”What it comes down to for me is this: Will the technologies of communication in our culture, serve to enlighten us and help us to understand one another better, or will they deceive us and keep us apart?” - Roger Waters
Roger Waters' presentation of Pink Floyd's seminal rock opera The Wall
, which I saw at Staples Center in Los Angeles, is nothing short of a total triumph at all levels. More than just an outstanding rock n' roll concert, the addition of story-driven spectacle and anti-authoritarian thematics elevate this experience
far above any other live music experience one is likely to see.
For those unfamiliar with Mr. Waters' work, and for those who need a reminder, The Wall
charts the autobiographical tale of Mr. Waters, whose father dies in WWII, and how a series of subsequent traumas forces him into a self-imposed isolation behind a metaphorical wall. This alienation drives him mad, eventually forcing him to face an internal trial, in which his inner judge tears down his wall.
Heady stuff for a rock album, much less a concert. Yet Mr. Waters succeeds in transcending his personal story, delivering a moving allegory, calling for each of us to tear down the walls we have erected to separate ourselves from the proverbial "Other."
The work presented is utterly faithful to the original, complete with sound effects and background voices familiar to Pink Floyd fans, played with passion as well as technical sophistication. It is also apparent that Mr. Waters' voice is as fit as ever, complete with varying foreign accents, hisses, groans, and whispers.
Those who love the material will be delighted, while discoverers of the work will likely be thunderstruck by the presentation. It's difficult not to be. From the opening fireworks and plane crashing onstage in a ball of fire, Mr. Waters signals that visuals will be as important (possibly more so) than the music itself.
There is no subtlety here, and yet the opera's sledgehammer tactics come off as a strength. For starters, this is a rock concert -- who wants subtlety? Second, it's about the ravages of war and the inner spirit. There's nothing ambiguous about those themes.
Some of the imagery projected onto the massive wall is Gerald Scarfe's familiar animation
from the album cover and Alan Parker's film adaptation
. However, Mr. Waters has added enormous helpings of geopolitics. There are repeated, and emotionally moving, images of both soldiers and civilians killed in the world's string of never-ending conflicts--
There is authoritarian propaganda ("Trust us", "Everything will be fine"); and contemporary television juxtaposed against classic war films. Technology has advanced to the point where these images are able to recede into space behind the wall into swirling vortices, granting the performance space a third dimension that further draws the audience into Mr. Waters' complete vision.
Oh yes, there are the giant puppets.
The pig is back, this time painted black, its red eyes glaring at the audience, fascist propaganda graffiti written all over its body.
The wall is constructed throughout the first act, sealing the band off from the audience for much of the second act. Not to worry -- Mr. Waters in front of the wall after Hey You
The work's most beautiful moments are also its most haunting -- when images of an infinite sortie of B52 bombers drop gravestone markers, corporate logos, and religious symbols
onto the countryside below, and the lyrics of Goodbye Blue Sky
echo through the arena.
But the most compelling and emotionally powerful moment comes during Vera
and Bring the Boys Back Home
. With Waters now encased inside his wall, mourning the loss of his father, an image of Vera Lynn appears on the wall. Over Mr. Waters' plaintive cry:
Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn?
Remember how she said that
We would meet again
Some sunny day?
What has become of you?
Does anybody else here
Feel the way I do?
Films of children being reunited with their fathers, home from Iraq or Afghanistan, are played in the center of the wall.
Some may regard the moment as manipulative, but how can one not feel for Mr. Waters, and all the other children, who have been denied that reunion? That tears should involuntarily come streaming from my eyes at this moment -- at a rock concert! -- should serve as evidence of the power that this moment delivers, when all the elements of sound and image collide to perfection. The dominance of the subsequent segue to Bring The Boys Back Home
, is thus multiplied a hundred-fold. The song's title is scrawled across the entire wall, and Mr. Waters leads the crowd in a heart-rending plea for our soldiers to return safely to their children.
This is where I believe it is possible to see beyond Mr. Waters' self-proclaimed status as "bleeding heart and artist," given to scathing critiques of world leaders, including George W. Bush. Certainly his public statements reveal his left-wing politics, but it is a mistake to dismiss the work based upon the artist's public statements.
as album and concert are, in fact, apolitical and anti-authoritarian. The beauty of the work is its humanism. The macro theme Mr. Waters' impresses upon his audience is that war is unquestionably Hell, and the bell does indeed toll for every single one of us -- regardless of nation, religion, or ideology. One can criticize the anti-war message as ignoring the deeper subtleties of international conflict, but to do so ascribes greater meaning to the material than it intends.
Nor does Mr. Waters offer a safe haven to jihadists or terrorists, as one might expect. The images of the dead are Allied soldiers of past and present, and innocent civilians. During the intermission, in which each brick holds images and short obituaries of the deceased, tribute is paid to those who died in conflicts all over the world -- from the jungles of Colombia, where a civilian visiting an indigenous tribe for educational reasons was murdered by government death squads, to Navy SEALs who died in Afghanistan. Not a single brick nor image is given to a terrorist.
Mr. Waters does not offer praise to any liberal world leaders, even President Obama. The President is glimpsed only once, drowned out in a cacophony of other voices and images that are subsequently smashed into silence prior to Another Brick in the Wall (Part 3).
Indeed, those familiar with Mother
recognize that, following the lyric, "Mother, should I trust the government?", a dissonant minor chord is struck -- the musical equivalent of "No F***ing Way," words which in fact appear in red scrawled handwriting on the wall.
Government, corporate and religious ideologies are all the same to Mr. Waters. They are the enablers of the wars that rob children of their fathers. It need not be more complicated than that. A simplistic truth, perhaps, but a truth nonetheless.
During Bring the Boys Back Home
, the other text to flash on screen are the words of President Eisenhower:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
It is no coincidence that Mr. Waters invokes John Lennon's Imagine
in articulating his hopes for a different world. Mr. Lennon's song is easily dismissed as a hippie's atheistic call for a world of hand-holding and swaying. The deeper meaning, however, asks us to consider the downside that possessions, religion, and nationalism have brought to our species. There are no easy answers in real life, and there are unquestionably just wars to be waged. Mr. Waters merely asks us to consider just how much damage we risk doing before we set out on a path of destruction.
For those interested in seeing this experience first-hand, it is regrettable that Mr. Waters is closing out his domestic tour here in Los Angeles over the next week. Until its inevitable DVD release, I encourage readers to watch his performance of The Wall (Live in Berlin),
filmed just months after the Berlin Wall came down. Fitting enough that it is performed at Potsdamer Platz, where the wall itself stood, but even more fitting (and moving) that members of East German Army appear on stage -- free.