Tag Archives: Tommy

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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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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Repeat

 

One of the subtler Freudian themes in Tommy is that of repetition compulsion. We repeat, Freud wrote in 1914 in “Remembering, repeating, and working through”. Specifically, we repeat instead of remembering, or realizing. We act out that which is repressed, feeling ashamed only when consciousness is brought to bear upon our actions. Prior to modern notions of addiction, which includes behaviors that are repetitive despite negative consequences, we’ve held in mind this underlying template for why human beings behave paradoxically, pledging to never forget…then forgetting anyway.

Tommy Walker witnessed a murder at the age of seven, roughly. Prior to this, his life experience is unknown but is subject to speculation: his father had been away at war, was reported missing. Tommy’s mother, apparently lonesome, had taken another lover, was poised to replace Tommy’s father until the father returns, discovering…oops! It’s unknown what Tommy thought of his world, how he experienced his world, prior to witnessing a crime, but upon that event he is told to not say anything—indeed, he is told that he didn’t see anything, didn’t hear anything; that he will pretend that nothing of importance had even happened.

This is the opening drama of Tommy: well known, or known enough by Classic Rock fans, or by most over the age of forty who made passing glances at pop culture, I think. I aim to make its meaning further known in my 2016 Tommy paper, as well as in my forthcoming non-fiction. In response to the crime and, by implication, his parents’ censoring message (BTW: it’s the father who’s returned and killed the lover), Tommy dissociates in the extreme. The libretto and myself now, even, play along with the secrecy by not quite naming the event, so a style of response pervades characters and listeners, and it all makes sense, somehow. Somehow it makes sense that Tommy’s over-the-top reaction—his psychosomatic deaf, dumb, and blind reaction—is the perfect over-reaction. It splits reality between a shameful, dangerous disclosure of truth versus a deadening, self-denying silence. It is a schizoid withdrawal, a monk’s solution: at once a pathology and an eloquent, logical act. Tommy’s symptoms are extreme yet prescriptive, and who hasn’t thought at one time or another, that the best thing to say or do in response to injustice, is nothing.

We imagine as Tommy proceeds with his life that he retains memory, as in biographical memory, of the events that compel his silent protest. We assume, even, that his condition is a protest and not merely a detachment, for that would sever hope, lead to an unhappy ending, which breaks the rules of popular art, never mind rock and roll. Through twists and turns, Tommy’s life improves because he has talents which defy his withdrawal, which draws admirers, even followers, which in turn further messes with the isolationist plan. Tommy re-engages, but does so in a didactic, overbearing manner, forgetting himself, forgetting why he isolated in the first place. Out of habit, he forgets how to relate. The followers revolt and unwittingly emulate Tommy’s past adversaries: they find they want to abuse him, reject him. They stop listening.

Circularity. Tommy’s end is not so much happy as sober. He, The Who, myself, many others: people try to learn from their past, try to help others, and not repeat the mistakes of the past. Maybe that seems easy when observing an outcome, that behavior or act that we could never imagine ourselves doing. The thing is that we don’t know the many repetitions that culminate in those acted out, unforgivable atrocities. We judge, or other ourselves, as social justice warriors term it. Our psyche holds onto our mistakes but obscures memory, helping us avoid pain. So we don’t notice the repetitions, and we don’t how we get somewhere until we’re there.

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Tommy the scapegoat

 

As I traverse this process of soliciting editors to read my Tommy manuscript, I am forced (it’s only a minor hardship) to conjure the would-be reader of my decade-and-counting project. He or she is a hybrid figure, I imagine: half-interested in rock and roll or sixties counterculture; the other half a student of modern psychology, perhaps a clinician. When I presented a version of my 2016 Tommy paper, most notably at the “Creativity and Madness” conference in Santa Fe last year, and again at the Mechanic’s Institute in January of this year, I took fleeting moments before, during, and after my talk to notice the crowd, see what kind of people had shown up to listen. In Santa Fe, they were doctors and psychiatrists, mostly, there to see a variety of presenters, but were nonetheless sympathetic to my subject. They were indeed appreciative. At the Mechanic’s Institute, it was a bit more of a rock and roll crowd, dotted with the tangentially curious: people who asked questions about Tommy and religion, Tommy and feminism; Narcissism in the arts. Listen to agents and publishers who reject manuscripts and you’d hear a lot about the need to categorize tightly. This seeking of a reader with cross-pollenating interests will not do. It’s far too whole object relations for people who don’t know what whole object relations are. For the clinician or psychology student, who also lives in a split-object world, the script of the rock opera does not sufficiently apply to clinical material.

As case illustrations go, my protracted Tommy analysis is more fun than most, I’m inclined to think, but therefore more fanciful. However, it is not frivolous, nor does it dilute theory. If anything, I attempt to restore erudition to some ideas that have already been dropped into the psyche-literature sieve, resulting in reductionist meaning. Take the derivative concept of scapegoating, for example. In systems theory, a scapegoat is an individual who absorbs the blame for a family’s dysfunction. Stereotypically, he or she is the acting out teen whose delinquent behaviors draw attention to a systemic problem. Of course, this interpretation is that of a clinician, as it reverses the interpretation of actors within the system. Therefore, the intervening therapist is one who holds that a paradoxical purpose exists within an individual’s pathology: to highlight the bad object influence. Consciously, this conclusion is avoided, even fought against. The teen who acts out continues to engage in their behavior, but upon scrutiny (or cross-examination, as they might experience it), this person shrugs, begs off explanations, insight. They don’t know why they do what they do. Or, they proclaim that their negative behaviors are stupid, inexplicable. They simply have to stop doing it, they suggest in resignation.

What is the unconscious waiting for? What does it want? The antecedent theory belongs to drive and later object relations theory, and perhaps most specifically, the observations of W.R.D Fairbairn, who wrote in the 1940s of psychological development in which children internalize “bad” objects, repressing them but allowing for their return as a result of their nature. Fairbairn pointed out that Freud’s model of repression and “good” objects was represented by his structural theory of Id, Ego, and SuperEgo. These agencies of the psyche contain human nature—the nature of the repressed, if you will—both good and bad, with a SuperEgo representing a codified structure of “good” objects, societal values and such. It begs the following consideration: if the container of “bad” objects is the Id, or if it doesn’t exist, it stands to reason that one’s bad objects become lost, dissociated; hence, “I don’t know what happened”. Fairbairn suggested that children internalize parents, repressing not so much what is intrinsically “bad” but rather the bad memories, which are associated with negative feelings, like guilt. Therefore, repression pertains more to what is forbidden, and what must therefore be discharged.

In writing about Tommy Walker, the famous deaf, dumb and blind boy of The Who’s rock opera, I cite Fairbairn’s writings so as to characterize the deeply somaticized child as one who has internalized his “bad” objects: his parents, who are at once traumatized by war, chaotic in their handling of jealousy; secretive in their pervasive cover-up of a shameful killing. Fairbairn’s notion of internalization extends to a redemption of bad objects, for it is the child who absorbs the pathology—in Tommy’s case, manifesting the lifeless, deadened way of being via his psychosomatic disability. In a confused and double-bound condition, Tommy does what Fairbairn’s child does: he protests and denies simultaneously. For the astute observer, he compels notice of his own silence, which speaks volumes about that which cannot be said. His silence is archetypal: a symbol of shame, but also of eloquent expression, of spiritual touch. His symptoms obscure the relatively unnoticeable neurosis and character pathology of his mother and father. They preserve a compromise stability, perhaps a false ideal, because a need for God, even a false God, is necessary in the world governed by the devil. At the same time the mysterious illness stirs imagination, has nonplussed observers wondering, what’s happening in this private, if allusive world? Tommy’s listeners, or Tommy’s viewers, if one thinks of the various plays or the film, are not so much nonplussed by the rock opera’s message as casually attentive, tangentially curious.

 

How about you? Are you attentive? Tangentially curious?

 

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