicted with the consequences of maternal unavailability. Attachment researchers might speculate that his symptoms constitute avoidant, ambivalent, or most likely, disorganized attachment. Kleinians, meanwhile, might suggest that Tommy’s deaf, dumb and blind condition is an attack upon bad objects, and at least imply that such aggression, experienced within the murky back and forth of intrapsychic projections and introjections, had been within him since birth.
Cassidy’s paper, “Truth, Lies, and Intimacy”, is the centerpiece of an argument that Tommy suffers not so much from witnessing a murder, but from the distorted narrative that surrounds this horror. She and others, including Bowlby, suggest that distorted narratives lead to a profound confusion which prevents individuals from storing memories properly, hence flashbacks, nightmares, and other disturbances linked to complex PTSD. Of these, none are clearly indicated by Tommy’s affliction. Beyond defiant, he is like the early Who, lost in his own world and marching to the beat of a different drummer (BTW: rock has never known a more different drummer than Keith Moon), and his residues are behavioral, while his internal world is opaque. More than harmed, he is broken, alienated from society, even reality, and it’s hard finding a way back. This idea is axiomatic for many artists, psychologists, and historians, who reflect on this phenomenon, knowing it personally, but extrapolating, imagining collective obsessions around unresolved pieces of historical narrative: the assassination of JFK, the subjugation of Native Americans; conspiracy theories relating to area 51, even 9-11.
Now, had the narrative of Tommy lingered on things like flashbacks, nightmares, or broken alienation, the opera might have ground to a halt, become a drag, as the contemporaneous hippies might have thought. So credit Townsend for staying in the context of light entertainment, making it fun, giving Tommy a talent–pinball–for him to play with (his therapy), instead of wallowing in self-pity and gazing at himself in mirrors. How very rock and roll, I say. Then, when he’s either bored or emptied by games, he grows up a little, notices that his fans relate to him, and decides to broaden his message, speak out. He becomes a spiritual guru. How very late sixties, I say. So, rock stars mature. The paranoid-schizoid becomes a depressive, and it’s all fun and games until–well, someone gets hurt–and then something must be done, though what that something is…is unclear and problematic. After all, the play’s the thing.