Though the group no longer smashed their instruments at every show, they brought the same indefinable yet unmistakable energy to their stage performances of this metaphysical rock opera.
Veteran San Francisco media personality Steve Wagner was co-host, writer, and executive producer of the Bay Area television programs Reel Life and Filmtrip.
Steve has ghostwritten several published books, contributed articles on music, film, and popular culture to numerous publications, and presented lectures and workshops on music, art, and mythology throughout the U.S.
His book All You Need is Myth: The Beatles and Gods of Rock (2019), a study of the classic rock era through the lens of classical mythology, is the product of ten years of research and composition.
Day eleven of our mythic rock archetype countdown focuses on the Who, representing the Holy Spirit of rock & roll, the indefinable sense of underlying energy and the point of direct experience that is beyond the physical world, the logic of the brain, and, most frustratingly, language. Guitarist Pete Townshend explains that the experience of this ineffable spirit is the primary function of music, and consequently, the modern rock concert: “When live rock is at its best, which often means the Who … it’s an interaction which goes beyond performance. We aren’t like superstars, we’re only reflective surfaces. We might catch energy and transmit it, but the audience doesn’t take more from us than we take from them.” Below is an excerpt from All You Need is Myth: The Beatles and the Gods of Rock, that explores human relationship to spirit through the mythos of the Who:
When the Who finally moved away from their literally auto-destructive performances, it was to create material that explored the inner quest of a boy who, lacking the sensory means to connect with the mundane world, embarks on his own spiritual voyage within, even as his body is used and abused by those around him. Though the group no longer smashed their instruments at every show, they brought the same indefinable yet unmistakable energy to their stage performances of this metaphysical rock opera, and indeed it was 1969’s Tommy that finally made the Who into superstars.
In this context, Tommy is vibration.
Townshend has said that the crux of Tommy was the song “The Amazing Journey,” a direct account of spiritual transcendence. The original working title and first piece composed for the project, the song describes Tommy Walker as the “deaf, dumb, and blind boy, he’s in a quiet vibration land.” Said Townshend of his protagonist, “In Tommy’s mind, everything is incredible, meaningless beauty.” “Pinball Wizard” was included later when it was decided the album lacked a single, and the addition of this bit of action and whimsy into the ascetic main character’s life is significant in that he’s able to interact with the world only through vibration, and pinball provided a strong metaphor. Townshend felt that the inclusion “made it more accessible and that allowed me to go deeper. Suddenly there was this sense that pinball was about the universe and [Tommy] could be the key to it all.”
Tommy’s awakening occurs as he stares vacantly into a mirror, lost in his own self-image (which might be described by Jungians as indulgence in the ego). It’s only when he self-immolates (“Smash the Mirror”) that he is able to connect with his higher consciousness (“I’m Free”) and bring the fruits of his years of isolated contemplation into the world. In the song “Sensation,” Tommy’s spiritual essence and purpose is revealed: “You’ll feel me coming, a new vibration. From afar you’ll see me, I’m a sensation.” In this context, Tommy is vibration. This is punctuated in the moving finale to the opera, where Tommy implores his followers to “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me,” and his flock, in direct experience of his vibratory emanation, responds, “Listening to you, I get the music; gazing at you, I get the heat … on you, I see the glory … from you, I get the story.”
Representing the deeper feminine qualities of inner wisdom and intuitive process, concerns of ecology and equality, possession of hidden knowledge, and emphasis on truth and integrity, attributes of countless mythic goddesses of the ancient world.
Everything we experience in our material world is realized and created through a dance with its opposite.
Even more than her music, it was Janis’s seemingly possessed delivery that captivated and entranced her audience.