For Christmas, Marcie (because she’s awesome) got me tickets to see Roger Waters perform The Wall. I was a huge Pink Floyd fan as a teenager, but I mostly listen to other things now. I figured the concert would be fun in a nostalgic, kitschy kind of way.
WRONG. After opening with some glorious pyrotechnics, the show immediately brought its antiwar sentiments to bear on Iraq and Afghanistan, mingling photo/ bios of dead soldiers from all over the 20th century, and anchoring them to Waters’ personal experience of losing his father. The bios were projected on individual bricks of the fragmentary wall blocking parts of the stage. Every dead soldier is a brick in the wall. This is not The Wall of my teen years.
I knew The Wall carried an antiwar message, but I always thought of it as secondary to the story of the alienated rock star. Maybe I got that idea from the movie. But when the live show got to Mother, accompanied by an ominous, animated CCTV camera, it hit me.* The antiwar and alienation story lines are not separate components, they are one narrative. The over-intrusive government is an overprotective mother. The culture of brutal, wounded self-interest is a vicious schoolmaster. A family’s loss on the battlefield sets up a malevolent cycle, ultimately expressed in Pink’s fascist incarnation. The horrors of our mass-production/mass-destruction society divide us, isolate us, and give rise to mad visions.
How did I never see this before? Okay, part of it is my own tendency, especially when I was younger, to luxuriate in the mystery of complex artworks without bothering to examine them. But I also think Roger Waters is more of a performance artist than a musician. He’s in his element on the concert stage. The extravagant props and video projections make for a stunning spectacle, but also illuminate his content. The same was true of Radio KAOS, a mediocre album that had a much stronger impact as a concert (the first one I ever saw, now that I think about it).
It would take too long to catalog all the powerful, deeply affecting moments of the show, but I will mention one that surprised me. Not because I didn’t see it coming, but because I did see it coming and it still shook me up. It was the moment, halfway through the show, when the wall that’s been gradually raised across the stage is complete except for one brick in the middle. Roger is back there singing Goodbye Cruel World, with a sad beam of light leaking out of the hole. At the end of the song he quietly places the final brick. This wall where every bad thing is one of its bricks seems like it should be a tired, overly broad metaphor, but it’s not. Rather, it has the direct simplicity of a good political cartoon. That sealing up of the last gap carried a dreadful sense of finality. Suddenly all humanity was lost, replaced by a monstrous, featureless slab.
The meaning of The Wall may have changed over the years. Waters seems more comfortable in his own skin these days, and may have deliberately de-emphasized the personal depression. Still, he didn’t have to reach very far to place the performance squarely in the here-and-now.
Now I’ll have to check out the video for Live in Berlin.
*The phrase “nanny state” came to mind, but it’s not very accurate in this context. That’s another post.