Tag Archives: The Who

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


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You Didn’t Hear It, You Didn’t See It


“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.


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Your mind must learn to roam

A line from “Acid Queen”, one of the lesser famous yet wonderful songs from Tommy, The Who’s iconic 1969 rock opera, and the subject of my forthcoming article in the March issue of The Journal of Culture and Psychology. I reference the song “Acid Queen” in my paper, in a section that tracks the opera’s plot-line, thin that it is, plus its themes. The Acid Queen is a seductress, representing sex, drugs and rock and roll, that triumvirate of original rock and roll sin that, like the devil that once seduced blues musicians (the 20s and 30s blues myth), will tear the soul apart. In “Acid Queen”, a narrator ambiguously instructs that Tommy, or the listener, must “gather your wits and hold on fast”, for growing up, with or without rock and roll, is not easy. Straightforward narrative is not one of Tommy‘s strong points, yet a narrative replete with such ideas is what Pete Townshend wanted to give his music, and rock music in general.

In the 1960s, rock had an emerging narrative, albeit one that was mostly implied, and rarely made explicit. Previously, movies and books with a rock and roll ethos existed, but the most in-depth pop artifacts of the period (Catcher in the Rye, or On The Road) seem more like older cousins of the fledgling ‘rock’ sensibility. The groundwork for a different spirit lay in the context of the era: a relatively prosperous space following world war wherein youth had newfound access to disposable income, plus an evolving electronic media that would galvanize voices against the next war on the docket. I think those post-war kids demanded an art form to truly call their own, and rock and roll, more so than pop, jazz, or even blues, was it. In the 50s, rock and roll’s earliest fans, its infants, seemed to have modest needs, basic social needs: to go out and dance, and thumb its nose at adult squares; to have sexual freedom, and flex muscles. Social conscience, an awareness of life beyond borders of various kinds, of political or spiritual purpose: rock’s adolescent period, the now so-called classic rock period, developed a more mature (if still imperfect) outlook.

The Who weren’t the first, or even the most successful artists to push the limits of the form, or inspire society. Clearly, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and arguably several others were more impactful at the time. Also, The Who were unlikely heroes from the outset of their career: beyond rebellious, they were noisy, nihilistic, and sort of remote from the sexy, peace-loving milieu of the sixties. Boasting “I hope I die before I get old” in “My Generation”, they seemed the antithesis of mature in 1965. If you want proof of this, look no further than footage of their performance at the flower power-inaugurating Monterey Pop Festival of 1967. Observe the ferocity of their act, the extra layer of violence within their notorious instrument-smashing finale. The Who weren’t just breaking through to an American audience that night. They were staking out a position that ran against the grain.

Yet they were raised to fame alongside the aspirations, lies and traumas of the period, and despite the immaturity, the ugliness on the surface, they were as idealistic as any of their peers. Their violence, as oblique as an intelligent audience intuited it to be, was contained within their art and was therefore no more anti-social than a war movie or a western, but no less revolutionary than long hair or a picture of a Campbell’s soup can. Their loudness was an insistence upon being heard, at once petulant and logical; detonating of harmony yet music to the ears. Their legendary squabbles, conflicts of personality, were a microcosm of democratic values, rock and roll style. After a few years of roaming thus, on the road, from stage to stage (The Who were the first British Invasion band to build a following through incessant touring) they arrived at the decade’s climax, stealing the show at Woodstock, and delivering for an unsuspecting (even) larger audience a character–a mythic character–that was uniquely a product of the rock and roll experience.

Tommy Walker is a child of war: his caregivers are stolid and traumatized, and he is disoriented by their emotional absence. Acting out occurs, a crisis happens, and a secondary trauma concretizes insecure attachment, and begins the drama. Thereafter, Tommy goes inward, retreats from this older generation. Disillusioned (or some primitive version of that), he finds his own music within himself (a “vibration” that brings the raucous music of The Who to mind); he plays unusual games, discovers pinball, and becomes a bizarre celebrity through his talent–a rock star of sorts. He finds his voice, literally and symbolically, and seeks to redress social wrongs through spiritual awareness. And his celebrity, ultimately, is a different kind of hero. Not only talented, he is a unique voice, a social leader, reflecting the expectations of a new audience: that he be thoughtful; that he represent the values of youth, and be engaged with the world. Above all, that he be honest.

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Ever since I was a young boy

(opening line of “Pinball Wizard”)

Well, relative young boy. More like since I was a late teen or even an early twenty-something. That’s how long I’ve wanted to have an article, essay, story or something published in a bona fide professional or academic journal, about anything, but especially about the following subject. It’s happening finally, so it’s time to explain what it is; what it means to me, and what it might mean to others. See, it’s an everything and nothing thing, this paper I’ve written: a big deal and not.

The paper has an impossible title: “A Question of Pathology: object relations, attachment patterns, and a disorder of self within the rock opera TOMMY”. I can imagine eyelids weighing heavily over the first several words, that dense, psychoanalytic jargon. Only the last three words spark interest, jolting the pop consciousness. Not for everyone, I guess. For those of a younger generation, The Who’s iconic double album of 1969 may be little more than a crusty artifact of classic rock, one whose moment and meaning has long since past. Wasn’t the main guy in The Who busted for child porn some years ago? some might query. Others might know snatches of their songs: “Baba O’Riley”, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, “Who Are You”, and “Eminence Front” will all be familiar to CSI fans, viewers of car commercials, or whatever the products were that my favorite band sold out to. Though their days are surely numbered, The Who continue to tour like cabaret acts of previous eras, even as their two surviving members, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend, glide past the age of seventy. They grind out the hits and the show goes on, seeming more professional than ever, actually. But their relevance to the world around them seems–if not diminished–then perhaps just less clear as time moves on.

That wasn’t the case back in the 80s when I first heard their music, or saw the odd video of theirs on MTV. I didn’t listen to them much at first, but knew of them, was aware they were deemed cool by peers who seemed to speak about music with authority. My family alluded to The Who, but were not fans. “Just noise” my sister opined on occasion, though she seems more respectful today, in deference to me I think. “Didn’t they smash their instruments?” my mother would incuriously ask, just hoping to join in the conversation somehow.  In my household, lighthearted pop dominated: jazzy sounds of Sinatra, Streisand, or the rockabilly of Elvis  stirred my father’s blood; the loving, cheerful beat music of The Beatles or The Bay City Rollers were my sister’s favorites; maybe a wistful Simon & Garfunkel ballad made it into the mix. Don’t get me wrong, I liked all that stuff, but it didn’t move me as The Who later did. Until I was a later teen, music didn’t speak to who I was, or who I wanted to be. Thirty years later it’s still hard to explain who I wanted to be, or how bands like The Who helped. All I can say is that rock and roll seemed more than commonly important back then. Its leading lights had much more than talent, or “class”, as the generation above me uses that term. Instead, there was something else, something more desperate. The giants of the classic rock era had brains and guts, and they played their music like music itself was about to die.

It was easy to get in arguments with friends (Ultimately, I wouldn’t bother with family) about whose favorite artist had the best chops, or the smartest lyrics; about which band was the only one that really mattered. My band was The Who, and for about ten years in my late teens and into my twenties, I was more devoted to them than I was to any girlfriend; more knowledgeable about their story and catalogue than I was of any author’s oeuvre, or any psychological theorist’s body of work. Had I been a thug, I might have defended them against critics like a hard-core gang member. Had they toured regularly during this period I might have followed them like Grateful Dead fans followed their heroes. I was down for The Who, and if I’d had the opportunity, the right context, and the confidence, I would have written about them also.

And so, to the paper. It started around 2006, when I was taking part in a study group with the West Coast Masterson Institute, led by my friend Joe Farley. In illustrating some point long since forgotten, Joe made some comment about modern musicals, narratives and psychopathology, and might have mentioned Tommy–I don’t recall the specifics. Anyway, we talked further, and Joe suggested I write up my then idea, which was to give the The Who’s deaf, dumb and blind boy a diagnosis or two. It was a fanciful suggestion, but little did Joe know how serious I was. Sometime later I presented him with a 3000 word essay that he thought worthy of passing on to Dr. Masterson, then still active and living in New York. Well, Dr. Masterson (who vaguely recalled meeting me once) read the paper, liked it apparently, but said it was too long for the institute’s then newsletter. Instead, he suggested I hawk it to academic journals, which I’ve been doing ever since.

Now, if you’ve ever submitted a manuscript to an academic journal, you are likely familiar with the lengthy delays, re-writes, and rejections that often follow. Between 2007 and 2012 I submitted my paper to about a half a dozen different journals: one Bay Area-based, the rest national, and in two cases, internationally-based. This might not seem like an ambitious spreading of the net, but let me explain something: When you submit to an academic journal, editors request that you not submit concurrently to other journals, as they are committing themselves to a rigorous review of submitted work and wish to have assurances that they are not wasting their time lest an author’s head be turned by another. Fair enough, but the commitment meant that I’d spend close to a year with each journal consecutively, four out of six of which expressed significant interest, requests for re-writes, before ultimately rejecting my work following a staff voting process.

By 2012, I was jaded with the sporadic task, forgetful of my original purpose, and ready to mothball my paper to the shelf, there to sit amongst my self-published, occasionally lauded but nonetheless un-celebrated collection of novels. Then in 2014, two things happened. First, The Who announced its 50th anniversary tour–likely its last. Secondly, I read an article in another journal, a psychoanalytic review of Henry James’ Portrait Of A Lady, that was similar in structure and style to my paper. Now, the journal in question had already rejected my work, but as I glanced at my 2007 list of prospects, I saw that there was one journal I’d yet to solicit: The Journal of Culture and Psychology.  What did I have to lose except a bit more hope and narcissistic fuel? I thought, and thus I submitted my journeyman paper once again.

A familiar pattern ensued, save for one aspect: in the spring of last year, the journal contacted me, saying they were enthusiastically interested, but requesting changes. Sigh. Here we go again, I thought. Still, I soldiered through, reminding myself that this was, after all, a labor of love and there are much worse ways to spend my time than writing about my favorite rock band’s most famous work. Anyway, I made the changes, working hard on the paper over a space of a month, and resubmitted. I went about my life as patiently as ever until September when I received an e-mail suggesting I had just a week to meet the journal’s deadline for re-submission. Huh? I e-mailed a polite WTF to the editor, and within three days received an embarrassed admission that my re-submitted manuscript had been misplaced–lost in their system. I laughed sardonically, thinking this thing was just not meant to be. But once again I re-submitted, this time thinking what’s another six months or so in the life of an itinerant piece of literature. By this time, the lifetime of the project was a fifth of the length of The Who’s career. An apt parallel was happening, I mused.

The journal moved swiftly thereafter, however, and in early October I was told the paper was accepted. Hooray. Three months later, its modicum of copyediting completed, I was informed of a March 2016 publication. So that’s the backstory. My commentary on the paper itself is still to come.




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