Sunday, February 26, 2012

From the Archives - Getting the Brush


When I was around fifteen, I owned an album by the punk rock band Fear.  I didn’t much like Fear, but I liked to listen to them.  There was more fascination involved than aesthetic pleasure.  (A one-star reviewer of the album recently wrote, “I used to like this band until I had the misfortune of seeing this band live. The whole time I thought the singer was going to croke over and die. That’s the only reason I stayed.”)

Years later, in college, I came across the tape and played it again for old time’s sake.  The only song that still intrigued me was “Getting the Brush” (you can hear thirty seconds of it here).  I wrote a little essay about this song.  Here it is.

(If you read my previous post about rock covers, or even if you didn’t, you may be interested to know that Fear, though a relatively minor band, sparked nineteen covers, including versions from mainstream bands like Guns N’ Roses and Soundgarden.)

Getting The Brush – March 18, 1992

Getting the brush
Getting the brush
Life seems so
Getting the brush
Getting the brush
I call my baby
But she never
Picks up the phone
You know what I mean
She just leaves me there
Standing all alone!
Getting the brush
Getting the brush
You can do anything
But I can’t stand
To be ignored anymore
Getting the brush
Getting the brush
getting the brush  
getting the brush

I have quoted in entirety the lyrics to a song which is (not surprisingly) called “Getting the Brush,” sung by a wonderfully heinous punk rock band called Fear.  The song is actually far more complex than it might appear on paper.  Try as it might, it cannot get beyond the utter despondency of its main theme:  “getting the brush.” 

The song begins with this chorus; then, the opening lyrics seem to promise something more complex, but ultimately cannot deliver.  This “life seems so/futile” inspires the question, “Why?  What is your sad story?” but no explanation of the singer’s dilemma immediately follows.  Instead, he goes back to lamenting his plight:  “getting the brush.”  And then—suddenly—the drum strikes loud, accompanied by a hard pluck on the electric guitar string, and for a fleeting moment we feel the music is on the verge of finally breaking out into its normal head-banging, fast-paced, harsh style. But the drum and guitar have only teased us:  they vanish, and we’re left with nothing but another stagnant “getting the brush.”

Finally, the full lyrical theme is tackled:  “I call my baby/ but she never/ picks up the phone.”  This long-awaited explanation of the pitiful theme is a blatant cliché.  Its very intention of being a cliché is openly announced with a stock phrase:  “You know what I mean?”  Of course we do, we’ve all been dissed before—but that’s not the point here.  The point is the struggle to overcome despondency:  and in another ignis fatuus, the drums and guitar kick up louder and more defiantly than ever as the singer finally raises his voice to yell, “Standing all  alone!”  At last, the headbanger gets out of his seat and the hair stands up on his spine, his heart races, he may even begin to drool in anticipation of the angry and abusive lyrics he has come to expect from Fear (from songs like “I Don’t Care about You” and “Let’s Have a War,” for example). 

Perhaps surprisingly, but in retrospect quite appropriately, the promising crescendo loses all momentum and dries up into lifeless curls of ineffectual sound:  the band simply cannot transform the singer’s sorrow into real anger.  The nightmarish recurring theme is back:  “getting the brush”—twice more.  At this point we realize that the song is clearly nothing more than a repetitive cycle of utter despair.  What more is there to say?  Clearly nobody is listening to this voice:  he is, quite simply, getting the brush.

The singer has given up explaining the circumstances behind his distraught condition.  But before he ends his song, he makes a simple point:  he can’t stand “to be ignored anymore”—and he seems to have a final flicker of anger as he says these words.  But alas, even his band has become too despondent to back him up, and for a brief interval all is silent before a pair of drum beats tries a final time to conjure up some fury.  By now, alas, the singer has lost all drive, and submits completely to his emotional ruin:  “getting the brush/ getting the brush/ getting the brush/ getting the brush”—without any suggestion of rebellious fire.  Finally even the rhythmic, ever‑ steady thud of drum accompaniment dissolves, and the song ends in an echoing of bells in a clock tower.  The singer is trapped in an eternity of despair.

dana albert blog

Monday, February 20, 2012

Rock Song Covers & Music Fusion

NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language and a suggestion of sensuality.


My daughter’s violin instructor is taking leave for five weeks to tour with a well-known rock band.  If my daughter ever becomes self-conscious about playing nerdy classical music, perhaps she can look to this for inspiration. 

For this post I use the term “music fusion” to encompass a number of ideas:  classical instruments in rock music; covers of rock songs; amateur covers; cross-genre exploration; and fusion I’d like to see.

Classical in rock

I’m not a musician.  Though my mom wanted me, as a kid, to learn the cello, the orchestra teacher thought better of it.  So I’m just a listener.  Perhaps with a better trained ear I’d pick out all kinds of classical instruments in the rock music I listen to.  Watching a documentary on “Pink Floyd The Wall”  recently, I got the answer to a question that had long troubled me—how do they get that strange menacing backdrop of vague sound?—when I saw four cellos performing with the band.  I’ve also picked out some violins backing up Eminem songs.  At a Radiohead concert a decade ago, I watched one of the band members carefully playing an xylophone during “No Surprises.”

Sometimes rock music gets treated to a stronger dose of classical instruments.  A string quartet called “The Section” did an entire album of classical arrangements of Radiohead songs.  After reading some reviews to make sure it wasn’t just a gimmick, I bought the album, and I love it.  And there was the Metallica album, S&M, of a live performance where the rock band played alongside the San Francisco Symphony.  I haven’t heard the album, but one of its songs, “No Leaf Clover,” got a fair bit of radio play and I liked it fine.  And I love that Devo decided to do their own elevator music; the 30-second snippets I’ve heard of their E-Z Listening Disc sound pretty good.  (I'm not about to shell out $193.97 for the disc, which must be a collector's item or something.) 

Cover versions

Some years ago I was flipping through the FM stations in the car when I heard a song that was both familiar and not.  It was a cover of Radiohead’s “High and Dry,” and it sounded great—which intrigued me because though it’s a neat song, I’ve never liked it.  (To my ear, Thom York, the lead singer, sounds too whiny in this song.  Perhaps this is because he never wanted to record it anyway; in an interview he once said of the song, “It’s not bad ... it’s very bad.”)

But who did the cover?  Alas, modern deejays are apparently too cool to bother themselves with announcing what song you just heard and who played it.  When I googled “High and Dry cover” I discovered a dozen versions of this song.   I figured out pretty quickly that what I’d heard on the radio wasn’t from Amanda Palmer’s album of ukulele-based Radiohead covers.  I think the version I heard was by Jamie Cullum, but I’m not sure I want to shell out $13 to find out if I was right.

I also like Urge Overkill's cover of “Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon” whereas I could never stand Neil Diamond.  (I suffered an overdose of secondhand Neil Diamond at a moldy-oldies radio station where I worked, as a receptionist, in the ‘80s.)  I also love The Breeders’ version of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” by the Beatles. 

Not all covers are good, of course; Limp Bizkit did what I can only assume is a sarcastic version of George Michaels “Faith,” which strikes me as a kind of pointless exercise.  I mean, making fun of a mediocre song by squawking the chorus?  And this gets airplay?  According to Limp Bizkit's guitarist, George Michael hated the cover and ‘hates us for doing it.’”  Oddly, the copyright law concerning covers doesn’t require the covering band to get permission from the original artist, though royalties must be paid.

There’s a pretty cool website listing cover versions of everything, including “cover chains” (“a set of songs in which each song is a cover of a song by the artist who covered the preceding song”); the longest chain listed is over 300 songs long.  Click here for The Covers Project.

Amateur covers

Of course it would be impossible to count the number of times a startup band of aspiring musicians plays a cover at some tiny venue.  I also figure that anytime I sing at home, that’s a cover, and not a good one, though I take some satisfaction in my kids not always asking me to be quiet (which is especially remarkable when I sing Pink Floyd's “Vera,” which in my rendition is particularly maudlin).  Aside from quality issues, the most distinctive trait of the “home cover” is that it’s almost always sung a capella, unless a wooden spoon on Tupperware, or some foot-thumping, is employed (which works best if your audience is babies or toddlers).

Of course around the kids I have to sometimes alter the lyrics—I can't sing "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" (of which I count five actual covers, by the way) because it’s about a serial killer, so I do “Maxwell's Silver Platter” (e.g., “Maxwell's silver platter made sure that she was fed”).  Other kid-targeted enhancements:  Thorogood's “Who Do You Love” is corrected as “Whom Do You Love,” and the final line of “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” becomes “that book by Vladimir” (since Sting pronounces “Nabokov” completely wrong, and the right pronunciation would throw off the meter of the line).

But enough of this childish stuff.  The best enhancement opportunities involve some thought and sophistication.  Here’s an example.  Say you’re tired of getting your brother’s voice-mail and tired of leaving boring messages, so instead of a normal message you rap Ice-T’s “The Girl Tried to Kill Me” into the phone.  Doing this straight would be amusing enough, but then you think, wouldn’t it be even better to refashion the song as a poem, presented at a cozy poetry reading by a tweedy professor, a dignified man much like your father?  And if he were to read it in a gentle, thoughtful, caring voice?  Imagine:

“Yo.”  [This spoken a bit uncertainly, as if the professor isn’t quite sure what to make of this word.]
“I met this girl the other night.”  [Pause.]
“Hype.”  [Spoken with a trace of wonderment:  what is this word, exactly?]
“Super-dope body and face, her mini-skirt ... tight.”  [“Tight” given after a pause, and without the slightest trace of salaciousness.  The professor is now adrift, and just sounding out the words.]
“Talking about legs and lips, mind-blowing hips,
Had to cross my legs just to look at her...” [Here the professor falters as he cannot bring himself to utter the vulgar word “tits,” and eventually substitutes:]
“Vipassana.”  [You hang up immediately after this, as if to suggest that the professor has suddenly realized that, though “Vipassana” was the gentlest word imaginable—one of his favorites—in this context it sounded lewd, and he has blushed and abruptly abandoned the lectern for his seat.]

Genre-bending covers

Some covers seem pointless to me—e.g., Billy Idol’s version of “Money Money” and the Lemonheads’ cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson”—because they’re too similar to the original.  They add nothing.  The best covers, I think, are the ones least faithful to the original, where the band doing the cover sees a way to present the song in a totally new way.  For example, the Jamie Cullum cover of “High and Dry” isn’t even rock—it’s something more like jazz.  (Not everybody likes this genre-bending; an amateur reviewer of a Cullum album complained, “Over here in the U.K Jamie Cullum is regarded as the saviour of jazz.  [But] he isn’t jazz.  It masquerades under that name in order to make jazz trendy and saleable.”)  Whatever genre this cover is, if it can lure me out of my rock/rap rut, I’m all for it. 

I can say the same of Amanda Palmer’s cover of “Idioteque,” which you can listen to here.  I expected the ukulele bit to be a gimmick (I mean, c’mon, a ukulele?) but the song is brilliant.  (For one thing, with Palmer’s clear vocals instead of Yorke’s mumbling, I can actually make out the words.)  I also cannot categorize the Cowboy Junkies and their great cover of Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.”  Though their cover bears little resemblance to the original, Lou Reed reportedly called it “the best and most authentic version I have ever heard.”

Often a cover is done whimsically (though can’t be only whimsical or it wouldn’t hold up musically).  At a Bob Schneider concert many years ago, I was delighted to hear a rockabilly version of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Give It Away.”  I didn’t even recognize the song until about a minute in.  But later Schneider outdid even this feat with a cover of Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”  Only the choice was whimsical, though.  Had he played the song ironically—if he’d thrown in any hint of wink-wink, nudge-nudge—it would have been a silly and pointless stunt, but he played it completely straight.  Even his (male) backup singers came in perfectly (“Womaaan!”) and Schneider did a call-and-response thing with the audience—well, at least with the many females in the audience—and I can’t imagine any singer has ever had better opportunities with groupies after the show.

Devo co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh, in a bio you can find here, acknowledges the value to a song’s creator of hearing a good, creative cover of it.  Of the Teddybears’ version of “Watch Us Work It,” he says, “They took Josh Freese’s drums off and put on a sample from something we did back in, like, 1982.  And I thought, ‘That actually is better!’  That was when I first really saw that Devo had something to absorb, as well as something to impart.”

Odds and ends

Some covers aren’t exactly covers, like the brilliant “20 Dollar” by M.I.A., which is really its own song but grounded in Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” (which has spawned some eighteen covers).  M.I.A.’s liner notes in say “Incorporates elements of ‘Where Is My Mind,’ written by....”  Of the twelve songs on her “Kala” album, six of them say “Incorporates elements of....”

In rap, of course, infusion of one genre into another via sampling is standard—like the guitar lick from Heart’s “Magic Man” in Ice-T's “Personal,” or the chorus of Aerosmith’s “Dream On” throughout Eminem’s “Sing For the Moment.” 

Music fusion I’d like to see

It's a pity, I think, that bands mainly do covers early on, when they don’t yet trust their own material.  As Mothersbaugh suggests, an established artist or group might really learn from hearing, or doing, outlandish covers (in the spirit of Devo’s own cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”).

Perhaps some bands are shy about covering bigger bands’ songs.  It seems that the more a song gets covered, the more likely it is that somebody else will cover it, as memory of the original becomes more distant and vague.  We associate “Hey Joe” with Jimi Hendrix, though his cover is one of hundreds, and the song’s original authorship is a matter of debate.  Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie” has become a staple:  all kinds of bands have covered it, including the Troggs (whose big hit, “Wild Thing,” was itself a cover); Swamp Rats; Motörhead; Led Zeppelin; Black Flags; Joan Jett and the Blackhearts; and the Smashing Pumpkins. 

In my perfect world, I could compel bands to do covers of my choosing, which would propel them into totally new musical directions.

Some music fusion I’d like to see:   
  • Eminem doing James Taylor;
  • James Taylor doing Eminem;
  • My own dad doing Ice-T;
  • Radiohead doing a rockabilly version of  “Optimistic”;
  • Metallica doing Kenny Rogers;
  • George Michael covering Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl (and I Liked It)”;
  • Tom Waits doing Dido;
  • Dido doing Tom Waits;
  • The Rolling Stones doing a Devo song;
  • Amanda Palmer covering Pink Floyd’s instrumental “One of These Days” on the ukulele.

Of course this list is incomplete.  I encourage you to list your own fusion ideas in the Comments section below.

dana albert blog 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Bride of "Pink Floyd The Wall"

NOTE:  This post is rated R for pervasive mature themes and mild strong language.


As I described in my previous post, I recently watched “Pink Floyd The Wall,” having last seen it as a teenager.  Viewing it from my adult perspective, I realize that it’s far more coherent than the chaotic, nightmarish extended rock video I had originally taken it to be.

The movie has countless narrative threads, not nicely woven but often tangled and knotted:  the death of Pink’s father, his overprotective mother, his miserable school experience, his failing marriage, and his drug problem.  These are represented in part through an endless array—actually, more like a disarray—of symbols:  hammers, flowers, conveyer belts, airplanes, worms, and others.  Trying to follow every thread and analyze every symbol could be an endless undertaking—an analytical morass. 

This essay focuses on Pink’s wife, because—as I shall argue—she is by far the most important “brick” in Pink’s wall.  To make this case, I will concentrate on just one symbol.


The first thing we notice about this movie is that the chronology is all jumbled up—instead of a straightforward account of Pink’s life, we get his current situation combined with a mess of flashbacks.  The jumbled order creates the overall effect the moviemakers desired, but arranging the events chronologically can help tell us how Pink got here.

At first it seems like a straightforward exercise to put the movie’s events in order, starting with Pink’s dad being killed in WWII and ending with children cleaning up after Pink’s wall comes down.  But right away we run into trouble:  the scene of children cleaning up isn’t an actual event in Pink’s life—it’s a figment of his imagination, just like the animated sequences in the movie.  (No, strange humanoid creatures with snouts like gas masks didn’t really lumber away to safety under a freeway overpass.)  Pink’s flashbacks are a mix of actual memories (e.g., Pink being chewed out by a schoolmaster, Pink caring for a dying rat), and his flights of fancy (e.g., students trashing their school, Pink wandering through a battlefield looking at corpses).

Two points of view

There are two narrative points of view in this movie.  We have the objective perspective showing what is “really” happening to Pink “now” as he sits locked away in his hotel room.  The second perspective is Pink’s inner world:  his memories and his delirious visions, which engulf his mind as he molders away in his chair.  Neither point of view can give us the full story.  On the one hand, the objective perspective is limited to the present, which shows us a lot about the result of Pink’s problems but not so much about how he got here.  On the other hand, peering into Pink’s mind is problematic because he’s what we English majors like to call an “unreliable narrator”—he cannot give a clear and satisfying account because he’s a flawed character to begin with, not to mention being drugged-out and on the verge of complete mental collapse.

To examine the central question of the movie—what is Pink’s problem, really?—it’s useful to look at both perspectives.  I will start by recounting what is seen from the objective point of view:  the real-time events leading to Pink’s final collapse.  Then I will mine his memories and visions to shed light on the trajectory of his sad case.

Pink as we see him

Here is what actually transpires in “real time” during “The Wall.”  Pink sits in his chair and watches TV.  He soaks in his private pool.  He tries four times to phone his wife (three times from his room, once from a pay phone in an alley).  He picks up a groupie, terrorizes her by chasing her around the room throwing things, and completely trashes the place.  He soaks some more in the pool.  He smashes his TV.  He arranges the detritus in his room into a highly organized pattern.  He shaves off his chest hair and eyebrows.  He makes one more unsuccessful call to his wife.  Then he settles back into his chair and becomes catatonic.  Finally, his manager, along with some hotel staff and paramedics, break down the door to his room and revive him.  He is dragged to his concert in a limo.  He ends up sitting out the concert in a restroom stall.  The End.

As we watch Pink in his room, his expression is largely vacant, but (even beyond his sudden rage when he trashes the place), we do get plenty of clues about his inner turmoil:  he smashes a glass with his foot; he goes through the TV channels faster and faster, punching angrily at the remote; a tear slides down his cheek.  Every time he uses the phone, we quickly see him go from placid to despondent.  He drops the handset instead of hanging it up.  He rips the cord out of the wall.  He slides down the wall by the pay phone as if his legs will no longer hold him.  He smashes a wine glass into the phone.


The first instance of a phone in this movie is very telling.  The phone appears in one of Pink’s first flashbacks—not a memory, exactly, since it was something that happened before he was born.  It’s his father’s dying moment, during a WWII battle.  The British are being shot to pieces and Pink’s father races into a bunker to phone for help.  As he desperately cranks the handle on the wind-up field telephone, a German plane drops a bomb on the bunker.  The last we see of Pink’s father is his bloodied hand slipping off the end of the phone receiver, which dangles from its cord.

What’s curious about this scene is that we, the viewers, cannot take it as fact.  The whole bunker has been blown up, so nobody who witnessed Pink’s father’s death would have survived.  Meanwhile, the phone call he died trying to make never went through.  The entire scene is Pink’s conjecture about his father’s final moments.  The phone itself is a detail Pink contrived.

There can be no question that the death of Pink’s father marked the beginning of Pink’s troubles.  But unlike Pink’s other problems—his overbearing mother, his cruel schoolmasters, his unfaithful wife—the lack of a father is not a brick in his wall.  A lack is not something you can wall yourself off from.  Pink’s father does not show up to testify against Pink in the trial sequence of the movie.  As we shall see, he serves a different role.

The next phone in the movie is one we hear before we see it.  As it rings we’re looking at a Polaroid snapshot on a bedside table:  Pink and his wife, the happy couple.  The camera pans over to the ringing phone, also on the table.  The scene switches to Pink’s hotel room, where he’s just placed the call.  The song “Mother” begins.  What we see during this song is the most important sequence in the movie in terms of explaining Pink’s plight as he sits locked in his hotel room.  We shall give it a close inspection.

As the phone rings and rings, Pink blows his nose (he has a cold), checks his watch, figures the time zone difference (from the alarm clock behind the bed we see that it’s just after 6 o’clock in Los Angeles, so it’s about 2 a.m. at home).  There is no answer.  Pink slowly hangs up the phone, has a memory or vision of he and his wife kissing, and then suddenly rips the phone cord out of the wall.  Eyes welling up, he hugs his pillow and remembers when, as a sick child having feverish visions, he had climbed into his mother’s bed and snuggled against her.


Now, before you get all Freudian on me, remember that Freud was full of crap, as the movie’s creator, Roger Waters, was sure to have recognized.  The expression on grown-up Pink’s face in this scene tells of despair; young Pink’s expression in the flashback shows fear.  Neither condition is anything close to desire.  Have you ever, in moments of futility or despondency, thought, “I want my mom!”?  That’s what’s going on here in Pink’s hotel room.

By this point in the movie, the rock songs and their accompanying scenes have established that war is hell (“Goodbye Blue Sky”); so is its aftermath (“When the Tigers Broke Free,” “The Thin Ice,” and “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 1”); and that Pink’s schoolmasters were dicks (“The Happiest Days of Our Lives,” “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2.”)  Presumably, “Mother,” and the visions and memories that go with it, will establish how overprotective and stifling Pink’s mother is.  But that’s not what we see.  In fact, what we do see of the mother tells an almost opposite tale.  She doesn’t take Pink into her bed when he’s sick—she gestures to him to stay in bed, and closes his door as she leaves.  She’s not smothering him; he’s seeking her out.

Pink runs through two versions of this memory.  In the first, he creeps slowly down the stairs and into his mother’s room.  In the second, he’s running to her room, and when he gets there he sees himself in bed next to her—sort of.  This time, instead of young Pink in the bed with his mother, it’s a decomposing corpse.  The point is this:  Pink isn’t repelled by an overprotective mother—he’s terrified of becoming a mama’s boy, of trying to snuggle with her all the way to his grave.  (It’s not hard to see how an insecure, fatherless boy could have this fear.)  In this light, the lyrics of the song—“Momma’s gonna keep you right here under her wing,” “Momma’s gonna keep baby cozy and warm”—aren’t necessarily something she ever said.  They could easily be the kind of taunts young Pink inflicts upon himself.

Consider what comes right after the vision of the corpse snuggled in bed with his mother:  we go straight into the scene of Pink’s wedding.  Significantly, his mother is not in attendance.  Pink has successfully broken away from his mother by replacing her with a wife.  Unfortunately, spurning the love he needs seems to become a habit:  twice during this song, we see him pulling away from his wife.


The first time Pink rejects his wife, she’s giving him a striptease while he’s watching soccer on TV.  She playfully blocks his view; he cranes to see around her.  This scene is interposed with young Pink using binoculars to watch a grown-up neighbor undress in front of her window.  He’s smoking an illicit cigarette, which he hides along with the binoculars when his mother opens the door to check in on him.  Young Pink’s sexual awakening, and his cigarette, symbolize his desire to grow up and break away from his mother.  Turning back to the seduction scene, grown-up Pink rejects his wife’s advances—at the time.  Sometime later, when it’s dark in the room, he reaches for her, but she turns and rolls away.

What is going on here?  Was Pink just really into the televised soccer game?  Of course not.  He looks bored by it, until his wife starts trying to seduce him.  Then he looks slightly annoyed, but there’s also the tiniest flicker of a smile playing on his lips.  He’s screwing with her, testing her.  But why?  Well, Pink is insecure, and if love is defined as unconditional positive regard, he’s introducing conditions:  will you still love me even if I’m a pain in the ass?

Second rejection:  Pink is at home, composing on the piano, and his wife comes in and greets him.  He ignores her.  “Hello?  Hello?  Is there anybody in there?” she says.  Still nothing.  She waves her hand in front of his face.  Finally he looks up.  He’s stoned.  She jokes, “Do you remember me?  I’m the one from the registry office.”  Pink looks back down at the piano.  As his wife leaves the room she looks back over her shoulder, to see if just maybe he’s going to get up.  He doesn’t, and she closes door behind her.  Again, we must consider the point of view here:  this is Pink’s own recollection.  That we see his wife look back means that he sees her look back.  Though he pretends to ignore her, he isn’t.  He’s testing her again.

Next we catch a glimpse of Pink walking through an airport—a very recent memory—and we get a scene of his wife sitting in a chair crying.  Then Pink is in his hotel room, phoning her again.  When again she doesn’t pick up, he smashes a glass with his foot.


As we hear the line “Mother will she tear your little boy apart?” Pink tells himself the story of his lonely wife being seduced by another man.  She meets this man at an anti-nuke meeting where he is lecturing.  She catches the man’s eye, and after the meeting, when she gets up to leave, she looks over her shoulder at him.  Unlike Pink, the anti-nuke lecturer accepts her wordless invitation.  In this vision, Pink has worked out the logical result of the marital stalemate at the piano, replete with self-flagellating details.

 “Mother will she break my heart?”  Of course he’s not really asking his mother this—she’d be the last person he’d ask, and these are rhetorical questions.  They’re directed at his mother because once again, Pink is feeling vulnerable, and once again his vulnerability challenges his manhood.  As we hear “You’ll always be baby to me,” Pink is phoning his wife for the third time, lying in bed in a fetal position.  He drops the phone in despair.  (A final note on Pink’s sense of infantilization:  in the movie version of this song, the musical instruments include a wind-up music box like you would put in the nursery, that plays a repetitive, cloying tune to help your baby sleep.)

As the song ends, we see Pink’s wife in bed with the anti-nuke organizer.  We get a flash of a coin being put in a pay phone.  We hear a phone ringing:  it’s Pink’s bedside phone, at home, the same phone as at the beginning of the song.  The ringing wakes up his wife.  It’s the middle of the night so she knows it’s Pink calling.  She looks over at her lover, silently authorizing him to answer the phone:  a passive-aggressive act of defiance.  He picks up:  “Hello?”  When he hears that it’s a “collect call for Mrs. Floyd from Mr. Floyd,” he hangs up.  The operator is befuddled:  “I wonder why he hung up?  Is there supposed to be somebody besides your wife there to answer?”  We flash to an alley, where the phone booth is.  As the operator tries again, Pink slumps down the wall and drops the phone receiver.  It dangles from its cord.


Immediately following this last phone call, we get the most chilling of Pink’s visions:  two animated flowers which become genitalia, the male thrusting violently into the female, which—mantis-like—devours the male.  Needless to say, Pink feels misused.  In retaliation for his wife’s infidelity, he brings a groupie back to his hotel room.  Notably, he doesn’t seek her out, but doesn’t turn her away either:  like his wife, he is passive-aggressive.  But unlike his wife, he cannot go through with adultery.  In imagining his wife’s affair, he’s given her a somewhat suitable lover—at least the guy believes in something—but Pink himself is with a shameless groupie, who is out to exploit her own sexuality for access to a star.  Instead of hooking up, he boils over, terrorizing her and destroying his hotel room.

Surely Pink regrets his past coldness toward his wife—it’s included in his flashbacks, after all—but he also feels like a victim.  Following his big eruption, when he’s returned to watching TV, he has a deranged vision of his wife appearing in the room as some kind of crazed serpentine vagina dentata that comes after him.  The irony here is twofold:  one, the alarming vision of this terrifying wife-demon chasing him around the room mirrors his own behavior toward the groupie just before; and two, the song is “Don’t Leave Me Now.”

Though Pink’s bizarre characterization of his wife is a bit unfair, he rightly recognizes the trouble he is now in with his marriage failing.  We see this during “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 3” where the previous flashbacks of Pink and his wife, and the visions of her with her lover, are juxtaposed with scenes of terrible rioting and of WWII battles.  The situation with his wife is causing violence to his life.  The lyrics—“I don’t need no arms around me”—are disingenuous; by seeming to reject everyone and everything, Pink is actually acknowledging his need. 

Very pointedly, in this sequence we get a vision of his father’s bloodied hand slipping off the phone as he dies, followed immediately by a flashback of Pink’s last phone call from the hotel, where he lets the phone slip from his hand.  The song ends with Pink again slumping down the wall by the pay phone, letting the handset drop:  but now it’s not happening in real-time; it has become another in his pile of tortured memories.  What was his dad doing in his final moment?  Calling out for help—but he was too late.  Pink’s phone calls are also a call for help—and he fears it may be too late for him, too. 


We have seen that, in the “real-time” course of events, the only constructive actions Pink takes are these phone calls home, four of them so far.  Everything else is either pointless (watching TV), destructive (trashing his room) or just bizarre (shaving his chest and eyebrows).  It’s not entirely fair to say he’s walled himself off from everybody:  each phone call is an attempt to reconnect with his wife.  Surely his intent is to wall himself off, and make a fresh start on his own:  after “Goodbye Cruel World” he arranges all the detritus in his room, washes the blood off his hand (bloodied like his father’s!), shaves himself (a new look!), and gets dressed.  But of course he’ll try calling his wife again.  She’s all he’s got, if that.

What do you do between attempts to call somebody, when reaching that person is all you can think about?  You wait.  You try to kill time.  That’s exactly what Pink is doing throughout the movie.  He’s not watching TV because he enjoys it; he clearly doesn’t.  During “Nobody Home,” he jumps with increasing impatience from channel to channel, lamenting that though he has “thirteen channels of shit on the TV to choose from,” he’ll never get through to his wife. Eventually we see Pink make his fifth and final phone call; we see the bedside phone at his home once again.  We gather that, once again, she doesn’t pick up.

Then Pink and his TV are out in a field, with a cold misty wind blowing through:  he’s not at home, either.  He almost doesn’t have one anymore.  Sure, you can say he built a wall around himself, but in a way he’s been cast out, too.  What side of the wall is he really on?

No hope at all?

Pink’s restroom stall flight of fancy, “The Trial,” shows how conflicted he is about his situation.  On the one hand, the witnesses he calls to testify against him—the schoolmaster, his wife, and his mother—are grossly unfair caricatures.  The schoolmaster is a marionette being flogged by his (the schoolmaster’s) wife (!).  Pink’s wife has now become a bizarre cross between a scorpion and a whore.  His mother’s arms become a wall as she hugs him.  If he’s crazy, it’s their fault:  “They must have taken my marbles away!”  The undiscerning (and/or stoned) viewer may take these characterizations at face value, falling for the excuses Pink has made for himself.  Of course we know better:  nothing else in the movie suggests that his mother really was overbearing, and even if his schoolmasters were cruel, how was this a unique problem for Pink among all his classmates?  As for his wife, we have seen that her infidelity is a symptom of marital strife, not its root cause.

On the other hand, the judge in this sequence—who is literally a big asshole—represents Pink’s determination to finally hold himself accountable for his mistakes.  Can he see his own faults clearly enough to accept responsibility?  Possibly the most encouraging line in the song—if we can take it neat, without irony—is the judge (i.e., himself) declaring, “The way you made them suffer/  Your exquisite wife and mother/  Fills me with the urge to defecate!”  The judge’s (i.e., Pink’s) ultimate decision—that the wall must be torn down—seems like the right one.  The question is, will that be enough?

What will become of real-world Pink, who is left hiding in the restroom stall?  If nothing else, the lonely purgatory of his concert tour ends here.  When his manager found Pink catatonic in his chair, he yelled, “You vicious bastard!”  He has no concern for Pink—only for getting Pink to the concert, which we see now he’s failed to do.  Perhaps Pink can slink home, tail between his legs—the big rock star brought low—and make a fresh start with his wife.  I wish him the best.

Appendix – Random Q&A

Q.  Could it be that Pink’s wife didn’t really cheat on him?  Could the very notion of her infidelity be a fiction, like the details of the story Pink tells himself?
A.  No.  The four unanswered calls are not Pink’s recollections, but real events we see for ourselves.  The one time there is an answer, it’s a man’s voice saying “Hello?”  Pink doesn’t imagine this voice—we have the telephone operator saying, in surprise, “It’s a man answering!”  So:  a man answers Pink’s home phone in the middle of the night … you do the math.

Q.  We know that Roger Waters’ father died in WWII.  Is the failing marriage theme also autobiographical?
A.  Maybe.  Waters divorced his first wife in 1975.  Perhaps more noteworthy is that during the creation of the Wall album, band member Richard Wright fought with the others, and ultimately quit the band, in part because his time away from home was causing his marriage to founder.

Q.  Why do we have this scene of a security guard in the stadium restroom fastidiously washing his hands?
A.  It establishes that the restroom stall episode isn’t another of Pink’s delusions.  The hand washing is an activity occurring in real-time outside of Pink’s awareness—we are seeing it, not Pink.  By extension, Pink really is sitting beside the toilet in the stall, unable to perform.

Q.  How do you differentiate between actual phone calls and memories of phone calls?  In other words, how do you count five phone calls?
A.  We can identify discrete calls by noting what Pink is wearing and where he is.  Here are the calls, listed in order: 
  1. In bed, clothed (beginning of “Mother”);
  2. Sitting at edge of bed, shirtless;
  3. Lying in bed, just in boxers;
  4. From phone booth (end of “Mother”);
  5. Clothed, smashing glass into phone (during “Nobody Home”).
Q.  How can you dismiss the impact of Pink’s miserable school days?
A.  In the scene where the schoolmaster mocks him for his poetry, Pink doesn’t look that upset; his expression says, “Yeah, bugger off.”  And given the poetry itself—lyrics to “Money,” which will be a huge hit one day—Pink’s nascent triumph over the schoolmaster is built right into the scene.

Q.  Why does Pink break the razor blade in half before shaving off his eyebrows?
A.  It’s a double-edged razor blade.  He breaks it in half so he’ll have a non-razor-sharp edge to hold.  Perhaps he’s not as drugged-out here as we might have thought.

Q.  Couldn’t there be a lot simpler explanation for Pink’s final unraveling?
A.  Indeed, it may be that the hideous green carpet in his hotel room finally got to him.  Such carpet could unhinge just about anyone.

dana albert blog pink floyd the wall

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Pink Floyd The Wall

NOTE:  This post is rated R for thematic content and an instance of mild strong language.


Recently, I watched “Pink Floyd The Wall” for the third time (not having seen it in decades).   I came across it in a big box of videos on loan from a friend to entertain me as I recover from a broken leg.  Inside the DVD case I found this little note:

“The Wall” well deserves to be watched multiple times, and has held up well since it came out almost thirty years ago.  Other movies from that year—even top-grossing ones like “E.T.,” “Rocky III,” and “Porkies”—arguably have not.  

In this post I describe my introduction to the band and the movie; discuss the difficulty of getting to see it again; and review the DVD extras you should check out if you rent this movie.  (In an upcoming post, I’ll analyze the movie itself and put forth what I think is an unusual perspective.)

Discovering Pink Floyd

In 1980, when I was ten, my friend David asked, “What’s your favorite band?”  I knew this was just a ploy to get me to ask him about his favorite band, and I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.  He told me anyway:  “Mine’s Pink Floyd.”  He described this amazing album that had just come out, “The Wall.”  I’d never heard of the album, nor the band.  David did a sales job on me, saying, “On one of the songs it goes ‘And the worms ate into his brain!’”  I took a listen, and was immediately absorbed.  We’d listen to the album all afternoon, looking at the album art and the handwritten (and almost indecipherable) lyrics.  I got some attention at school for my rendition of a background exchange from the album, a women crying “Eeek!” and a man yelling back, “Shut up!”

In those days we grasped little of the meaning of the lyrics; singing them, we sounded many of the words out phonetically, like parrots.  One of my friends would sing “no dark sarhasm in the classroom,” not worrying about what “sarhasm” might mean.  I told him it had to be “sarcasm” but he refused to accept this.  For my part, I had no idea what “psychopathic” meant but couldn’t be bothered to look it up.  I remember arguing with my brothers about the little girl’s utterance before “Goodbye Blue Sky”—was it “there’s an airplane up in the sky,” “there’s a snow plane up in the sky,” or “there’s snow playing up in the sky”?

Around 1985, I won an art award and was invited to a ceremony in Denver to collect my prize.  My parents, recently divorced, bickered over who would drive me.  Trapped between them and their two cars, I struggled to decide.  “Come with me,” my mom said, “and you can have Pink Floyd in the car.”  My dad asked her what Pink Floyd was.  Mom, triumphant, replied, “It’s the name of a band he likes.”  Defeated, Dad snorted, “It sounds like the name of a pig.”

The movie at first viewing

My mom really grew her cool-mom cred when she agreed to take my friend John and me to the movie.  This was 1982, a couple years before VHS rentals.  I was only thirteen and it was rated R, so somebody had to take us.  Right away I knew this movie would be far more harrowing than the album.  Even before the horrific animation accompanying “Goodbye Blue Sky” I was terrified—not just by the movie, but by the prospect of my mom dragging my friend and me out of the theater (as my dad would do the following year at “Fanny & Alexander”).  But to my amazement, mere minutes into the film my mom had fallen asleep!  The sound was jacked way up in there (at many theaters the movie’s producers installed subwoofers to enhance the sound), so my mom’s falling asleep was simply bizarre.  Sleep must have been a coping mechanism, or at least an excuse for not making us leave.  I looked over periodically and throughout the movie Mom was practically catatonic in her seat, almost like Pink up on the screen.

Of course that movie completely blew my young mind.  The images were almost unbearable, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.  The first thing that struck me was the battlefield scenes:  none of the glory and excitement of typical war movies, such as what Pink watches on TV, but mostly the grim aftermath of collecting the fallen soldiers.  Of course I’d learned about WWII in history class, but in a sanitized classroom-friendly version, never like this.  And then there was the deeply disturbing animation:  those uncanny humanoid creatures with snouts like gas masks; a guy getting brained; a white cross turning red, blood flowing from it into a drain; and of course the seduction, copulation, and mantis-like devouring of one flower by another.  (Roger Ebert wrote, “This is a flower so gynecological that Georgia O’Keefe might have been appalled.”) 

From “The Wall” I got a crash course in the birds and the bees—from the flowers, from the animated version of Pink’s scorpion-like wife, and from live-action groupies.  Even more disturbing were the scenes of a fascist rally and rioting.  Coming out of the theater, I was speechless.  I don’t remember ever debriefing with my friend about it, but that movie has been drifting around in the back of my mind ever since.  (I will not let my kids watch it until they’re at least seventeen.  Maybe not even then; one imdb bulletin boarder wrote, “Maybe it’s better I waited till age 45, cause if I’d seen this at 17 I’d probably have shaved off my eyebrows or something.”)

Chasing “The Wall”

Years after seeing “The Wall” in the theater, I began to want to see it again, with the hope of understanding it better and, frankly, being able to enjoy it more since my mind wouldn’t be so completely blown.  I was torn because though I continued to enjoy the album, I somewhat feared the movie.  I had moved away from home but not yet started college, and my footing in the world was tenuous enough that I sought movies for escape, not so much to get all freaked out or depressed.  Finally, in 1988 I got my roommate to rent it with me, along with a light romantic comedy to bring our spirits back up afterward.

This didn’t go so well.  Unexpectedly, two neighbor girls came over, decided to watch with us, and we ended up passing around a big jug of Carlo Rossi red wine.  Having guests created an awkward dynamic, because one of the girls was gorgeous and my roommate and I both wanted her bad, while the other was, God forgive me, pretty homely.  It might not have mattered if nobody tried to bust a move, but the wine worked its magic and soon my roommate was hitting on the homely girl.  (There wasn’t enough wine in the world to embolden my roommate or me to hit on the hot one.)  To make matters worse, both girls were chain smokers.  Yuck.

I couldn’t focus on the movie.  The girls were talking too much, and the TV had poor, monaural sound, and I was distracted by the spectacle of the homely girl wisely and persistently shutting down my roommate (who’d have had no use for her the next day, it must be said).  The girls bailed on us toward the end, and after the trial scene my roommate and I were depressed and becoming maudlin.  We turned to our second video to cheer ourselves up, only to learn the hard way that “Sid & Nancy” is anything but a light romantic comedy.  The seemingly helpful clerk at the video store clearly had a mischievous streak.

In the intervening years I’ve wanted to rent “The Wall” again, especially after DVDs came out and I bought a large, stereo TV.  (Note to peeping-blog-toms:  it’s not a gas plasma or LCD TV and there’s a rat’s nest of cable going out the back of the entertainment center cabinet and back through, so it would be hard to steal this TV, and you’ll find a much better set at either of our neighbors’ houses.)  But watching “The Wall” would not be a good way to unwind after a workday, and I couldn’t play it loud because of the kids, so it’s never seemed like a good time to rent it.  When I got the loaner DVD, I knew I’d finally get my chance.

(On a side note, this film has developed a reputation as something best watched stoned.  The IMDb bulletin board page for “The Wall” is full of pointless posts to that effect.  Were I interested in such activity, I had a golden opportunity here, with some rock-star-grade prescription pharmaceuticals left over from the most painful days of my convalescence.  But that’s not my style.  I have only ever used painkillers as painkillers, and I want to be able to think—when I’m watching a movie and when I’m not.  Moreover, I wasn’t interested in having this film freak me out again.)


If you’ve only rented “The Wall” on VHS, it’s time to watch it again just for the picture and sound quality.  There’s verbiage on the case about Hi Definition film transfer and digitally remastered Dolby Digital blah blah blah … suffice to say, the DVD looks and sounds great.  The menus have a lot of little gimmicks like Floyd music from other albums, interesting icons, etc. which are fun (though the icons are slow to slide into place and become click-able, which gets a bit tedious).  Note that turning on subtitles doesn’t show you the lyrics, but you can turn the lyrics on separately.  There’s not much dialogue in this movie (Pink has exactly three words), but you should turn subtitles on anyway to catch all the dialogue coming out of Pink’s TV.  You can also tune your sound system through the DVD controls, which is kind of cool.

I’m normally not a big fan of DVD extras—a good movie should speak for itself—and I’m especially wary of musicians talking about their work.  I hated Sting’s 1985 documentary “Bring On the Night,” which a one-star amateur reviewer accurately described as “self indulgent even by Sting’s standards.”  In fact, that movie kind of ruined Sting’s music for me.  This isn’t to say there aren’t great music films out there, like “Metallica:  Some Kind of Monster” and “8 Mile,” but “The Wall” is pretty heavy-handed to begin with and I didn’t want to hear a lot of blather about alienation and metaphorical walls and so forth.

Happily, nobody makes an ass of himself on the documentaries, of which there are two.  One is a documentary of the making of the film, and the other is a fairly recent retrospective.  Both are well worth watching.  There’s quite a story behind this film:  the creator of the album who wrote the screenplay, Roger Waters, fought constantly with the director, Alan Parker, each trying to shape the movie to his liking.  Neither ended up satisfied with the end product; Parker called it “the most expensive student film ever made.”

There is a certain amount of blather involved in the retrospective, but Waters and Parker are thoughtful, articulate, and frank.  For example, Rogers recounts the creative process without casting himself as some sort of sage:  “Alan Parker would ask me, ‘What’s this fucking song about?’ and I’d say, ‘You know, I’m not really sure,’ and I’d dredge up stuff from my past, or sometimes from other people’s pasts.”  Parker, when asked what the point of the movie is, does make a fairly grandiose speech about the wall as a symbol, etc., but then he seems to catch himself, chuckling, “But you’ll really have to ask Roger, it’s his deal.”

The animator, Gerald Scarfe, offers some insight too and it’s fun to see how dismissive he is of the movie as a whole.  An unexpected highlight for me is Peter Biziou, the cinematographer, who revels in his every memory, with a wide smile and a sparkle in his eye that are perfectly charming, especially given the dour reminisces of Parker and Waters.  I wish I could have Biziou for an uncle.

There’s some fun trivia to be gleaned from the documentaries.  For example, we find out why “What Shall We Do Now?” is in the movie but not on the album, which is something I’d wondered about for thirty years, ever since I first saw the lyrics on the album jacket for this nonexistent song.  (Turns out the song simply wouldn’t fit on the LP, and by the time they decided to cut it, the liner notes had already been done.)  We learn why “Hey You” was cut from the movie (more on this later).  We also get a funny story about the collect call Pink places to his wife, with the befuddled long-distance operator—“It’s a man answering, is there supposed to be someone besides your wife there to answer?”—inadvertently salting Pink’s wounds.  To get that bit of dialogue, they placed an actual call from the U.S. to England and recorded a random, unsuspecting phone operator.

Here’s one more example of the usefulness of the documentary.  I’d gotten confused, this time around, about where the big concert supposedly takes place.  Pink’s hotel room is in L.A., but so much of the movie is hallucination anyway (including the whole fascist rally sequence) that I thought Pink might have shape-shifted to London.  I based this notion on the scene in the stadium bathroom.  The sink there is clearly a British model, having separate spigots for hot and cold.  Even if one of these primitive sinks had found its way to an L.A. stadium, the security guard’s expert technique of swishing up the cold and hot water in one fluid motion clearly shows him to be a Brit:

The mystery is resolved in a single sentence from the documentary: “For the American stadium stuff we had to do, we went to Wembley Football Stadium.”

I’m pretty sure there’s a running commentary you can turn on while you watch the movie.  I didn’t check this out because frankly, this movie can become exhausting and there’s only so much of it I can take at one time.  I’ll save the commentary for next time.

Two more videos

As a kid, I was stoked when the movie included the song “What Shall We Do Now?” that was mysteriously missing from the album.  At the same time, I was bummed that my very favorite song from the album, “Hey You,” was excluded from the movie.  Good news:  you can see “Hey You” on the DVD as an extra, though the resolution isn’t very good, for complicated reasons involving lost footage.

“Hey You” is worth watching for three reasons.  First, it’s a great song.  Second, you can decide for yourself whether this number actually deserved to be cut from the movie.  (My opinion:  like most of the scenes cut from movies, it was cut for good reason.)  Third, the omission of this scene ended up changing the rest of the movie significantly.  After deciding to cut this scene, Parker had the idea to re-use most of its video content elsewhere, and he actually re-cut the entire rest of the movie to graft in the extra footage.  I think this is a major reason the movie seems so disjointed at times, with strange visions (such as the riots) that, to me, have as little to do with the movie as they did with “Hey You.”  We also get those screenfuls of writhing worms that got their original context from this song and don’t make much sense beyond it.  I wish I could see the version of the movie that came just before this odd backfilling of discarded footage.

There’s one last video on the DVD, which is the original rock video for “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2.”  This video is fricking lame.  It was clearly made on the cheap, with rampant recycling of footage and animation.  (Of course the footage is taken from the movie, but within the rock video the same sequences are shown again and again.)  The song itself is easily the weakest of the entire album, with its disco beat and silly lyrics, and the video takes it to new lows in tedious repetition.  But it’s worth watching, if for no other reason than to fully appreciate how well-made the movie “Pink Floyd The Wall” really is.

‘This Roman Meal bakery thought you’d like to know.’dana albert blog Pink Floyd The Wall