“I had a dream that the sea was calling me home. But I was scared to go.
In my dream, the sea was calling me home.
But I was afraid of losing myself.
I was afraid of blending in with everyone else.
The sea was calling me home.”
Recently while re-watching the Who’s “Quadrophenia” movie on DVD, I was particularly struck by a pivotal scene in which the lead character Jimmy gets paid a visit by his old rocker friend named Kevin. Despite their past friendship and childhood connections, the trappings of adolescent peer groups and labels had propelled them in very different paths for their self-image and identity—Jimmy as a diehard “mod” and Kevin as a devoted, greasy haired “rocker.” In the scene, Jimmy tells him of some mechanical problem that he is trying to fix with his scooter, which prompts his friend to offer helpful suggestions on how to correct the problem. In the course of this, Jimmy compares Kevin’s bigger motorcycle to his scooter which brings up the subject of image and identity. Jimmy veers off the bike talk and becomes philosophical as he remarks, “it isn’t about the bikes. It’s about the people isn’t it?”
His rocker friend Kevin then takes it a step further by asserting-“underneath it all were all the same ain’t we?”
At this point Jimmy unexpectedly countermands this unified brotherhood concept: “But that’s just it. I don’t WANT to be like everybody else. That’s why I’m a mod. You gotta be somebody ain’t you?–Or else you might as well jump in the sea and drowned.”
His friend again gamely attempts to find middle ground by saying that “wanting to be different” was why he originally enlisted in the army so that he could find himself and distinguish himself with a new direction, unfortunately his wanting to feel special was also the reason he got thrown out of the army as he quickly tired of the “Sargent Major telling me do this and don’t do that.”
It is a very brief scene, squeezed in between bigger actions scenes, but to me, it has aged the best as the most symbolically important part of the entire movie. How Jimmy reacts to his old rocker friend is very revealing. His inability to transcend the conundrum of needing to wear uniforms and keep pace with his mod friends while yearning for a deeper love bedevils him throughout the storyline.
He can’t muster the courage to hang out with his rocker labeled friend Kevin when his mod friends arrive on the scene. Jimmy’s chronic fear of going against his tribal group comes to a tragic conclusion when he and his mates want to avenge a friend of theirs who got beat up by a group of rockers; as they stumble upon several isolated rockers and chase them to get revenge. It turned out that one of them turned out to be his old friend Kevin, who gets the brunt of the kicking and punching, even though he was innocent. Jimmy joins in. But when the victim turns around and he sees who it is, Jimmy’s protective macho layer drops as he screams in frustration while beating a quick retreat in his scooter, leaving his mod friends there to wonder what had happened.
The dichotomy of wanting to be the same versus wanting to stand out and are movingly applied in the film Quadrophenia and represent the even greater album very adeptly. More than any mental health breakdown, Jimmy is an acute adolescent responder to the pivotal conflicts tugging at his heart. He senses the contradictions of wondering how people get separated into categories and what is prompting that need.
At the climax of the album and movie, the Brighton sea-side is the staging ground for all of Jimmy’s hopes to be realized as he basks in the acceptance of his mod friends. Ultimately he becomes disillusioned as the girl he fancies leaves him and his closest friends don’t back him up. He also sees his childhood hero (the ace face) has sold out and is working as a bellboy in a hotel carrying luggage.
By the end of the movie, none of Jimmy’s prized possessions remain-every THING and person has let him down—his broken down scooter, his boss, his parents, the girl he likes, and his mod friends. His meditative retreats to the ocean, far from the maddening crowd, become more frequent and pronounced.
The symbol of the glistening, sparkling sea is the great spiritual manifestation of surrender and coming to terms with compromise and adaptation. So we viewers are left with guessing whether Jimmy joins Ace Face’s scooter in a deliberate plunge of the white cliffs of Dover, or whether he preserves himself and learns to overcome his problems.
“Am I just a face in the crowd, is that all I’ll ever be?
Don’t want to be anything that isn’t really me.
Mister, can you tell me who I am?
Do you think I stand out
Or am I just a face in the crowd?”
Ray Davies “A face in the crowd”
It is a strange trip to watch Quadrophenia the movie after so many decades have passed since its 1979 release. My buddies and me hung on every word back then as almost a Holy trinity type of power from the album. Certainly some of the ritualistic MOD party behaviors that seemed so cool then, have lost their luster and appeal with time, and now just hang their limply as being inappropriate, outdated posturing’s of youth.
After all we are the respectable store owners now and not the looters.
But the central aspect of alienation and the paradox of standing out and belonging, harmonizes beautifully with the greatest rock album of all time.
It is a movie that justice to Pete Townshend’s vision. And it remains compelling long after our waistlines have plumped up and our mod outfits and perfect haircuts have all expired.
But we can still take comfort in that central spirituality of blending into the sea. We can take council in TS Elliot from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:
|I grow old … I grow old …||120|
|I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.|
|Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?|
|I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.|
|I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.|
|I do not think that they will sing to me.||125|
|I have seen them riding seaward on the waves|
|Combing the white hair of the waves blown back|
|When the wind blows the water white and black.|
|We have lingered in the chambers of the sea|
|By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown||130|
|Till human voices wake us, and we drown.|