Roger Waters, Philips Arena, November 18, 2010

>> Saturday, November 20, 2010

I have a troubled relationship with The Wall. I'll readily admit that; it's something I think I'd like to elaborate on in a blog entry sometime--I even started one earlier in the week that I wasn't happy with. The shortest version would be that The Wall is an album that was a lifeline that I clung to when I was a teenager--it's not an exaggeration to say that coming home after school, bleak, angry, depressed, miserable and alone, it was cranking up The Wall that kept me from hurting myself in some stupid way; when I got older, though, and grew up, I couldn't help finding much of the sentiment expressed on the album by The Wall's primary creator, Roger Waters, to be hopelessly childish, selfish, narcissistic, juvenile.

Also, The Wall was really a low point for a band I still love and have loved for three decades, now; it was the first Pink Floyd album I ever heard, but it was also an album that I would come to realize marked the band at a creative and personal low, a time when their friendships and professional relationships with each other were breaking down, their marriages and finances falling apart, their creative impulses hitting (pardon the expression) a wall of commercial expectations and interpersonal competitiveness. It's an album that shouldn't have happened at all; the band should have taken a break from each other and from being Pink Floyd after their disastrous In The Flesh tour in 1977, and then maybe they would have figured out how to stay friends and how to work with each other again. Instead, they found themselves pressed to record another album for the cash after their accountants ripped them off, and to meet the various deadlines involved the guys not only had to get back together before they were probably ready, but they didn't really even get back together for it: instead of getting together and jamming and experimenting until they had something cooperative, you'd have one member laying down tracks in France and another mixing things in L.A., and none of them getting to spend any time at home in England or much time using the studio they bought for themselves there because the financial bind they were in forced them to be tax exiles while they were making the record.

And yet The Wall has its powerful moments and I still listen to it sometimes, though not often.

When I heard Waters was touring it this year, the thirtieth anniversary of the album's release, I almost didn't want to go. The album, as I said, is one I have a troubled relationship with, a bit of love and a bit of hate, you know; plus, when Pink Floyd went through an ugly separation in the 1980s, Roger Waters going his way and David Gilmour and Nick Mason--eventually rejoined by keyboardist Rick Wright, who Waters fired during the recording of The Wall--I was a Gilmour partisan, because picking sides is how you know who you are when you're a teenager. But then it also crossed my mind that Floyd keyboardist Rick Wright passed away two years agoWright died two years ago and maybe this is his last tourthis may or may not be Waters' last tour, or last big tour, and he's getting old anyway, and I'd kick myself if I didn't see it.

And I'm glad I saw it. But I don't know how I feel about it.

While this tour is an anniversary tour featuring a performance of the whole album, with a similar conceit and a few updated props and reused animations, Waters isn't actually recreating the 1980-81 concerts and he's revised the concept--but I'll be talking about that some more shortly.

For those unfamiliar: the album, the original '80-'81 live show, and the 1982 film all relay the story of one "Pink," a jaded rock-and-roll superstar who feels alienated from the world. The first set/LP/half of the film flashes back to Pink's childhood--an overprotecting mother, the absence of a father who died at Anzio in WWII, the abusive English school system, a wife who gets sick and tired of Pink's abuse and begins cheating on him, the general loneliness and angriness and angst of being a rock-and-roll superstar; the second LP (it's a double album)/live set/half of the film covers Pink's nervous breakdown, culminating in a hallucination that his concert is a fascist rally, he's a rock-and-roll Fuhrer, and--at very last--that he's on trial for his sins and sentenced to having the wall he's erected between himself and the whole world, "To be exposed before his peers." There are flaws in the whole idea that I don't necessarily want to get into here (though I may touch on some of them), but the most important thing to understand right now is that the whole thing makes exceptionally good theatre (or flawed-but-interesting theatre in the case of the movie, which really is a failure all-in-all, but that's another topic). In the concert versions of the '80s, for instance, stagehands build an actual wall out of cardboard bricks between the band and the audience (the symbolic made actual, natch) and bits of animation related to Pink's decaying mental state--cartoons of his mother or animations related to the fascist rally, for instance--projected onto it; parts of the wall were designed to open out, revealing little sets (e.g. a hotel room about to be trashed by a petulant Pink), and sometimes Roger Waters, in the character of Pink, would be menaced by inflatable puppets of the schoolmaster, Pink's wife, etc., all designed by animator Gerald Scarfe (who, after making himself famous with vicious political cartoons and animations done for Pink Floyd of fucking flowers and decapitated drones, ended up working at Disney for awhile; go figure).

Waters isn't really recreating that show, although this is ostensibly a thirty-year-anniversary tour for that purpose. The conceit is still there: the songs are still about Pink's misery as a rich, famous rockstar, a stage is still built in front of the band as the show progresses, inflatable puppets still appear and disappear to menace and threated, etc. But in terms of message or concept, Waters is focusing on the political more than the personal: the primary purpose of the physical wall has become not so much a symbol of division (and, when you think about it, sort of a "fuck you" to Pink Floyd fans), but an enormous screen for antiwar and anticonsumer messages. Which, in many respects, is a good thing: Waters doesn't seem to be nearly as unhappy as he was thirty years ago, and seems happily less-interested in gazing at his own navel and screaming at it than in using The Wall as a platform for claiming that the world could be a better place if we stopped sending people overseas to kill and die and maybe bought a little less, trusted the government a little less, and loved each other a helluva lot more. For the record and before we go on any further, I'd like to be clear that I wholly approve of that message.

The thing about this is, unfortunately, that I'm not sure The Wall is necessarily the best vehicle for what Waters wants to load onto it at this point. The antiwar message has always been a part of it, true, whether one's talking about the mournful "Goodbye Blue Sky," a song about the WWII bombing of Britain, or the painful cry of "Bring The Boys Back Home," a song whose title is pretty self-explanatory (and is also pretty much the song's only lyric, actually). And those parts of the new show are affecting. But then there's another three-quarters of everything that's about being suffocated by one's mother or abusing one's wife or hallucinating that one is about to be shat upon by a ginormous ass in a judge's wig, and glomming the left-wing message onto these parts of the show ends up being a bit screwy. And sometimes the message even trips over itself, I'm afraid: "Goodbye Blue Sky" is a sad, terrifying song about having bombs dropped on you that effectively sends the message "dropping bombs on people is bad" (lest that message seem painfully self-evident, I'd like to point out that nobody's actually stopped doing it yet so apparently it isn't); the new show has added an animated bit to go along with the song in which bombers drop... corporate logos, religious symbols, currency icons... hmmm; as one sympathetic to--probably, actually, largely in large agreement with--Waters' public views on capitalism and religion, I think I'd probably agree with whatever message those images with that song are trying to send, if only I felt certain I understood what he was trying to say. That we are bombarded with destructive symbolism? That propaganda is as bad as tons of heavy explosives? That the pain caused by Shell Oil lingers on?

It's things like that that don't work. They look great; the concert is full of these beautifully rendered visuals, and projection technology has perhaps finally caught up with the pictures Waters always had in his head when Floyd would design a stage show only to have brightness problems and overheating projectors and melting film and whatnot.

The other thing that I found myself getting a little leery of, especially when the show made use of the infamous leaked video of a journalist being killed by Americans who misidentified him as an armed insurgent, was whether or not the message becomes exploitative of its subject. Waters has been asking people to send him names of fallen soldiers and videos of homecomings for those who have been luckier, and these are displayed on the wall throughout the show and during intermission (e.g. a particularly touching segment of footage projected--it's actually making my eyes water a little to write about it--shows a little girl breaking into tears and practically overturning her desk to get to her daddy when her father, in uniform and just returned from Afghanistan or Iraq, makes what was obviously an unexpected visit to her classroom). Projected identification cards aren't confined to America's most recent wars: some of the names and images are clearly of those who served in past wars, and indeed the first identification card to appear projected in front of the audience is that of Eric Fletcher Waters, Roger Waters' own father, who died in WWII at the Anzio bridgehead (the inspiration for the character Pink's loss).

The question one finds oneself asking, at some point, and that I'm not sure I'm qualified to answer, is whether there's a point at which this shifts from a memorial of those who shouldn't have been killed if human beings were better creatures into becoming popular, mass entertainment? Take that video of the little girl I mentioned in that previous paragraph: it's a beautiful, tear-jerking moment, and it means something to me to have been vicariously a part of it and to be reminded that this is one of the main things we're talking about when we're talking about service and sacrifice to one's country; it's also, though, a personal moment (even in a classroom in front of a teacher and a dozen students) between a child and her daddy, being broadcast for throngs of people, twenty thousand at a time who paid and came to be amused, set to musical accompaniment. Or take that controversial video of the journalist being killed by mistake: sure, there's a sign projected on the screen afterwards saying we won't forget him, but what does that mean and is the audience really cognizant of the fact they're watching somebody die, watching somebody kill, while the music plays?

Things maybe break down again in the concert's final act, Pink's descent into madness and hallucination that he's a fascist and the concert's a rally and then he's on trial and then he's free. The material, lyrically speaking, is dark and cruel and really only acceptable when one understands that the vitriol and loathing--including racist and homophobic ranting at two points--is ironic and the externalization of self-loathing (the character hates others exactly because he hates himself, and when he threatens, "You better run," he means himself).

This is pretty clear on the album and the movie presents the idea fairly well; I can't say how well the original stage show got it across. It doesn't really come across in the current tour, and it doesn't really fit in with the message Waters wants to push now.

I've had problems with the song "Run Like Hell" for a very long time now: I feel uncomfortable watching Pink Floyd close with it on the Pulse DVD or listening to various post-Waters Floyd versions on official live release or bootleg concert recording. Musically, it's an anthem, and musically one understands why Floyd would have closed with it throughout the '94 tour or why it would be a big dramatic moment when Waters performs it. But lyrically? I mean, lyrically, it's fascism and incitement to riot, and of course it's ironic, and artistic and self-loathing fascism; when I say "lyrically, it's fascism," I don't mean Roger Waters and David Gilmour were fascists to write it or bad or wrong in any way to do so. In the context of the record, it actually puts its point across very well.

The problem I have is when the song gets brought into the context of this arena show, when it's in a venue that tends to dwarf irony and depersonalize self-flagellation, when it's a big bass drum keeping time for 20,000 screaming people, some of whom may have the sense to know that you're supposed to find the song appalling and some of whom... well, maybe don't, it's hard to tell.

And I mention this because it's sort of a problem with the last act of The Wall in general in the live context, and maybe even moreso when Waters is stripping the show of much of its drugged-out-psychotic biography elements and replacing them with footage of fallen soldiers and in favor of a "be better humans" sentimentality. When one hears folks in the bathroom line during intermission quoting parts of Pink's last-act homophobic screed with what sounds like approval--or at least without an apparent trace of irony, one wonders if the message that's being sent is actually being received. (And if it isn't: whose fault is that?) When one sees more than a few people in the audience during "Run Like Hell" making the crossed-arms "hammer" gesture used in the film version of The Wall as Pink's version of the fascist "Heil Hitler" gesture, one wonders, "Are they doing that ironically? And if they aren't, what am I doing here?" There were moments at the show, during that last bit of business between Pink's last attempt to cling to reality ("Must The Show Go On?") and final absolute break ("The Trial") when the whole thing seemed a little less like an ironic hallucination being acted out and more like a facsimile of a real and terrible event.

At which point, suddenly, the younger, unhappier Roger Waters' imagining of a rock stadium show as being the modern, postwar equivalent of Hitler's Nuremberg rally seems less like a childish conceit and more like an accurate description of events. And the older, happier Waters who says at the end of these Wall shows--sincerely, I really do believe--that he no longer feels alienated from his audiences and in fact feels a real connection to them, well, he seems like a man who has somehow lost touch with what he's doing, a man vainly subverting his own good intentions.

It doesn't have to be that way: the younger, unhappier Waters was being childish in his conceit when he stood up in front of thousands of people and imagined them, as he once said, cheering wildly while being bombed into bits or pictured the whole affair of a big rock show as being essentially Nazistic. That was Waters projecting his own internal discomfort onto the crowd; I don't think anybody, for instance, feels like a Bruce Springsteen show is going to devolve into a march downtown with waving flags and subsequent Kristallnacht (BYOB, but rags and kerosene will be provided on site). A Springsteen show feels like several thousand people having a really good time, and if a cynic might wonder what a man with Bruce's charisma could do if he possessed the ill-will, the honest observer realizes that Springsteen long ago accepted the thing that Waters maybe has struggled most to accommodate in his own life: that first, foremost, and above any message he wants to slip in while he's doing it, he's a guy who gets paid a pretty good bit of money to entertain people for a few hours at a time. Which may be why, love it or hate it, Springsteen mostly saves the irony and subtlety and dark moments of the human soul for the occasional smaller-venue, mostly-acoustic tours (e.g. the Devils & Dust Tour) while painting in the broadest gestures possible when the E Street Band is playing a really big house. And if an audience misreads "Born In The U.S.A." as chest-thumping patriotism, it's a good bit less frightening than an audience misreading "Waiting For The Worms" as celebration of ethnic cleansing.

Which may or may not be something that was happening at the show. I hope not, but the fact it was hard to tell, the fact that there was this enthusiasm, this rapture filling Philips Arena while Waters strutted the stage in black broken only by an armband, clearly relishing playing the part of an exaggerated, cartooney caricature (he obviously was having fun and not taking the depiction seriously, at least)--the fact that there was this audience reaction that didn't quite seem in keeping with what was supposed to be happening.... Well. One hates to think, but then can't help thinking it.

The question might boil down to: at what point does a parody of something become what it parodies? Not a new or novel question, I know, but there it is. Is there some kind of Poe's Law in play for hatred, for fascism? It bugs me, obviously. Has it occurred to Waters to bug him, I have to wonder?

In all this I find I'm not talking much about the technical merits of the show, which are admirable. The digital projection system they're using for the visuals is fantastic, and the sound was as any show I've seen in a similar venue, if not better; even sitting up in one of the wings, the quadraphonic system being used had nice clarity and definition. The musicianship was just fine, although I find it's surprisingly hard to really evaluate the performance on those merits: the project being one to faithfully recreate an album experience and/or prior concert tour (and, it should be pointed out, to create an experience that's timed to video and special effects cues), the arrangements hew fairly closely to their originals and the musicians largely work to recreate familiar sounds with only occasional room for anything improvisational (solely for comparative purposes and not to rekindle any sort of Waters-versus-Gilmour debate, but c.f. performances of "Another Brick In The Wall (pt. 2)" and/or "Run Like Hell" from Pink Floyd's 1994 tour or even, for that matter, performances of those cuts on prior Roger Waters tours; Floyd's 1994 performances of "Brick" particularly come to mind, however, simply because the arrangements gave Guy Pratt, Tim Renwick and Jon Carin a few bars apiece to jam out, something that didn't seem to happen the other night, although Jon Carin is playing keyboards on this tour, as well). I also feel obligated to say--and I feel bad, writing it, as if I'm being needlessly negative or lingering childhood biases are coming up--that there are points in the show talent seems wasted: tour personnel include the aforementioned Jon Carin (who has toured with both Floyd and Waters since the late 1980s), G.E. Smith (the famous former Saturday Night Live bandleader and frequent touring guitarist for Bob Dylan, among other accomplishments) and Snowy White (the Floyd's backup guitarist on the original In The Flesh and The Wall tours in 1977 and '80-'81 and Waters' main go-to guitar guy since then); hardest to evaluate on this front is a gesture that is somehow simultaneously awesome and disappointing: in every city, Waters enlists the aid of kids from a local school's chorus program to join him onstage for "Another Brick In The Wall (pt. 2)", an awesome and exciting experience and undeniably neat--except they're there to lipsync to the Islington Green School chorus recording from the original album, not to sing "We don't need no education" themselves (disappointing, though one concedes prepping and miking them would be a logistical nightmare if not outright impossible).

But, all-in-all, it is a spectacle and worth the money. I just wish I could give it an unapologetic and unconditional rave, and if I could look at the whole thing solely from the technical side, I would. It's just very hard--too hard--to let the overall effect slide, and the effect was one of awe and excitement gradually slipping into a quiet queasiness high up in my perch in the nosebleed seats. I wanted, indeed, to feel that "warm thrill of confusion and space cadet glow" somewhat mockingly referred to in the very first song on The Wall, "In The Flesh?" In the end, what I felt was far more ambivalent, impressed by the technical spectacle, moved by what I think Waters' motives are, and appalled by what, in the end, I actually think I saw.


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