Tommy’s Physical Graffiti on The Wall

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September 6, 2012 by NowhereButPop

By Andrew Doscas

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Without question, the 1970s were the golden age of rock music; anyone who disagrees with that is an idiot (this is me at my most condescending).  This is due in no small part to the fact that Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and the Who all reached their peaks during the decade.  Along with the Rolling Stones, these three bands were the best bands of the decade; that’s not opinion, that’s a fact.  Between Zeppelin, Floyd, and the Who you have 10 #1 hit records, 104 million records sold, and countless sold out tours.  Besides the sales and the general accolades what makes these three bands so enthralling and captivating is what they represent: the three major philosophical schools of thought in Ancient Greece consisting of the hedonists, cynics, and stoics.

Hedonism is the belief that the only pleasure is the only intrinsic good and that a person’s sole goal in life should be the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.  Essentially the mantra of all college students, hedonism is typically used as a pejorative term that has many meanings, but for all intents and purposes the definition above will suffice.  While it’s true that most of us live in similar fashion, to let the pursuit of pleasure dictate our lives is incredibly arrogant and self-centered because it totally disregards others and also absolutely categorizes things into either being pleasurable or not.  Now I’m all for absolutes but everything in the universe can’t be categorized into only two categories.  For example, let’s say you get drunk one night and sleep with a stranger.  While the sex might be above average for a drunken one night stand, you might now have Chlamydia or crabs or something.  While the action was pleasurable, there is now an unrealized negative consequence that detracts from the initial pleasure, or “pain”.  One act that on face value would prove to be pleasurable now yields painful consequences that surely were not worth the initial gratification.  Because of a lack of foresight and unforeseen consequences, hedonism as stringent belief can’t work in real life.  However, Led Zeppelin captured that ethereal conceptual ideal of what hedonism is whether or not they were aware of this fact.

It’s no surprise that everyone remembers the “Whole Lotta Love” and “Black Dog” Led Zeppelin as opposed to the “All My Love” and “Ten Years Gone” Led Zeppelin.  While the latter two are incredible songs, that’s just not how everyone chooses to remember Led Zeppelin.  I think the reason for this is because, us fans intrinsically know that Led Zeppelin, as an entity most perfectly summed up our hedonistic inclinations, and so by remembering that one facet over the others, it allows us to vicariously live through them.  That or the fact that songs about sex and having a good time are more fun than songs about a broken heart or being generally miserable.[1]  Even “Stairway to Heaven”, while not sexual or superficial, it does satisfy that sense of self-indulgence that we all love so much.  The only thing better than someone sucking on your dick, is sucking on your own dick while having everyone cheer you on (metaphorically of course).  It plays off the notion of having everyone accept and love you for doing something that you truly want to do.

Not only are some of their more memorable songs about sex, they are also the ones that every 55 year old mid-life crisis participant is blasting out of his convertible on the way to the bar to buy a bunch of 23 year old college dropouts drinks they’ve never even heard of.  That is how we identify with Led Zeppelin, as being youthful, energetic, and erogenous, all adjectives associated with physical pleasure.  It’s for this reason why some accuse Led Zeppelin of being insincere.  Just because the masses took an aspect (albeit the most visible aspect) of the band and sequestered the band to maintain the one image, doesn’t mean that their songs lack sincerity.  Quite the contrary, it means they tried even harder to break that mold of being sex incarnate.  When asked about “Ten Years Gone” Robert Plant initially only responded by bashfully admitting “This is a song about your first love”.  To this day, the man chokes up and starts to shed tears when he references the motivation for writing “All My Love” (the death of his 5 year old son).  It’s through no fault of their own that people don’t believe them to be emotional or deep, it’s just that people disregard it in favor of creating this carefree and hedonistic attitude that the band cultivated.

Don’t get me wrong, all four of them (maybe not John Paul Jones) were incredibly arrogant.  Page had his flamboyant onstage attire, Bonzo once shoved a shark inside of a willing female fan, and of course Plant allegedly once bellowed out that he was a golden god before jumping off a building into a swimming pool.  And I’m sure they did very well for themselves, sexually speaking; whether or not it was up to Bill Wyman’s level I truly don’t know.  Personally, they did indulge in that sense of instant gratification, but it was because they could.  For us regular schmucks, the closest thing we’ll ever get to satisfying every material whim on command is blasting “Sick Again” out of the car while scouting around for broke, uneducated, drunk women.

Pink Floyd, tells another story altogether; an inverted story that is just as thematic and philosophical as the hedonistic mighty Zeppelin.  Pink Floyd is, in a word: cynical.  According to the ancient Greeks, cynicism was the belief that true happiness lay in inner peace which would come about from the rejection of all things material, which only served as an obstacle on the path towards happiness.  Now, I’m probably not as well versed in Pink Floyd as I no doubt should be, I do know that the string of albums from Dark Side of the Moon to The Wall is one of the greatest succession of albums in the history of music.  These four albums are linked by a theme that should be pretty clear by now in this essay: a growing sense of cynicism.

The run of albums first starts off with Dark Side of the Moon in 1973.  This, like many Floyd albums is a concept album.  The overarching theme of this LP is life, the different facets of the human interaction.  “Speak to Me/Breathe” is literally about being born, from the myriad of sounds being heard for the first time post-natal to the first breath inhaled by the newborn.  The first hint of a pessimistic outlook comes in “On the Run” a hectic instrumental about Richard Wright’s fear of flying.  If that doesn’t get to you, then “Time” will, which as we all know by now is about the passing of time, and how it seems to go by quicker the older you get.  “Money” obviously enough chronicles the negative effects money has on people while “Brain Damage”, Dark Side’s complementary song about Sid Barrett comments on the notion of insanity (sounds familiar doesn’t it).  Overall it doesn’t seem too cynical or dark, at least in comparison to The Wall, but it is a starting point.  It is a comment on the human condition of the 20th century, which while it admits that things are shitty, it is content with the fact that there are shitty things in this life, after all there are shitty things in everyone’s life.

The dreaded follow up to the breakthrough album, Wish You Were Here catches Pink Floyd between a rock and a hard place.  While sonically, it is very similar to Dark Side of the Moon, thematically and lyrically it is much darker.  This was the point in their career where the band tried to rectify their popularity with their own personal desires of musical direction, hence Wish You Were Here, an album that is much better thematically than it is in actuality.  For Pink Floyd, an underground psychedelic band that became famous seemingly by accident, the follow up album was a daunting if not impossible task.  How does a band like that deliver what the public wants while remaining true to their musical dignity?  The answer is to write a personal album much more somber and cynical than the predecessor, but make it sound similar enough so the pop kids will still be stupid enough to buy it.

Wish You Were Here is much darker than Dark Side, and make no mistake about that.  Whereas the latter simply makes a jaded and pessimistic assessment on life, the former points fingers at those whose machinations led to the downfall of their former bandmate Sid Barrett.  This is a concept album about the rise and fall of Sid Barrett and, Roger Waters makes no veiled reference as to who he hold responsible for Barrett’s psychosis.

The music industry is the villain in this concept album, specifically the execs who want nothing more from the band than the next #1 hit.  “Welcome to the Machine” effectively kills off the protagonist introduced in “Shine on You Crazy Diamond Pt. 1” after he learns of the insidiousness of the record company.  Powerless, he is forced to play their game and do as he is told despite his perturbations with the phoniness that surrounds him and permeates throughout the industry.  All this is told in “Have a Cigar” which is sung by Roy Harper and not a member of the band[2].  Somewhere between “Have a Cigar” and the title track, the protagonist has already gone off the deep end, and is now nothing but a fading memory to his friends, whom lament his fall.  “Wish You Were Here” is quite possibly the sincerest song in the band’s catalogue, as those lyrics perfectly sum up how the band felt about Barrett at the time.  They missed him and blamed the record industry for his complete mental collapse.  Come to think of it, this sounds more like a rock opera.

Wish You Were Here is an album that while not truly cynical, it does blame a select group of people and their material preoccupations for making Barrett a casualty of their superficial machinations.  So to speak, the biggest leap towards cynicism comes between Wish You Were Here and Animals their 1977 release.  The difference is that while Wish You Were Here castigates a small group of people, Animals turns its back on humanity and categorizes people into three (shitty) groups of people.  The highest on the pyramid of power are the “Pigs” those who have power and control everything.  What they say goes, and everyone else is just living in their way.  Next are the “Dogs”, the wealthy elite who strive to reach the highest echelon possibly.  They possess no loyalty and eagerly stab each other in the back to gain any advantage over each other; they are the proverbial hungry dog.  Finally, on the lowest rung, come the “Sheep” or everyone else; those who go silently to the slaughter.  These are the vast majority of people who are unaware that they have no power in their own lives which are dictated by those higher up.

The structure of the album is the most cynical out of any other albums I can think of.  There are only five songs on the album, and no single was released to promote it.  And to think it only got to #3 on the charts here in America.  The album is bookended by two songs which sound like one song that was broken up after production; both clock in at around 1:20.  The other three songs are 12-20 minutes in length; it almost seemed like they were trying to dissuade people from listening to the album.

So far the trajectory of albums looks something like this Dark Side of the Moon is a comment on life, albeit a rather pessimistic outlook, while Wish You Were Here is a venomously tinged critique of the music industry inasmuch as its accountability in Barrett’s psychosis.  Next up is Animals that expands the critique to include everyone by divvying them up into three categories and calling everyone out for being shitty regardless of who they are.  Finally comes the behemoth known as The Wall which is so disgusted by the world portrayed in the previous three albums that the narrator has no choice but to isolate himself behind a wall in a self imposed exile.

That narrator, a rock star largely, if not completely, based on Waters himself can trace his genesis to Montreal in 1977 during the “In the Flesh” tour to support Animals.  Unruly fans demanding the band to play “Money” drew the ire of Roger Waters who proceeded to spit on them after telling them to “go fuck off”.  It was this incident that led to the creation of The Wall insofar as Waters realizing that an actual, though invisible wall existed between himself and the people in his life.

The plot of what is arguably the most ambitious rock opera ever created is largely based on the life of Roger Waters.  It is essentially Waters commenting that life is so shitty that he would rather not be a part of it anymore, and would rather live his life in seclusion, rationalizing that he needs nothing but isolation to be happy, an extreme manifestation of cynical philosophy.  The first half of the album (tracks 1-13) deals with his construction of said wall, constantly adding a new brick for every instance of disappointment in the protagonist’s life.  The first brick, the death of his father, is laid before his birth, since his father died while Pink (the aptly named protagonist) is still in utero.  It is important to note that Water’s own father died before he was born as well.  This event that took place before his birth will go on to have massive ramifications in the life of the narrator.  The next brick is representative of the abusive and cruel school teachers who would “hurt the children anyway they could”.  Despite all of this cynical fodder, Pink goes on to become a successful rock star (are we starting to see the similarities yet) and despite his material gains still cannot find any semblance of happiness.

“Young Lust”, arguably the greatest riff ever created by David Gilmour, is the centerpiece of the first part of The Wall in that it is the point of no return for Pink.  After discovery his wife’s infidelity, he makes one last ditch attempt to find pleasure in the material world by trying to sleep with a groupie, unable to bring himself to do it, he goes mad and disregards any and all material possessions he owns all the while disavowing what can possibly be described as the most pleasurable thing on the planet: sex.  Ultimately it is the loss of his wife that leads him to complete his wall and completely isolate himself from humanity.

As it turns out, without any human contact Pink starts to regret his decision of secluding himself as well as begins to grow crazy.  Ignoring side three of The Wall is not only understandable, but almost acceptable as there really aren’t any keepers on that side.  We all know “Comfortably Numb” so for time’s sake I’ll skip that over.  Pink’s inevitable exile from humanity has certain adverse affects, such as believing that he is a fascist dictator.  While all this takes place inside his head, this is the darkest moment of any Pink Floyd album because of Pink’s blatant disregard for anyone and anything.  “In the Flesh”, “Run Like Hell” and “Waiting for the Worms” all in one way or another condone the destruction of the material world and anyone who does not share Pink’s twisted philosophy.

The narrator of the album also clearly exemplifies Freud’s theory on the id, ego, and superego inasmuch as Pink personifies them all.  This becomes immensely clearer by the penultimate song “The Trial” in which his subconscious puts himself on trial for basically being a shitty person.  Pink himself is his ego, the conscious, someone who tries to accomplish the goals of the id without coming into conflict with the superego.  The prosecutor in “The Trial” is the id.  He represents Pink at his worst, someone who wants to be utterly isolated from everyone.  That is why the prosecutor accuses Pink of showing “feelings of a human nature”.  Because even though his id may want to hide behind a wall, the ego (Pink himself) does not truly want to, therefore, his id is on the offensive trying to put Pink on trial for failing to satisfy that immediate desire.  The superego is therefore the judge.  As Pink’s sense of morality and social obligation, the judge is instinctively aware that all of Pink’s misery has been brought on by himself, as well as driving other people away, people who care about him.  As a result the judge orders the destruction of the wall and for Pink to come to grips with his troubles and pains instead of shutting himself down from it all.  The whole purpose of “The Trial” is twofold: 1) to show that you can’t create a wall from all materialism and achieve true cynics’ wet dream, and 2) to show that Pink ultimately failed in his creation of the wall, because even though he accomplished the desire of the id, he came into conflict with the superego which ordered his return to humanity.  While the wall is destroyed at the end, the meaning of the album is still glaringly forthright, if Waters could build a wall against the world, he would; he just can’t do it.

The Who is quite possibly the most intellectually interesting band that will ever be created solely because of Pete Townshend.  Whether or not he was even aware of it (I’m guessing probably not) Townshend perfectly captured what it meant to be a stoic in Ancient Greece.  And to think that it all came from his own struggles with materialism and spiritual enlightenment.

To really understand how The Who is stoicism, look no further than three songs across three different albums that embody Townshend’s own ideas and feelings about people and the world.  The first song “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, is the final track on 1969’s Tommy.[3]  The next song is one of Pete’s least favorites, “Dreaming From the Waist” off of what is considered to be Townshend’s mental breakdown caught on vinyl, The Who by Numbers.  The final song and one of my personal favorites (in case you give a shit) is “The Punk and the Godfather”, a masterpiece of a song on their magnum opus Quadrophenia.  These three songs were written in different contexts across the span of 6 years, and still they are thematically linked by a stoic understanding of the dichotomy between materialism and true knowledge.  Ultimately what they convey is a man trapped between two worlds: a world of material pleasure that he knows means nothing, and a higher understanding of knowledge and self that he can’t really commit to because of his inability to let go off things superficial.  That’s the source of the underlying sense of anger and angst laced within many of the Who’s songs; he angry with himself for not being who he wants to be.

Tommy, as you know, is a rock opera involving a blind, deaf, and dumb young man who goes on to become pinball wizard, regains his sense, and becomes something of a messianic figure.  By the time we get to “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, Tommy has already opened up a camp of sorts where people can come in and learn the secret to enlightenment and happiness.  However, once his followers discover that the path to happiness lies not in sex, drugs, or alcohol, but in denying oneself of sensual (as in pertaining to the sense) stimulation his once devoted legion of followers turn against him and tear him apart.[4]  Why do they turn on Tommy and proceed to disembowel him?  It’s because Tommy has told them that hedonistic pleasures are not the true path to happiness, but rather that enlightenment comes from knowing oneself, a very stoic proposition in the first place.  Instead of living a chaste and sober life, they then go on to literally kill the messenger.

Tommy, for all intents and purposes is Pete Townshend.  He feels that he has discovered the means to happiness and knowledge (probably inspired from his tutelage under Meher Baba) and know wants to spread this stoic message to those who claim to follow him (the fans).  However, they don’t care about the message, especially if it forces them to change their lifestyle; they just follow him because it’s what’s cool at the moment.  If they cared then they would do as he instructs and partake in enlightenment, instead they kill break him.  This is really the first overt sense of a divide between Townshend and the fans, because what he’s saying is basically “you guys don’t care about the message of what I’m saying, you just like it because it’s cool right now”.  The fans represent the majority of the world, people who are blinded by material pleasures that they can’t give that up even in order to achieve true happiness.

As I’m writing this, it’s not too different from the allegory of the cave wherein a man from a society that has survived in a cave never to see the world outside the cave is killed for bringing news of a new truth that exists outside the realm of the cave.  What they both show is that people are all too willing to preserve their sense of what is, even if that perception is wrong.  Tommy is torn apart from trying to be a stoic in a hedonistic world.

If “We’re Not Gonna Take It” is Townshend chastising society for being too caught up in physical gratification to achieve spiritual enlightenment, then “Dreaming From the Waist” is Townshend admitting that same fact to himself.  The Who by Numbers is itself Pete Townshend tearing down every self-illusion he has and exposing himself for what he really is: someone who’s too smart for everyone around him, and is miserable as a result of this.[5]  “Dreaming From the Waist” is the ultimate paradigm of this album as a whole.  He again reinforces the split between this stoic ideal and the hedonistic reality, only this time instead of applying it to others as he did in Tommy, here he is applying it to himself.  He does this by using the most carnal thing there is out there as the ultimate expression of this aforementioned split: coitus.  He’s admitting that all the sex he has means nothing, but that he can’t let it go.  All he wants to do is fuck, but he knows better, and yet still can’t resist that temptation.  He is revealing to everyone that despite his attempt to adhere to a strict stoic ideal, he is still very much a part of this superficial and physically indulgent world.  How do you drive an intellectual crazy?  You make them think.  That’s exactly what Townshend does in general, but more intensely on this album and as a result you really start to appreciate all of those thoughts because they’re so ordinarily human.  He’s asking himself what does it all mean anymore, only to find the answer is nothing.  On By Numbers Townshend is desperately looking for something to motivate him again, but instead reveals that he is nothing more than a hypocrite because of his own reluctance to live a stoic life if it means giving up physical gratification.

With the lines “I’ve got the hots for the sluts in the well thumbed pages of a magazine” and “Sound like a priest and then I’m shooting dice” Townshend is telling us that he lusts for women and gambling, two things that would be restricted in living the stoic life that Pete always wanted.  The entire song is Pete lambasting himself for not only wanting something so meaningless and superficial but also for then having the audacity to preach about trying to attain enlightenment and betterment as an individual.  Basically, he’s calling himself a fraud, because he’s realized that he isn’t so different from everyone he criticized in Tommy, Who’s Next, and Quadrophenia.  Despite his obvious discontent and self-disillusionment, he still displays an innate sense of self and a coherent value of his identity that the vast majority of people could never hope to attain.

More often than not we get mad or upset or sad whenever things don’t go as expected or people don’t live up to our expectations of them.  Imagine the most disappointment someone else has ever caused you; now, imagine if you were that person.  Imagine if you yourself failed to live up to your own expectations, and not only that, but all the while preaching to others about trying to live the way that you aren’t.  It would more than make you a hypocrite; it would make you a failure of your own ideals.  Townshend knew this of course, which takes us to our finals song: “The Punk and the Godfather”.

What makes “The Punk and the Godfather” so transcendent is that it IS 1964 Pete Townshend, having a conversation with 1973 Pete Townshend.  The former is the punk while the former is the godfather, despite the fact that he still refers to himself as a punk.  Released on 1973’s Quadrophenia, “The Punk and the Godfather” depicts a conversation between the two titular characters, which in reality represent two sides to Pete Townshend.  The godfather is the man that Townshend is now, a self-important rock star, someone who can indulge in whatever they choose to, someone who lost touch with who he was, in essence a phony.  The punk is represents who Pete was back when the band first started: a true punk, someone out to change the world.  What ensues then is the godfather trying to defend himself as still being a true punk, in contrast to the punk who accuses the godfather of selling out, and reneging on his former ideals.  At the time (quite possibly still today even) this is how Townshend felt about himself; he saw himself as a fake and a phony.  And what makes him a phony are his desires that contrasted his original ideals (which were ironically stoic in nature).  He’s accusing himself of replacing wisdom and inner peace with sex, drugs, and an overall sense of self-importance.

By now it should come as no surprise that I think Pete Townshend is the most self-aware musician who has ever lived.  As you could probably tell though, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.  With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see that regardless of whichever philosophy each band subscribed to, it would eventually serve to consume them.  Zeppelin’s hedonism overtook them in the form of Bonham’s death via alcohol poisoning, Pink Floyd’s growing cynicism eventually led to further infighting within the band which culminated in Water’s expulsion, and Townshend’s struggle with the dichotomy between dependence on material items and stoic ideals led to him having a mid-life crisis by age 30 which would eventually rob the band of any future creativity on par with their previous works.

It’s tough enough being one of the biggest bands in the world, let alone somehow coming to embody three distinct philosophical viewpoints.  Yet, despite it all, or perhaps because of this fact, these three bands went on to have careers of epic proportions that can no doubt be described as mythological.


[1] Tea for One, anyone….didn’t think so.

[2] Thank God, as Roger Waters allegedly refused to have Dave Gilmore sing the track

[3] No this isn’t the same “We’re Not Gonna Take It” as Twisted Sister

[4] For some reason this is a recurring theme in rock operas (see Ziggy Stardust for further reading)

[5] See “Lifehouse conundrum” for further explanation

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One thought on “Tommy’s Physical Graffiti on The Wall

  1. […] into the realm of political sciences, we get to the climax of the album in “The Trial”.  In Tommy’s Physical Graffiti on the Wall, I go into further detail about how this penultimate track is the manifestation of the […]

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