Analysis of ‘Tommy’

I: Introduction

Tommy is the fourth studio album by The Who, released in 1969. Most of the songs were written by Pete Townshend, with two songs by John Entwistle (“Cousin Kevin,” and “Fiddle About”), “The Hawker” being Townshend’s adaptation of a song with lyrics by Sonny Boy Williamson II; and “Tommy’s Holiday Camp,” though credited to Keith Moon, being based on his suggestion of what kind of religious movement Tommy could lead, was actually written by Townshend, too.

Though there are some historical precedents dating from the mid- to late 1960s, Tommy is the first album to be billed as a “rock opera,” according to Scott Mervis of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Townshend himself made some musical forays beyond the simple three-minute pop song from 1966 onwards, with songs that have extended narrative elements, resulting in such suites as “A Quick One, While He’s Away” and “Rael,” the latter having melodic material in its second half that was used in “Sparks” and “Underture.”

In 1968, Townshend became influenced by the Indian spiritual mentor Meher Baba, and deaf-dumb-and-blind Tommy Walker’s connection to the world through vibrations (making him amazingly gifted at pinball, as well as a spiritual leader in his own right) came from Baba’s mysticism. Indeed, this mystical connection is the flip side to Tommy’s self-isolating trauma response to the killing he, as a sensitive child, has seen, but has been forbidden by his perpetrator parents to acknowledge having seen or heard, or to speak about. This trauma reaction, Tommy’s mental block, was also influenced by Townshend’s own experiences of childhood trauma. As of 1968, the rock opera was referred to by such tentative titles as Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy, Amazing Journey, Journey Into Space, The Brain Opera, and Omnibus.

Tommy was acclaimed on its release by critics, who called it The Who’s breakthrough. It has been developed into other media, including the Ken Russell film of 1975 and the 1992 Broadway musical. The album has sold 20 million copies and has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Here is a link to all the lyrics of the album.

II: Traumatic Beginnings

The Overture is mostly instrumental, incorporating themes from “1921,” “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “Go to the Mirror!”, “See Me, Feel Me,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Listening to You,” and “Sparks.” Another musical highlight is John Entwistle’s French horn. The song ends with one verse sung by Townshend, establishing that Tommy’s father, Captain Walker, is missing in action in WWI and presumed dead.

Tommy’s mother, left to raise the boy alone, takes on a lover. Though the year is 1921 in the album’s version of the story, Russell’s film changes the year to 1951; the war is thus changed to WWII, and her lover (played by Oliver Reed) has Fifties style hair. Furthermore, while on the album, Captain Walker kills his wife’s paramour, in the film, killer and killed are reversed.

Since the killing is the traumatic event that causes Tommy’s psychosomatic deafness/muteness/blindness, it’s interesting to explore the precise psychological circumstances of this trauma. We’re dealing with either the killing of Tommy’s father, implying an Oedipal wish-fulfillment (especially relevant given how the little boy’s mother is played by the oh, so hot Ann-Margaret in the film), or the killing of her lover, suggesting what the boy’s daddy might do to him if he were to satisfy his Oedipal desires with her. (While Freud is generally considered passé today, recall how Townshend’s story was conceived at a time when the ideas of the founder of psychoanalysis were still in vogue, and his ideas are therefore a valid interpretation of the story’s meaning.)

Another crucial aspect of little Tommy’s traumatizing is the denying of what he’s seen and heard. The man and woman screaming at the boy, “You didn’t see it, you didn’t hear it!” happens while he says he did see and hear it, though his words are ignored. Such denial, or refusal to validate a painful experience, is the essence of gaslighting, which causes the victim to doubt his or her perception of the world–in Tommy’s extreme case, to doubt his very senses to the point where he feels forbidden even to use two of them.

The ultimate trauma, though, is in his being forbidden to talk about the painful incident. Being able to put one’s trauma into words is indispensable to healing, and his own parents, refusing to take any responsibility for what they’ve done, are denying the very thing the boy needs to do to get better. One is reminded of that old poem by Philip Larkin.

III: Lacan’s Angle

So this trauma, making Tommy psychosomatically deaf, dumb, and blind, has cut him off from society. The inability to communicate with others has isolated him from the world. Normally, a child of his age would, using Lacan‘s terminology, shift from the narcissistically Oedipal Imaginary Order to the Symbolic; that is, he would go from the dyadic mother/son relationship of self and other mirroring each other’s narcissism, to the healthy relationship of self to the many Others of society. Tommy’s move from other to Other would have been mediated by the Non! du père, the father’s prohibition of Oedipal incest with the mother, and the introduction of language, culture, law, and social customs.

Tommy, however, gets neither the Non! du père nor an introduction to language and culture. The murder of his mother’s lover (or, in the film, the killing of his father) precludes the boy’s entry into society with him seeing his father commit a crime (an antisocial act pushing Tommy in the opposite direction of society), or be killed. He cannot use language and relate to the Other of society if he’s deaf, dumb, and blind, so he cannot enter the Symbolic. Instead of le Non! du père, his is a case of les non-dupes errent: that is, not being duped by the hypocrisies of social life (because not initiated in society), Tommy errs in a non-Symbolic, solipsistic world.

If his mother is reunited with his father (or if, in the film, “Uncle Frank” [Reed] replaces his father, as Uncle Claudius replaced King Hamlet by crawling into Gertrude‘s bed), then Tommy cannot indulge in his incestuous, Oedipal desires with her, the transgressive jouissance of the Imaginary. He can be in neither the Imaginary nor the Symbolic. Therefore, Tommy is trapped in the traumatic world of the Real, a world of the undifferentiated, because of the absence of sight, sound, and speech.

IV: Heaven and Hell

Now, the undifferentiated world of the Real, or of Wilfred Bion‘s O, is not necessarily all traumatic. It’s actually on the cusp where heaven meets hell; it involves the dialectical relationship between the highest happiness and the most traumatizing pain. The only thing that marks the difference between an experience of bliss or one of horror is whether or not one is still attached to one’s ego (something formed during the mirror stage in the Imaginary).

In his essay Heaven and Hell, Aldous Huxley wrote of what he called antipodes, or extreme opposite “regions of the mind,” where one can have blissful or hellish visionary experiences, brought on by trances, meditation, self-flagellation, fasting, or the use of such drugs as LSD or mescaline, all of which in some sense biologically disable the mind–that is, turn off the senses, as Tommy has had his turned off.

Huxley wrote of how quickly one can shift from the blissful to the hellish experience: “In life, even the blissful visionary experience tends to change its sign if it persists too long. Many schizophrenics have their times of heavenly happiness; but the fact that (unlike the mescaline taker) they do not know when, if ever, they will be permitted to return to the reassuring banality of everyday experience causes even heaven to seem appalling. But for those who, for whatever reason, are appalled, heaven turns into hell, bliss into horror, the Clear Light into the hateful glare of the land of lit-upness.” (Huxley, page 90)

Now, we’ve already examined the traumatizing aspect of Tommy’s loss of connectedness with the social and sensory worlds. We must also look into the blissful, mystical aspect of his experience, something first heard in the song “Amazing Journey.” We learn that the “deaf, dumb, and blind boy [is] in a quiet vibration land.” The unifying vibrations of the Brahman-like universe are his only connection with everything around him…but they are also a powerful connection with it, because a connection not requiring the senses. Here we see the influence of Baba on Townshend.

These vibrations will be the mystical source of Tommy’s incredible talent at pinball. Since the regular, wave-like movement of these vibrations suggest a rhythm, we can see how Tommy’s interpretation of the world around him can be understood as a musical one. Such a context is what we need to hear “Sparks” in: a kind of musical dream. In this sense, “Sparks” can be interpreted to mean tiny flashes of symbolic light to guide Tommy through the darkness, and the rhythm of those vibrations is a sound he can feel rather than hear.

V: The Manic Defence

A quack/pimp known as The Hawker claims his wife, a drug addict/prostitute known as the “Acid Queen” can cure Tommy. The use of the lyrics to Sonny Boy Williamson II‘s blues song “Eyesight to the Blind,” which refer to how the beautiful prostitute’s sexy walk is so compelling that it would restore a man’s eyesight, his ability to talk and to hear, are effective in how they dovetail with my psychoanalytic interpretation of the cause of Tommy’s trauma.

The sexual allure of the Acid Queen (played by Tina Turner in the film), as well as the hedonistic escape that her drugs represent, embodies what Lacan called the objet petit a, the unattainable object-cause of desire. Since part of Tommy’s trauma is based on the violent expression of the paternal prohibition against the boy having his mother (given on the album in the form of his father killing her lover, on whom Tommy has projected his Oedipal desire; and given in the film in the form of “Uncle Frank” killing the boy’s father, usurping his position as his mother’s new lover and causing Tommy to have guilt feelings about a murder he himself has, however unconsciously, wished for…like Hamlet vis-à- vis Claudius, in Freud’s interpretation), the Acid Queen as seductress attempts to act as a replacement, a transference, for the Oedipally-desired mother, which if she succeeds, she theoretically could cure him of his mental block. Since the objet petit a never ultimately satisfies that forbidden desire, though, the Acid Queen’s attempt is doomed to fail.

Similarly, the boy may enjoy an intense LSD trip, as musically expressed in “Underture,” with musical themes similar to those of “Sparks” (implying the similarity between a drug trip and a blissful mystical experience of universal oneness, as Huxley observed), still, drugs won’t cure Tommy of his trauma any better than sex will. If anything, indulgence in these fleeting pleasures are the opposite of a cure, for they are only a manic defence against facing the pain, which is the only real cure. Hence, the Acid Queen’s drugs will fail, too.

VI: The Opium of the People

If drugs fail to help Tommy, religion, “the opium of the people,” will also fail. At “Christmas,” his parents fret about how the boy’s disconnect from the world around him means he doesn’t know about Jesus, and therefore cannot be “saved from the eternal grave.” Of course, these parents–being impenitent about a murder they’ve kept secret, a murder whose very secrecy is the cause of Tommy’s trauma–are in no position to judge whether Tommy, or anyone, for that matter, needs to be saved by Christ or not. Their main concern, in making Tommy a ‘good Christian,’ is in integrating the boy with the hypocritical bourgeois values of society.

Making Tommy know of religious custom, or the laws of morality and mores of society, is another manifestation of the Nom, or Non! du père (in this case, God the Father). But with Tommy, who won’t accept pretending he never saw or heard the killing (recall his protests of having seen and heard it in 1921), and who therefore won’t talk about it, is someone not willing to be duped by his parents’ social hypocrisies (including the phoney pretence of Christian piety). Therefore, the boy’s response to le Non! du père is les non-dupes errent: he won’t be duped into following the hypocrisies of society, so he errs in his psychosomatic disabilities.

Along with Tommy’s rejecting of hypocritical Christian piety is his flouting of other social graces. His playing of “poxy pinball,” of course, is a presaging of his uncanny skill at that game, but it’s a game played alone, without friends, and skill at pinball, like skill at billiards, is a sign of a misspent youth. Note how kids at Christmas normally are very excited, but the holiday means nothing to Tommy. He also “picks his nose,” a social horror that guarantees most people won’t like him. Still, since these dysfunctional habits are trauma responses to something his selfish parents have brought on, it is they, not he, who are to be blamed.

His parents ask, “Tommy, can you hear me?”, but if they’ve refused to hear him when he’s said he saw and heard their murder, why should he obligated to hear them? They should be more focused on removing the beams in their own eyes than on removing the mote in his eye (Matthew 7:3-5). Meanwhile, Tommy mentally pleads, “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me“: he so desperately wants to be able to connect with his parents, to be cured of his mental block.

VII: Fiddling About with Fourths

Indeed, far from making a decent attempt at curing him, his parents emotionally neglect him, something carried to the extreme that they “think it’s alright” to leave the deaf, dumb, and blind boy in the more-than-questionable care of, first, his bullying “Cousin Kevin” and his drunk, child molester Uncle Ernie, thus compounding Tommy’s childhood traumas.

A recurring musical motif in Tommy is the back-and-forth progression of suspended fourths to major chords (and variations thereof), a progression epitomized in “Pinball Wizard,” but also heard on “1921” (i.e., when we hear, “Got a feeling ’21 is gonna be a good year.”), and on such tracks as “Sparks” and “Underture” (i.e., the theme they share with that of the second half of “Rael”). In a way, it’s even heard on Townshend’s guitar part in “Cousin Kevin,” though the ‘suspended fourth’ part is actually in the context of a dominant 7th chord resolving to the tonic (i.e., the ‘fourth’ is really a minor 7th).

This back-and-forth, up-and-down movement between the suspended fourth and major third can be seen to symbolize the up-and-down, wavelike movements of the vibrations that Tommy feels are connecting him with the world. They’re the source of his mystical bliss, but paradoxically, they are also caused by his trauma. Significantly, the movement from suspended fourth to the major third chord is also a movement from musical tension to resolution (i.e., a symbolic move from pain to peacefulness). Hence, while we hear the back-and-forth of fourths and thirds in the mystical, visionary instrumentals (“Sparks” and “Underture”), as well as in “Pinball Wizard,” we also hear them in some of the trauma-oriented songs (“1921” and “Cousin Kevin”).

The trouble with childhood trauma, especially the kind that results in the “freeze” trauma response that Tommy’s deaf-dumb-and-blind mental block represents, is how quickly it attracts predatory types. Bullies like Cousin Kevin and child molesters like Uncle Ernie find people like Tommy, now a teen in the story, to be easy prey. Bullies and pedophiles are cowards who cannot take out their pain on people who fight back, so they prey on the weak, resulting in re-victimization for people like Tommy. PTSD thus grows into C-PTSD.

“Cousin Kevin” is sung by Townshend and Entwistle on the album, while in the film it’s sung by Paul Nicholas, whom we see torturing Tommy, who in turn is played by Roger Daltrey. “Fiddle About” is sung by Entwistle on the album, while in the film, the lyrics are growled by Moon, who plays Uncle Ernie. An amusing performance of this role, done during the reunited Who’s 1989 tour, was done by Phil Collins, dressed in the stereotypical pervert’s bathrobe, underwear, and with messy hair and glasses. Billy Idol did a profanity-laced performance as Cousin Kevin during that show.

“Fiddle About” switches from 4/4 to 3/4 when the song’s title is heard in the lyrics. That creepy, rocking 3/4 suggests the act of molestation, to our ears’ horror.

VIII: Heaven and Hell 2

It is fitting that “Cousin Kevin” should occur just before the Acid Queen giving Tommy his acid trip (“Underture”) in the sequence of songs on the album; then, that “Fiddle About” should appear just before “Pinball Wizard.” That is, two of the most traumatic events in his life should happen just before a great mystical or visionary moment, a move from hell to heaven. (Similarly, the traumatic “You didn’t see it!…” of “1921” immediately precedes the mystical/visionary “Amazing Journey” on the album.)

This juxtaposition of the worst with the best brings us back to what I discussed above about the traumatic and blissful aspects of Lacan’s Real Order and Bion’s ineffable O. Rudolf Otto, in his book The Idea of the Holy (1917, Das Heilige), wrote of the non-sensory numinous, the dual nature of experiencing God, which is both blissful and traumatic, mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Tommy’s traumas are so extreme that he’s come out the other end, dialectically speaking, from hell out to heaven; he’s so well connected to the world, so touched by God, so to speak, that he can excel at pinball without even seeing the ball.

As I’ve discussed in many other posts, I use the ouroboros to symbolize the dialectical relationship between opposites: the serpent’s coiled body represents a circular continuum with the biting head and bitten tail representing extreme opposites that meet, phasing into each other. All intermediary points are on the coiled body of the ouroboros, the head and tail of which can represent any pair of opposites–heaven and hell, sanity and insanity, etc.

In Tommy’s case, his mental state is right where the serpent’s head is biting its tail: the bitten tail is his trauma, and the biting head is the bliss of his mystical, visionary consciousness. So with the trauma of Uncle Ernie’s molestation of him, immediately preceding his amazing extrasensory powers as the usurper of the Pinball Wizard, we have a perfectly fitting juxtaposition.

IX: Tommy Uses the Force

How do you think he does it?” you wonder. “What makes him so good” at pinball? That Tommy has “no distractions” reminds me of that scene in Star Wars, when Luke is practicing with his lightsaber on the Millennium Falcon, and Ben has him wear a helmet with the blast shield down, making Luke unable to see the remote. Ben says, “Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them.” Then he tells sightless Luke, “Stretch out with your feelings,” and Luke can, through the “mystical energy field” surrounding him, sense when and where the remote will shoot at him, and he can deflect its shots perfectly. Similarly, Tommy is, so to speak, using the Force when playing pinball.

On the album, Daltrey sings most of “Pinball Wizard,” while Townshend, elsewhere quickly strumming those suspended fourths and major third chords on his acoustic guitar, sings some lead vocals during the bridge (quoted at the top of the previous paragraph). In the movie, Elton John plays the Pinball Wizard (in huge shoes!) and, on his piano, plays over the suspended fourth and major chord acoustic guitar strumming with fast, descending arpeggios of subdominant and tonic triads. The film version of the song is extended to include variations on the main guitar riff to “I Can’t Explain.”

X: The Mirror

A doctor is found who, his parents hope, will cure Tommy. In the film, he’s played by Jack Nicholson (“The Specialist”), who–like Oliver Reed–also sings…for good or ill. In the song on the album, we hear a refrain of Tommy’s “See me, feel me…”, a reflection of his trauma; then soon after, “Listening to you…”, a reflection of his mystical, visionary state of mind–again, a juxtaposition of his inner heaven and hell. Realizing that Tommy’s disabilities are all psychosomatic and not at all biological, the doctor et al advise that Tommy “Go to the Mirror!”

It is interesting, from a Lacanian perspective, that blind Tommy would be brought before a mirror, of all things, as an essential part of his cure. An infant establishes its ego, its unified sense of self, an ideal-I, by seeing itself in the mirror reflection for the first time, bringing it into the Imaginary Order. Apart from seeing itself in the specular image, the infant feels itself to be a fragmented body, awkward, lacking in boundaries between me and not-me, and lacking in a unitary identity.

The traumatic arrest in Tommy’s development as a child came from his having witnessed the murder and his parents gaslighting him into not seeing, not hearing, and never talking about it. Also, his having been deprived of his Oedipal desires (note that a baby seeing his mother’s loving smiles is also a metaphorical mirror that returns his infantile narcissism back to him; note also that, in the film, Tommy’s oh, so desirable mother is seen in the mirror reflection with Tommy during “Smash the Mirror”) is connected with the need to establish his ego before the mirror, something his trauma has frustrated. This connection is now key to curing him.

Having Tommy stand before a mirror and stare at himself also symbolically suggests therapy through the methods of Heinz Kohut–that is, a temporary indulging of narcissism through the mirror transference before gently weaning him of this indulgence through optimal frustration. The problem is that Tommy’s mother, chanting “Tommy, Can You Hear Me?” with the others, grows impatient and frustrated herself, and she decides to “Smash the Mirror.”

Such a smashing is far from the gentle weaning of optimal frustration. It’s much too sudden and abrupt, and the fragmenting of the mirror, its shocking suddenness, is symbolic of the threat of psychological fragmentation, a danger often averted by resorting to pathological narcissism. Sure, Tommy’s mental block is gone: he can finally see, hear, and speak, but his “Miracle Cure” is a superficial one.

XI: The Messiah

Now, the narcissism of Tommy’s fancying himself as a Messiah-figure is the one thing keeping him from falling apart and having a psychotic break with reality. What’s worse, as we see especially in the film, his family is indulging his megalomania to make a buck or two.

Tommy has already had “disciples” from the discovery of his amazing pinball skills, but now he’s become a “Sensation,” gaining many more followers, including groupie-like “Sally Simpson,” whose preacher father disapproves of her involvement in Tommy’s cult. Since he’s “free,” Tommy is trying to get as many followers as he can, people who, devoted to him, are treated as mere extensions of himself. They are the other, a mirroring back to himself of his ego, the other of the Imaginary (i.e., a form of the objet petit a, where a is French for autre, only one ‘other’), not the Other (many people) with its radical sense of alterity, the alterity of the Symbolic.

Wishing to cash in on Tommy’s new celebrity, his Uncle Ernie, his mother and Frank (in the film), set up “Tommy’s Holiday Camp.” This whole set-up would be the rock opera’s satirical take on all those who would exploit the spiritual yearnings of the masses for profit.

And at first, the masses go along with it. There’s an ironic twist in having them wear ear plugs, eye shades, and a cork in their mouths. As we know, Tommy’s psychosomatic disabilities gave him a mystical connection with the “deep and formless infinite”; but his followers, seeking to be pinball-playing imitators of Tommy as Christians would be imitators of Christ, are being wilfully deaf, dumb, and blind followers…that is, unthinking adherents of this phoney new religion that gives Tommy narcissistic supply.

When Tommy starts scolding certain of his followers for drinking, smoking pot, or being “Mr. Normal,” they grow disillusioned with him and his restrictions on their freedoms, realizing he is no different from any other religious leader who becomes too authoritarian and repressive. Thus, they all chant, “We’re Not Gonna Take it,” and reject his phoney cult.

XII: Rejection of the Messiah

Their rejection of Tommy leads to an ironic repeat of his “See me, feel me…” plaintive singing. Before, the traumatized boy had our sympathies; now that he’s not only regained his senses but also become a powerful cult leader, his pleas to be heard and healed fall on…deaf…ears.

This irony leads to yet another. The masses’ rejection of Tommy, their refusal to indulge him in his narcissism and megalomania, has made him retreat into himself again. Now, his singing of “Listening to you…,” instead of being straightforwardly visionary and mystical, has become dubious in this new, narcissistic context.

XIII: Conclusion

So, what are we to make of the ending of Tommy? Is it a happy one? To hear the driving guitar, bass, and drums of Townshend, Entwistle, and Moon, as well as the operatic grandeur of Daltrey’s vocals, harmonized by Townshend and Entwistle, one would think it’s a happy ending. The lyrics certainly seem upbeat at the end. Let’s consider, however, what has happened in light of the plot.

Tommy’s recovery from his trauma, from staring at a mirror which is then smashed by his mother, is a shaky recovery to say the least. He’s replaced his previous isolation with a narcissistic Messiah complex. In the end, his followers have rejected him, relegating him to his loneliness, and he’s withdrawn into himself. From this, can he really “see the glory,” “climb the mountain,” and “get excitement at your feet”?

I would describe these ecstatic words not as an attainment of nirvana, but rather as him deluding himself that he’s attained it, as a narcissistic defence against fragmentation. He can convince himself that he’s found the highest bliss, though he’s actually lost his mind, because as I’ve argued above, the heavenly and hellish mental states are actually opposite sides of the same coin.

Still, the very dialectical proximity of these opposing states makes the ending of Tommy ambiguous rather than pessimistic. Just as his childhood trauma also gave him his mystical connection with everything, so can his new isolation, with all the pain of the world’s rejection of him, make him once again pass the ouroboros’ bitten tail to the biting head of visionary bliss.

The “you” he’s “listening to,” “gazing at,” and “following” could thus be his rejecting herd of followers, or it could be God…or it could be both.

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