Tag Archive: Roger Waters


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…

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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?”

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.

Syd Barrett

Syd Barrett

On June 5th 1975, the members of Pink Floyd were happily churning away at Abbey Road Studios in London, recording parts for “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” the central piece for their next album. On this particular day, though, they had a visitor. He showed up unannounced. He had no hair, no beard, no eyebrows, had a dead look on his face, and mystified everyone in the sessions as to why he was there. Even though they didn’t recognize him at first, they knew him – it was none other than Syd Barrett himself.

He looked completely different than the guy they all knew years before. He had put on weight, for one thing, and he was dressed differently, but the biggest thing was his lack of hair. Roger Waters in particular must have this burned into his memory; in his fullest exploration of madness and its effects, The Wall, the main character Pink shaves off all the hair on his body, signifying the completion of his descent into insanity.

Syd’s behavior that day was predictably unpredictable. At one point, he stood in the studio control booth brushing his teeth. The timing of this visit is particularly interesting, since Pink Floyd was recording “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a song Waters had penned specifically about Barrett. When Waters asked him what he thought of the song, Barrett just said “sounds a bit old.” Waters had so much to say about Syd, his personality, his psychoses, and madness in general. He wrote two albums about it (Dark Side and The Wall), as well as a grand 26-minute magna carta specifically about him, and all Syd could find to say was “sounds a bit old.”

Syd at Abbey Road, June 5th 1975

Syd at Abbey Road, June 5th 1975

If you want my opinion, Syd didn’t really understand that the song was about him. I’m guessing there wasn’t a lot at that time Syd did understand. For some geniuses like Syd, the rest of the world is speaking a foreign language. It’s not just in the words they say – it’s in their actions, their mindset, their perceptions, the entirety of how they interact with the world.

Some have speculated that Syd was schizophrenic – a rather easy and unsatisfying answer. Some say he had some sort of autism spectrum disorder, like Asperger’s. Others point to his copious use of mind-altering drugs in his younger years. But whatever the diagnosis of what the hell was wrong with him, what remains is that Syd Barrett was both blessed and cursed, and both by nature and by circumstance. Syd was born into a particular arrangement of events, or the stars aligned, or God stretched out his holy hand, or whatever – Syd was different; he was blessed (or cursed, depending on your perspective) with a kind of understanding that is granted to extremely few people. He also did a lot of LSD, another contributing factor. But however it came to pass, his story ends in a sputtering incoherency, one that we can only understand through the flagrantly inadequate lens of “well, he’s just crazy.”

But Roger Waters knew better. He knew what very few people knew about Syd – that there’s a little piece of Syd inside all of us.

Pink Floyd with Syd, pre-David Gilmore

Pink Floyd with Syd, pre-David Gilmour

“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is really a collection of a bunch of different musical ideas Pink Floyd had hatched over the course of two years. Originally, it was supposed to be a side-long composition, much like “Echoes” from Meddle and “Atom Heart Mother” from the album of the same name. The lyrics serve as the backbone of the entire song, but they only appear in 2 of the 9 sections. In the lyrics, it’s Roger talking directly to Syd directly, calling him all manner of things, like stranger, legend, martyr, painter, piper, prisoner, boy child, winner and loser. He details in poetic terms Syd’s history with the band, and reveals that he, more than anyone else, understood what Syd was going through. He also understood that Syd had to go through it completely alone; the other members of Pink Floyd would not follow.

Next: But if that salt has lost its flavor, it ain’t got much in its favor…

The Quarrymen (later The Beatles), with Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best

Pink Floyd didn’t start with The Dark Side of the Moon. Their beginnings actually date back to the early 60s, right around when the Beatles hit the scene. After the Fab Four, every punk kid with a guitar and a chip on his shoulder thought he could have a band. One of the biggest effects the Beatles had on the music scene was opening up the floodgates of possibility; if these four hoodrats from Liverpool could make it big in the music biz, anyone could.

The band that would become Pink Floyd started as just another group of teenagers with dreams of stardom. The group initially orbited around the nucleus of Roger Waters, Richard Wright and Nick Mason. Other people circulated through, but they found their direction when Syd Barrett randomly introduced himself to Mason.

The newly gelled four-piece band went through a great many name changes (some of them pretty ridiculous – my favorites are the Meggadeaths and the Screaming Abdabs) before finally settling on the Tea Set. In 1965 at one of their gigs, there was another band named the Tea Set on the bill, so Syd made up another name on the spot. It was derived from two blues musicians, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. And like that, Pink Floyd was born.

Syd Barrett

In 1967 Pink Floyd’s debut album came out, whimsically titled The Piper At the Gates of Dawn. Syd had taken the role of band leader, a natural position being the lead singer and guitarist, as well as a very out-going personality. But soon thereafter, Syd started to unravel. There are many theories about what was actually wrong with him; some say schizophrenia (a rather easy answer), others say bipolar disorder, and still others Asperger’s. Psychology has developed to 3,000% what it was in the late 60s, though, so they didn’t have language like that back then. But perhaps the biggest contributor to Syd’s insanity was LSD. The drug was extremely poorly understood back then, as were its long-term effects.

Various biographies have been written about both Syd and Pink Floyd, and the stories about Syd’s behavior seem like they can’t be real. “Antics” seems like too mild a word to describe some of the crap he did. Nevertheless, his “antics” proved too much for the band. Roger Waters relates one story of Syd coming into a practice session with a song he had just written called “Have You Got It Yet?” They tried playing it, but in the middle of the first run-thru, Syd made changes to the arrangement. That pattern repeated for long time, each time the band singing the lyric “have you got it yet?” The band eventually realized that they never would “get it,” and that they were instead the victims of a very strange joke Syd was playing.

David Gilmour

Enter David Gilmour. He was a childhood friend of Syd’s, and in 1967 the other three brought him in as a second guitarist. His real purpose was to provide reliable guitar. During shows, Syd often stood there doing absolutely nothing, or he wandered around the stage aimlessly while the rest of the band played. Occasionally, he would join in the song, but there was no way for them to predict what Syd would do. They needed Gilmour to add some surety.

On their way to one gig, the four completely sane members said to each other, “Shall we pick Syd up?” The response was, “Let’s not bother.” It was just easier as a four-piece than a five, or rather a four+crazy.

Syd’s genius, disintegration and departure from the band had a lasting impact on the rest of Pink Floyd’s career. Roger Waters, who became the Floyd’s primary songwriter after Syd’s ousting, spent over a decade contemplating the nature of madness, writing music that had it as its centerpiece. Not only is The Dark Side of the Moon solely about things that drive people to madness, but Floyd’s 1979 album The Wall is a rock opera about one man’s descent into the depths of insanity, brought on by rock and roll stardom.

“Brian Damage” from Dark Side is like the whole of Pink Floyd’s career in miniature. It could be said that all the entire Dark Side album could be summed with this one song. In it, Roger Waters is talking specifically about Syd Barrett, but the application to more general terms of madness is clearer than on any other song. When Roger sings, “the lunatic is on the grass,” he’s singing about Syd. But it’s more than just simple symbolic representation; Roger shares some of the idiosyncratic methods of Syd’s logic, or lack thereof. It’s clear from “Brain Damage” and other songs (as well as the very existence of The Wall) that Roger and Syd shared a sort of kinship – not just musically, but mentally.

Roger Waters

Roger spotted something that’s kinda been gnawing at me, too. Maybe Syd wasn’t really crazy – maybe the rest of us are. The sign says KEEP OFF THE GRASS, but why? What possible consequence could come from stepping on the grass? Isn’t grass meant to be stepped on? Isn’t that its purpose? Yet any logical and “sane” person would obey the sign and keep off the grass. But, according to Roger Waters, “the lunatic” wouldn’t. “The lunatic is ON the grass.” And if Syd were still alive, he’d be one of those “lunatics.” That’s the spirit of punk rock – the spirit of defiance.

I’ve already stated that in order for defiance against something to be good, the something needs to be bad. Grass doesn’t really qualify. But for other things, rock and roll has the right idea. In some cases, defiance is the holiest and most righteous thing you can do.

Next: Dark Side, The Wizard of Oz, and synchronicity.

Anonymous

Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon – 3/1/1973

I’ve talked about personality-based bands before; most of the best bands are based on not just music but who is making that music. The Beatles are an excellent example. So much of their popularity (at least initially) came from who they were as people, not just musicians. The fact that they were four very visible and appealing youngsters gave their fans something visual to latch on to, something that went beyond mere music. The Beatles’ fans felt that they knew them as people, that every time they played one of their records they were inviting friends into their home.

Personality is a distinct advantage, but the flipside is when you don’t have the musical chops to back it up. Countless artists and bands use up their musical cache in one shot, creating the cliché of the One Hit Wonder. OHWs get by on their one hit and make up for the rest in personality. Their flame is bright, but it quickly burns itself out.

And then there are personality machines, the boy bands and girl groups and the like. These musical acts are all personality, with little to no musical merit to them. Only a miniscule portion of the thought and energy put into their creation is spent on the music they perform.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, you have Pink Floyd. If acts like the Spice Girls, One Direction, Ke$ha, and the New Kids On the Block are all personality and no music, then Pink Floyd is the exact opposite – all music and a distinctly absent personality. Granted, they were around before this modern age of musical artist being recognized for how they look just as much as how they sound – we have MTV to thank for that. But the fact is that Pink Floyd are really just four quiet, shy, unobtrusive Englishmen, and much more representative of the typical British citizen than other more flamboyant and radical acts. Where Brits like Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Johnny Rotten explode in a fury of “look at me, look at me,” Pink Floyd is almost anonymous.

That’s not to say there wasn’t a visual element to what they did – quite the opposite, actually. Pink Floyd is one of the pioneers of visual spectacle in rock music. At their live shows, they used to have a huge screen hanging from the roof of the stage on which they would project multi-colored psychedelic abstracts, moving and pulsating like the band itself. And in 1982, they made a feature film to go along with their 1979 concept double album, The Wall.

Pink Floyd’s album covers, though, are probably the most striking way they set themselves apart. Seven of them were designed by Storm Thorgerson, and a few more by Hipgnosis, the studio he heads. Pink Floyd had a very lucrative partnership throughout the 70s until he and Floyd bassist Roger Waters had a falling out. In the early 80s, Roger had a further falling out with his band mates and quit. David Gilmour kept making Floyd records, and Storm came back to design those.

Storm’s work is vivid, unsettling, and a special and unique sort of beautiful. When you look at a Storm picture, it’s like you’re an alien looking quizzically the strange planet called Earth you’ve just arrived at. In many instances, they have subtle yet scathing messages, while others are simple yet difficult to interpret. And Hipgnosis is responsible for one of the most famous covers in all of rock and roll history, and it’s nothing but light passing through a prism.

The cover for Muse’s Black Holes & Revelations, designed by Storm Thorgerson

Those who know of the relationship between Thorgerson and Pink Floyd just assume that he designed the cover art for The Dark Side of the Moon, but actual credit goes to George Hardie, a designer at Hipgnosis. It came out of Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright’s request for something “simple and bold.” The folks at Hipgnosis came up with seven different designs, and the prism one was agreed upon by the band members to be by far the best.

The triangle features into the design of the album in more than just the cover, too. Inside the gatefold is an infrared picture of the Great Pyramids at Giza, designed by Storm and Hipgnosis co-founder Aubrey Powell. The original LP also came with several triangle-themed stickers. I’m not sure what the triangle symbol means, but my guess would be something to do with the triangle’s long association with mysticism and esoteric knowledge.

Next: that geezer was cruisin’ for a bruisin’.