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.
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.