Monday, July 26, 2004

And no more turn aside and brood upon love's bitter mystery

It occurred to me this morning in the shower that The Who's Tommy is not a concept album about a deaf, dumb, and blind boy; about pinball (duh); or about "spiritual transcendence" (though that was an undeniably important idea to Pete Townshend). I'm not entirely sure that Townshend knew it at the time, in fact, but given recent interviews and that unfortunate (and, to be perfectly clear, unwarranted!) kiddie porn arrest I'm sure he realizes it now: Tommy is first and foremost about abusive families, the effects they have on children, and the way abuse is institutionalized and passed on.

It's obvious from interviews and many of the songs themselves that Townshend identified with the main character. This is understandable; after all it's very difficult to write a song cycle the length of Tommy without having a character to anchor yourself to. Many of the themes in Tommy are common throughout his career: from the first album his songs revolve around insecurity and false pretenses. Really, "The Punk and the Godfather" from Quadrophenia is just an extension of Tommy's obsession with the unreliability of that man at the stage y'all are getting so excited about (to say nothing of his incredibly creepy 90s fictionalized autobiography, Psychoderelict -- funny that he attached Ray Davies's name to his own character, but that's another post). The powerlessness of the main character and his surrender to the sublime is also something that pops up in both the Lifehouse plot and in Quadrophenia. Anyway, I'm not going to psychoanalyze him, I just wanted to demonstrate that a lot of Tommy's themes are Pete's first and foremost.

The problem with Tommy as a "positive story of spiritual transcendence" is this: Tommy Walker isn't a messiah! He's not an avatar or guru, either. He's revealed gradually in the last three songs as a charlatan. His enlightenment, his "ability to experience Reality and Infinity" (Townshend '69) does him no (expressed, anyway) good, for at the end he's back to sublime surrender.

Let me summarize the life of Tommy Walker to spin it the way I want to:
  • Tommy is born. Daddy's not there.
  • Some major traumatic event happens. It doesn't much matter what it was; what matters is the way the parents react to Tommy seeing it: "You didn't see it, you didn't hear it, you won't say nothing to no one ever in your life, ... never tell a soul what you know is the truth." As most people who've been in a truly dysfunctional family can attest, secrecy and isolation is one of the first priorities.
  • The loss of Tommy's senses due to this is illustrated memorably as a sort of cage on the album's cover. Whatever Pete said at the time, I find this cage a useful metaphor for the emotional withdrawal and isolation that children from such families experience. The focus of the emotionally abused swings inward, and forcing it outward and becoming a useful member of society is a much harder task.
  • The parents, now experiencing their own deep guilt, worry about the state of Tommy's soul -- then abandon him to sadistic cousins and molesting uncles.
  • The parents begin to search for remedies: the father hires him a prostitute.
  • Pinball. Whatever.
  • They finally get around to taking him to a doctor. Likely in Pete's conception this is the last of many doctors they tried.
  • The mother becomes furious that after all she's done to try to help him, he's still blind, deaf, and dumb. Then there's more of that weird Townshendian mirror stuff.
  • Tommy, opened to the world, decides that he's a miracle worker and that he should change the world.
  • Sally Simpson -- well, whatever. The beginning of the dark side. "The theme of the sermon was, 'Come unto me and love will find a way'", which it doesn't, apparently.
  • "I'm Free", in which Tommy gets a little too cocky.
  • Finally Tommy's religion gets going -- a religion of comfortable people. He's obviously not sure what exactly to tell people, but he's special, so he's sure whatever he's doing must be alright. He starts this religious colony at his family's house, though, and begins to involve them. OK, only Uncle Ernie is mentioned by name, but the implication is that most of his family is involved.
  • And the family buys a holiday camp as Tommyism's sanctuary. In order to help the people free themselves, apparently, Tommy decides that they must first be enslaved as he was: he tells them to make themselves deaf, blind, and dumb, and sends "Uncle Ernie to guide [them] to [their] very own machines" -- the very creepy implication is that Ernie's hands will be roaming. The important thing is that Tommy's echoing his parents' earlier lines: "You didn't hear it, you didn't see it..."
  • Tommy's followers rebel. After all, it's easier to truly escape something created by an outside party that you first encountered as an adult (as former cultists can attest) than it is to escape the situation in which your psyche was forged.
Important points I didn't make in this synopsis:
  • Tommy's parents, traumatic event aside, aren't bad people. They're caring, but clueless to their own defects and to those of their families -- or perhaps just unwilling to address them.
  • The way Kevin and Ernie act is predicated not just on Tommy's powerlessness, but also on Tommy's inability to communicate.
  • The Simpson family is an interesting constrast: her mother is supportive (I think) and her father is caring in a traditional, gruff way. Sally is the insensitive and heedless person in the story. I think the Simpsons may have been intended as a "normal" family.
  • The most powerful parts of the cycle to me are the confusion of the parents who are unable to communicate with their child ("Tommy can you hear me?") and the insistence of the parents on secrecy and terror in the beginning.
Anyway, as a commentary on child abuse and abusive family dynamics, Tommy really is effective and coherent. You just have to neglect the absurdity of parts of it. You know what? With Tommy, an inside-out boy with his physical senses turned off instead of his emotional senses, Pete Townshend was working symbolically, and largely succeeded. It's much easier to succeed at producing something good or even tolerable using symbols than using plain talk. In the final analysis, what better illustrates to someone from a normal household the difference between a normal household and a really dysfunctional one: Tommy or Plastic Ono Band?

Alright, that said, I should make one thing clear: I do think there's too much hand-wringing by people who really should grow up about the wrongs they've been done by their parents, in general. Examine the biographies of the people who've changed the world, of the people who've made the greatest art, of the people who have contributed most to our knowledge of ourselves and our universe. With a few exceptions such as J.S. Bach, Albert Einstein, and, uh, well, I can't think of a great statesman who didn't have a bad-to-horrible childhood, actually. Maybe Disraeli? Anyway. Many of these great people might have been horribly unhappy, or at best depressive, but they accomplished things while many happier people ran around, were happy, perhaps contributed nothing of value to the world, died, and are entirely forgotten. The only worthwhile thing in a universe that appears destined to one day vanish, in a solar system whose sun will burn out not too many billion years hence, on a planet whose climate and history and biology and geology we are woefully ignorant of, which ignorance will one day allow us to go over a precipice, possibly to extinction, without noticing it; the only worthwhile thing is defiance of all that. At least it's the only worthwhile thing to me.

And that was just my bonus rant!


Blogger Cymbalina said...

Just an aside re: Psychoderelict. Not only did Townshend seemingly name his protagonist for Ray Davies, but he said in an interview that the character was inspired by... Jimmy Page and Roger Waters. Ow.

1:33 PM  

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