Some Mad Bugger’s Wall: Part Two

Roger Waters came back to London as part of his The Wall tour. I’ve already written about just how awesome this album is as a live concert. However, I never came good on my desire to write about why I felt it was awesome as a live concert. What about it just made me go ‘whoa’ and convinced me that seeing it a second time was not an option but a necessity. Last weekend presented me with the opportunity to make good on that unfulfilled desire. So here it is: some of what I feel makes The Wall (live) awesome. This is slightly different as to why I feel that The Wall (the album) is awesome. To write about the album would be a post (or more) in its own right. Instead here is my deconstruction of Mr Waters’ live show and how it does two things that, for me at least, makes it an experience. First, the combination audio and visual (a Pink Floyd specialty) and second, it confronts you with the need to think, act, make a decision and participate in the events that are happening. In other words it is deliberate music. It is not just music and lyrics for the sake of music and lyrics. It is something with a substance that, on a superficial level you might miss (which I’m sure plenty at Wembley did) but once you know there is more-than-meets-the-eye, it only makes the whole thing that much better.

At the heart of The Wall is the story of Pink: his life, the wall he builds, the psychosis he fall into (Dictator Pink) and his self-inflicted trial. Pink is the foundation stone on which The Wall is built. As the audience you see the story predominately from his perspective and you are invited to sympathise, empathise or judge him accordingly. As an album, The Wall and Pink’s story has no fixed start, no fixed ending, it runs in a loop: ‘Isn’t this where…we came in?’ joining the beginning of record (‘…we came in?’) to the end of record (‘Isn’t this where…’) and so beginning the whole story again. It is a circle of pain, anger, disillusionment, isolation with the hope of escape. To an extent this is true of the live show as well; however live shows seem to work better if they are linear so there is a sense of a beginning and an ending. While The Wall (live) echoes with the cyclical nature of the album, it feels much more linear – something with a start and an end. The wall is built and then taken down. This makes it much more accessible as a story to the audience.

 The Wall: The School Teacher

In The Wall (live), Roger Waters extends the concept of wall beyond just Pink. The wall becomes something that can exclude and include everyone – not just Roger as Pink/Dictator Pink, but also the audience. The impact of this cannot be underestimated as an audience member. As a listener of the album in the comfort of your home you are a passive observer of Pink’s story. There is no compulsion to actively respond to his story. As an audience member there is no passivity – you are experiencing the construction of the wall along with Pink as it is being built. You are part of his psychosis and, willing or not, you are forced to switch from passive to active when it comes to the final construction of the wall and the emergence of Dictator Pink. The only choice is how you react: do you help build it, choose a side or look to tear it down.

The Wall (live) turns the wall into a shared object. It is more than just Pink’s prison – it is made communal and forced upon the audience. It looks at the human response to build walls (or at least start a collection of bricks – albeit physical or metaphorical) and whether people chose to leave the bricks scattered around like a lego-on-the-floor-parent-trap or turn them into a wall. These walls are built to keep out all the bad we don’t want to acknowledge, deal with or accept responsibility for our part. While it feels like these walls can protect us as individuals, they ultimately divide and isolate us as people. If anything this is the lesson that Pink learns. Once the wall is created and he descends into Dictator Pink, he is confronted with the fact that the wall has only succeeded in isolating himself and the necessity to place himself on trial for his actions.

The presence of the physical impact of the wall on stage similarly cannot be underestimated: it overshadows the band, stage and audience. Combined with the impact it has on Pink’s life, the wall almost turns it into a character in its own right. The Wall (with a capital ‘W’) becomes a physical manifestation of Pink’s tortured state of mind which then entraps the audience along with him.

More than a physical boundary, the Wall acts as a mirror on which the audience must look upon. This is where the projected images and animations really come into their own. In essence, it is these that make The Wall (live) an experience. You are confronted with the Wall being completed (trapping you in) and also the images that are projected on it. The series of file cards and images of civilians and soldiers killed in conflict at the start of the show ask the audience: do you use these to isolate yourself from humanity (take no part in it and build your own wall) or include yourself with humanity? The images of children being reunited with their fathers returning from service, the images of children suffering because of conflict, the images of children somehow still being children despite being surrounded by conflict – all of these can be bricks in your wall as well as bricks in the children’s own walls.

The Wall: File Cards

In including images of the outer world into Pink’s Wall, Roger Waters has shown the very human response to either stand up, take notice and be a part of what is happening (and therefore potentially take a risk) and the very human response to not face what is happening and to bury one’s head in the sand. In other words, to build a wall and isolate themselves from it all: to plug oneself in and only worry about the mediocre and mundane because it is just easier. The image of sheep wearing headphones is much more than amusing, or even more than a dig at certain business, it is actually represents one of the less than humane side of humanity. The one that allows or ignores all that is terrible because one is happy, plugged and isolated in their own world. The only problem with that is that at some stage one will be forced to become unplugged.

All the while, Pink’s story is being told. The bricks are being added to the complete his (and now your) wall: his Father, the School Teacher, his Mother and his Wife. The Wall is completed and in the end it is too much for Pink. His reality shatters into a confused kaleidoscope of colour during Comfortably Numb before it reforms itself into the dictatorship stage for the emergence of Dictator Pink.

 The Wall: Dictator Pink

Inside Dictator Pink’s wall is the audience. This is where, as the audience, you no longer have the option of being passive. Like it or not you are a part of Dictator Pink’s distorted reality. However, by now it almost doesn’t matter because as the audience you been with Roger as Pink since the beginning of his descent to madness and now that you’ve arrived there it seems almost inevitable that you’d end up there. You’ve arrived with Pink to his logical conclusion and the reality he has built for himself along with the Wall. The only problem is that it is a conclusion of a mad man and, as with all mad men, the rationale behind is by its very nature irrational and so you have no hope of coming to a truly logical conclusion. However, are most audience members even aware (or care) that they are part of Dictator Pink’s regime? Probably not. However, stuck inside the wall with Dictator Pink, that is what they are: co-habitants of dictatorship – but does it even really matter if you’re freedom is curtailed under a mad man if you’re having a good time?

The Trial and final destruction of the wall is both Pink’s hope and fear. This is the most human of fears and hopes: removing something that separates you, ‘protects’ you from others, is to run the risk or being judged by others. This is what Pink ultimately submits himself to and the audience along with him. The images and animations that were used during the show flash back passed the audience while the verdict is being given, reminding the audience of just what Pink (and by extension themselves) have been judged on. In the end the verdict is that the wall is to be torn down. Even the Dictator’s flying pig meets its end. As the Wall comes down it frees the audience from the object that trapped them in with Pink/Dictator Pink. It is a poignant demonstration that all Walls can come down if that is the will of those who have created them or those who are trapped by them.

The Wall: the Wall comes down

Grandma

Saturday afternoon I sitting on the beach at Hastings with my bare feet sinking delightfully into pebbles washed smooth by the sea. The call of gulls and cries of children resonated up and down the beach. There were children swimming in the water, children splashing in the water and children riding boards and boats in the water. Next to me a gull tagged A7UL called loudly. I considered calling back to it but figured I looked odd enough without adding further oddity to my appearance.

I had been silently reflecting on moments, places and people past. Some of the strongest, most vivid, memories of my childhood centred around or in ‘Grandma’s House’ – a comfortably sized bach at Otaki Beach which sat near the bank of one of the streams that flowed into the sea. I moved a number of times growing up and regardless of wherever I ended up, Grandma’s House was always constant. Grandma’s House and its occupant never changed.

I have memories of playing cricket with my brother in the backyard, of climbing the bank that rose on one side of the property (at one stage it had a hammock on the summit which seemed a very exotic thing to me as a child) and from there looking out over a field to the dunes and the sea. I have memories of playing beach cricket with my cousins at Christmas and of summer days in general spent at Grandma’s House.

It was a somewhat mystical place as a small child. To get there involved a proper journey (45 minutes in a car being an eternity for a child). Children’s stories will attest – journeys are always exciting, something unexpected and exciting might happen! In reality something exciting rarely happened but that hardly ever mattered. Once there it was like another world. There was a beach! There was garage full of toys! Well, a garage with bicycles! I think most of the grandchildren learnt to ride using these bikes and back then the bicycle was exciting enough for me.

Then there was Grandma herself. Grandparents are something special to grandchildren and I reckon my Grandma was a pretty awesome lady. Physically she was neither near or there, she was Grandma-sized which was a unique height and shape to her. Her hair, which I only remember as being shades of silver and grey, was always neat and often pinned off her face. She would sit neatly, hands folded in her lap. She could cook, sew and embroider. Grandma’s food was something special, if not unique. Below is a photo of me as a two year old mimicking how Grandma bent down to look at what was being cooked in the oven. I adored her and as I grew older I also grew to respect her. Not just respect her because she was a grandma, but respect her for who Grandma was as a person.

Grandma was born in 1911. She lived through World War 1, the Great Depression, World War 2 and remembered all three events. She could recall the names of people decades after she had met them. At age 90 she could still read the phone book. She raised four boys in sometimes trying circumstances. She was an iron fist in a velvet glove and she could wind up others something wicked – watching her in action was at times like reading a particularly witty passage by Jane Austen.

Last year I went back to New Zealand to celebrate her 100th birthday. On the day of her party she walked into a hall with nearly 100 friends and family gathered to celebrate her birthday. She came in neatly dressed, wearing a small heel (I can hardly remember her not wearing a heel) and using only a Zimmer frame for assistance. That moment is one of my enduring memories of her.

When I moved from New Zealand to the United Kingdom I brought with me the possibility of three nightmares coming true while I was in the UK. One of these nightmares was Grandma passing away.

I fully acknowledged that it was an irrational nightmare. Realistically, scientifically, I knew that the event was more than a possibility. But it was Grandma and the irrefutable fact was that my heart ruled my head in this case. Grandma had always been there and it felt like she would always be there. She was the oldest living being I knew; it seemed unbelievable that Death could ever catch her now.

Grandma passed away in February this year. I met it with a deep sense of loss. Her passing initiated a very intense period of introspection and at times a feeling of suffocating isolation. It’s no coincidence that my posts become none existent from February till May. I wasn’t ‘feeling’ writing and I don’t like to post just for the sake of posting something.

During this period I learnt the importance of being there to say goodbye when someone passes away. I learnt this painfully because I haven’t been there to say goodbye. As a result her passing doesn’t yet feel very real. When I can next get back to New Zealand, I’ll visit her grave and say goodbye. If I’m lucky my conscious and subconscious mind might let it feel real and allow me to say goodbye earlier.  

The smell of the sea instantly evokes Otaki, the House and Grandma. It’s an involuntary sensory reaction. The smell, place and person are irrevocably linked for me.

Saturday August 18 would have been Grandma’s 101st birthday. I knew in the weeks leading up to that date that I wanted to be somewhere, anywhere but London. I wanted to be somewhere new where I was the only person that I knew upon entering the town. I wanted to be near the coast and smell the sea. I wanted that time to reflect and maybe have the opportunity to heal a little bit. In the end fortune smiled favourably upon me and Saturday afternoon found me on a beach writing the draft of this post, discretely wiping away the tears while I wrote. To the casual observer I might have looked a little bit mad but I didn’t care. I was trying, in my own little way, to honour how important Grandma had been in my life. I was also healing a little bit and that felt wonderful.

Grandma celebrating her 100th birthday.