Category: L-V


Worms

Worms: just the very word sounds gross, doesn’t it? The first image I conjure up when I hear it is the earthworm, then Earthworm Jim, then the parasites that dogs and cats sometimes get. After that, I think of the Pink Floyd song “Waiting For the Worms.” In The Wall, worms are a metaphor for what happens when we close ourselves off to human emotions and descend into singularity and isolation.

On a smaller, tighter scale, worms also represent Pink finishing his transformation into a Hitler/Mussolini figure, carrying out his plan to elevate himself over all of humanity. Nazi imagery is very strong in the language of “queens and the coons and the reds and Jews.” Many people think the Holocaust as an exclusively Jewish thing, but it wasn’t. Nazi Germany didn’t just hate Jews, but all people who weren’t Aryans, weren’t of the “Master Race.” Hitler was an equal-opportunity discriminator.

Back in “Hey You” at the beginning of the second disc, the narrator sings in the bridge, “No matter how he tried, he could not break free / And the worms ate into his brain.” And in “Waiting For the Worms,” much is made of “follow[ing] the worms.” Those worms have taken up residence in your brain, and are now controlling your actions. And where does following them lead? To a perfect land where the weaklings and degenerates have been expunged in the showers and the ovens, where “our colored cousins” have been sent back home, where “Britannia rule[s] again.”

Wait a second… Britannia? I thought this was supposed to be a totalitarian control state! I thought this was the Third Reich! Surely the United Kingdom is as distant ideologically from Nazi Germany as the night from the day! Axis and Allies, man! Different sides! Britain would never!

Sense the sarcasm, people. Roger Waters is indeed saying that his beloved homeland has the potential to become everything that WWII was fought specifically to stamp out. Britain could descend into government-sponsored racism, and according to Waters, it wouldn’t even be that hard.

When Pink is at his absolute worst, riding through the streets with a megaphone and his goons marching before him, he has a sudden and jarring halt. The crowd is shouting, Pink is delivering his megaphone diatribe, and the David Gilmour is playing that harsh, minor key refrain that appears in “Another Brick In the Wall” and “Hey You” that binds the album together, and all of the craziness that The Wall has been building towards is at a fever pitch. Then Pink suddenly shouts “STOP!”

With that, the song “Stop!” starts with its 30 seconds of piano interlude. This is the moment where Pink breaks out of his isolation and attempts to deal with what he has done. And once again, he retreats into his own mind and creates a cast of characters who put him on trial.

“The Trial” is the lynchpin and climax of the story, and as such, it’s actually very hammy and unintentionally comical. It sounds very much like a piece from a Broadway musical where the rest of the album does not, even though The Wall has a cinematic feel and scope rarely seen. Pink is put on “trial” for the crime of “showing feelings of an almost human nature.” The schoolmaster from the first act, Pink’s wife, and his mother are brought in to testify, and then “Worm, Your Honor” (the judge or arbiter) pronounces Pink’s sentencing.

The figure of Worm, Your Honor, given the symbolism present previously on The Wall, must be the epitome of solipsism, and the pinnacle of cutting yourself off. In light of that, it’s pretty ironic that the “sentence” that Worm, Your Honor imposes on Pink is what ultimately saves him from complete isolation. “The Trial” ends with the repeated chanting of “Tear down the wall!” followed by a the sound of a single, gargantuan blast, echoing through the vast nothingness that separates Pink’s solipsistic world from reality.

In my opinion, all the characters in “The Trial” (the Crown lawyer, the judge, the mother, the schoolmaster, the wife, even the chorus who sings about how crazy Pink is) are creations of his own mind. After all, he lives in a world where the only occupant of even the tiniest consequence is himself. He’s reached a point where even he is not willing to go, and there has to be a breaking point. Creating a scenario where he’s put on trial is the perfect way to point out his own colossal, self-inflicted guilt for all the atrocities he’s done to both the people most important to him and the world at large.

There’s one more track, and it passes in little more than a whisper. You may think “Outside the Wall” will be a summing up of the entire 90 minutes and 2 discs-worth of material on The Wall, but you’d be wrong. Instead, “Outside the Wall” finishes the album looking at things from a slightly different angle.

The narrator is probably Pink himself, but since he’s addressing the listener specifically, it hardly matters. He talks of your own loved ones, “all alone or in two’s;” because even though you may have descended into a world where only you seem to exist, you still leave behind a lot of people who care about you. In fact, that’s the whole point of The Wall; Pink thought he was leaving behind the people who made him build the Wall, but he wasn’t. They came back to convict him in “The Trial.” And if God forbid you start to go down the same path as Pink (the same path as “me,” says Roger Waters), remember there might be people who want you back, people who love you.

Huh; I guess “Outside the Wall” does a pretty good job of summing up after all.

Incredibly geeky note: “Outside the Wall” – and thus The Wall as a whole – ends with someone saying, “Isn’t this where-“. At the very beginning of the album, in the first few seconds before “In the Flesh?” kicks off, the same person can be heard saying “-we came in?” There ya go – useless information of the day!

The Wall is a monument to madness, pulling together so many experiences and influences from Roger Waters’ life, but that’s not the reason it’s great. It has some of the best and most well-known songs in Pink Floyd’s entire career, but that’s not why, either. It’s great because it captures a moment in time, a sliver of being in which Roger Waters, and indeed Pink Floyd itself are on a precipice. It marks a decision to not go down the road it details, and to instead come into the light.

Pink Floyd at Live 8 in 2005

Pink Floyd at Live 8 in 2005

Soon after, Roger Waters would release his swan song The Final Cut and angrily part ways from Gilmour and the rest. He would even try, unsuccessfully, to sue the other three Floyds for use of the Pink Floyd name. Pink Floyd’s final album The Division Bell, released without Waters in 1994, is a treatise on communication and what happens when we stop talking to each other. Gilmour was offering an olive branch to Waters with The Division Bell, and in 2005, the finally got back together… for one performance. Live 8 saw the first time Pink Floyd had performed as a four-piece in 24 years – and the last time the world ever saw them in that form again. Sigh…

ATF

During my freshman year of high school, the leader of our youth group told us about something happening that year, called Acquire the Fire, ATF for short. It was a Christian youth conference put on by Teen Mania Ministries. President Ron Luce was touring the country with ATF trying to start a revolution in the hearts of teenagers everywhere, inspiring and equipping them to go out and take over the world for God. Teen Mania in general was focused on missions trips for teenagers, spreading the gospel to mostly third-world countries – ATF was focused on evangelism here in the US. It was coming to Worcestor in October of that year, and the Dwight Chapel youth group was going to go.

ATF was a trip, man. We walked into the Audi in Worcestor, MA at about 5:00 Friday night, and it was like a rock concert. All sorts of ministries were there in the lobby recruiting, like a trade show. We all took our seats among what must have been about 6,000 teenagers, youth leaders and chaperones. There had to of been over 100 youth groups there. Then the lights dimmed and the show started with a loud burst of intro music, epic and bombastic. Ron came out to thunderous applause wearing jeans, a button-up shirt and a microphone headset. He gave a welcome, and then led the whole crowd in a few energetic worship choruses. Then he got down to brass tacks and started taking us through a program. The book he was peddling that year, which he wrote, was called 10 Challenges of a World-Changer. He peddled a different one each year, all written by him. According to him, we could all change the world – every one of us. Among other things, we were told to “live holy lives,” which apparently means to break all of our CDs by secular artists and sign something that says we’re going to wait until we’re married to have sex.

Ron Luce

Ron Luce

Ron Luce is an incredibly charismatic figure. When he comes out on the stage, he commands a power and sway like a religious leader – because actually, he is one, small potatoes though he may be. But the power Ron had, if in less scrupulous hands, could have been incredibly destructive. I fear that to some, it was. After the spiritual high of ATF (I use “high” as a drug reference, because that’s what it was), I was talking on the phone to a Teen Mania Ministries rep because I had filled out something while there, a little postcard, saying I was interested in doing a Teen Mania discipleship. Things are different in the haze and smoke of a teen conference than in the cold light of day. I said a lot of things and made a lot of promises I might not have made under normal circumstances, and some of them were foolish – this was one of those.

This rep tried to convince me to go through with the discipleship, even to abandon my dreams of college and a writing career to devote myself to Teen Mania (“the service of God through Teen Mania,” he called it). Don’t mistake: this wasn’t a putting off of my college plans for a few years – what he was saying was not going to college – at all.

The Teen Mania strategy seemed to be to put on a conference that temporarily puts impressionable teens into a different state of mind, hook them then while they’re in that slightly weakened state, and then seal the deal later. It kinda made me sick.

Luckily, this guy that I was talking to was not anywhere near as charismatic as Ron Luce was at ATF. I ultimately decided on college, and I’m where I am today partly because of that decision. There wasn’t even any danger of me going with Teen Mania instead of college. It’s just that the huge and overwhelming experience of ATF put me in a different, confused and spinning-about state of mind.

All this is not to say Teen Mania doesn’t do good work through ATF. It changes the lives of many a teen, and sets them on a more positive path than the one they were going down. I just find the strategy of weakening people into agreeing with you to be a pretty rotten tactic. Teen Mania’s aim is probably not to nefariously snatch people into their cause when they’re teenagers because they’re more pliable… but that’s what happens.

When I watched the movie version of The Wall in college, I had a physical reaction to the scene when Pink holds the rally at the rock concert. The epic music, the lights, the fawning and cheering crowd, the thunderous applause when Pink makes his appearance… My God, it’s Acquire the Fire all over again!

Pink in full-on Hitler mode

Pink in full-on Hitler mode

The disc 2 appearance of “In the Flesh” details Pink’s fascist, racist, homophobic plan to rid the world of degenerates and weaklings, or “riff-raff” as he calls them. And he’s gonna use the crowd gathered at his rock concert to carry out this plan, like a totalitarian puppet master. And immediately after in “Run Like Hell” and “Waiting For the Worms,” the world is in the thick of Pink’s reign of terror. “Run Like Hell,” another high-highlight of The Wall, features a driving, relentless rhythm that literally makes you feel like you’re running for your life. The lyrics speak of not only totalitarian control, but of the squashing of very human impulses and the attitude of “put even a toe out of line and so help me God…” And “Waiting For the Worms” shows Pink at his Nazi-like worst.

Ron Luce and ATF’s message was obviously different from that of Pink and his fascist regime, most notably that ATF’s is one of spreading light and Pink’s is of crushing it. But whatever the message, they both start with a rock concert. A rock concert is not at all dissimilar to a huge worship rally – turn the sound off, and they look exactly the same. Same thing with a Nazi rally – just the decorations are a little different. At modern Christian worship rallies, you get a lot of people raising both arms. At Nazi rallies of times past, they were raising just one.

Food for thought.

Next: Worm, Your Honor.

Lonely ≠ Alone

Very Lynn

Vera Lynn

The solipsism of “Is There Anybody Out There?” (the implied answer would be “no”) and “Nobody Home” is suddenly broken when Pink starts singing about a girl named Vera Lynn. “Vera” is a startlingly sparse but affecting song, being little more than Roger Waters’ voice and some light orchestral touches. Pink, now clinging to the wall because there’s just a vast empty space away from it, is going as far back into his memory as he can. What he finds is Vera.

Vera Lynn was commonly referred to as “The Forces’ Sweetheart,” owing to the fact that she was the most popular singer among the British Army in WWII. She visited the troops in Egypt, India and Burma, and her songs “We’ll Meet Again” and “The White Cliffs of Dover” were emblems of national identity to British soldiers all over the world. And in particular, “We’ll Meet Again” lent hope to not only the soldiers but everyone they left at home. She became a symbol of the United Kingdom during that time, and was made a Dame Commander in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1975.

The invocation of her name by Pink is an acknowledgement of his father and the gap he left in Pink’s life. Vera sang that all those brave men who went to war would be reunited with their loved ones “some sunny day.” And the song “Vera” is Pink’s lament that her words didn’t come true, that her promise was in vain – Pink’s father never came home, and the two of them never even met for a first time, never mind “again.” Vera might have been talking about the hereafter as well as on Earth, but that was missed by a good percentage of her audience, Waters included.

But Waters has much more delicacy that to make “Vera” a simple accusation leveled at the Forces’ Sweetheart. Instead, “Vera” is not directed at anything or anyone, but is a whimper of anguish, a very small vocalization of the despair Pink feels at this. Despite that it’s beatless, not very long and doesn’t follow any pop conventions that I know of, I can’t help but feel the tiniest lump in my throat whenever I hear it.

“Vera” leads right into a further musing on war, loved ones and being lost, “Bring the Boys Back Home.” It starts off with a snare drum war march growing louder, like an approaching army. Then it explodes in epic and operatic singing, led by Waters. It sounds like it could be an actual WWII-era hit song, perhaps sung by Vera Lynn herself. The lyrics are very simple – just the title twice, then a tag, then the title once again. But the real crux of the song is the delivery. Roger Waters is joined by the New York Opera, as well as 35 New York drummers all playing the snare and the New York Orchestra on strings. It’s arguably not a Pink Floyd song, but it packs a powerful emotional punch.

It’s followed by one of the most famous and greatest Pink Floyd songs to ever grace our ears, “Comfortably Numb.” In the storyline of The Wall, it represents the moment when Pink is as far gone as he can get and has retreated completely from human emotions; he’s a true sociopath. In the movie version of The Wall, it’s shown as Pink’s manager, tour crew and doctor breaking down the door of his hotel room, reviving him with drugs, and carrying him out to the limo that will take him to the show for tonight. As he’s carried down the corridor, his skin starts melting and growing cancerous bulges and oozing sores. His fingers elongate, his limbs become trunks and his facial features become almost unrecognizable. Finally, in the limo, he rips off his own skin to reveal Pink as we knew him before (crew cut and eyebrow-less), but dressed in a military-style dress uniform, black and red with a leather strap across the chest. The intended Nazi reference is quite clear.

David Gilmour

David Gilmour

“Comfortably Numb” has a switch in it; David Gilmour sings Pink’s parts, and Roger Waters is performing the part of the doctor. And in addition, Gilmour has hands down his best guitar solo, not just on The Wall, but ever. The Wall features a great many fantastic solos from Gilmour – “Young Lust,” “Comfortably Numb,” “The Thin Ice,””One of My Turns,” and the first two parts of “Another Brick In the Wall.” Gilmour has previously shown he’s no slouch with the six-string. “Time” falls into the category of Blazingly Awesome, and a lot of Animals has outstanding guitar work. But he would go on to more bombastic, voluminous and self-indulgent solos after Roger Waters flies the coop. Once Gilmour is in charge on A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell, the floodgates opened for guitar greatness. Just listen to a live version of “Sorrow” to see what I’m talking about. The solo goes on for 5+ minutes.

There are subtle drug references and hints of clinical depression in the lyrics of “Comfortably Numb,” but what it’s really about is disconnection. The song sums up the whole of The Wall quite beautifully. To the narrator, nothing gets through. Things hit him from all angles, but none of it means a thing. That’s the loneliest place a human being can wander into, but not because you’re alone; “alone” and “lonely” are not exactly the same thing. There are other faces all around you, but it’s like they’re all wearing masks. And once you’re in that place where nobody matters, there are no limits to the brutality and evil you can exhibit.

Next: “Are there any QUEERS in the theater tonight?”

Slinker and Stinker

Gollum, Syd and Pink had something in common – they all had less hair as they went on

The specter of Syd Barrett, amazingly, was still hanging over Pink Floyd more than 11 years after he had left the band. In particular, Syd was still a part of the thought processes of Roger Waters. And since Waters was the primary songwriter and musical demagogue of Pink Floyd, Syd of course shows up in The Wall.

Waters and Barrett have always shared a bit of their ethos, and I think Waters is strangely akin to Barrett mentally. In fact, the character of Pink, in addition to being a twisted reflection of Waters himself, is also an archetype for the self-obsessed, insecure and unstable rock star. Waters’ experience with all those things (other himself, of course) and comes directly from Syd Barrett.

The starkest example of this is in the song “Nobody Home.” Pink, having now retreated completely behind his wall, muses about his own state of mind and body. He looks at the things that immediately surround him – his clothes, the TV, the hotel room – and then examines his own feelings and perceptions – his paranoia, his pessimism. He’s part Howard Hughes, part Holden Caufield, and indeed part Syd Barrett. He’s now resigned to his feelings of isolation and disconnection.

One track earlier, in “Is There Anybody Out There?” Pink gets on the other side of his wall, looks around and finds he’s all alone. The sense you get from the music in “Is There Anybody Out There?” is a vast, inky nothingness, like being lost in space without any planets or stars in a 300 light year radius. Everything just echoes, returning back on itself with nothing added. Instantly, Pink starts feeling for the edges of the wall, trying to get back over to the other side, the human side, to no avail.

And one track before that, we have a little summary of the first half of The Wall with a preview of the second half in “Hey You.” This song is an easy single and music video, and it became one in 1982 with the release of Pink Floyd – The Wall, the feature film. “Hey You” was the only song from The Wall that was not included in the movie, but a music video was made for it culling all the footage from the 1982 film.

In “Hey You” and “Nobody Home,” there is a Bowie-like splitting of the self, but rather than creating two distinct personalities, Pink talks to himself and responds to himself, perhaps more like Gollum’s Slinker and Stinker. Gollum has arguments with himself because for a long time, there’s no one else around with whom to have arguments. Once Frodo and Sam enter his life, the habit continues. It’s exactly the same with Pink. The only person to keep him company in this solipsistic world is himself, but for Pink, he even lets himself down. You only need listen to the first chorus of “Nobody Home” to realize that.

When I try to get through / on the telephone to you / there’ll be nobody home.

And still, there’s Syd. The “obligatory Hendrix perm” line from “Nobody Home” is a direct nod to Syd, and as many parallels as I pick out between Pink and Gollum, the reality of this character is based on Syd. There have been all sorts of theories about what was wrong with him, so I won’t go into that, but a pretty consistent symptom of mental illness is talking to oneself. Who knows? Syd might have had conversations with himself like his very own personal Slinker and Stinker.

Next: “I know we’ll meet again some sunny day…”

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.

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.

Magic and Madness

At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there’s a little area on the 4th floor with benches, in the corner of the glass pyramid. It’s little more than a sitting area for weary museum-goers to rest their feet, but it’s also an exhibit dedicated to a particularly fascinating segment of rock history, and a turning point in the life of one band. In the middle of the area is a huge white-bricked wall, with blocks taken out of it to allow passage to the other side. What looks like a demented Macy’s Thanksgiving puppet hovers over both sides of the wall – the schoolmaster from Pink Floyd’s The Wall. There are other artifacts, mostly from the movie – the melted, blubberous Pink watching TV, another ghoulish schoolmaster with freakishly long limbs, and the crossed hammers banner used as the insignia of Pink’s totalitarian regime. (Don’t worry… all these will be explained)

When we last left Pink Floyd, they were struggling with the ideas of fame and celebrity. Roger Waters in particular found that the more people that liked his music, the less he liked the people. When Pink Floyd first started, they were very happy in their general anonymity. Their early shows were described by Waters as “magic,” intimate and personal. After The Dark Side of the Moon and the monster success of “Money,” they were playing bigger and bigger venues as time went by. By the time of their In the Flesh tour in 1977 for their newest album, Animals, they were stadium regulars.

Whereas Pink Floyd’s relationship to their fans had been close and friendly, it was now more like the ruler of a nation of millions to his subjugates. While some men might have been driven mad by that kind of power (as many rock and pop stars have), Waters found it disgusting, and that translated directly into disgust with his fans. Suddenly, it was “us and them.”

Get it? “Us and Them?” Oh, never mind…

Pink Floyd always being on guard from their fans had to come to a breaking point sometime, and it did in Montreal in 1977. The In the Flesh tour took them to arena after arena, and a fan tried to climb onto the stage at this show. He almost succeeded before security hauled him away, but before even that, Roger Waters took all his disgust, paranoia and anger out on this fan by spitting on him.

It was then that Roger, then the main creative force behind Pink Floyd, realized what he had become, and why. He was faced with the choice of either recapturing the magic Pink Floyd used to have, or giving in to the current madness and the horrible place it might lead to. The Wall is what Roger created to, as he puts it, help him make that choice.

Pink Floyd - The Wall - 11/20/1979

Pink Floyd – The Wall – 11/20/1979

When my wife and I visited the Rock Hall and saw the Wall Exhibit, I explained to her what was written on the white wall (a short detailing of the history leading up to The Wall, in Roger Waters’ own words). When I told her about Roger’s choice between magic and madness, she had a very sharp and to-the-point question (she’s full of those) – “Which did he choose?”

Perhaps it’s obvious to me, but any other reasonably intelligent person could look at The Wall and what it contains and get the wrong impression. In brief, The Wall is about a rock star who becomes so isolated by his past that he ceases to have meaningful human relationships, and thus becomes a totalitarian dictator with a brutal, fascist agenda, until he is confronted by the people he used to create his isolation. If you take a few listens to The Wall and really let it sink in – and are at least passingly familiar with any literature – it becomes clear that The Wall is a cautionary tale. The main thrust of the entire story, and what Roger Waters is looking at when he uses it as a reminder of his choice, is “don’t go down this road.”

The moral of the story is this: the more cut off you are from other human beings, the less you really feel things, and the less you care about hurting other people. That is what “isolation” means – it means a descent into yourself so deep that nothing matters anymore, not even the people you once loved.

Next: the character of Pink and the building of the wall.

Love Kills

Sid Vicious

Sid Vicious

The entire pathos of punk in the 1970s – the clothes, the music, the attitude, the excess, the animalistic urge, everything – can be summed up in two words: Sid Vicious.

Sid Vicious started life as John Simon Ritchie in Lewisham, a district of southern London. Rumor has it that when Vivian Westwood suggested to Malcolm McLaren that he get a guy who hung around the Sex boutique named John to be the lead singer of the Sex Pistols, she was not talking about John Lydon, but Sid Vicious. When McLaren booted out Glen Matlock from the bass position, he recruited Vicious despite the fact that he had never played bass.

In fact, Sid’s bass skills were so lacking that he only actually plays on one track of Never Mind the Bollocks, that being “Bodies,” and on the rest Steve Jones plays both bass and guitar. But according to Keith Levene, he picked it up with alarming speed because of his incredible focus. One night he sat down with the first Ramones record, playing to it over and over again through the night. In the morning, he was a bass player.

The movie Sid & Nancy, directed by Alex Cox, is one of the only silver screen depictions of Sid. The titular roles are played by Gary Oldman as Sid and Chloe Webb as Nancy Spungen, Sid’s girlfriend. After an initial meeting where Nancy (already a junky) is supposed to score some drugs for Sid, Nancy then introduces Sid to heroin before they have sex – all with a very bored Johhny Rotten in the room. From then on, they’re a pair. The only thing that separates them is the Sex Pistols going on a tour of the United States. And all along, they’re going in a wide and uncontrollable downward spiral; things get bad, then real bad, then real bad, and then the absolute worst.

The film has been the subject of a lot of controversy; Johnny Rotten in particular says it romanticizes heroin addiction, playing as merely the catalyst for the love that existed between Sid and Nancy. The famous scene at the end where Sid gets in a cab and finds Nancy (no longer gross and desiccated but in a white dress) and they go riding off in the distance is said by many to be the epitome of irresponsible filmmaking.

I respectfully disagree. The centerpiece of the entirety of Sid & Nancy is the love between the two central characters. Yes, they were heroin addicts, but I think the film is suggesting their love couldn’t really be complete and functional until they were off of heroin. Now, that point came after they were both dead, but in that, the film might also be suggesting that love is bigger than our temporal world. And as for romanticizing heroin use, you only have to look at any moment from the entire rest of the movie to see that heroin use is bad news. According to Sid & Nancy, there is absolutely nothing glamorous, fun or minutely redeemable about heroin.

I want to make something very clear, though. Sid and Nancy loved each other, but everything about that was horrible. There is much to be said about the positive and transcendent nature of love, but we almost always forget that love, like anything else in the hands of humans, can be an extremely negative force as well. The love between Sid and Nancy didn’t get them anywhere they wanted to go, but instead took them to increasingly worse and worse places. The same energy that fueled their love for each other also fueled their addictions. What’s worse, their individual addictions became more than the sum of their parts when added together, much like a marriage. It even fueled an apparent suicide pact they had forged. What Sid & Nancy brings out for me is that love is incredibly powerful, and just as it has the power to heal, build and create, so does it have the power to completely destroy.

Nancy Spungen

Nancy Spungen died in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan from bleeding to death from a stab wound to the stomach. It’s not certain, but Sid probably murdered her. He woke up from a drug stupor to discover her body on the bathroom floor, blood all over the hotel room. Of all the ways of murdering somebody, Sid’s murder of Nancy is the least malicious and most tragic. In the police interviews, Sid himself said, “I never stabbed her. I loved her, but she treated me like shit.” He later said he didn’t remember what happened, but she may have fell on the knife while he was holding it. What it really comes down to is that I don’t believe for a second that Sid had murder in his heart, at least not the cold-blooded, purposeful taking of a life which we stereotypically think of as murder; he just wasn’t capable of it.

Ten days after Nancy’s death, Sid tried to kill himself by slitting his wrists. He was taken to Bellvue Hospital to recover, and made bail from his murder arrest in February of 1979. The day after he got out of jail, Sid and his mother Anne were at a party to celebrate his bail. Anne gave him a fatal dose of heroin at that party, as she admitted to journalist Alan Parker near the end of her life. According to a suicide note left by Sid, he was fulfilling a suicide pact with Nancy. The whole story is just very, very sad, in every sense of the word.

Sid’s life and death represented the life and death of punk music, or rather punk in its Platonic, virginal form. Sid was more than just the bass player for the biggest punk band that ever existed – Sid WAS punk. After Sid, there was no more punk. I think something was lost that the music world can never get back. Blink-182 and NOFX and Rancid and Less Than Jake can put on a good show and rock as hard as the day is long, but they’re not punk. Nor should they be. Sid is dead, punk is dead, and it’s time to move on.

Next: bound for hell, and loving every second of the trip.