#87: Pink Floyd, "The Wall" (1979)

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Pink Floyd’s “tour” for The Wall wasn’t really a tour. Not in the traditional sense—a week in L.A., then five months off, followed by six nights in London, then six more months off, then a week in West Germany, then three months off, followed by five more nights in London. Of course, “touring” in the traditional sense wasn’t particularly practical for the show, which wasn’t so much a concert as an intricately staged theatrical production. Every night, the crew build a wall across the front of the stage, obscuring the band from the audience. Every night, giant inflatable puppets dangled and danced across the stage, berating the show’s main character, subtly named Pink. Every night, animation flickered, first, on good old Mr. Screen in the center of the stage, and then, eventually, across the massive, blank face of the wall itself, looming over the audience, taunting them.

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At the end of the show’s first “act,” which, of course, coincided with the end of the double LP’s first disc, Roger Waters would sing the brief “Goodbye Cruel World” from behind the wall, visible through only the last remaining hole in the monstrous, white façade. At the end of the song each night, he’d slide the last brick into place with his own two hands, completing his isolation, finalizing his and the audience’s alienation from each other, a process that maybe Waters felt more profoundly than those watching, but which, nonetheless, was one of the driving forces for the album/show/movie’s creation. Though it all reads a bit forced, a bit on the nose, I’ve always imagined this final moment of the first act to be haunting to witness—to hear the understated, short song performed by Waters as the last hints of light shining out through the wall are snuffed out. Watch—this…

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…become this

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The Wall grew out of an incident at a show in Canada at the end of the Animals tour. Floyd fans know what I’m talking about—when Roger Waters, disgusted at what he had become, disgusted by the nature of stadium tours, and disgusted at the alienation he felt from fellow humans in the crowd and the sense that those fellow humans felt alienated from him (as if he imagined a wall between band and crowd) spit in a front-row fan’s face. In retrospect, Waters reflected that what alarmed him most about the act wasn’t the disgust he felt at the fan or the circumstances, but the thing that allowed him to do it—the fact that he had been unwittingly buying into the idea that he actually was better than the blank faces in the audience. That Rogers recognized this ugly thing inside himself and wrote an album partially about it was maybe his one good impulse leading into The Wall.

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This is an essay or story about Pink Floyd’s The Wall. But it’s also going to be a story about losing you unexpectedly. I don’t know why I keep dragging you into these essays/stories/whatever they are about Pink Floyd albums. You deserve better. Was Tangerine Dream somewhere on this Rolling Stone list? You loved them. But maybe loving them isn’t enough. The reason I keep dragging you into these albums is because they’re all about loss, about absence. Because Syd Barrett was in Pink Floyd, and then he lost his mind and wasn’t in Pink Floyd, and then he was barely “there” at all, whatever or wherever “there” is or was. And also, and perhaps more pertinent to The Wall, because Roger Waters’ father died in World War II and Waters never got over the loss. From the moment the Barrett-less Floyd figured out what it was and who they were until the moment Waters and the rest of the Floyd split ways, these were two of the key obsessions that drove the band. Or rather, drove Waters, who was the key architect, as far as words and themes went, through the band’s beloved run of ‘70s albums. So blame Roger Waters for why I keep dragging you into these albums about loss and absence. Blame him for why I can’t listen to Pink Floyd without missing you.

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But blame me, too. Because I’m the one who keeps reaching into memory and dragging your rotting skin and dead bones into this band’s nonsense. If Waters couldn’t let go of his father and Barrett, then I’m equally responsible for not being able to let go of you.

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By the time Waters was working on The Wall, though, I can’t help but think that he had let Barrett go, at least partially. He hadn’t been able to move beyond the loss of his father, but he had come to terms with losing Syd. But still, Syd was part of The Wall’s DNA. On the album, particularly at the start of the second LP, Barrett is evoked on “Hey You,” with the line, “And the worms ate into his brain,” and more concretely in moments from “Nobody Home,” when Waters sings, as the song’s speaker, “I have the obligatory Hendrix perm,” a reference to Syd when he was still a member of the band, and “I’ve got elastic bands keeping my shoes on,” which references Barrett’s post-Floyd life when he had lost the mental acuity to lace up his boots. In the film, we see Syd references primarily when the Pink Floyd character shaves his eyebrows, head, and chest—as Barrett did in the mid-seventies. Upon finishing the gruesome task—bleeding nipples and all—the Pink Floyd character, played by Bob Geldoff, presses his body against a frosted pane of glass, becomes, for a moment, the bleeding ghost of Syd Barrett. So sure, Barrett was still a concern by The Wall, and sure, part of that concern was missing him, was the sorrow that came from his fall and from his absence. But, too, more in line with how Syd’s specter was used on Dark Side of the Moon, here, the real importance of Syd is cautionary, is emblematic of Waters’s—whose own life accounts for most of the material making up the The Wall’s first half, and most of the film—fears of becoming so engrossed in his obsessions with loss, with grief, with self, that he loses his shit completely, winds up, himself, caught behind a wall of his own making or on the dark side of the moon.

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Because I can’t let go. Not that my “not letting go” means anything because nothing can ever change the fact that you’re gone. And even if I someday learn how or why you died, that won’t change anything. And so I write these pieces about Pink Floyd albums and I send them to Brad for editing, and he sends them back for me to make the changes and then he puts them up on the site. Meanwhile, I continue writing a new novel that’s all about how it feels to have lost you and not know or understand how or why. That new book, it’s not too far along, only about thirty-some pages and 7,000 words. I’ve got pages of notes and sketched out scenes in a notebook, I just need to find the time to sit down with it, find the courage to confront the unsettled feelings I still have about your passing. Normally, around this point in the essay, or whatever it is we’re going to call this, I’d start thinking about bringing in some specific detail about you, but I don’t think I’m going to do that this time, because this piece isn’t about your unexpected death, it’s about me and my stupid inability to deal with it, even three years later.

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(But, and this needs to be said, who even cares about me or my grief or what I have to say. One of the most consistently applied and apt criticisms of The Wall is that it was self-indulgent, self-important, egotistic, solipsistic—the album was a ninety minute sad-sack, wealthy-white-guy pity party. Oh, your mom and wife were mean to you Roger? Fuck off. Your dad died in the war fighting against one of the greatest evils humanity has ever known and so you’re going to cry about war? Fuck off, Roger. Likewise, who gives a shit about my grief? So one of my closest friends died and I don’t know how or why? Fuck off, Brubaker. The president of our country is stoking the flames of xenophobia, promising to build his own wall to enforce the isolation that The Wall, in one of its few powerful thematic elements railed against, is separating children from parents, is indulging the whims of sexists, homophobes, white supremacists, and every other deplorable with a nostalgic lust to MAGA in a way that it A was never really G to begin with. In the film version of The Wall, during the fascist rally that plays out during “In the Flesh,” the Pink Floyd character—jack-booted, head-shaved, surrounded by fellow skinheads, his isolation behind the wall and his fragile white male ego having eroded to the point that he becomes the fascist, nationalistic ideal, even if it’s only a hallucination—singles out different marginalized groups to have them beaten and removed. “Are there any queers in the theater tonight? / Get them up against the wall” Waters sings on the album, and Geldoff screeches on film. “There’s one in the spotlight, he don’t look right to me / Get him up against the wall.” And the crowd obliges. The song goes on to call out an audience member who “looks Jewish” (which is particularly unsettling considering Waters’ own issues with anti-Semitism in recent years), another identified as a “coon” and then two more, one “smoking a joint” and “another with spots”—all of whom are promptly accosted and removed from the rally by a combination of Pink’s “Hammer Guard” and audience members. The film is designed to show the horror of such fascism. The idea grew out of Waters’s feelings about the unhealthy, fascist relationship between rock star and audience at concerts, but I suspect, too, Waters’s own male fragility, his deep-seated anger makes the song “In the Flesh” read as a sort of threat—a sort of proto-gamergate juvenile lashing out, a way of saying, “If we emasculate our men, of course they’re going to become Nazi trash.” (Oddly, throughout the entirety of the film, Alan Parker’s direction makes the Pink Floyd character far less sympathetic, and reveals the raw ugliness and immaturity at the core of the character’s being—perhaps that’s why Waters was no big fan of the film in the end). But I digress—“In the Flesh,” in any of its iterations, was never intended to be Waters’s way of saying “we should all be fascist Nazi pricks.” The intent was always to say this is bad/wrong/ugly/deplorable/horrific/hellish—and somehow, now, here in the United States, we’ve arrived at a point where Trump rallies, minus the “Hammer Squad” uniforms and arm bands, aren’t all that different from what we hear/see during “In the Flesh.” So who fucking cares what I have to say about grief? About loss?  Who cares what I have to say at all? I don’t want to be like Roger Waters, railing at my own personal demons at the expense of anyone and everything else. I don’t want to be another white male writer, absorbed in his own privilege, navel-gazing, grappling with personal things in his art in the hopes that other people grappling with similar things may connect on some primal, emotional level, and thinking that maybe that’s enough?)

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(It’s probably not enough.)

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(But I don’t know how to be or do anything else.)

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I still don’t know why you died. I still don’t know how you died. I mentioned in another piece that one person told me you died of an accidental drug overdose, and another person told me it was suicide. I don’t think I believed either of those for a long time, because I couldn’t imagine you hurting yourself, and I’d never known you to use drugs. But now, I wonder how well I knew you at all. You lived in London for the last decade of our friendship. You could have easily started doing drugs, though I still don’t think I buy that. Which means, by default, if one of the two causes of death I was given must be the actual cause, then…

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When I first bought The Wall on CD (I used money from umpiring, bought it from the CD Connection near the Dayton Mall), “Goodbye Cruel World” made me uncomfortable. Even at the tender age of thirteen, I knew the phrase “Goodbye Cruel World” to be one tied to the idea of suicide, the kind of thing one might hear flippantly spouted on a TV sitcom when a character is joking about committing suicide. Sure, in The Wall, the phrase is used more as a way of saying goodbye before closing one’s self off to the world, but it still feels heavier than that, more permanent.

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In Alan Parker’s film version of The Wall, for most of the time that “Goodbye Cruel World” plays, the Pink Floyd character is sitting in a chair, not-quite-smoking a cigarette, the cylinder of ash dangling off the end almost as long as the cigarette before it was lit. He is already behind the wall, hiding. I get that. I get that—the hiding. But we can’t hide forever, and maybe that’s the one other idea in The Wall that doesn’t come across as utterly acidic and juvenile—we need each other.

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┻┳| •.•) I’m here for you,  I said. Fat fucking
┳┻|⊂ノ lot of good that did anyone.
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But there’s that Waters-esque self-indulgence, again. You deserve better than to be a brick in my wall. I deserve better than to be a brick in my own wall. Fuck bricks and fuck walls. In the final shot of the film adaptation of The Wall, a small boy, wandering in the remnants of Pink Floyd’s exploded wall, picks up a bottle full of what appears to be gasoline, a rag sticking out of the top—a Molotov cocktail. Meanwhile, Waters can be heard singing the final verse of “Outside the Wall”—“…after all it's not easy / Banging your heart against some mad bugger's wall.” The kid discards the rag and sniffs at the bottle’s contents before pouring those contents out. The frame freezes on the kid and the credits roll.  It’s a weird, beautiful moment at the end of a weird, ugly movie. That end is maybe the most right Waters or Parker or anyone involved with the project got anything. The crowd chants, “Tear down the wall,” and the wall comes down, and then maybe something can be redeemed, then maybe there can be some kind of peace.

—James Brubaker