Syd Barrett & Pink Floyd
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Friday, March 12, 2010

Come In Roger Waters, Your Time Is Up







Come In Roger Waters, Your Time Is Up


Dave DiMartino, Creem, 5-6/80

Part I: PINK FLOYD Before The Wall

It’s Miami, sometime in the mid-60s. I don’t remember exactly when. Been pumping my little red bicycle home from St. Lawrence Catholic School, a plain-looking concrete mixture of Jesus and scrawny nuns, little white penguins who still pop up swinging metal rulers in my Binky-Brownest dreams. I’m in a hurry because--get this--I don’t want to miss The Pat Boone Show. Lately Pat’s been straying from his cream-cheese talk show format and popping up with some surprisingly hellbound programming. Last week, H.P. Lovecraft. Before that, Blue Cheer. This week, today at 4:30, Pink Floyd, whose dopey, psychedelic album cover has been staring up at me for weeks now at the nearest Discount Records. BUY ME, it said, I’M BETTER THAN VANILLA FUDGE. And I turn on the color TV and watch a Pink Floyd I can’t remember now. Did I like what I saw? Can’t remember, really, but I know I probably went back to Discount Records in a few days to buy Anthem Of The Sun or Vincebus Eruptum by two bands who were GOING TO HELL FOR SURE and really knew how to play guitar.

Two years later, when money was less of a problem and I was taking chances on bands that would probably never play at the Sunday Afternoon Love-In at Greynolds Park, I saw a Pink Floyd album and bought that, less because I was “hip” than because it had a pink sticker on it that said SPECIAL BUY! CONTAINS TWO COMPLETE LPs and money really wasn’t that less of a problem. And when I took Ummagumma home I played it over and over again, thinking about that quaint little Pop Band I’d seen on Pat Boone and how it couldn’t be the same band because this music sounded like what music must sound like in outer space, this Pink Floyd sang about Setting Controls For The Heart Of The Sun and Saucersful of Secrets. I liked it so much that two friends and I formed a band and called ourselves The Intergalactic Space Force and we tried to sound like Pink Floyd and Soft Machine and Terry Riley and Captain Beefheart and even Sun Ra, whose Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra Vol. 2 had an even neater cover than Ummagumma and sounded just like we thought it would. And the only time we played that I can still remember ended up with nine-tenths of our senior class walking out while the other tenth threw tomatoes and bagels at us. Pink Floyd wouldn’t have liked Miami either.

Inevitably, Pink Floyd changed. Atom Heart Mother was stuffy, loaded with what I would come to regard as self-indulgence but at the time thought mere eccentricity, a “funny” album with cows on the cover and song titles like “Breast Milky” and “Funky Dung.” They’d made the big switch from outer to inner space, and even though “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast” showed the same fascination with windowpane lysergia as Pink Floyd Past, it never really gelled, never really approached “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict” despite the equally cute title.

And with Relics, a reissue capitalizing on whatever small popularity Pink Floyd had managed, the Pop Band I’d seen on Pat Boone was reintroduced. At the time it seemed not so much a step backwards as a step sideways, a temporary detour from the depressingly orchestral pastures of Atom Heart and a welcome side-road into new territory where Syd Barrett made an essential difference. “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play” were as sharp as British pop could come: image-laden, character-filled, and as obviously psychedelic as Jeff Beck’s guitar-blast intro to “Over, Under Sideways, Down.” And with even more melody; like the best Who, like the Nazz and their “Forget All About It,” it hinted at a sophistication that bands like Cream and Big Brother were unknowingly seeking to bury behind their (at the time) novel walls of noise. There wasn’t much that could touch the Floyd/Barrett combination at its best; one band, Tomorrow, came close, but even their reissued album is as forgotten as the original was.

And where’s Syd Barrett? His post-loonie Madcap Laughs and Barrett give some indication that he and his old band were heading in opposite minimalist vs. maximalist directions, and of course his legend lives on. The few bootlegs circulating occasionally feature his “Scream Thy Last Scream, Old Woman With A Casket,” and snobbish Floydophiles nod knowingly at each other, mumbling their if-onlies while dismissing the current Floyd as pale shadows of their former selves. Which is, of course, ridiculous.

That Roger Waters was coming into his own was never more evident on his and Ron Geesin’s Music From The Body, a film soundtrack with novelty farting/burping noises and much more. Waters’ scattered compositions, usually performed with an acoustic guitar backing, touched on themes he’d be dwelling on in much greater detail years later: the cycle of life, from infant to middle age and beyond; the rape of the landscape by industry; nervous anxiety; the futility of life, and other self-directed topics that would, in later years, be dismissed as irrelevant by bands more concerned about fascist regimes and white riots.

When Meddle arrived in early 1972, Pink Floyd were a better band--guitarist David Gilmour had especially improved, finally perfecting a style so obviously his own that Chris Spedding later parodized it in his “Guitar Jamboree.” But as listenable as Meddle was, only “One Of These Days,” with its frenetically sexual pulsings, broke any new ground. “Echoes,” the side-long showpiece on Side Two, attempted to merge Ummagumma’s spaciness with Atom Heart Mother’s deluded grandeur and only ended up being boring and much too long.

And when Obscured By Clouds followed, it seemed a holding action, an incomplete work crammed with pleasant filler and not much else. More, which I’d gone back and bought after Ummagumma, was simply a better soundtrack, the one I still listen to years later. I thought Obscured By Clouds was a boring record by a band who shouldn’t have been boring.

With Dark Side Of The Moon a whole new generation of Pink Floyd fans emerged, intrigued by “Money” and thereby force-fed what are probably Roger Waters’ gloomiest lyrics ever. It all made great pop music, of course, and the irony of it--the LP’s success, the blind/bland acceptance of the keynote theme, life sucks and will make you crazy--makes Dark Side a great record on many levels, including sociological ones.

The multi-platinum success of Dark Side was all Pink Floyd needed to go off the deep end, taking two years to come up with the barely acceptable Wish You Were Here, a “tribute” to Syd Barrett that couldn’t conceal the fact that Roger Waters had nothing new to say. Melodies were weaker, and the LP’s only good track, “Welcome To The Machine,” was about life in the music biz, possibly the lamest, least interesting lyrical concept there is. Problems were further compounded by the release of Animals, an ultimately tedious follow-up featuring the same songs the band had been performing in concerts two years previously: “Dogs” was “You Gotta Be Crazy,” “Sheep” was “Raving and Drooling.” Sometimes I’d get drunk and play the part of the album where the dogs barked just to see what my dog would do; otherwise, I left it on the shelf. It’s probably the least interesting Pink Floyd album around.

With two-year gaps between albums and Waters’ inspiration at an apparent all-time low, solo LPs by other band members were inevitabilities. Richard Wright, whose keyboards were such an integral part of Ummagumma and whose “Paint Box” was one of Relics’ best, released Wet Dream, a nondescript, occasionally pleasant LP that’s nothing very special. David Gilmour produced the better album, featuring the perfect encapsulation of the Waters/Floyd psychedelic existentialism all in one song title, Gilmour’s “I Can’t Breathe Anymore.”

And two years after Animals, The Wall cast things in an entirely different light.

Part II: LIVE AND ALL PINK On The Inside

Was it coincidence that the earliest pictures of Johnny Rotten had the pimply pre-Lydon scowling in a shirt emblazoned: I HATE PINK FLOYD? Or that a Rockpile audience, told to cheer on cue while engineers recorded it for the new Pink Floyd album, decided it would be more appropriate to boo instead? That a band viewed years earlier as purveyors of the avant-garde could actually be dismissed as Boring Old Farts?

The schism that separated the Yesses, Genesises and Emerson, Lake and Palmers of the early 70s from the upcoming Pistols, Clash, Stranglers and Buzzcocks of the later 70s was widening, almost laughably so, and where Pink Floyd stood was obvious. They were the aging dinosaurs Robert Fripp would later refer to, the last of the Big Bands, bloated and floating aimlessly from tax shelter to tax shelter. It was said by all but a few: Pink Floyd No Longer Mattered. Music made in garages sounded better than music made in mansions and critic and fan alike were beginning to realize it.

And when The Wall finally emerged, it had all the trappings of yet another Bloated Rock Opera, a dreaded “concept album” at the worst possible time--when the only right concept was no concept and there wasn’t even room for argument. Critics ridiculed it, as they’d done with both Wish You Were Here and Animals previously, but this time with noticeably more venom, as if they’d seen Johnny Rotten’s shirt, too, but hadn’t been able to use his logic. It had been a long time since Animals. They could sink their teeth into The Wall.

Further ammunition was provided by Pink Floyd’s decision to “tour” the United States in true sniff-sniff fashion. Los Angeles and New York, that was it. No more than nine or ten shows total, because, we were told, “costs were prohibitive.” And where did this leave Wall fans of Miami, of Seattle, of Boogie, Iowa? Home, most likely, Wishing They Were There.

I wished I was. To me, The Wall’s brutal critical reception was as unjustified as it was inevitable, the snide work of people who didn’t like it before they even heard it. Wish You Were Here was lame, Animals lamer, but The Wall was Pink Floyd’s first show of real effort since Dark Side Of The Moon stilted their career. It deserved a chance and a fair listen, two things people weren’t willing to give it. The Wall was mocked for its universality of theme, its “non-relevance” to the British Working Class who instead should--and it’s this unspoken “should” that’s most galling--be listening to songs about dwindling career opportunities, English civil wars.

In fact, The Wall’s universality of theme is exactly what’s keeping it on top of the charts and selling it in Miami, Seattle and Boogie, Iowa. And while the principle of the lowest common denominator is being singled out as Reason One for The Wall’s massive success, there’s considerably more involved, the least of which is art. The level of art may be questionable--but whether we’re talking about the art of writing good music or the art of selling albums, we’re still talking about art. And art, clichés aside, is what it’s all about.

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Detroit being the equivalent of Boogie, Iowa as far as Pink Floyd are concerned, this writer and Mark Westcott, local CBS promotion whiz and college buddy/roommate, fly eastward. With considerable irony--he and I last saw Pink Floyd together at Detroit’s Cobo Hall in 1973--we note that this time we’re having fun on “professional” levels, he for CBS, me (semi-professionally?) for CREEM. Pink Floyd’s chosen East Coast venue is Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum, thus this professional jaunt is confined to a one-day stay at the ignoble Holiday Inn in Hempstead, a few miles from the Coliseum. Passing it en route to the hotel we notice a crowd already building outside--hippies, ex-hippies, and down-jacketed preppies side-by-side, offering wads of cash to ticket scalpers who’ve managed to luck out. Tickets have been unavailable for weeks.

The hotel lobby is brimming with a similar crowd; from Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and the entire Eastern Seaboard, ticket-seekers and ticket-holders bump around in a marijuana stupor, here for The Event and unwilling to leave until they become a part of it. Hotel rooms obtained by one of a party of 12 slobbering fans soon house 20; a better financial arrangement, someone from Boston assures me on the elevator. Do I have a spare ticket? Outside, after a low-key exploration of Long Island culture, Mark and I bring our New York artifacts (Wise potato chips, Rolling Rock beer) back to our hotel rooms and consume them. We are good tourists.

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An unsettlingly passive crowd converges around the Coliseum tonight, the only disruption a fist-fight we soon walk around (“You were LOOKIN’ AT ME FUNNY, MAN!” the only words I catch) on our way inside. The average Pink Floyd fan? Young, very young, maybe with an older brother or sister who brought Dark Side Of The Moon home from college. Scattered longhairs aimlessly stroll around looking for seats, drugs and someone they know who can actually testify later that they were in fact there at the Concert Event Of The Year. Longhairs that come in two distinct categories: hippies that never un-hipped and, more interesting, young hippies who never realized they had another alternative to the fashions and lifestyles of their older brothers and sisters. In short: it could have been Cobo Hall, Detroit, 1973. I wouldn’t have noticed the difference.

Onstage were the beginnings of the wall. I’d heard about it from the L.A. reports: while the band performs, roadie/stagehands construct the wall, brick by mammoth brick, until the band is completely hidden. Obscured By Bricks. Yeah.

And the show begins, even before people realize it. An announcer appears, drones “Welcome to the show” and more and eventually reads a “telegram” from President Carter. That it all sounds like “EXP” from Axis: Bold As Love makes it all the more ironic; psychedelia dies hard. And there onstage are Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason and Rick Wright. Pink Floyd. And Andy Bown, Snowy White, Willie Wilson and Peter Woods. Almost Pink Floyd. Just helping out.

“So you thought you might like to go to the show,” sings Roger Waters.

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And then comes The Wall, of course, now making much more sense in this context. Huge marionettes in the shape of the Oppressors: the School Teacher, the Mother, the Whorish Female, the Judge and Tribunal. And the films, projected on the continually-growing wall, sophisticated animation depicting the same thing. The Wall Illustrated, With Quadraphonic Sound, soon to be a major motion picture, all here now for you at the Nassau Coliseum. Five continuous showings.

And the thing of it is--it’s all impressive as hell, it really is. The school children sing “We don’t need no education” from speaker to speaker to speaker, behind us, at our right, our left. An airplane flies from the back of the Coliseum, over the audience, crashing over the wall. It is ROCK AS SPECTACLE and, as such, deserves to be appreciated as spectacle. Certainly it’s the antithesis of everything immediate about rock’n’roll--poor Roger Waters even wears headphones through the entire performance because he has to. Tapes are rolling, sound effects must be synchronized with the music the eight musicians onstage are playing. The tapes don’t accompany Pink Floyd; Pink Floyd accompany the tapes. But then, there were never any claims put forth that immediacy mattered much here, that Roger Waters was aiming for anything but tightly-controlled, spectacular theatre. And on that level, The Wall in concert is a success, an extraordinary one.

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But there is something wrong here, something about this show in Nassau Coliseum that doesn’t mesh. Images, emotional undercurrents that seem vaguely unhealthy, not quite right. The Wall and what Roger Waters meant by it isn’t the same Wall the audience has come to see, hear, and take drugs while watching. “We don’t need no education” bursts alternately from the quadraphonic speakers and the crowd cheers on, obviously in agreement. “Mother do you think they’ll try to break my balls?” Same cheers. “I have become comfortably numb.” BIG cheers. “I’ve got a silver spoon on a chain” and “There’s one smoking a joint” bring the biggest cheers of all, and Roger Waters’ message, as the crowd at the Nassau Coliseum interprets it, is TAKE LOTS OF DRUGS, KIDS, BECAUSE EVERYTHING SUCKS OUT THERE ANYWAY.

And there’s more. The overprotective mother of The Wall’s first few minutes, the bubble-headed (“oooh--do you wanna take a bath?!?” she coos) groupie; the almost repulsive imagery of Gerald Scarfe’s animation--they all share such blatantly misogynist overtones it’s frightening. Castration anxiety, oozing vaginas that lure and snip--is this Roger Waters’ message? And if it is, why is this message one that elicits the strongest audience reaction? Roger Waters’ second message, as the crowd at the Nassau Coliseum interprets it: WOMEN ARE EITHER STUPID OR OUT FOR YOUR BALLS, GUYS.

That the latter portion of the performance has Waters in almost Hitlerian dress is heavily ironic, as, or course, is most of The Wall. Waters was never one for life-affirming messages--Dark Side’s lobotomy climax proved that years ago--but there’s an element of dark sarcasm running through The Wall that at least partially alleviates its overbearing negativity. Unfortunately, few have picked up on it, preferring instead to think that hey, life really does suck, and isn’t ol’ Roger tellin’ it the way it is? And if I were Waters, it would disturb me greatly knowing that I was at all responsible for imposing--or at least confirming--such negativity on a young and old impressionable audience. To sing “I have become comfortably numb” and be cheered for those exact words would make me wince.

But if you want to talk about walls, talk about this: Roger Waters is a multi-millionaire who never has to see anybody he doesn’t want to; his net worth has quadrupled since The Wall has been lodging comfortably numb at the top of the charts; between shows at Long Island he flew by helicopter to Connecticut to “get away from it all”; he totally ignored the press this time around due to The Wall’s [lines lost; typesetter error--Ed.] can go right back home and fly kites for the rest of his life without ever having to work another day. Roger Waters and Syd Barrett both seem to have learned the same lesson, and I wonder who’s happier. I already know who’s richer.

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At the show’s end, the huge white wall is demolished, falling into bits and chunks that cover the stage floor. Waters and the rest of the band move in procession, one by one, across the stage. Waters, the piper at the gates of dawn, leads with his clarinet; others follow. The band files offstage, the Coliseum lights turn on, and people leave, buying beautiful $5 programs here and there to prove later to their friends that see, I was there, I even have a program. And envious friends will glance through the elegant four-color program while someone else suggests playing The Wall one more time.

“Play ‘Comfortably Numb’,” they’ll say. “I like that best.”


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