Concert review: Roger Waters rebuilds "The Wall"

September 21, 2010

 
The wall during intermission at the United Center on Monday (excuse the crappy cell-phone pix).

In the community of super-geek Pink Floyd fans, of which I have been a lifelong member, I have had three decades of bragging rights for having been among the select few in only three cities (New York, London, and Los Angeles) who saw the group perform its epic double album "The Wall" onstage in its entirety upon its release in 1980.

Three decades ago last February, my mom and step-dad, bless their indulgent hearts, drove me and a high-school buddy 2‚½ hours from Jersey City, New Jersey, to Uniondale, New York -- in rush-hour traffic across Manhattan, no less! -- to deposit us at the Nassau Coliseum. They went to see the movie "Fatso" with Dom DeLuise nearby, then picked us up three hours later, our minds well and truly blown.

Yeah, it was pretty amazing. As promised, the band built a giant wall that spanned and loomed over the arena, and (not really any need for a spoiler alert here, is there?), tore it down at the end of the show. In between, the masters of rock-as-theater showed all manner of twisted cartoon films on the edifice in progress; paraded out giant balloons of the key characters (teacher, mother, and evil wife), as well as their old trademark pig; crashed a model Spitfire into the wall amid a hail of pyrotechnics (one element sadly missing from the current show), and, most impressively, performed "Comfortably Numb" with David Gilmour soloing atop the giant barrier, backlit by a stunningly bright white spot that effectively cast his shadow over the entire floor of the stadium.

You couldn't help but be impressed. But even at 16, the budding rock critic in me was well aware of the problems with the music and the spectacle. Thematically, it all seemed like a slightly jumbled and confused mishmash of ideas that the band's auteur, Roger Waters, had handled much more effectively in earlier classics, be it the anti-war message ("Corporal Clegg"), the self-flagellating examinations of the corrupting power of rock stardom ("Wish You Were Here"), the attacks on the sheepish mentality of the rock audience ("Animals"), or the consideration of the many forces that conspire to drive us to insanity ("The Dark Side of the Moon").


Hey, teacher: Leave those kids alone!

From the rewrite of acoustic/idyllic Floyd a la "More" in "Mother," to the update of the rampaging metal Floyd of "The Nile Song" in "Run Like Hell," it seemed as if we had heard all of the best musical ideas before, too, and that they just were being recycled here, often in simpler form, and with a more straightforward, dare I say disco beat. There were plenty of passages of faux-Broadway filler, too, and that whole sub-Brechtian cabaret trip of "The Trial" was a stone cold drag, and utter torture to endure if you weren't being distracted by the visual shenanigans.

My biggest beef, however, was that this was more theater than rock, a balance Pink Floyd always had been careful to hit in equal proportions in the past. The tour before "The Wall," the band had come out and played all of "Animals"; taken a break; returned and played all of "Wish You Were Here," and then encored with the best parts of "The Dark Side of the Moon." That, dear reader, pretty much is as good as arena rock gets. I didn't see that jaunt -- I was a mere 12 when that went down -- and I knew the 1980 tour wouldn't be like that. But once that massive cardboard or Styrofoam wall came tumbling down, it would have been nice to hear one of my favorite bands ever play something else besides that sad little coda, "Outside the Wall" (which also happens to be the first thing you hear in the show and on album -- the beginning is the end, the end is the beginning, and it's all just one giant musical Möbius strip, don't you know).

Then as now, with the 67-year-old Waters undertaking the 30th anniversary tour of his magnum opus, kicking off the first of four nights at the United Center on Monday, and hinting that this might be his last concert jaunt ever, the show doesn't include a note of music that wasn't on the album. For a top ticket price of $250 plus egregious Ticketmaster service fees, what you get is 115 minutes of music, a 20-minute intermission, and, of course, that wall (73 meters wide and 11 meters tall, per the measurements in Roger's native Merry Ol').


When pigs fly

This might not bother you, given that Waters' last tour a few years back featured a performance of all of "The Dark Side of the Moon" -- and, on the bright side, the current excursion doesn't include anything from his last two decades of dreadful solo albums, either. The point is just that the show is "The Wall" and the wall is the show, and either you think that's worth a week's salary, or you don't.

I kind of dug the whiz-bang. But for me, it was partly nostalgia--and of course, I did not pay to get in.

Aside from the sad irony of such an arch critic of capitalism gleefully climbing in bed with Ticketmaster/Live Nation, three other aspects of "The Wall 2010" rubbed me wrong. First were the painstaking efforts of Waters' touring band mates-for-hire to slavishly, creepily imitate every subtle nuance of the parts as recorded by Gilmour, drummer Nick Mason, and keyboardist Rick Wright. If you're not going to finally bury the hatchet with your old chums and bring them on board (save for Wright, who died in 2008), why hire ringers and force them to duplicate every single note the other guys played? Clearly, they once gave you something you loved and still need.

Two, "The Wall" is a poor vehicle to incorporate the complicated morass of present-day politics. Sure, there always was a nugget of "war is bad" moralizing to the album and stage show, but it was couched in the personal tragedy of poor Pink (his dad was shot down in the Battle of Britain, dooming junior to a wretched life as a famous and fabulously wealthy rock star). We could have connected the rousing crescendos of "Bring the Boys Back Home" to the senseless losses of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan without the pictures of the dead soldiers and suffering children exploitatively flashed on the wall throughout the show, thank you very much.

Finally, there is the odd disconnect between Waters and many of his fans, which really is the most coherent of the several strands of story in "The Wall." It was jarring in 1980 to see some people cheering "Comfortably Numb" and bragging that they wanted to get that way, too, and as quick as possible, when of course Waters is singing about the need to tune in, not the desirability of dropping out. It was sad to see people screaming along that "we don't need no education," when he thinks the exact opposite, and is opposed only to the "thought control," not the notion of higher ed. And worst of all were the concertgoers who returned the crossed fists salutes that Pink as Fascist Rock Star gives in an effort to turn the concert experience into something more like the Nuremberg Rally. In that guise, Waters wants us to curse him, not cheer him, but the same blind acceptance prevails 30 years later.

Is Waters sneering at the people who've made him rich, even as he gives them exactly what they want one more time? Isn't that exactly what the pathetic Pink, the anti-hero of "The Wall," would do?

As I said, the beginning is the end, and the end is the beginning.


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