Last week, I gave a primer on metaphors, so that we’re all more or less on the same page when I talk about them. Have you read it? Great! Let’s get to the fun bit. (NOTE: I said I was going to talk about Rocky Horror and Tommy, but I haven’t watched Rocky Horror in a couple of weeks, and there is so much in Tommy that I won’t even have time to cover anything else.)
As you may know, I am part of a concert production of the musical theatre adaptation of Tommy. The original album has been in my collection for at least a decade, and I have listened to it many times. I never imagined I would be actually playing Tommy one day. Nor did I imagine how deeply the story would resonate with me. Until recently, it seemed totally bonkers, and nonsensical, and stream-of-conscious non-narrative. Then I read Joseph Campbell.
Oh boy. Oooh boy.
It’s easy for me to say, “Tommy is a Jesus story.” If you’re satisfied with that, stop reading now and tell your friends. Maybe they’ll doubt you at which point you can point them to this article, and later they’ll be like, “Well it’s not really, but it does share a lot of similar images.”
In Thou Art That, Joseph Campbell outlines many essential metaphors in religion. He highlights their purposes, and parallels to be found in different stories around the world. What I will be doing is going through the Gospel of Tommy, and drawing parallels to other myths. Many of them will have to do with Jesus. Please understand that there is very little actually “original” in the story of Jesus. The vast majority of the details of his life can be found in parallel heroes, like Buddha, Quetzalcoatl, and Adonis. But I actually think that this commonality strengthens the symbols. All peoples are connected. We share similar experiences, and express them in a Human way: through stories.
“It’s A Boy, Mrs. Walker”
Tommy begins right at the start of World War II, with the marriage of Tommy’s parents, the Walkers. About four seconds after the wedding (a shotgun wedding, then?) Captain Walker gets called to service. Captain Walker is then presumed dead, and Tommy is born fatherless. This is a classical Virgin Birth.
When I say “Virgin Mother” I will bet a lot of money the first name that comes to your mind is “Mary.” Now, we all know a virgin birth is not literally possible. It’s a metaphor! Mary’s (impregnated from above!) is in the Greek style. There are other styles of virgin birth. I can’t explain this any better than Joseph Campbell so I’ll use a block quote:
“In legend, this miraculous birth becomes reduced to the father’s being dead. In the Celtic tradition many stories tell of the warrior or hero who goes off to battle but, before leaving, begets a son. The hero dies and so the son is born with no father and this is regarded as a Virgin Birth.”
The boy has no father, and may spend a lot of time looking for him. For me, the word Father is important in the Christian tradition especially, as part of the Holy Trinity. God is the Father. So, our hero is born Godless and must find God.
Note that Tommy is not a Jesus story, it’s a Tommy story. Tommy’s God is not Yahweh. Perhaps this fact is expressed in the subversion of the Virgin Birth trope.
Captain Walker returns home. But, when he returns home, Mrs. Walker has a lover. They fight, and the lover is killed (interesting to note, this is the reverse of the original version’s outcome). Keeping “Father” to mean God, and considering that Captain Walker until this point is father to Tommy only in name and not in deed, perhaps this could represent the evils of organised religion. But that’s a whole nother discussion. One way or another, this is the starting point for his Journey. Which brings me to…
“Come On The Amazing Journey”
When the Lover is killed, the couple tells Tommy: “You didn’t see it, you didn’t hear it – not a word of it. You won’t say nothing to no one. Never tell a soul what you know is the truth!” Great parenting. Tommy is four years old, and takes this to heart. This trauma rewires his brain so that he’s effectively blind, deaf, and dumb. He is effectively exiled from our existence. By the way, his sensory organs do still work: “His eyes can see, his ears can hear, his lips can speak.”
Exile is a common theme in many hero stories. The new King (paradigm shift) must be born, or bred, outside of the old Kingdom (status quo). Tommy is in his own world. He learns things outside our normal experiences. “Come on the amazing journey, and learn all you should know.” He is gaining wisdom beyond that of the material world – wisdom that must be spread and put to use in order to overthrow the status quo.
“I’m a Sensation!”
Carl Jung describes personality in terms of how we deal with the world. What information we allow ourselves, and what action we take based on it. This can be expressed with two pairs of opposite ideas:
- Sensation vs. Intuition; and
- Thinking vs. Feeling.
Sensation deals with hard evidence. If I see it it’s there. Intuition extrapolates from sensory data, drawing conclusions with ideas (and who knows where they come from, right? Some say they come from God!). Thinking and Feeling are pretty self-explanatory. The Cross is a symbol of balance. Christ achieves total balance. He “transcends all pairs of opposites”: heaven and hell, life and death, male and female, God and Man.
Tommy has now been deprived of his senses. He therefore, has only Intuition. He’s totally unbalanced! What can Intuition accomplish without actually processing any sensory data? Pinball.
“He’s a Pinball Wizard”
Tommy can do nothing but pick his nose, and play Pinball like a freaking genius. This is a driving plot element, as he becomes famous for playing Pinball.
Miracles are a staple of any Hero story. Jesus walked on water and healed the sick. These two are different kinds of miracles: the former is a metaphoric of the power of spirituality; the other is demonstrative of spiritual power. Miracles do happen in real life! as long as we consider “miracle” to mean a vast and sudden change from an undesirable to a desirable state brought on by an intense spiritual experience. Campbell makes this same assertion and felt no need to back it up so neither will I. But look it up, if you feel sceptical. Google exists. These miracles are psychological in nature. The power of the mind and spirit is amazing.
The miracle of Pinball is a psychological one as well. Tommy receives the sensory data of the pinball machine: where the ball is, how fast it’s moving. We have two agents, the flippers. Since his conscious mind is shut off, his subconscious mind, his intuition (“He plays by intuition”) can really shine. It provides his fingers with the perfect moment to hit the flippers, skipping all the complicated physics calculations. It’s okay, God will do the math.
This is called the Flow state by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The Flow state has been sought after by all of man kind forever. It is what life is all about. It is another definition for a spiritual experience. We can find it doing anything we love that challenges us and gives us a sense of control. We lose sense of time and of self. And it can be achieved through prayer, or meditation. It’s a direct line to God.
Intuition is the ability to see consequences. What is Pinball, if not a set of consequences? The paddle hits the ball, it flies off in a direction. Then it’s at the mercy of the bumpers, until it approaches the paddles again. What else is just a series of consequences? Why, Causality! the only thing that is really real in the whole of existence! Tommy is demonstrating that with spiritual enlightenment comes mastery over causality: the ability to manifest one’s own reality.
“Do I Smash the Mirror?”
Death & Rebirth are essential metaphors in Christianity as well as like everywhere else. What does it mean?
“Death” of a saviour figure symbolises the death of the old self before a spiritual ascension. Such an experience changes you so much, you are then “Reborn” as, effectively, a new person.
We can say Tommy dies when he loses touch with the world initially, in which case he is reborn when the mirror is smashed. We can say he dies when the mirror is smashed, and is reborn when he turns away his followers and forgives his family. Up to you! Either way, this is another Miracle, though not one executed by the “Messiah” himself. We could get into the Mother as Goddess, but… nah.
“Tommy’s Holiday Camp”
One of the big steps in Messiah figures like Buddha and Christ is overcoming temptations. Tommy spends two years, from 1958 to 1960, as the star attraction of Tommy’s Holiday Camp. The camp is a project spearheaded by his “Wicked Uncle Ernie” to sell merchandise and, well, Tommy. He gains hundreds – thousands – of supporters, fanatics, who come to watch him play Pinball.
He overcomes the temptation of fame, glory, and wealth. Turns out, his followers were not there for the amazing journey, but for the “I went on the Amazing Journey and all I got was this lousy t-shirt” t-shirts. He gets mad at them all and bans them from his place. This is also like Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple (“This place is sacred as a temple!”). Using organised religion for profit is bad! #moralofthestory
“The point is not for you to be more like me….”
An interesting meta-metaphor happens at this point. A little dialogue:
Sally: How can we be more like you?
Tommy: Why would you want to be more like me? For fifteen years I’ve been waiting for what you’ve already got.
Sally: What’s that?
Tommy: All this! In my dreams I was seeing it, hearing it, feeling it… those are the true miracles, and you’ve got them already!
Sally: I don’t understand.
Tommy’s continued failure to communicate his appreciation for the miracle of existence turns his followers away. This shows the futility of using literal language to define a spiritual experience. It is followed by people’s misinterpretation of their Messiah’s words. Look at the history of Christianity. The Capital-C-Church has warped the teachings of Jesus to scam believers from the word go. They promise entry to Heaven, for a fee.
Jesus says “I and the Father are one.” The Church says God, the Father, is so holy and so apart from us that Jesus must have been God as well. Then they say that everything in the Bible is Historical Fact, and Not to Be Refuted. Now Jesus, instead of being an example we can follow, is an idol with some nice words to live by. People are left believing things to be historical that are impossible. This leads to a global misunderstanding of metaphor. Well played, Church.
“Tommy can you see me?”
Come see Tommy. Come with an empty mind. Forget this whole post. Forget everything you know about Jesus or Buddha or Quetzalcoatl (if you knew anything about the feathered serpent to begin with, #respect). Just have your own experience. See what your heart says. Then follow it. That’s what Tommy would do.
I love you. Thank you for reading.