Archive for July, 2013


Bricks, Pt. 3

In the middle of the first side of The Wall, there’s an interlude of sorts that explores the culture change that WWII created in Britain. “Goodbye Blue Sky” is creepy and relaxing all at once, soft and lilting with the threat of crushing death always on the horizon. It matches what the citizens of the UK must have been feeling (and the entire Allied world, really); there is a force that threatens not only how we die, but how we live. Which is worse – death or domination?

In the production of The Sandbox that I directed in college, I wanted to use “Goodbye Blue Sky” as one of the songs that the Musician plays, but my friend Mike (who played the Musician) advised against it. The song’s in drop-D tuning, and all the other songs I had picked were in standard tuning, so he would have to switch guitars, which would be cumbersome for him and distract from the main action of the play. It’s disappointing, though, since “Goodbye Blue Sky” fits precisely with the theme of death that I was trying to bring out in The Sandbox. But in the end, “Stairway to Heaven” worked just as well…

After that interlude, the album segues into “Empty Spaces,” another creepy tune that starts the exploration of Pink’s distance from his wife. She’s the first person he feels disconnected from, and that burgeons into a disconnect from the entire world. “Empty Spaces” also asks a question in the lyrics: “How should I complete the wall?”

Having lived through a fatherless childhood, torturous schooling and a smothering mother, the grown-up Pink has been bruised and scarred by the time he eventually marries. We’re given very little information about his wife, who like his parents and everyone else in the story lacks a name. But what we do know is that she cheats on him. For the purposes of understanding Pink’s psyche (or psychosis…), that’s enough.

“Young Lust” tells a story in general terms that is all too familiar to anyone who’s even dipped a toe in the world of rock and roll stardom. As long as there have been male performers anywhere in the music world, there have been girls willing to throw away every scrap of morality and restraint in order to be close to them. As long as there have been rock stars, there have been groupies.

Besides being one of The Wall’s heaviest and loudest tracks, its lyrics also have a visceral, blood-based nature, the verbal representation of a biological urge. Due to the first-person voice of the lyrics, one would think Pink himself is singing these words, but I’m not so sure. Roger Waters sings Pink’s parts all through The Wall, but “Young Lust” is sung by David Gilmour alone. In addition, it’s a very active song;  “Young Lust” makes things happen, and Pink only tells of things that happen to him; the whole time, he just says “look what they’ve done to me?” and never “what have I done?”

At the tail end of “Young Lust,” there’s a phone booth conversation in the background that goes like this:

Man: Hello?

Operator: Yes, collect call for Mrs. Floyd from Mr. Floyd. Will you accept the charges from United States?

[CLICK]

Operator [presumably to Pink]: No, he hung up. Is this your residence? …I wonder why he hung up! There must be someone there besides your wife to answer!

[REDIAL]

Man: Hello?

Operator: This is United States calling. Are we reaching–

[CLICK]

Operator: See, he keeps hanging up! It must be the maid answering!

It doesn’t take a genius to sort it out, and Pink does – his wife is cheating on him. Pink takes a groupie up to his hotel room, but instead of sleeping with her, he just sits down, turns on the TV and completely ignores her. For the first part of “One of My Turns,” the music is near-beatless with words that are barely more than a whisper. Then it suddenly switches from tightly wound to letting loose. Pink is angrily and without explanation trashing his hotel room, breaking everything in sight and scaring the living crap out of that groupie.

With “One of My Turns” and the song right after it, “Don’t Leave Me Now,” Pink is nearly finished with his retreat behind this wall he’s constructed. Throughout both songs, Pink is talking to his wife in second-person, using this random groupie as a stand-in for her. He goes apeshit on the hotel room and then spirals into a pit of despair over being abandoned by his wife, who is really that groupie getting the hell out of there. There’s a very subtle hint of physical abuse in the relationship of Pink and his wife, so subtle it probably blows past a lot of people.

I need you, babe / To put through the shredder in front of my friends! / Oh, babe!

There’s also:

How could you go / When you know how I need you / To beat to a pulp on a Saturday night! / Oh, babe!

The comes a repeated crashing sound, which is Pink taking his guitar to the TV screen, and then the final refrain of “Another Brick In the Wall.” It’s loud and chaotic, Pink’s breaking point with his wifely frustrations. And he decides he doesn’t need “anything at all.”

With that, the wall is complete and Pink bids farewell to the world of human emotions with “Goodbye Cruel World.” That’s the end of the first half of The Wall, too, and from then on we see how this world looks through the eyes of someone who doesn’t have a conscious.

Next: the crazy diamond rides again.

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Bricks, Pt. 2

My 3rd grade teacher was named Ms. Austin. Her classroom was really the cafeteria made to look like a classroom with a bunch of chalkboards on wheels. So the cafeteria became a classroom and the assembly hall became the cafeteria. The school building was extremely old, and it simply didn’t have room for all kids in the school system. They had to improvise, and that included a classroom in the cafeteria. It also included hiring more teachers, and probably not being too picky about those teachers’ qualifications. Thus, I got Ms. Austin, and Ms. Austin was a horrible teacher.

She tried, though. She wasn’t like some severe schoolmarm from the ‘50s with horn-rimmed glasses and a tight bun; she was nice. Before the first day of school, she invited the whole class and our parents over to her house so she could meet all our parents and our parents could meet each other. She had birds in her classroom – parakeets, finches, lovebirds and the like, all in pairs with names like Salt & Pepper and Sugar & Spice. She also let us play tons of Carmen Sandiego. We even had a day where we all dressed up as our favorite Carmen Sandiego villain; I was Miles Long. And most of the time she was very cheery.

Most of the time – she also had a dark side. She got one of those glass drinking birds, and she had it on a table in the classroom. A classmate of mine named Tiffany broke it by accident, and when Ms. Austin saw, she got toweringly angry and swore at Tiffany, making her cry. She gave us all journals and had us write in them during class once a week and hand them in; she would read them, respond in some way, and give them back. I remember I wrote on entry to the effect of “I don’t think you like me.” Her response was something like “Maybe if you gave me some reason to like you, I would.” It had a frowny-face next to it.

She also stood me up in front of the class because I hadn’t done my spelling homework for about a month. She said to the class, “Neal is in hot water.” Later, when I had to stay after to clean the classroom, I found a crumpled up piece of paper that two kids had used for hangman. The words to solve read NEAL IS IN HOT WATER.

Then there’s Wid and Harkness Road High School.

HRHS, despite its miniscule size and budget, fancied itself a bastion of opposition amidst a swirling ocean of liberalism. As a school, it served as an alternative for parents who didn’t want their kids educated in the liberal public schools of the Pioneer Valley. It’s kinda ironic looking back on it, but what HRHS basically boils down to is this: “Don’t let your kids get indoctrinated with extreme liberalism! Let US indoctrinate them with extreme conservatism!”

“Indoctrinate” is a strong word, probably too strong for what was going on at HRHS, especially considering that a few of us came out of there even more liberal than before. And luckily for me, a lot of the good stuff HRHS had to teach me stuck (like grammar, vocab and US government) while much of the right-wing extremist garbage just rolled off.

Wid was the organizer and main teacher for HRHS. We all just called him “Wid,” no last name. The only other teachers at the school were Wid’s wife (Izzy) and his best friend (Denny) – a few others drifted in from time to time, as well as seniors being allowed to teach the younger students if they proved capable. Wid had gone to about three different colleges, and graduated from all of them with different degrees. He was a renaissance man, able to teach competently in any subject. While I was there, he completed his doctoral dissertation in civil engineering. Despite everything, he was a very gifted teacher.

So what’s “everything” mean? I hesitate to say this since I really respect Wid, but Wid basically represents what I DON’T want to become, and indeed never could. Politically, he’s freakishly conservative, like “Democrats are all idiots, Muslims are all terrorists, immigrants all are free-loaders” kind of conservatism. He LOVED Rush Limbaugh. He gave one senior English credit for reading a Limbaugh book. He taught a school-wide course called Famous People of History where we learned about 200 historical figures, and Rush was among Aristotle, Benjamin Franklin and King Hammurabi.

He incorporated his own personal beliefs into the curriculum of HRHS, especially his political opinions. He encouraged discussion, but only from his veering, skewed perspective. Opposition was a no-no. The only kinds of discourse he would accept were agreeing with him, or asking questions like “Can you explain more about why Newt Gingrich is an wonderful human being?”

168 bricks 2 03I can relate a little to “Another Brick In the Wall Part 2” when it shouts defiantly, “Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!” This is one of the only places where I feel kind of punkish. The heart of punk music is opposition to authority, no matter what that authority happens to be. And a teacher to a student is one of the most obvious places to defy authority. That’s because it’s so easy and so common for authority to be abused in that situation.

Roger Waters has an interesting approach here, though. In “The Happiest Days of Our Lives,” the prelude to “Another Brick 2,” he succinctly explains schoolmasters’ horrible treatment of students, but then goes into the reason behind it. It goes by pretty quickly, but brutality apparently has a trickle-down effect. Schoolmasters are cruel and dominating to their students because their wives are cruel and dominating to them. But even so, Waters is not in a forgiving mood; there’s no redemption for the schoolmaster in the narrative. Waters does his parts with a high-pitched tone that’s both threatening and ridiculous.

“The Happiest Days of Our Lives” and “Another Brick In the Wall Part 2” are really one song; without the track division, it’s hard to say where one ends and the next begins. I never hear “Another Brick 2” on the radio without its prelude, and it gets played a lot. “Another Brick 2” enjoys the distinction of being Pink Floyd’s best known and most commercially successful song, probably due to the absolute monster hook of “We don’t need no education!” While that statement is hugely ironic (your grammar would indicate that you DO need an education), the punk attitude cannot be summed up more simply or beautifully.

Pink’s experiences at school and the cruelty of adults to children provide a lot of bricks, but still more are needed to complete the wall. And what better source for those than Pink’s wife?

Next: love, lust, and the devouring nature of both.

Bricks, Pt. 1

The metaphorical “wall” that Pink builds in The Wall is not a defense mechanism, something Pink builds on purpose to protect him from the slings and arrows that are commonly known as life. Rather, it’s a compilation of all the insurmountable difficulties Pink has experienced throughout his life. Several notable thing (three in particular) have contributed to Pink building this wall that force him to retreat further and further into his mind. At the last stage, he’s retreated so far that he’s completely disconnected from human feelings. That’s a poor state of being for a public figure, and is especially dangerous for one with influence over others.

The first brick in this wall is put in place even before Pink is born. He comes into this world without a father, Pink Senior having been killed in WWII. The crashing B-29 at the end of “In the Flesh?” followed immediately by the crying baby indicates that. And in “The Thin Ice,” Pink’s paralyzing fear is detailed. Nothing is certain, nothing is safe, and growing up without a father starts Pink on the road of not knowing is anything is real.

Obviously, this is melodrama.  Here in the real world, many people grow up in single-parent homes and live fatherless childhoods and turn out fine. In this way, it’s hard to think of Pink as completely relatable. Some of you are probably thinking, “He’s tortured and vexed because he didn’t have a dad? Please!”

But we have to remember that The Wall is an artifact from a past age, recent though it may be. Not only is it 33 years old, but it refers to an age that was past even then; it’s actually an artifact twice-removed. Back in the ‘40s, women had far fewer options as far as marriage and children go. Raising a child without its father anywhere in the picture was much harder, and women and men were both confined to specific roles much more than they are today. Now, those roles are mostly self-imposed as well as changeable. But back then, that was just how society worked. So the prospect of a mother in that time period having to fill both roles because the father is absent was nigh-unthinkable.

Ironically, men dying in WWII and leaving their wives to raise children alone was the very thing that made it thinkable. Things for women got a lot worse before they got better, especially in America (June Cleaver and valium and all that Mad Men stuff), but the seeds of the woman’s movement can be traced to right here.

In “Another Brick In the Wall Part 1,” Pink’s fatherless existence is given more exploration. Here we see that even though Pink never knew what it was like to have a father, he knew that he was supposed to have one, and that was enough.

“Another Brick In the Wall Part 1” has no drums to speak of and just an echo-treated clean electric guitar in addition to the vocals. Its dark and foreboding, like a coming thunderstorm. In the “Another Brick” trilogy, it’s the dreadful intro to the intense second part and the chaotic third. The song is also the first incidence of the melody line that recurs in several places, most famously under “we don’t need no education” in Part 2. This melody not only appears in the other two segments of “Another Brick” but in “Hey You” and “Waiting For the Worms” as well.

The death of Pink’s father affected not just him but Pink’s mother as well. Pink was all she had now, so she held onto him with a deadly, icy grip. “Mother” details her self-obsession and merciless smothering, all in the name of keeping Pink “cozy and warm,” “healthy and clean.” It’s set up as a dialog between Pink and his mother, with Waters singing Pink’s part and David Gilmour doing that of the mother. The song is not very complementary to Pink’s mom, or to moms in general. It shows its teeth with the lines “Mama’s gonna make all of your nightmares come true” and “She won’t let you fly, but she might let you sink.”

The beginning of Pink not being able to feel things is with his mother not allowing him to when he was young. And though she has good intent (she wants to protect Pink from the horribleness of life), her motives are ultimately self-serving. Everything she does is about keeping Pink at her side, even after he grows up. She can’t stand the fact that Pink grew up and got married; in her eyes he abandoned her. And this constant barrage of “don’t leave me, don’t leave me” obviously had an effect on Pink’s view of women (more on this later).

All this mommy and daddy drama is the first piece of Pink’s wall, but there’s more to come. The world has much more suffering to dole out, and it would be greedy to keep more of it from Pink, and by extension, from you.

Next: “How can ya have any pudding if ya don’t eat yar meat??!!?!!!?”

Ground Shields

The Wall is a concept album – there’s that nearly useless term again – and the central character is Pink, a British (probably) rock star during the ‘70s. Pink is paranoid, apathetic, pessimistic, and haunted by past deeds (both those he did and those done to him).

A good case could also be made for Roger Waters being the central character. He wrote all the lyrics, designed the story, and had control over the entire musical process. Like Pink, Roger’s father was killed in the second World War. And also like Pink, he felt an increasing separation building between his audience and himself. But distinctly unlike Pink – until the very end of the story – Roger decides he needs to tear down that wall.

The Wall is a more intense, heavy and loud album than any Pink Floyd had done in the past. Their last, Animals, was a typical slice of dreamscape haziness combined with charging guitars, a well-established sound that Pink Floyd had a major hand in creating. The Wall, on the other hand, starts with an epic and larger-than-life intro, the bombastic “In the Flesh?” It shares a name with Floyd’s previous world tour, the one that contained that turning point where Waters spit on a fan. That moment saw the very birth of The Wall, the first spark that culminated with this album, so it’s appropriate that it also starts it.

“In the Flesh?” doesn’t really sound like Pink Floyd. The first time I heard it, I didn’t know it was Pink Floyd… but that might have been because it wasn’t.

Let me explain.

166 ground shields 01All-male dorms at colleges tend to consist of a few universal things, and one of those is the geek floor. For ENC at the turn on the millennium, that floor was Ground Shields. When the administration said they were thinking of having the ground floors freshmen only, we on Ground Shields pushed back, saying we had worked hard to create a certain environment on our floor, and we were now a community that couldn’t be displaced. And weirdly enough, they listened to us. Ground Shields was all about computers, gaming, and getting the most tricked-out machine. We went to LAN parties, watched DVDs in Brian’s room (he had the best system), and had floor-wide games of Quake III and Counter-Strike. We even ran a server out of Brian’s room that served as a dedicated, 24-hour host for Counter-Strike games, complete with a local website that tracked the statistics of everyone who had ever logged on.

(clockwise from top) me, Josh, Willie, Steve and Dan

Despite that Ground Shields was full of computer geeks and I wasn’t one – I’ve always fancied myself more of an arts geek – I fit in beautifully in a way I didn’t during high school. I wanted in, so I moved down at the beginning of my sophomore year. It was Brian’s roommate Jeff who got me into Dream Theater, something for which I am eternally grateful. He lent me A Change of Seasons, which in addition to its 23 minute title track contains a bunch of live cuts. The last one is “The Big Medley,” a collection of cover songs from the likes of Genesis, Queen, Kansas and Journey; it opens with “In the Flesh?” I hadn’t heard The Wall, and wasn’t into Pink Floyd at all at that point, but it pricked my ears. My friend Mike pointed out whose song it was, and shortly after my curiosity led me to pirate The Wall from the internet, and my journey with the Floyd began.

(L to R) Jeffreylisk, Mr. Abear, and Jamin

“In the Flesh?” appears again on the second half of The Wall, this time without the question mark, with lyrics of Pink speaking at a fascist rally that stars him. But the first “In the Flesh?” is more or less Pink talking to the listeners, inviting them to dig deeper into his psyche for the next 90 minutes. Pink, and indeed Pink Floyd and Roger Waters himself, are letting the listener know that to understand what makes Pink tick and to know the truth Pink wants them to know, they will have to go on a weird, disturbing odyssey. If you’re in, you’re in – and it starts with the sound of a bomber jet flying overhead and land mines blowing people to bits.

Next: of course Mama’s gonna help build the wall.