Daniels (Blended, 2017, etc.) explores the Who’s famous rock opera from the perspective of a psychotherapist and fan in a work that combines memoir and art criticism.
For many people of Daniels’ generation who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, rock music offered a reflection of teenage angst and alienation. The author writes that he found particular resonance in the music of the Who, especially the songs on their landmark 1969 album “Tommy,” which was adapted as a film in 1975. Daniels argues in his introduction that rock opera’s “lyrical motifs, such as the ‘deaf, dumb, and blind boy,’ its references to mirrors, and pinball, carry the feel and weight of archetypes, affording Tommy a mythic status that is unrivalled in pop music.” His book—part memoir, part literary critique, and part psychological evaluation—explores not only the album and the context in which it was created, but also the eponymous character at the center of the work. Daniels discusses his own discovery of the Who as a child in 1970s Britain, noting that it wasn’t until his family moved to the United States that he became a true fan. He provides some background on the album’s origins and on the development of attachment theory before continuing, full-bore, into the “Tommy” story. While investigating the life of the isolated, abused, pinball-playing Tommy, who’s paraded before a series of doctors in the album’s narrative, Daniels draws on relevant, anonymized cases that he’s encountered in his own psychotherapy practice. The author goes on to offer his own “sequel” to the album, imagining what it would be like if Tommy were to walk into his office for treatment.
Daniels’ deep fandom of the album is the book’s defining characteristic, and it’s present in nearly every line of his prose. As he didn’t secure the rights to reprint the album’s lyrics, Daniels is forced to get creative in his descriptions of its plot and themes, and he does an admirable job of capturing the overall feel of the record this way, as in this description of the hit single “Pinball Wizard”: “Blending fantasy with evocations of the past, the song is a stroke of genius, conjuring depression era taverns, Brighton Pier arcades. The ephemera easily comes to mind: a battery of lights illuminating flippers, comic-book imagery, bumpers, and launch springers.” He offers a number of intriguing ideas about the Who, as well—which, he argues, was “perhaps the first act in rock history conceived as a reflection of its audience rather than a self-contained performing act”—and about Tommy as a character. That said, his deep dives into the minutiae of each song from a psychoanalytic perspective can make for dry reading at times, even for those who love the album. It’s difficult to imagine this work, which blends the intensity of Who fandom with the esotericism of psychology, finding a large readership. That said, it’s still an impressive work of intellectual labor.
A well-argued work of rock criticism for a specialized audience.