By its musical structure alone, The Who’s Quadrophenia opened my eyes and my intellect to the endless possibilities offered by the metaphor; add to that its compelling and challenging narrative structure, and you’ve got something that, to my mind, qualifies as a masterpiece.
Quadrophenia centers on a young kid in 1960s England named Jimmy. Jimmy comes from a hard-luck, working class family. He wants to be popular among his friends. He also wants to be a good son, a good worker, and a great lover. In the midst of trying to be all things to everyone, he realizes that he presents four very distinctive personalities to the world over the course of his days: the tough guy, the romantic, the crazy fun friend, and the troubled son. All of these separate personalities are represented by a distinct musical theme, and each personality encompasses only one aspect of the real Jimmy; none of them represent who he is in his heart. On top of all this, he’s saddled with having a deeper insight into the human spirit than most people think a person of his station is capable. He admits that even he doesn’t know who he really is. Being a confused angry young man with rampaging hormones, it doesn’t take long before certain aspects of his other personalities start bleeding over into the parts of his life where they don’t belong.
There’s much, much more to Quadrophenia’s story, but that’s the spine of it.
This sounds like a ham-fisted cliche, but hearing this album for the first time changed my life. On side 4 of the album there’s an instrumental piece called “The Rock” which remains for me one of the most amazing and moving pieces of music — and that’s music, period, not just rock music — that I’ve ever heard.
In Tommy, the central character’s epiphany is conveyed through words and music; but in Quadrophenia, it is conveyed solely through music. “The Rock” starts off by repeating each of the four themes separately, then, one by one, begins overlapping them until the four themes blend seamlessly into one, creating a fifth, unique, defining theme as Jimmy finally realizes who he really is.
That was a revelation — ahem … uh, er … discovery — for the 12-year-old me. Pete Townshend and The Who had pulled an incredible musical sleight-of-hand, created a musical Rubik’s Cube that I hadn’t even realized existed until the puzzle was completed.
I knew then that I wanted to someday create a piece or body of work that did what Pete Townshend had done with Quadrophenia’s music; present you with a group of seemingly disparate pieces/themes that in the end converged into a unified whole that was not only rewarding in and of itself (as “The Rock” most definitely is), but also enriched the sum of its parts.
“The Rock” is a perfect metaphor for what we as human beings strive toward during every moment between that first slap on the ass and the last handful of soil tossed on the lid of the coffin; call it the psychological equivalent of string theory or whatever you will: we strive to bring the various Selves together to form the whole that is uniquely ‘me’ or ‘you’, all the while treasuring the journey that has led to this time, this breath, this moment.