Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Remote in Reach: THE WALL (1979)

Believe it or not, there was a time when I, too, despised all stoners. It was 1980-83 in central Jersey; nothing personal to Eisenhower Middle School -- a few evil schoolmasters aside -- and nothing personal to the stoner kids, who were all nice enough in their brusque way. Just too loud and too comfortable in their dirty denim and unkempt hair for my 13 year old's new-kid-on-the-block super genius morbid acuteness of the senses. I kept waiting for one of them to bully me, but only one little rat bastard named Matt Muniz ever bothered, and even he only a handful of times and generally only picking on one of my weaker friends while I trembled. But he was on my bus and on the way to school I'd hear him and his buddies in the back singing: "we don't need no education / we don't need no thought control," and I'd whisper to myself "yes you do, Matt Muniz." And so, without knowing much about them, I hated Pink Floyd, and burnouts of every description. Contempt prior to investigation -- it can strike anyone. 

A mere five years later in college I loved Floyd like the rest, but The Wall record was still a problem area due to these past associations--and that included the film, which I naturally painted in the same contemptuous colors as I painted Matt Muniz (and likely myself for not stepping into help my abused fellow nerds). Especially grating was the "We don't need no education" song, which I would skip even if it wasn't my record player, much to my fellow freshmen stoner's consternation.

It's absurd to think I would be dumb enough to waste my time disliking a song because it triggered mental associations with slack-jawed Jersey thugs, all long gone, yet the pain, if that's the word, lingered on. I eventually owned every single Floyd album, except The Wall. And of course, I preferred Syd Barrett-era Floyd more than late era, blah blah zzzzzzz.

In 1997, though, the film--directed by Alan Parker and written by Roger Waters--found its way to me via a big VH1 premiere marathon. It was on 24 hours a day and I'd done recently done a voiceover for a Curve Perfume ad ("Curve for men, Curve for women. New from Liz Claiborne"--that was ME!) which VH1 and MTV were playing--also around the clock-- during almost every break, so I watched THE WALL over and over, in a drunken haze of self-satisfaction, taking a heroic swig from my 1.75 Ten High bourbon bottle every time the Curve commercial played. In the process, THE WALL became mine,  associated with my big Curve perfume glory and whiskey exaltation. Matt Muniz association, adieu!

And now, long after the last of the Curve royalty checks has gone, I finally understand: THE WALL, for all its midnight cult cache, turns out to be one of the few movies works noticeably better with commercials, and as a relic of past association rather than 'future memory'. The Ads and station breaks help metatextualize the film's repetitive jumble of semi-autobiographical 'rock star in mental decline' vignettes, and youthful associations make one more forgiving of its glum, emotionally-arrested self-absorption.  The Wall benefits from the double-meta layering a commercial break provides. We now have a commercial movie about a man alienated by commercial society, interrupted by commercials for the new Mitsubishi Gallant. Recuperation-meets-itself on the avenue and they both disappear in a Situationist explosion... of flavor. 

If this WALL is stoner-worthy today, it's only because of its animated sequences, which are so psychedelic they go all the way back to disturbing. flowers morphing into iron hammers, flowers fields into battle-scarred war zones, marching hammers, screaming mouths, all caked in working class LSD-spiked political oppression Orwellian fascist critique as only the Brits can do it. Scenes are strung together in associative and movement/color-related fashion, stretching and collapsing time and space but stuck in a schizophrenic dissociative thought loops. There's no real arc of a narrative beyond the run of the mill nervous breakdown imagery (perhaps reflecting Syd Barrett's descent to too-much-acid insanity-something that sounds badass but is traumatizing and dispiriting). So we see avalanches of rioting kids, crashing gates to the stadium, burning cars, etc. over and over, all seemingly in some giant soundstage. and the wandering of a laddie this way and that way through the train station, envying the kids whose soldier dads do come home, over and over; the grotesque obese working class mother looming down on us like a carnival attraction; Pink as older and a rock star convalescing in his hotel room, a vacuum cleaner whirring in the hallway outside launching him into a tantrum; Pink ignoring his wife, then getting furious and surprised when she leaves him; Pink ignoring a sexy groupie in his hotel room to watch The Dam Busters instead; Pink ignoring other people etc. His entourage trying to get him in good enough shape to take the stage, etc. No one ever laughs or has a good time, unless it's gluttonously, ala the mom having tea and crumpets, or Bob Hoskins as the Cristal-sippin' manager (if this were a musical version of DEMENTIA, and it kind of is, Hoskins would be the Bruno Ve Sota --it's that kind of deal The music (jazz and theremin-like Marni Nixon vocalizing) might be better in Dementia, but that's a personal taste kind of thing). 

It's common lore paring Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz (1939), right? Never tried it but I hear its a blast. Also, it's clear how that started: a bunch of stoners watching OZ with the sound off and the album playing and catching a presumably random series of time/theme coincidences. It's proof Floyd is weird enough it goes well in any meta mash-up. And The Wall is a mash-up art waiting to happen.

That's why, then, that last night I was flipping the channel to/from The Wall and World War Two documentary, one similar (same war at least) to  The Dam Busters (Pink's favorite), possibly even using some of the same archival footage. So during the commercial breaks between aged Allied veterans talking plainly and humbly about the gore and mass slaughter of D-Day on the Military Channel, I flipped to The Wall on VH1. These old dudes in this D-Day documentary were just grateful to be alive and to have been spared--and then---commercial for a "catheter that hurts less." What a reward! I toggle back over to VH1, and there's old Geldoff smashing the telly because he's too famous and fucked-up and nobody loves him. 

I wanted to wire the ghost of Winston Churchill to rise up and kick him in the bum.

But the animation sequences indicate that, despite the rampant solipsism, the movie kicks it most acidly. As with "true" psychedelic art, the animation captures the way sensory perception, metaphor, dream symbolism, fantasy, and the horror of mortality all collapse into a single unbearably chthonic flower grinding up on its stamen and eating/fucking/killing anything it can reach.

Medical science might dismiss this kind of close reading of non-temporal reality as mere hallucination, but it's the other way around. If we can see the apple decaying in the pantry, or bursting with health fresh from the tree, see it breathing in the sunlight, aren't we, in fact, seeing more clearly than those with the illusion that is a finite, unchanging object? If we see flakes of skin and waves of electromagnetic energy rippling around our face and hands, are we 'hallucinating' or seeing what normal people screen out because it's not necessary for us to survive day-by-day? When the blinders are off due to whatever madness or drug, we see that is the perception of organic matter as inert is the hallucination --everything is rising, decaying, rising again with every breath and death. It's the sense of "permanence" and completeness--from second to second--that's the illusion. But without it, without being able to just say 'okay, that's an apple in my buddy's hand, do I want an apple, too? no - okay, move on, no reason to waste seconds being awed by its beauty' we'd be just sitting there bug-eyed all the time, like an infant looking out the window, and never get anything done. The blinders help us plow from goal to goal and meal to meal , like the mother with her crumpets, and the dimwit groupies with their hair and nails.

Another thing the film gets definitely right is the whole confusing "warm thrill of confusion / that space cadet glow" that comes from being all fucked-up in a giant sea of fucked-up people at some packed, fucked-up rock show, where you can sense the violence seething in the hormonal ebb and flow of the turned-on fucked-up crowd. One of the very first scenes of THE WALL is a bunch of stampeding, rioting fans plunging into the darkness from a broken chained-up door. Rioting - is there any more depressing example of mammalian 'spooked herd' behavior?

I know because I was in two riots, or rather was direct witness. Before the Curve commercial, after Matt Muniz, right in between there, 1987-8, I witnessed, and was almost part of, a truly horrible-to-behold-while-on-acid mass stampede of ticketless Grateful Dead fans roaring up the side entrance ramp of a West Virginia amphitheater. I was in the head of the charge to begin, part of a "who's got my miracle ticket?" posse of revelers. Unlike them, though, I didn't give a shit about getting in... I was just there for the drugs. "There's only one old lady taking tickets at Gate seven!" noted my friend when he returned from scoping it out, seeing if he could somehow sneak in. My whole ticketless broke-ass posse took off at once, me following. But as we went from a walk to a run toward that gate, everything intensified and became riot strength---stampeding (you could feel the asphalt vibrating like horses hoofs). I found myself walking off to the side of the ramp going up, not wanting to be part of it. If I hadn't left right then, I would have been trampled, thrown against the glass, arrested, or forced to listen to yet another 20 minute medley of "Aiko Aiko / Not Fade Away." 

My heightened fear of violence and general lack of interest in seeing the Dead trumped my fear of being alone that night so I was able to witness--in full on acid-just-kickin'-in hyper-real lysergic intensity--a huge explosion of violence as the crowd smashed through the gate, glass breaking, security guards and cops chasing and clubbing bloody hippy faces on the upper decks; cops grabbing kids by their tie-dyes as they tried to jump back into the crowd below; cops grabbing their long dreads in a balled up fist; screaming and yelling by everyone about everything; cops with clubs and the heavy sound of bodies smacking into pavement, blood, and then... just as quickly, it was all over and forgotten.

I couldn't believe it. Even the cops with hand-cuffed hippies in tow seemed to just go back to laughing and standing around. One busted kid had a broken nose which was why all the blood was all over his shirt, so no worries, he's fine, or so some kid explained in passing me as he slunk back down the ramp, just a nose broken --no big deal.

But I was by then super high on a lot of acid, and the violence I'd just witnessed had electrified a part of my brain usually unplugged... for a reason. It went deep into my psychic tissues and stayed there, twisting like a bloody animated nerve - my hippie flower within was pulled out by an ugly metal flying eagle... Goodbye, blue sky.

I imagine old Roger Waters had plenty of similar altered state traumas while touring with the Floyd, and probably--as I did that day--found his faith in his fellow man forever shattered like plexiglass partitions as suburban teens bumrushed the gates like the jackbooted yobbos of old. Roger, I've seen them too! The ugly mass of crank-fed Matt Munizes, chomping at the bit with potential post-show rioting. And this was on Dead tour in 80s, bro! I can only imagine how bad it was in the UK's infamous Thatcher 70s. And I've felt the ugly terror of tripping on waaaayy too much acid (because you were insecure about playing so weren't careful when some was offered by an eager fan), while trying to play electric bass as stage lights shine in your face like giant tubes of light through the cigarette smoke haze, and the flashes of audience faces and their roars of encouragement are suddenly stripped of their modern gentility by your now woefully under-shaded windows of perceptions, the primordial cannibalism inherent in their weird Dionysian consumption of your music, the ecstatic danger where they seem always about to devour you, ripping you to shreds ala Suddenly Last Summer. If your emotions weren't scattered across the endless lip of the infinite you'd be screaming and screaming until they carted you off like Syd Barrett before you. Yes, I've felt all that and that was playing trippy acid rock covers to 100-200 dancing college hippies. I can only imagine thousands of Thatcher-era druggie youth, fighting each other for prime front row positions, as you sway on your shaky thousand-toed feet, myriad effects pedals, lights, lasers, smoke and basses spread out below and around you like the controls of twenty different jet planes. 

To stay sane you have to position yourself as outside the masses, to privilege your position, make yourself the barker at the sadomasochistic carnival of torture (standing around for hours) and degradation (lining up to overpay for T-shirts just to prove you were there, in a faceless audience of thousands). You can't help them. They are moths to the flame of hell that is 70s rock-and-roll theater, a vortex of fire and deafening amplification, draining the youth and beauty of the throngs in a giant hoover, leaving toothless old junky faux-sages, incoherent even in their laughter, many of whom will later develop tinnitus from standing too close to the speakers. Still, they prove they don't need no education, and waving their dying lighters, they don't need sleep, food, a seat, or a job. And let's not forget the infamous 1979 Who concert trampling, an inspiration for--or foreshadowing--a similar stampede in THE WALL.

And that's the rub, for by far the most interesting aspect of the non-animated stuff in THE WALL is the whole bit of mixing lysergic 'horror' rock stadium mentality with Naziism-meets-Stalinism (double hammers, hold the sickle) militant pageantry. It's interesting in that respect that the only time Pink isn't a total asshole--the only time he seems at peace--is when he starts leading his little rock-and-roll Nazi rallies, lifting children, kissing young mums on the forehead, and singling out unwanted minorities for persecution from his lofty podium. Smiling, hugging, saluting his gathered throngs and otherwise firing up the engine of mobilized violence, he looks finally happy. Hey, Teacher! Dig those  KKK-Nazi-Inquisitor-witch hats!

Perhaps THE WALL then is acid cinema for those who've had a bad trip of the sort where they become a terrified, bug-eyed witness to the ugly souls of men. Compare Munch's "The Scream" with the agonized face on the WALL poster (below), and you realize the intended connection-  each a howling (open mouth = oral phase-trapped, still yowling for an absent teat, according to art therapists) witness to the hungry hungry terror that is humanity's clockwork march into self-obliteration, screaming, ever screaming for a war nurse who has five hundred more screaming patients to go before she gets to you).  If you're an acid dealer you need to avoid falling into this 'eternal now of horror' zone because it's your job to be the nurse, of sorts. The de fact triage doctor, to whom is brought brain-damaged idiots who didn't follow your strict dosage advice, thinking themselves cowboys of the beyond. But no one maybe tells you--the dealer--how much is too much when you test your shit out initially, so you kind of have to take too much just to find out how much is too much to take.  When you deal acid you deal in little perforated cards divided into 100 little perforated squares. Those squares are then each sometimes halved or even quartered-- resulting in the tiniest of measurements. Sometimes eve one full hit (single square) is a lot, even for an 'experienced' person like you. Sometimes it's not enough, even for a novice. There's no way to tell how strong or clean it is without plunging in. You are your own experimental subject and, like in a Roger Corman movie, that can sometimes leave you running up and down the halls attacking people making animal noises.

I've only had the problem around five or sixty times, but they burned holes in my soul I doubt even death will heal.

But I assure you: if you can make it through that hell (hopefully the liquor stores are open), the big Pink Munch scream overload, when when you finally come down, or up, you have the thousand yard stare. And only then do Buddha and Jesus write your name down in their date planners. Except they'll never call you, because you cheated. You brought your ego along, like contraband. 

THE WALL is thus a self-glorifying 'bad trip' acid movie,  for those who know the pain of having taken far too much of it, or any addicts of anything, or agoraphobes, longing for the "comfortably numb" feeling of being left alone to watch old war movies on TV all night, instead of having to go to the show. Oh to hide in the comfort of the dark, fumbling desperately for any full or half-empty bottle without cigarettes in it, still unable to ever fully dim the sensory overload in full, but taking gladly the devil's bargain of avoiding the eternal scream of the real for the temporary relief of the imaginary 

Whatever else you want to call it --insipid, self-pitying, grandiose, gloomy, depressing pretentious, self-aggrandizing --THE WALL is an undeniably effective work of both post-paisley propaganda. In uniting the doom-bent punks, posers and metalheads with the hippies and acid lovers, Waters essentially united the whole of your freshman dorm floor's potsmokers in solidarity over a single double album's opened joint rolling gatefold. Waters probably could have mobilized them all into an army--what Craig Finn calls a 'unified scene'--and incited the Matt Munizes of the world to rise up and kill their teachers and burn their math books, this time for real. Except you know, it's hard organizing the stoned to anything except maybe pool for a keg.

Roger didn't even get that far. Instead he believed his own press agent, bickered with the rest of the band and finally left the Floyd altogether, presuming it would collapse into dust without him. He's better off. Maybe. Can fiddle around and occasionally issue strange solo albums (likely destined for the cut-out bins, but so are we all) and putting on strange multi-media Wall performances in Europe). It's gone from being the emblematic pinnacle of self-indulgent moping and grandiose anarchy and become establishment and rich with synergy and trippy nostalgia. but it's still relevant and powerful. Like Margot Channing, that response may be maudlin and full of self pity--but it's magnificent.

If you don't like THE WALL, maybe it's not because it reminds you of Matt Muniz or your past rock glory and boozy drift into oblivion, maybe it just reminds you that even frosty remoteness is just another pose, that a 'reachable remote' is an oxymoron, that as fast as you might flip between channels, between analog rock concerts and HD WW2 documentaries, no remote reaches far enough to turn off that fat old sun in the sky / that's falling / right down on your shaved-ass head. So grit those teeth, son. This huts you more than it does me. 


  1. Awesome essay - though Comfortably Numb is one of my favorite songs, there's something about the whole Wall project which seemed kind of sordid and put me off, despite liking so many other albums/periods in Pink Floyd's oeuvre. Can't put my finger on it exactly. Haven't seen the film.

    Btw, there apparently is a Dark Side of Oz-type exercise with The Wall, though it seems kind of a pale imitation at a glance (never tried it): synced up with Disney's Alice in Wonderland. Some enterprising folks on You Tube have attempted it, though god knows how long The Rat will let them keep it up...

  2. Beautiful Piece. I have a soft spot for it as I saw it at the perfect age to be blown away by its primal images, and yet let its pretensions sail right over me.

    In turn I've hit you with image meme. Ever so Sorry.


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