Tag Archive: WWII


The Ugly Truth

John Keats - if beauty is truth, then you must be a liar...

John Keats – if beauty is truth, then you must be a liar…

John Keats composed the famous lines “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” in his much-anthologized poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Ol’ Johnny is one of the names that even non-literary people know, even if only as “some guy I learned about in college,” mostly because of this poem. It’s famous for a reason, and that’s because it’s true.

I take that back – it’s half true, maybe not even that. An enormous amount of the truth in this world isn’t beautiful at all. Cancer; war; child slavery; sexual slavery; serial killers; planes crashing into skyscrapers. And some of the beautiful things in this world don’t communicate any truth at all. I’m reminded of Dumbledore’s warning to Harry about the Mirror of Erised: “This mirror gives neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away in front of it.”

My mother is constantly puzzled about why I like some music or some movies that are about suffering, hate, pain or other bad facts of the world. While I haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer – even to myself – I think it has to do with my relentless search for truth, regardless of how it makes me feel.  The primary source of truth for me is God, and while that’s my mother’s source as well, God leads us down different paths that often lead to different truths. Not opposed truths, mind you; just as a house divided against itself cannot stand (thanks Abe), truth divided against itself isn’t really truth at all. But some of the nuggets of truth that I discover are ones my mother is just not privy to, and vice versa.

Joy Division is one of those places I find an experience that communicates real, unflinching truth. Notice I didn’t say that truth is communicated directly from the band; it’s not. I doubt Ian Curtis knew or cared whether he was communicating truth. But his lyrics are honest – about how he felt, how he perceived things, and how things affected him. To a properly discerning mind, such honesty will always communicate truth.

And it just so happens that Joy Division’s particular flavor of truth wouldn’t be at all palatable to my mother, but it is to me. Maybe this is because I’ve gotten a little taste of death. I’ve faced the reality of shifting my existence from one phase to another, and I’ve faced the pain in that transition. Joy Division never appealed to me before I got cancer. But after my diagnosis, I gained an understanding about both this world and eternity, and suddenly there was much more truth available than before. Strange as it may seem, some of that truth lay within Joy Division’s music.

“So what is that truth?” I hear you asking. I wish I could explain it in one sentence, a pithy phrase or aphorism that people so often mistake for “wisdom.” But this truth can’t be transferred with words only, not even from a writer with my considerable but ultimately inadequate skill. But I can tell you this: it won’t make you feel good. It might even bum you out. But despite that, it has the power to make you a better person.

I don’t have a pithy phrase, but I do have a song that captures Joy Division’s essence and entire musical ethos in a mere 6 minutes and 10 seconds. “Decades” contains all the sadness, weight and depth of meaning that Ian Curtis was ever trying to tell the world. “Decades” is about being brought to the absolute brink of darkness, or “knock[ing] on the doors of Hell’s darker chamber,” and the evacuation of personhood that causes. It’s comparable to “The Hollow Men,” by T.S. Eliot, which is about the same thing. The “young men” in “Decades” have been forced into deep, dank places where they’ve had their humanity torn to shreds. The most immediate application of this theme is lads returning home after a war – in Britain, that would most likely be WWII. My own interpretation involves being introduced to death, as I was. When you come back from that, you’re changed, even if you can’t pinpoint exactly how.

But to really understand the truth Joy Division communicates, you need to actually listen to “Decades” – preferably hundreds of times over 5 to 10 years like I did. The real truth is in the music, the emotion it invokes, and the cosmic experience it sparks. And I would posit that ALL the best music is like this.

Joy Division’s career was incredibly short. They formed in 1976 (under the name Warsaw), their first album was released in 1979, and Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980. Closer and the single “Love Will Tear Us Apart” were released posthumously, and the rest of the band then reinvented themselves as New Order. At first glance this seems tragic, mired in Ian’s unrealized potential. But being the optimist I am, I think that Joy Division’s destiny involved everything that happened to them and they did what they were supposed to do. And they’re still doing it; so many bands simply would not exist were it not for Joy Division. But the most important thing they did was communicate truth. Ugly truth it may be, but truth’s nature is not affected by our labeling of it with “beautiful” or “ugly.” It’s just truth.

Next: Hell IS a bad place be.

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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. 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.