The Who’s Quadrophenia has been my favoritest album almost since I finally was able to listen to it for the first time on 18 November 2000, fifteen long years ago now. I’d known about it since 1993, since it was one of the albums in my parents’ rather sparse record collection, but since we no longer had our record player, all I could do was look at the pictures, lyrics, and Jimmy’s story.
At 13, I was horrified and really turned off by the lyrics of “Dr. Jimmy,” since there are some lines which I interpreted as being about raping a virgin. This wariness stayed with me even after I made the move from casual lawnseat fan to serious, hardcore fan. I had to be lying down, on my giant leopard print pillow, when I finally listened to that song that afternoon.
And guess what, it really wasn’t bad or offensive at all. I’d built it up so much, and it really didn’t upset me all that much. Obviously, there’s a huge difference in the brain development of a 13-year-old vs. a 20-year-old, but it also had a lot to do with actually hearing the lyrics sung vs. only reading them, and hearing that song in the context of the entire album.
Jimmy has been through so much teenage Sturm und Drang, and he’s finally reached the end of his rope. He doesn’t care about anyone or anything, and isn’t thinking or acting straight. Jimmy isn’t really saying he wants to rape another guy’s girlfriend (virgin or not), he’s saying he’s legitimately out of control and needs help.
This is the lowest point of the album, and after that comes the instrumental “The Rock,” where all four themes (“Helpless Dancer,” “Bellboy,” “Is It Me?,” and “Love, Reign O’er Me”) appear first separately, then slowly start merging, until finally the music gets faster and faster and they’re all one. The album closes with “LROM,” when Jimmy is finally at peace with himself and committed to going home to fix what’s wrong.
This is why it’s so important to be familiar with a book, album, or film you’re reviewing or discussing. You can only get so much from someone’s else’s review or plot summary. It’s always possible that person has a much different opinion than you would, or didn’t state certain things so accurately, chronologically, or clearly. Even if you have read, seen, or listened to it, you may have misremembered or forgotten some important things if your last experience wasn’t so recent. Unless we’re talking about something like a film you’ve seen 20+ times but haven’t seen in a few years, it’s a good idea to at least skim through it in preparation for writing a review.
Some books are so sprawling and ambitious, it’s hard to nail down a concise plot summary. Actually reading the book, or skimming through it if you’ve already read it several times, can really help to nail down the most important points and characters, and help you decide which things aren’t paramount enough to be included in anything but a super-detailed, blow-by-blow review.
Some plot summaries make a book or film seem really boring, and you can’t understand what all the fuss is about till you actually experience it in context. For example, the classic 1928 film The Crowd may sound rather dull and pointless if a reviewer just says it’s about an ordinary man and his ordinary wife struggling with their relationship and finances, with a tragedy thrown in, against the impersonal backdrop of a giant metropolis. That doesn’t nearly begin to do justice to why this film is so moving, innovative, and special. (But of course, not a lot of non-cinephiles would even know this, seeing as how it’s still not on DVD while pure garbage like Year One gets rushed onto special-edition DVDs.)
Writing a review based on personal experience lets you summarize something in your own words, based on your own experience, with your own opinions and feelings. Obviously, I’ll give a reviewer a pass if it’s something like a lost film or a work of literature not translated into a language the reviewer can read. Then we have to depend upon other people’s word for it, with perhaps some available bits and pieces. However, there’s never a genuine substitute for good old-fashioned firsthand experience.