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Penny For Your Thoughts?

George Wallace

George Wallace was a politician in the ‘60s and ‘70s who served as Governor of Alabama for the 3rd longest gubernatorial stint in post-Constitutional U.S. history, and was also a losing presidential candidate four times.

George Wallace was notorious as a strict segregationist, which basically reads today as “racist.” But back then, in the time and place he existed in, everybody was a racist – at least by today’s standards. Alabama in the early ‘60s was not a friendly place for black people. Wallace’s most famous incident was when he stood at the doors of the University of Alabama on the day black students were granted the right to admission into the university. And make no mistake – he was standing there in a symbolic gesture of blocking the students from entering. Alabama was being desegregated and a lot of people, Governor Wallace chief among them, were not happy about it.

Arthur Bremer

Arthur Bremer

In 1972, George Wallace was running for president again. He had just won his 2nd bid for governor, and his presidential bid was run on a platform of racism and mudslinging. On May 15th, he was at a mall campaigning, using his extremely vitriolic racist rhetoric. Arthur Bremer was there, too. Wallace gave his speech, but he wasn’t standing on a stage like politicians do today; rather, he was down among the crowd with a small circle of space between him and his constituents. Arthur Bremer pushed his way forward when Wallace was shaking hands after his speech, pulled out a revolver and shot Wallace four times, emptying his gun and injuring three others before being subdued. Wallace survived, but was in a wheelchair the rest of his life.

Bremer didn’t do it because of political rage at Wallace’s controversial stances, or out of some high-minded sense of right and wrong, or even as a hired assassin in a massive political struggle. He did it for a much more elemental, selfish and id-based reason – he did it because he wanted to be famous.

Bremer tried to time the assassination for when it would make the evening newscast. He picked a high-profile and divisive individual, one whose assassination would have a much greater ripple effect than someone who was universally well-thought of. There were better candidates, though. Bremer had first fixated on Richard Nixon, but decided it would be nearly impossible to get near him. And the kicker, he had even thought of a memorable catch phrase to recite when he pulled the trigger. “Penny for your thoughts?” This would further cement him in the public’s mind, perhaps especially because it was so cornball. He didn’t say it, though – the heat of the moment must have driven the phrase from his mind.

Bremer wrote An Assassin’s Diary, published in 1973 shortly after his attempt on Wallace’s life. The book details not only the facts of the incident on May 15th, but also provides a chilling first-person perspective on his motivations and thought processes. In it, Bremer explains that he wasn’t particularly opposed to Wallace’s campaign positions, and didn’t really care about politics at all. Rather, he had an attachment to Wallace, and Richard Nixon before him, because killing such a note-worthy and famous figure would in turn make him internationally famous.

His logic (if you can call it that), seems sound. You usually don’t talk about John F. Kennedy without at least mentioning Lee Harvey Oswald. Likewise, no one talks about Abraham Lincoln without bringing up John Wilkes Booth (except Steven Spielberg). Killing someone famous makes you famous. But why would someone even want to become famous for something as heinous and terrible as murder? Everyone looks at you as the epitome of evil and all that is wrong with the world, at least for a time. Look at George Zimmerman.

There are two reasons for this. One: killing someone is a much easier and faster way to become famous than building something yourself, like the person you want to kill. Destruction is always easier than creation, but it pays much smaller and less satisfying dividends. Two: people who do these types of things don’t care why they’re famous. All that matters is that when people hear your name or see your face, they have an instant and inescapable association with it. The specific nature of the association is not nearly as important as its existence. And the stronger the association, the better.

Peter Gabriel read An Assassin’s Diary, and the result is the song “Family Snapshot.” Gabriel never mentions Bremer specifically, and even the scenario laid out in the song doesn’t resemble the Wallace assassination attempt. Details are mentioned, and it much more closely mirrors Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. The song is in first-person except for a brief section that’s in second-person. Here, the killer addresses his target, explaining that they were “made for each other,” but not in the romantic you-complete-me way. Bremer thought that his and Wallace’s destinies were destined to intersect in this particular way. And in a disturbingly twisted way, he was right.

It’s ironic, though, that so much time has passed and virtually nobody knows who George Wallace is anymore, let alone Arthur Bremer. All he wanted was to be famous, and it didn’t work.

“Family Snapshot” goes through phases that mirror the state of a killer’s mind. It starts with quietness and calm, then gets more nervous and jittery, the drumming becoming gradually more frantic. It builds to a tension-filled climax, and then when the shot is fired, the music instantly converts back to the calm, beatless quiet, where the killer reflects on his early life and what brought him to this point.

This is clearly a new approach from Peter Gabriel. “Family Snapshot” and Melt in general see PG acting like the doctors in A Clockwork Orange, forcing Alex’s eyes open while horrors unfold on the screen in front of him. But instead of standing at a distance and scribbling on his clipboard, Peter’s there with you, holding your hand, and whispering, “Look…”

Next: the “gated drum” technique.

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Treasures

Peter Gabriel - Melt - 5/23/1980

Peter Gabriel – Melt – 5/23/1980

I have no idea what I would do if someone broke into my house. The closest it ever got to that was when a woman knocked on our sliding glass door at about 2am. My wife heard it first. Scared out of her wits, she tried to look up the police – we didn’t have smartphones yet, and the idea of calling 911 apparently didn’t penetrate either of our 2am hazes. I had to deal with the potential intruder. It was a short black woman with wide eyes and no shoes, definitely drunk. Clearly not a robber, she was saying something to me that took me a few tries to figure out. She thought I was a friend of hers, Bernie or something, and she wanted to sleep there for the night. I told her in no uncertain terms to go away. I don’t think my wife or I slept much after that.

As traumatic as that was, it’s not even a thousandth of what it must be like to have an actual intruder in your house, one with evil intent to your possessions. It’s something no one ever wants to think about.

Unless you’re Peter Gabriel, that is. And if you’re Peter Gabriel, not only do you like thinking about it, but you like forcing your listeners to think about it, too. “Intruder” leads off PG’s third eponymous album commonly called Melt, with plodding and doom-filled drumming, then what sounds like glass being delicately cracked, like a window that’s being broken as quietly as possible.

Peter sings this song like a sociopathic lunatic, provoking a reaction of tension-filled dread from the listener. Like Hannibal Lecter’s icy, smiling stare, it’s the quietness of Peter’s voice punctuated by moments of frothing madness that make for the most terror. “Intruder” is one of the most terrifying songs I’ve ever heard, bested in that department only by Bach and his “Toccata & Fugue.”

When I visited my family a few Christmases ago, the men had a discussion about intruders (which is to say they had the discussion and I listened silently), which led into gun control. My brother-in-law, who was going through a gun-crazy phase at the time, wanted to acquire a classic, noisy shotgun. He had a theory that if anyone ever broke into his house, all they would have to hear was the loud CLICK-CLACK of a cocking shotgun and they would high-tail it out of there, but not before making a mess on your floor. He said the gun wouldn’t even have to be loaded, because all you need is the sound to get the intruder shaking in his probably stolen boots.

I think there’s something to that, but like I always do, I’m looking for the root. If you want a shotgun to ward off intruders, you obviously think it’s a real possibility that you will at some point have an intruder. Delusion and paranoia are extremely likely, but let’s assume that attitude has a basis in reality. What is that basis? Do you have a lot of valuable stuff that would attract an intruder? A fancy car, an opulent house, an unnecessarily loud stereo system? Why do you have those? Greed? Inadequacy? A need to feel successful?

Religion would classify those things as “treasures,” and my religion teaches me that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. In a sort of pre-emptive strike, Jesus said to “store up your treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and thieves do no break in and steal.” In short, don’t have too much stuff. Why? ‘Cause having too much stuff chains you to this world, and that’s not where you wanna be forever. (Matthew 6:19-21)

But enough of that.

Peter Gabriel adherents had never really heard anything like “Intruder” from him. It was a revelation of one of Peter’s abilities, one that had only been touched briefly upon with The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. It’s the ability to show you extremely strange and horrifying images and make you want to keep staring at them. Previously, he had done this with fantasy and fiction, but with Melt, he was making you look at the real world. “Intruder,” “Family Snapshot,” and “Biko” deal with fully real moments of violent horror and what they mean to your actual life. No more hiding behind constructs like Blackstone Enterprises or Magog or even Rael, as transparent as he was. Now, it’s just Peter.

Next: portrait of a killer.

Eponymous

"Doesn't that Bible of your have pretty specific things to say about killing?"

“Doesn’t that Bible of your have pretty specific things to say about killing?”

In the pilot episode of Firefly (which was not the first episode aired – curse you, Fox!), Kaylee is waiting outside Serenity trying to attract passengers before they ship out. A man named Book looks at the ship and decides to fly with them, offering real strawberries as his payment. He says he’s a Shepherd (which is basically a catch-all preacher/priest/monk), and he’s “been out of the world awhile; like to walk it for a spell, maybe bring the Word to them that needs it.”

I imagine Peter Gabriel, when he broke away from Genesis after being part of them since even before his adult life began, was much like Shepherd Book. Gabriel quit from Genesis in 1975 after the Lamb tour, and was quite suddenly out on his own without his fellow Genesites. After a short period of inactivity during which he got really bored, he went back into the studio, but this time he didn’t have four other people with an equal share of the decision-making. It was just him. He was out of the abbey and now walking the world “for a spell.”

His first solo album came in 1977, simply called Peter Gabriel. It featured the salient “Solsbury Hill,” which made great strides for Gabriel defining himself as a singular artist. Unlike his fantastical and mythological work with Genesis, “Solsbury Hill” was an autobiographical piece. It addressed the biggest question in his fans’ minds, which was “Why did you leave Genesis?” Watch for the part where he compares himself to Jesus Christ.

Since his next three albums would also be eponymous, this one came to be known as Car for its simple cover art of a man asleep in the passenger seat. The next two would feature Peter raking his fingernails across the cover while looking sinister, leaving white marks where his fingers had been (thus it’s referred to as Scratch) and a simple black and white photo of Peter that’s been messed with while it was developing, making his face look like it’s melting (thus the moniker Melt). His fourth also features an image of Peter, but you wouldn’t know it; the distortion of the image makes his face look like a latex mask. It too is eponymous, but by that time the American market was sick and tired of him not naming his albums, so they named it for him, calling it Security.

Peter Gabriel's four eponymous albums

Peter Gabriel’s four eponymous albums

We as a music-consuming public have a little problem with albums that are named after the artist creating them, especially if it’s not their debut album. When an artist doesn’t provide a way to distinguish one album from another, we make one up. Debut albums with no title make more sense. After all, this is the first statement you’re making as an artist, so it just seems natural that you would begin with “Hi, my name is…”

Peter Gabriel isn’t even the only one to do it multiple times. Yet the public always picks some other feature of the album and refers to that. Metallica is called The Black Album. The Beatles is called The White Album. Led Zeppelin’s first album is commonly called I, and their fourth IV, though that might be because their second and third are legitimately titled II and III. But all Seal’s self-titled albums are named by number, too. And Weezer has The Blue Album, The Green Album, and The Red Album, all of which are officially titled only Weezer. They were planning on not having a separate title for a fourth time in 2010, but they knew that since it simply had a headshot of actor Jorge Garcia on the cover, fans would just call it Hurley, so they gave in.

And in 1988, R.E.M. had a clever little romp when they named their I.R.S.-days greatest hits compilation Eponymous. This probably seems a lot funnier to a wordsmith like me, but I gotta get my jollies where I can.

Peter Gabriel’s first two albums were interesting but very scattered. Car has no idea where it’s going, and despite its bright moments, it also has some pretty deep pits. Scratch has more direction, being one of three albums produced by Robert Fripp in 1978, and part of a loose trilogy (the other two are Sacred Songs by Daryl Hall and Fripp’s own Exposure), but it has neither a defining single or great songs. Melt, however, proved him to be a heavy hitter in the music world, one of the heaviest. He didn’t need Genesis behind him to make great records, and he wasn’t just a One Single Pony in his solo career.

Next: what’s this “real world” of which you speak?

Honorable Mentions: 1970s

I’ve now covered the best albums of the ‘70s, but there are plenty of artists and bands that deserve some mention at least. Here are those that didn’t make the cut.

Allman Brothers Band

The Allman Brothers Band

The Allman Brothers Band (named after brothers Gregg and Duane), during the time that Duane was alive and shortly after, commanded the best and deepest understanding of what made the blues – and music in general – so great in the ‘70s. Cameron Crowe based a lot of the dynamic of the fictional band Stillwater from his bitter love letter to the music industry Almost Famous on ABB, and it’s easy to see the bickering brotherly relationship of Jeff and Russell in the actual brothers of Gregg and Duane.

Duane died in a motorcycle accident in 1971, but not before recording the seminal rock/blues album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs with Eric Clapton and the rest of Derek & the Dominos. After he died, the rest of the ABB carried on and recorded Brothers and Sisters. While not being a tribute album in the strictest sense, I can feel Duane’s spirit as being present throughout the entire thing. Dickey Betts, one of the ABB’s two remaining guitarists after Duane, played twice as well when he was thrust into the spotlight, and took a much more prominent songwriting role as well. Betts penned what is probably the best-known ABB song, “Ramblin’ Man,” first single from Brothers and Sisters. And I would wager that it’s not because Duane finally got out of the way so Dickey could take the lead, but rather because Dickey said, “I gotta step up my game to honor Duane’s memory.”

It’s very much like Dave Matthews Band. After phoning in the dismal Stand Up and almost completely losing their mojo, saxophonist Leroi Moore suddenly and tragically died. The rest of them then released the fantastic Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King with a new-found energy and drive. Why? They were playing not just for the memory of a fallen bandmate, but also because that tragedy had made them realize the gloriousness of what they do for a living. Both DMB and ABB commuted their mourning into great music, which is precisely what music is meant to do.

Queen

Queen

Alright, confession time… I don’t really like Queen.

Woah, calm down people! Put the pitchforks away! I think at this point I’ve proved my classic rock cred, so let’s be fair here. I fully recognize that Queen is a major influence to lots of artists of the last 30 years, some of whom I greatly respect. And I also respect Queen, and happily defer the title of Mightiest Vocalist Who Ever Lived to the late great Freddie Mercury.

That being said, their over-the-top, operatic style makes me cringe. To even call it a “style” seems wrong to me – it’s a musical ethos, a philosophy, and one that I very much disagree with. Queen’s main aim was to make everything bigger, more epic and more of a show than it actually was. But to me, that effort only made what they did seem cheesy, cheap, and robbed of any sense of authenticity. Many other people might label (and have labeled) songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Another One Bites the Dust” and the groan-inducing “Princes of the Universe” as awesome, but they only make me shake my head.

Then there’s “We Are the Champions,” the worst offender of all. Every time I hear it, I simultaneously want to laugh derisively, cry hysterically, and hit an innocent bystander with a brick. But then I calm my humanity down, and remember something; here it is.

Jesus said “Whoever tries to save his life will lose it.” In “We Are the Champions,” I find a gigantic object lesson about this saying. You could almost change it to, “Whoever tries to be a champion will be a loser.” If you go around saying you’re the champion and you don’t have time for losers, not only will you eventually be the biggest loser of all, but you’re kinda being a douchebag on the way down. That’s what pisses me off the most about “We are the Champions”: the narrator is just such a jerk. If this guy says he doesn’t have time for losers, then I will happily be a loser. All the other losers he doesn’t have time for will get together and have a Loser Party, and Jesus will be hanging with us; I guarantee it.

Lynyrd Skynyrd

Lynyrd Skynyrd

I was raised in Massachusetts, and still live there, so it’s safe to say I don’t really understand people from the South. I see a Confederate Flag on the back of a pickup truck and I think, “Hmm, what’s it like to be a racist?” According to the Civil War mythology up here, the South are all a bunch of racists who were whining about us not letting them have slaves. Of course, down there, it’s not about slaves at all – it’s all about the North being on a power trip and trying to tell the South what to do. So of course, I look at bands with a heavy southern bent a little cockeyed. All of them piss me off a little with their attitude.

All except Lynyrd Skynyrd (and the aforementioned Allman Brothers Band). It doesn’t really make sense that I like them – they have heavy southern accents, don’t truck with the “less is more” ethos, and are pretty loud about their Confederate loyalty despite that the Civil War has been over for about 150 years.

But on a much more important level, it makes perfect sense. They make great music – that’s it, really. And as someone with fangirl tendencies when it comes to the electric guitar, I freely admit that when I listen to “Free Bird,” I feel a little like putting a Confederate flag bumper sticker on my Hyundai.

Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton

So what do you do when you’ve been in five – count ‘em, FIVE – very successful bands (John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, The Yardbirds, Cream, Blind Faith, and Derek & the Dominos)? I dunno… go on to an even more successful solo career, maybe?

Even though it started a little before his final “band” experience, Eric Clapton is a more powerful force when he’s the star. Arguably, he was always the star. The only musician he played with outside of Cream that could keep up with him was Duane Allman from D&D. He’s very simply a guitar god; that fan who spray-painted CLAPTON IS GOD on a metal fence wasn’t wrong. And in addition to keeping the blues alive with his incredible albums From the Cradle and Me & Mr. Johnson, we also have him to thank for the much-covered pop classics “Wonderful Tonight” and “Tears In Heaven.” And even though he hasn’t made an album on this list in his solo career, Eric is one of the musicians I most esteem and respect.

Rush

Rush

I’ve had a long love-hate relationship with Rush. My first experience with them is hearing “Tom Sawyer” when I was about 7. It was an electrifying experience, but every other Rush song has failed to live up. Besides that, there’s the unintentional silliness of their music. That statement probably greatly offends Rush worshippers (and there are a lot of them), but I can’t help it. Some of their music is just plain embarrassing – for the songs themselves, but even more so that this is some of the best-thought-of music rock and roll has to offer. “ATTENTION ALL PLANETS OF THE SOLAR FEDERATION. WE HAVE ASSUMED CONTROL.” Seriously?

Balancing that is the album Moving Pictures. While I don’t see anything that’s world-endingly awesome (other than “Tom Sawyer”), I can’t really find a single flaw either.

There’s also an incident in their discography that caused me a lot of frustration when I heard about it. They recorded a two-part song called “Cygnus X-1.” Now, I’m all about multi-section compositions, and for that, Rush gets a thumbs-up. But they destroyed the good standing that earned them by putting the two sections on different albums, separated by almost 14 months. “Book I” is the last track on A Farewell to Kings in 1977, and “Book II” is the first track on Hemispheres in 1978. That’s kind of like an author writing “He stood up and saw that the murderer was-“ and ending the book there, then waiting 14 months before releasing another book, and starting it with the end of that sentence. Sure, it’s something Charles Dickens did all the time – that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

The Clash

The Clash

In The Clash, we have punk music turned to a purpose other than just pooping all over everything. In The Clash, punk is a force for social and political change rather than merely an expression of the rage a disenfranchised generation felt. While The Sex Pistols and The Ramones were spitting on their audiences and crushing beer cans on their foreheads, The Clash were trying to improve the world.

That being said… meh. I’ve tried to drum up some excitement about their music, but in the end, I just shrug. It actually scares me a little, because I know that some people treat the members of the Clash almost as religious figures, and believe in their music the way suicide bombers believe Americans are infidels.

Fleetwood Mac

Fleetwood Mac

Fleetwood Mac’s epic tale of love, sex, betrayal and sticking it out for the love of music is one of the things that drew me in to study music as more than just something to listen to. I remember watching VH1’s Behind the Music series when it first went on the air. Fleetwood Mac was one of the first ones. No band’s story in the whole of rock and roll has more human drama and literary conflict than that of Fleetwood Mac.

Talking Heads

Talking Heads

Talking Heads appeals to me because I have a slight appreciation for things that come out of left field. True, the fact that it’s weird isn’t enough for me – it also needs to be good. But Talking Heads, on the whole, satisfy both of those requirements. They lose their touch with their last few albums, but the pinnacle came in 1980 with Remain In Light. A daring uprooting of the band to Jamaica and an innovative musical approach are gambles that paid off and then some with this album. All the songs are based around a single chord and a 2- or 4-measure riff. On all eight songs, they don’t deviate from that chord. The idea sounds weird, and it is, but you can’t argue with success.

Next: I found my thrill on Solsbury Hill…

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.