Saturday, December 05, 2015

See Through Wall


While watching the recently-released DVD of Roger Waters The Wall, I couldn’t help but think one thing.  The movie is an over-the-top concert film of the show Waters took on the road from 2010 – 2013.  It is visually stunning and well worth it for any Pink Floyd fan out there.  But … it was so over the top … all I could think of was the recent ISIS mass shooting at The Eagles of Death Metal show at the Bataclan in Paris.  And how if the same thing happened at this concert, everyone would assume the gun fire and carnage was part of the show.

A few other negative things played on my mind, too, in deep retrospect, long after I had first absorbed The Wall in the waning days of 1979.  Thoughts that never would have occurred to me back then, as a teenager, with so much of my life ahead of me.  At the time, my only major gripe with The Wall was the deep anti-education vibe.  “We don’t need no education/we don’t need no thought control” were the key lines in “Another Brick in the Wall.”

I got it.  Smart kid.  Look what Roger Waters is doing, couching his anti-authoritarian message in the most easy-to-grasp terms for a young rock-and-roll audience, take it to their level, in America’s case high school.  He’s an intelligent man assuming a similar level of intelligence in his audience.  That they know they need education but can hopefully discern in their minds when authority is being abused in this situation.

And he was dead wrong!  How many dozens of kids did I see, who hated school, who could have done well there, and later in life, take that song and its message as justification to completely disregard anything school had to offer.  Look … even rich rock stars know education is bullshit.  Waters clearly didn’t have a clue as to how many millions of kids out there didn’t “get it” on that higher level and took the song as an excuse to blow off school.

I liked “dark sarcasm in the classroom”!  A teacher hit me with dark sarcasm, I’d hit back, and he’d smile.  Ah, this kid gets it, he understands how life works.  The few teachers I didn’t like were either phoning in their lesson plans and no longer gave a shit about education, or were abusive in ways that went way beyond something as advanced as “dark sarcasm.”  I suspect Roger Waters did well in school and had more than a few teachers who remember him fondly.  He’s making this up to create a fictional world for his character?

That’s nice, but the problem with The Wall is that so much of it is so clearly tied into the reality of Roger Waters’ life with the themes of rock-star alienation and a man dealing with losing his father in a war.  This movie drives that point home, literally, with Waters taking a road trip, in between concert footage, to visit first a war memorial in France to honor the passing of his grandfather (who died there fighting in the trenches in World War I) and then to Italy, to visit the beach at Anzio where his father died (in World War II).  The footage is beautifully shot and helps to illustrate that major theme in The Wall.

But seeing those scenes put a thought into my mind that I hadn’t considered before, and wouldn’t have before my parents passed away.  I got along fine with both of them, don’t have any overly negative view on how either of them raised me.  Do I remember some negative episodes?  Things I wished they had done differently?  Sure, we all do.  If we have kids, they’re having the exact same conflicting emotions about us.  They’ll always have those emotions.  And if they’ve been raised with any sort of common sense and decency, a long way down that road, when the parents are gone, it will occur to those kids, as adults, that their parents were human, made mistakes, but they had kids for a reason and were ultimately decent people.

Or, they were flaming assholes, and one day, if the son’s a rock star, he writes a song like “Mother.”  Or is this fiction?  Was Roger Waters’ mother as portrayed in The Wall, a smothering presence who ultimately loathed her child?  We know the missing/dead father is a very real thing for Waters, emotionally and physically, but don’t know if the mother is based on reality or just another shade of oppression Waters purposely added to his wall.

Seeing Waters so emotional at these final places his paternal relatives were alive made me wonder: what if both had lived and become flaming assholes as parents of the sort as portrayed in the song “Mother”?  I guess it’s Waters’ point that he never had a chance to find that out, and that’s his tragedy, but would it be a tragedy if they did turn out to be negative forces in his life?  They were just people.  Like you or me.  Like your parents, whether they’re dead or alive.  Like the guy sitting next to you on the bus.  Or the woman the next cubicle over at work.

There’s no romance had they lived.  There would just be the reality of another key person in his life, with the potential or being a nurturing or destroying presence.  Or most likely an uneven mix of both over the course of decades.  You see, I only underline this because as an adult, for decades now, it occurs to me that adults carrying on about how bad their parents were, like busted chainsaws, tend to be assholes.  That’s just simple common sense: bad parents often raise bad kids, filled with bitterness, blame and regret, that they may pass on to their kids should they choose to take that path.  That’s what goes on in my head when I hear a song like “Mother” now.  Great guitar solo, but I know better.  (If you want a more recent take on a similarly troubled adult, check out Eminem’s song “Headlights” about regrets he has over how he portrayed his mother in earlier songs.)

I can assure you, no such issues occurred when I first heard The Wall!  It was Thanksgiving morning, 1979.  I had gone out running, as I did every morning as a teenager.  When I came back, showered and went up to my room, I turned on the radio to listen to some rock and roll, WMMR out of Philadelphia.  The song was “Goodbye Blue Sky.”  I didn’t know it was Pink Floyd for sure, but thought it might be.  I had never heard the song before.  When it ended, another one began.  Then another, each equally stunning to me, just a beautiful flow of music.

The DJ then announced that the station was previewing the new Pink Floyd album The Wall that would be released the following week.  I was stunned, sat there on bed just staring at my bedroom wallpaper, listening to the words and music, knowing I was hearing something that would resonate with me for years, possibly my entire life.  I liked Pink Floyd as much as the next teenage rock kid in the 70’s.  Still do, there’s a reason people still listen to those albums just as intently 40 years later.  But this was one of those deeply emotional musical moments that become a part of me almost as much as real-life experiences with family, friends, etc.

You better believe I bought that album the moment it was placed on the store shelf, in this rare case at the local Boscov department store as they had advertised a better price for the double album than Listening Booth, my home away from home farther down the mall.  Like so many kids, I was floored by the album.  Time hasn’t been as kind to it for me, but I still recognize it as a great album.  Dark Side of the Moon will always be their grand statement.  And I’ve come to believe Animals is a fantastic, under-rated album that isn’t far off that high-water mark.  These days I find The Wall too relentlessly depressing and, as noted above, a little too clich├ęd in terms of the types of neuroses and depression I recognize in other adults who simply missed some key personal revelations.

Which doesn’t mean Waters didn’t hit this thing out of the park with this stage show of The Wall he took on the road.  I kick myself now for missing this at the time because the experience in person must have been stunning, the gigantic graphics and flourishes of art work and color projected on the wall built around the stage.  When pictures of people killed violently, be it in war, terrorist acts, demonstrations, etc., are flashed on the wall, it’s a profound experience with the music illustrating the emotional depth of their passing.

But another thing that spooks me, yet again, based on personal experience, is the audience in this movie.  There are constant shots of audience reactions inserted throughout the movie.  And these are rabid Pink Floyd fans who know (and sing, annoyingly I’m sure) every word to every song, while clutching CD’s and t-shirts to their chests, often with tears in their eyes.  God help me, I love music, have the decades of musical experience to prove it, but I have never felt that fervently about music, as if it was sacred.  These people looked like zealots in a religious ceremony.  I don’t envy that level of faith.  As with all forms of fanaticism, it mildly frightens me.  (Lately, that sort of fanaticism scares the shit out of me, for good and obvious reasons.)

I have a hard time separating that berserk level of fandom from the isolating, inhumane conditions that Waters surrounds his semi-fictional rock star character with in The Wall.  It doesn’t make sense to encourage that level of devotion to a concept one knows is deeply flawed, and in some senses, depraved.  The whole point of The Wall is to refute the level of false devotion and treat people like human beings, nothing more or less.  So why would Waters place himself in this role where he can clearly see that people are projecting the same false, irrational expectations on him?

Then again, I’ve expressed the same skepticism at any live music event, don’t quite get the stunning levels of acquiescence in fans in that environment.  “Getting into” music, I can get behind.  But there are often things going on at concerts that I’ll never understand, expectations of talented musicians that make no sense to me.  I guess so much of this is tied in with being a teenager, and that mythical belief that this is an exalted, sacrosanct time in one’s life, as opposed to another link in the chain.

Rock and roll, or at least rock and roll as we knew it in the 60’s and 70’s, may end up being a memorial to that teenage myth.  To me, it’s just good, often great music, that occasionally transcends its boundaries and becomes something more in one’s life.  That’s a good thing … at times, it’s a great thing.  But, again, first thing I thought about while watching this movie was Bataclan.  And I don’t mean the cool Velvet Underground reunion bootleg that I got.