5/28/2012

Roger Waters: Adding New Bricks to an Old Wall

Roger Waters, the British bassist, vocalist, and songwriter who made himself widely known as one of the main figures in Pink Floyd, brought his current production of The Wall to the Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon, on May 22, 2012. It was, without any question whatsoever, an utterly extraordinary (and at times, quite overwhelming) evening of deeply forceful music, inventively augmented by a sophisticated array of striking visuals and grandly rendered by a huge crew of musicians, singers, and stagehands on a staggering scale that, one presumes, was intended to stun a defenseless audience into a collective state of awestruck speechlessness. An observer can only wonder (and shudder) at the formidable amount of money that must be required to mount such an enormous production and take it on the road.

The musical activities of Pink Floyd began in the middle of the 1960s, when Roger Waters, a student of architecture at Regent Street Polytechnic in London, joined with Syd Barrett, Rick Wright, and Nick Mason. After Pink Floyd recorded three singles ("Arnold Layne," "See Emily Play," and "Apples and Oranges") and an album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, they had to go forward without the special talents of Syd Barrett (their guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter), whose unusual mind had become irreparably addled by his frequent use of LSD and other drugs. With David Gilmour filling the space left by Syd Barrett's departure, and Roger Waters assuming the duties of primary songwriter, Pink Floyd went on to release many outstanding albums, including Meddle (1971), The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), Wish You Were Here (1975), Animals (1977), and, of course, The Wall (1979), which also served as the inspiration for a film in 1982.

Although The Wall contained a collection of dark songs that constituted a harshly mordant whole, giving anguished expression to bitter themes of fear, loneliness, despair, conformity, madness, and resistance, it was warmly received by the public, along with its attendant single, "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2." After the release of The Final Cut in 1983, however, Roger Waters had a falling-out with his fellow musicians and angrily went his own way. (David Gilmour, Rick Wright, and Nick Mason later chose to move onward with the name of Pink Floyd, recording and performing without Roger Waters, thereby incurring his considerable wrath.) After releasing several albums of his own music during the 1980s and 1990s, and composing an opera, Ça Ira, Roger Waters, now nearing his seventies, has returned to the enduring masterpiece that he created three decades ago as a member of Pink Floyd, performing The Wall at sizable venues around the world.

In the years since it was first heard as a double album, the music of The Wall has stood as one of Pink Floyd's preeminent offerings, but that music tended to be of almost secondary interest at the Rose Garden, serving chiefly to enhance the effect of what was being seen. Nevertheless, the music was skillfully performed, with Snowy White (who played with Pink Floyd when The Wall went on tour in 1980), Dave Kilminster, and G. E. Smith providing sharp moments with their guitars and generally maintaining the high standard set by David Gilmour. The keyboards (Jon Carin, Harry Waters) and drums (Graham Broad) also rose to the challenge, and Roger Waters was solid and distinct, as always, on his Fender bass. Lead vocals on several songs came from Robbie Wyckoff, and backup vocals came from Jon Joyce, Pat Lennon, Mark Lennon, and Kipp Lennon. For "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2," a cohort of local children was brought onstage to sing the immortal lines, "We don't need no education, we don't need no thought control."

As the story unfolded from one song to another during the first half of the performance, with "Mother" and "Goodbye Blue Sky" being particularly impressive, a round screen above the stage featured animation by Gerald Scarfe (from the film of The Wall), while downstage, the actual wall grew higher and higher, brick by brick by brick, until the musicians were completely hidden from sight. When more songs were performed during the second half, with "Hey You," "Comfortably Numb," and "Run Like Hell" standing out, the wall itself was used as a screen, upon which a relentless outpouring of catchwords and pictures, carefully designed to be provocative and representing the varied evils that oppress mankind in the 21st century (war, fascism, totalitarianism, capitalism, religion, corporations, technology, consumerism) was projected. Among the other props were an airplane that swooped down from the ceiling, a tall puppet of a malicious teacher hanging to one side of the stage, a giant pig floating overhead, and searchlights shining into the audience. At the end of the evening, the wall came crashing down. (It must have been quite something when seen from the front row.)

In 1972, at Winterland in San Francisco, I had the opportunity to see Pink Floyd perform The Dark Side of The Moon in its entirety, months before the LP itself was released. At that time, Roger Waters mostly kept to himself onstage, looking unapproachable and rarely acknowledging the audience that was gathered in front of him. In 2012, Roger Waters is no longer the shy and remote character that he used to be. In view of the forthright manner in which he sought to engage the audience during his performance in Portland, playing directly to his fans and repeatedly using vigorous gestures to incite them, he appears to have willingly embraced the same elements of unruliness that famously prompted him (after having a bad experience with an overly excited crowd in 1977) to create The Wall as a means of giving voice to his own alienation. In any case, it certainly seems that Roger Waters has become much less aloof with age.

I have seen a number of unforgettable performances in my lifetime, by many of the top musicians in rock'n'roll (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, David Bowie, Yes, Genesis, and, as I mentioned above, Pink Floyd), but in terms of boldness of ambition and audacity of intention, I have never seen anything that could be compared to the experience of seeing Roger Waters and his performance of The Wall. More than thirty years after the ingenious framework of The Wall was first conceived in his fertile imagination, it still has undeniable appeal as a meaningful, and entertaining, response to the unhappy verities of the human condition. By adding new bricks to an old wall, Roger Waters clearly is attempting, in his own words, "to illuminate our current predicament." The degree to which he has succeeded in achieving that commendable aim is open to debate, but by any measure or reckoning, The Wall continues to be a worthy undertaking.