Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song

Needless to say, my site title draws from Dylan’s book title, but only because of a conversation with my sixteen year old daughter Grace. She saw me reading Dylan’s book and asked me what modern songs he wrote about. When I said, “Most of them are from the 50s,” she replied, “That’s not exactly modern, is it?” To make things worse, I pointed out the book isn’t quite philosophy either, so she felt bound to point out that the title of the book sounded somewhat defective. Then she said that she wished someone were writing this way about current artists, like Nicki Minaj. We considered the difference between modern and contemporary, and I suggested that Dylan might have meant by “modern” the beginning of our current musical forms, which in many cases might be the late nineteenth, early twentieth century.

At any rate, that’s when I decided to retitle my site The Philosophy of Contemporary Song. I’ll post about Minaj sometime in the near future.

Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song (Simon & Schuster, 2022) is in one important sense a perfectly written book: it’s exactly what Dylan wants it to be. It’s in his voice, it accomplishes his purposes, it says what he wants it to say. I’d love to sit down with Dylan sometime and have a long, heart to heart conversation about our friend the comma, and our common enemies the comma splice and the run-on sentence, but what kind of a pedant wants to talk to Bob Dylan about commas?

Check out my iTunes playlist for Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song.

Apparently me, I am sorry to say.

But it’s still a perfectly written book because it’s in his voice. All of the missing and offending commas are there (or not) to capture that voice. And this book isn’t Dylan’s first. He’s the author of collections of poetry, original art, and song lyrics as well as memoir, a Nobel prize lecture, and now a series of sixty-six short essays about a selection of American songs from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty first. So the question is always why this book? How does it serve his purposes?

When a rock musician gives a song list, it doesn’t hurt to think about what they mean to do with it. David Bowie was asked by Vanity Fair in 2003 to produce a list of his twenty-five favorite albums, and when he described the selection process, he said he pulled out Sgt. Pepper’s and Nirvana and then put them back because they were too obvious. But do you know what that means? Sgt. Pepper’s and whatever Nirvana album he’d selected were important choices and they didn’t make the list. The point here was to draw attention to albums Bowie loved that wasn’t on everyone else’s list too.

I think to some extent Dylan wants to serve the same purposes that Bowie did with his album selection — to draw attention to important but lesser known artists and their songs. For example, Jimmy Wages’s “Take Me (From This Garden Of Evil)” (1956) was left unreleased at the time of its recording. Dylan believes it wasn’t released because it wasn’t a teen hit. Instead, this song “presses the panic button. This record might be the first and only gospel rockabilly record. This is evil as the dictator, evil ruling the land, call it what you will” (p. 17). According to Discogs this single wasn’t released until 2001, so it could hardly have been a formative influence on Dylan.

So why did Dylan select it? I think because it’s a great song, because it works, and I think Dylan wants to describe how it works. I believe that’s what he means by the philosophy of modern song, and I believe that’s the purpose of his book and of his selections.

His purposes for writing the book become more apparent if we examine the content of his entries. Each entry tends to be made up of one or more of the following parts:

  • They’re never introduced as such, but almost every entry starts with a description of what the song makes Dylan see and feel. What he imagines when he hears the song, or what memories are brought to mind. What the songs evoke in him. Artwork scattered throughout the book, often in scrapbook format, lends to this impression as well. I love Sean O’Hagan’s description in The Guardian of these segments as Dylan evoking “the atmosphere or emotional resonance of a lyric by stepping inside the mind of the narrator and, by extension, the songwriter.” Perfect description.
  • Some background on the artist or performer. Jimmy Wages, for example, grew up very close to Elvis in Tupelo, Mississippi, but Elvis moved on to Memphis at the age of eight while Wages stayed in Tupelo. Dylan, considering that fact, has to ask what might have been had Wages moved up to Memphis too.
  • Background on the songwriting, the songwriters, or the song itself, which in some cases has a much longer history than expected. These segments, when present, are particularly interesting.
  • Background on the recording.
  • Commentary on the artist’s vocal or instrumental performance.
  • Within all of the above, some commentary on how the song works. Every song chosen for this collection works for Dylan, and he writes to understand how and why. That how and why is his philosophy of modern song.

Not every entry has all of these elements. Every entry performs at least one of these tasks, though. If Dylan doesn’t cover most of it in any given entry, and he always performs the first task, what the song evokes in him, it’s often because he may have two or three entries covering songs by the same artist. I think Dylan chose these songs because of what they allowed him to say at the moment, what they allowed him to write. I don’t think this book consists of a favorites or influences list even though it certainly does include some favorites and influences. I think it’s always a “what does this song allow me to say about songwriting” list, though.

And what about his coverage? I’ve made up a spreadsheet laying out the song and artist demographics across the entire book. Dylan wrote about

  • Five female singers and seven female songwriters. I count everyone in vocal groups like the Temptations.
  • 63 male singers and 100 male songwriters.
  • 19 of these artists were singer/songwriters, not in the sense of genre, but only in the sense that the performer wrote their own material. Only one song is ascribed to “Traditional.”
  • By decade, Dylan discusses one song from the nineteenth century (but as recorded by a contemporary artist in the twenty first), three from the 20s, one from the 40s, twenty-eight from the 50s, thirteen from the 60s, fourteen from the 70s, three from the 80s, one from the 90s, and three from the 2000s, but only two if you push that cover version back to the nineteenth century where it belongs. Is it surprising that nearly half of the songs chosen are from the 1950s? Not for an artist whose first album came out in 1963. So Dylan is indeed revealing his influences, but we shouldn’t forget his choice of Jimmy Wages either.
  • By genre, Dylan chose twenty-three rock or rockabilly songs (too lazy to split these up, but I should), one punk song, fourteen country songs, five folk songs, one bluegrass, three each jazz and blues, twelve early pop songs (easy listening/ big band), and four songs that fall into the categories of either R’n’B, soul, or funk. I expected more folk and less rock, but the big band songs aren’t surprising given his recent albums. We also need to keep in mind that if you go back far enough, rock, rockabilly, folk, and country were all very close together. Sometimes the lines between them all get very thin.

So what do all of these numbers add up to? Dylan was most interested in writing about 50s’ rock and rockabilly with country not far behind, and with the 60s and 70s not far behind. The book is almost completely made up of rock, rockabilly, and country songs from the 50s to the 70s, about 90% numerically. And of equal importance, these songs were popularized by American artists with the exception of “London Calling” by the Clash, his sole punk selection, “My Generation” by The Who, and Elvis Costello. I think this book is reflective of Dylan’s lifetime commitment to American musical forms. There’s no prog or metal in here, although he mentions metal in an interesting comparison with bluegrass. His project wasn’t always to be original, but to preserve and reflect the diversity of American music.

I’ve taken up a good bit of time trying to understand Dylan’s book on its own terms. Some reviewers, annoyingly, do not. One reviewer accuses Dylan of hating women because of the ratio of male to female songwriters — and I have to admit, it’s not a good ratio, but nearly half the songs are from the 1950s or before, and nearly all the songs are from before the 1980s. While there were a number of important women songwriters during this time, there weren’t many compared to men — but worse, the reviewer complains because of some of the lines sung in other people’s songs. That judgment truly demonstrates an inability to read: the issue is not what the song narrates, which often includes evil, heartbreak, and betrayal, but the narrative attitude toward what the song narrates. Depiction isn’t advocacy. The author or authors of 2 Samuel narrate David’s adultery with Bathsheba, for example, but the narrative — or the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures or Christian Bible, for that matter — doesn’t condone adultery, especially not in that specific story.

Reviews tend to ignore some of the most striking comments in the book, such as Dylan’s praise of Tin Pan Alley songwriters — songwriters contracted out to record companies who wrote for multiple performers — even though he panned them in the 60s, leading to the singer-songwriter movement. He also speculates that in our relationships, marriage itself, a lifetime commitment, may be the problem — because of divorce and its monetary implications, and specifically because of lawyers. His solution? Polygamy. Is Dylan updating Blake’s “The Garden of Love,” observing how our systems of laws and religions interfere with something as natural as love? Or is he just following the trajectory of “Cheaper To Keep Her”? How can you listen to that song and not think of lawyers, marriage, and divorce?

There are more women in the book than is reflected in song coverage. He mentions Aretha Franklin and Sister Rosetta Tharpe while writing about other artists. Why is Cher on the list while Carole King is not? And while I wish Dylan had covered Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez, he also didn’t cover any of the Beatles as solo artists or as a group, or David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys), and on and on, while he does cover Nina Simone. The Rolling Stones are out while the Grateful Dead is in. Why? I think in part because he was focused on American musicians, but also because of what he was trying to say: which, as always, is exactly what he wanted to say, exactly how he wanted to say it. If Dylan died tomorrow, this book would be a fitting last word.

I wish that Dylan would release a book like this written only about women singers and songwriters. He should dedicate it to Joan Baez. I think she’d have to die first. She’d certainly die afterwards.

I have a number of Bob Dylan playlists in iTunes that span his entire career. As you’ll see, some of them overlap because they’re not just chronological but cover different genres, projects, and commitments.

If you like my writing about music, check out my Bookstore.

Alice Cooper: An Overview

I’ve recently created three iTunes playlists covering Alice Cooper’s career from 1969 to the present. These playlists are based on his studio discography. I’ll be meditating on my impressions of him as a long time fan — since the 70s — and my recent listening to his work. Cooper has meant a lot to me since around 1977 or 1978. While “School’s Out” had already been out a few years, I didn’t catch up to it until then. It was my anthem. I hated school. Once I started following him, I dressed up like Alice Cooper for Halloween every year. I had the face and hair to pull it off with the right makeup. I loved his rebellion, his transgression, his sense of threat. He was my first real badass hero.

I’ve divided up his career, and this playlist, into three rather uneven eras:

The first playlist covers the Alice Cooper Band period, from 1969 to 1973:

During this period, “Alice Cooper” wasn’t the name of the lead singer but the name of the band. It became the name of the lead singer over the course of this period, mostly due to fans. The band lineup was very stable during this time, and this is the period of his enduring classic hits such as “School’s Out” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy” plus a number of other songs.

But if you were to listen to a greatest hits album covering this period, I think you’d get a false impression of the music the Alice Cooper band actually produced. Rock was just a small part of it. I think it’s better to compare Alice Cooper to David Bowie and Queen in the 70s: they played rock hits, but musically, overall, they weren’t at all limited to rock music, mixing jazz, cabaret, broadway, and folk with rock. Queen was very much interested in opera and musical forms from the 20s and 30s, Bowie in Black American musical forms and German electronica, and Alice Cooper in broadway and a number of other forms.

Of the seven albums the original Alice Cooper band released, the two standout albums are Killer (1971) and Billion Dollar Babies (1973) because the band committed to making rock albums (the rock ballad during the 70s was a standard part of a hard rock album — don’t let that throw you). I would say the weakness of Cooper’s albums until the mid 80s was that he, or the band, didn’t do anything as well as a good rock song. Bowie’s and Queen’s excursions into even the remotest of genres were better produced than anything Alice Cooper did as a band or solo artist outside of rock or rock ballads.

My next playlist covers his early solo period, 1975-1983:

Alice Cooper the band became Alice Cooper the solo act: Vincent Furnier the man was to “Alice Cooper” as David Jones was to “David Bowie.” Cooper continues his exploratory compositional preferences with a new band, continually reaching out to new musical forms while still remaining anchored in a rock sound. His first album from this period, Welcome to My Nightmare (1975), was released on Atlantic records, but all other albums during this period were with Warner.

Welcome to My Nightmare was his last platinum album until 1989’s Trash. It was his last album to have any kind of US certification at all, in fact, until Trash. So this period marks a period of commercial decline for Cooper. It’s generally seen as a period of artistic decline as well, but I think some albums, such as Flush the Fashion (1980), make a coherent musical and thematic statement worth some attention, in addition to producing the Gary Numanesque hit “Clones (We’re All),” and I think Dada (1983) is one of the most interesting albums in Cooper’s catalog in addition to being his most experimental. It’s his version of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, but it was ignored when it was released and is generally ignored today.

What happens between 1983 and 1986 is very important. Going into 1983, Cooper is an alcoholic and addicted to cocaine. He and his wife had filed for divorce. One evening, he looks into the mirror and sees blood streaming from his eyes. He’s not sure if he’s hallucinating or really bleeding, but he gets the point, and he flushes his cocaine down the toilet and calls his wife to tell her he’s given it up. She tells him to prove it — go to church. Cooper was raised Evangelical. He does. The spiritually-oriented songs that appear on his later albums are reflective of his own real faith. Some of them, “Salvation” (from the 2006 Along Came a Spider), are even evangelistic in tone, but these are few and far between. He learns to be a rock star without killing himself like one. The Last Temptation (1994) is a notable statement in this way, not only being his first concept album in some time but also the inspiration for a series of comic books by Neil Gaiman.

So my third and final playlist covers a much bigger block of time. Following on the heels of his recovery and conversion, it spans 1986 to the present, which as of the time of this writing is 37 years. But note that the first four-year period covers seven albums, the next eight years covers nine albums, and this 37 year period thirteen:

He’s less prolific in his late career but more focused. He knows what he’s doing. His only two certified albums are the platinum certified Trash from 1986 and his next album, Hey Stoopid (1991). I remember feeling pleased hearing Alice Cooper on the radio again at 22 when I hadn’t heard much of him since my early teenage years in the 1970s. Welcome 2 My Nightmare (2011) and Paranormal (2017) both chart in the top 40 but don’t hit gold level sales.

But I would hardly call this a period of decline. Cooper abandons, by and large, mixing musical forms and plays to his strengths, which are hard rock mixed with metal and, for the most part, straight up heavy metal. None of these albums ever go wrong, but the standout albums to me are his serial killer concept album Along Came a Spider (2008), which is straight up metal, and the industrial inspired Brutal Planet (2000) and Dragontown (2001), both of which engage in searing commentary on the cruelties of the modern world.

Welcome 2 My Nightmare marks a return to his 70s’ formula as a response to 1975’s Welcome to My Nightmare, and it’s a good response, but I don’t like it as much as his metal albums — although his fans liked it more. His most recent album, Detroit Stories (2021), sees him reunited with old bandmates from the Alice Cooper band period (those that remain) and notable figures in Detroit rock to perform a classic rock album mixed with some nods to soul and the blues, which don’t appear often on Cooper’s albums at any time during his career. It’s him giving something back to a city of Detroit that gave quite a bit to him musically– and all of us. Despite the band’s Arizona roots, Cooper’s early childhood was spent in Detroit, so this album is a musical return home.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see Alice Cooper live twice, both times since 2015. The first time I’d ever seen Cooper perform live was in Ohio opening up for Mötley Crüe on their farewell tour, probably in 2015 (they have since said farewell to their farewell), and then again in Ohio not long after, before 2018, as a headlining act in Columbus in a smaller venue. He had a great band; it was tight, and Nita Strauss shreds. He played a covers set honoring recently dead rock musicians. And the theatrical, horror elements of his show didn’t so much shock me as make me laugh. It was kitsch horror. It probably always was. But it was fun to watch.

If you like my writing about rock, check out the bookstore.

Frontwomen in Rock

I just created an iTunes playlist titled “Frontwomen in Rock” inspired by Samantha Fish’s recent live performance in Ft. Lauderdale, where she was opening for Kenny Wayne Shepherd. But it’s a very small playlist because I have narrow criteria:

  1. The frontwoman is the lead singer.
  2. The frontwoman is the lead guitarist.
  3. The frontwoman is the principle songwriter.

So I’m not thinking of your usual frontwomen — singer only, or singer and rhythm or bass guitar, or singer and piano player. I’ve excluded quite a few important women with this criteria: Janis Joplin and Patti Smith were primarily singers; Chrissie Hynde and Joan Jett were rhythm guitarists; Suzi Quattro plays bass guitar; Tracy Chapman and many others acoustic. I’m looking for women equivalents to Jimi Hendrix, Pat Travers, Ted Nugent, Rick Derringer, etc. My list is, sadly, very short. So far, I have…

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, called by NPR “the godmother of rock and roll.” She’s near the top of many lists for the first rock guitarist and as the, or an, inventor of rock and roll. I included selections from her compilation album The Gospel of the Blues, excluding some of her big band songs. She did write a number of her own songs, but many writing credits for many musicians from her era and genre are “trad.”, not too different from Dylan’s early albums.

Lita Ford, Lita, 1988. Lita Ford first gained national recognition as the lead guitarist for the Runaways. Her 1988 glam metal album Lita was her third solo album and her biggest seller — her only platinum album and, in fact, her only album to receive any kind of certification. The album had some great props, starting with producer Mike Chapman, who produced hit albums for the Knack, Blondie, Suzi Quattro, and The Sweet, in addition to guest appearances by Ozzy Osbourne, Nikki Sixx, and Lemmy. It’s great 80s’ metal.

P.J. Harvey’s second album, 1993’s Rid of Me, is a searing, guitar-based rock and punk album from the period before her switch to more radio friendly electronica. Harvey plays all stringed instruments on this album except for bass guitar — which covers not only lead guitar but cello and violin, and she also plays the organ. This album is one of my all time favorites just because of her cover of Dylan’s “Highway 51 Revisited,” which is all power, thrash, and noise. It’s not just punk. It’s punk folk. I first learned of P.J. Harvey while working on the book Rock and Romanticism: Post Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms. Catherine Girodet contributed chapter 9, which covers the P.J. Harvey albums To Bring You My Love and Is This Desire?

My next pick is St. Vincent’s eponymous fourth album, released in 2014. I selected this album because St. Vincent is the sole guitarist. One idea that didn’t surface until the Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism virtual book launch was that St. Vincent, along with Jack White, is one of the two most important guitarists recording today. I didn’t think of it until the moment the words were coming out of my mouth, but once I said them, I realized they were strongly felt. St. Vincent is a remarkably innovative guitarist whose guitar work demonstrates a deep commitment to extending the compositional range of that instrument.

My latest addition is Sue Foley‘s The Ice Queen (2018). It’s not her latest, but it has a large number of her own original compositions, which her newest album, Pinky’s Blues (2021), does not — but I included her three compositions from that album on this playlist. She’s a great Canadian blues guitarist and vocalist currently based, I think, in Texas. This album features guest appearances by Jimmy Vaughan and Billy Gibbons of Z.Z. Top, and she plays a very cool pink Telecaster.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is Samantha Fish’s most recent album, Faster (2021). She’s the reason I made this list. I recently saw her open for Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and as long as I’ve been a fan of KWS (about 20 years now), Samantha Fish may have him beat. She certainly gave him a run for his money. She’s a great blues and blues rock guitarist, but her most recent album sees her branching out into other genres, expanding the range of her writing and guitar work. If you like St. Vincent, you should check out Samantha Fish’s new album. I won’t say her music is like St. Vincent’s — just that she leans in that direction with a stronger commitment to the blues.

That’s my list. Six women long. Any suggestions? If you liked this discussion check out the Bookstore for some great books about rock and women in rock.

A New Poetic Form: The Hourglass Sestina

I’ve been working with artist, photographer, and documentary filmmaker Lee Fearnside on an illustrated collection of poems titled The Fantastic Bestiary. During the writing process for this collection, I came up with the idea of an abbreviated sestina form that would usually take the approximate shape of an hourglass if centered on the page. Those familiar with sestinas will know what to look for — and as you see, it is very much an abbreviated sestina. I hope you enjoy it. End words chosen for me by S.S.

The Abbreviated Hedgehog

A certain shortened Hedgehog, whose jolly,
abbreviated laughs punctuated the light
with not too prickly,
still softly serene
warmth and
His warm,
always modest serenity
smooths out his prickly
spines, elevating the morning’s light
so it ascends to his jolly
his serene, warm freedom,
his jolly, prickly light.

Pete Townshend and World War II

I have three iTunes playlists dedicated to The Who — 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s to the present — and I can’t listen through them without being impressed, over and over again, by Pete Townshend’s genius. Record sales aside, his creative accomplishments exceed that of the Beatles, Dylan, or the Rolling Stones throughout the 60s and 70s. Dylan and Morrison were poets, the Stones a great rock and roll band (that incorporated country, soul, blues, funk, and R’n’B into their music), and the Beatles reinvented popular music for everyone, Townshend included.

Townshend was a poet; The Who was a rock and roll band. The Who’s 1970 Who’s Next reinvented music, as did some of his songs on the early concept album The Who Sell Out. But Townshend wrote mini rock operas leading up to his main rock opera, Tommy, which was developed into stage plays and then a 1975 film. He conceived of another rock opera and film, Quadrophenia, about the mod culture of early 1960s’ England. And after 1980, as both a solo artist and for The Who, he continued to produce rock operas and fully developed concept albums.

So I think his writing deserves special attention, and particularly his influences. I think one of his most important statements is found in the rock opera and then film Tommy, which comments on the role of World War II in the creation of 1960s’ counterculture. In Townshend’s opinion, 60s’ counterculture was a direct effect of the aftermath of World War II. His rock opera Tommy explains why.

But I think we need to understand the post world war environment first. The world endured two great shocks following World War II; the first was the shock of the Holocaust. The events of the Holocaust are among the best documented historical events in history. From records kept by the Germans, survivors who served as eyewitnesses, and British, American, and Russian troops who entered the camps when Nazi Germany fell, we know that under Hitler Germany incinerated or otherwise murdered over six million people in concentration camps. The camps were sites of horrifying human experimentation as well, and many died of disease or starvation before being incinerated.

Most of these victims were Jewish, but victims also included the disabled, Romani people, socialists, and communists: anyone perceived as living up to less than Hitler’s Aryan ideal or who were perceived as internal political threats to the Nazi party. Socialists and communists, Hitler’s earliest political opponents, were also Hitler’s first targets, even before he attacked Jewish people. These camps were built in 1931 as detention centers and then turned into extermination camps in 1938. The insanity of Hitler’s genocide is not just in the fact of its existence, or even in its scale, which is unprecedented in human history. Hitler devoted significant resources to the building and maintenance of these camps during wartime, and even when he was losing he didn’t fail to run the camps. Hitler was more committed to murdering Jewish people than he was even to winning the war.

The second great shock was, of course, America’s dropping of two nuclear bombs on Japan. These nuclear weapons weren’t more destructive in their initial use than conventional weapons. While estimates of deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki from nuclear weapons range from 30,000 to 60,000 people, US firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo alone killed over 100,000 people in each city. Some historians believe that Japan’s emperor was ready to surrender, that the US did not need to use these bombs to defeat Japan, and that the US dropped these bombs to send a warning to the Soviet Union not to march across Europe when Germany fell. As it was, the Soviet Union occupied half of Europe for over 40 years. NATO was created five years after the Soviet Union’s occupation of eastern Europe as a defense against Soviet expansion across Europe, and the current conflict in Ukraine is part of a long history of Russian/Soviet aggression in the area, one that includes continual warfare dating back to the sixteenth century.

Many people reasonably believe that the use of nuclear weapons was a terrible chapter in human rights history. Other victims of the Japanese during World War II, such as the Koreans, say they wished the US had dropped ten bombs on Japan because of the brutality of Japanese occupation as the Japanese raped, tortured, and murdered their way across Asia. But more important than the reasons for the use of nuclear weapons is the brute fact of their existence and potential for destruction from a single bomb, and even more important than that was the fact that we had such destructive weapons and were capable, as a human race, of something like a Holocaust in Germany. That’s why the no nukes movements from the 50s to the 80s continually warned about a nuclear holocaust: what the Germans did to their concentration camp victims during World War II we could now do to the entire human race.

That’s what the greatest generation faced following World War II. Those were the parents of baby boomers, but really any children born after 1940 experienced a similar childhood milieu. What they all had in common was an early childhood in a post World War II world. They were raised by the Valium and alcohol generation, an entire generation with PTSD, by a generation desperate to a return to normalcy, by a generation used to martial law. Who were the children of this generation? John Lennon and Ringo Starr were born in 1940, McCartney in 1942, Harrison in 1943. They were 24, 25, and 27 in 1967, the Summer of Love, the apex of the hippie movement and the peak of American counterculture. Mike Love, Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys were born in 1941, 1942, 1944, and 1946 respectively, so ranged in age from 21-26 years old in 1967. The first stable lineup of the Rolling Stones were all born between 1941 and 1943 except for Bill Wyman, born in 1936, but he was still only nine years old when World War II ended in 1945. David Bowie was born in 1947 and reported childhood memories of growing up in bombed out areas of greater London.

So a generation horrified by the Holocaust and nuclear bombs sought stability and conformity and managed worldwide PTSD with alcohol and Valium. Their children resisted their trauma, their conformity, and their religion. They sought enlightenment from gurus and the occult and the Jesus of the Jesus Movement, but not of mainline denominations. They took their cues from alcohol use and other meds to experiment with more powerful drugs: Grace Slick, born in 1939, said of her song “White Rabbit” that it was written in response to parents who read their children books like Alice in Wonderland and then wondered why their kids grew up to use drugs, and that the novel itself taught little girls to act and think for themselves. Drug use at the time was also hoped to expand the mind beyond the current and highly dysfunctional conformist environment.

Pete Townshend, born in 1945, responded to this environment in detail in his rock opera Tommy, drawing a straight line from post World War II trauma to drug use to 60s’ counterculture. Tommy begins with a young couple in love — but then Tommy’s father has to leave for the war. Tommy’s mother gives birth to Tommy after his father leaves, and then his father goes missing and is believed dead. Later, when Tommy is only about four years old, his father unexpectedly returns home, and upon finding his wife with another man, murders him in front of his son Tommy. Both mother and father start singing emphatically, “You didn’t see this, you didn’t hear this, you won’t say anything,” and after that event, Tommy goes deaf, dumb, and blind. The central part of the narrative consists of Tommy’s mother trying everything to get Tommy to recover: he’s taken to a number of doctors as a child, then the Acid Queen as a young man, and during this period beats the Pinball Wizard (performed by Elton John in the film) and becomes the new Pinball Wizard while still deaf, dumb, and blind. One doctor recommends a mirror, and Tommy stands in front of it all day, staring at himself, until his mother has finally had enough and smashes the mirror — which wakes Tommy up. He recovers his senses is transformed into a cult figure, his followers wearing ear, eye, and mouth pieces to simulate Tommy’s former condition and gain enlightenment. In the end, his followers become disillusioned and leave.

It’s tempting to read Lacan’s mirror stage into Townshend’s narrative, but Tommy’s mirror stage wasn’t developmental or even all that early. The mirror became an external symbol of Tommy’s retreat into his own mind, a retreat prompted by the trauma of the aftermath of World War II. Drug use, rock stars, gurus, new religions, and everything that followed were the counterculture’s attempts to deal with the effects of this trauma, and Tommy’s final loss of his cult status points to the end of the 60s and the Summer of Love; the disillusionment that followed from that generation’s attempts to escape the trauma of their forbears. Tommy being deaf, dumb, and blind symbolizes his generation’s numbness, and all aspects of 60s’ counterculture mentioned above were attempts to wake up from this numbness, to escape their pain and isolation.

I’ve published a number of anthologies on rock music and current culture. If you enjoyed this analysis, look them over at the Bookstore and consider ordering them for your local library.

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