Pink Floyd – “Is There Anybody Out There? The Wall Live”

“Is there anyone here who’s weak?!” jeers Roger Waters in the final act of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and if the audience takes exception to his peculiar brand of misanthropic irony, their cheers give no indication. The product of Waters’ increasing alienation from—and contempt for—Pink Floyd’s enormous following, The Wall’s expansive brew of paranoia, oedipal terror, fascism and anti-war nostalgia is the symbolic capstone to the 70s prog-rock pyramid, and its accompanying live concerts remain a high-water mark of rock theater.

Though critics attacked its dominant metaphor as simplistic, even the die-hard Floyd-haters were bowled over by the presentation: a wall of hundreds of bricks was constructed steadily through the first half of the show, obscuring the entire stage (and the band) from the audience’s view and making the usual Floydian array of films, inflatable puppets, and pyrotechnics all the more vivid and powerful. At the show’s finale, when Waters bellowed “Tear down the wall!”, that’s exactly what happened: the wall tumbled down, the band took its bows, and the fans, it may be safely assumed, went out of their minds.

Of course, you’re not going to see any of that while listening to Is There Anybody Out There?, the long-awaited live recording of the Wall shows. No wall, no lasers, no animations, no nightmarish puppets of schoolteachers or castrating mothers–in fact, nothing of the grandiose invention that made the concerts so legendary. A video may yet be released (it’s rumored that the existing footage is of poor quality), but isn’t the point of a CD the music?

In this case the answer depends on your feelings, if any, for Pink Floyd in general and The Wall in particular. Critics usually slot Pink Floyd into the progressive rock family tree, home of great lumbering beasts like the Moody Blues, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, but Floyd’s rock n’ roll chops put them far beyond the reach of any of those bands; they could be pretentious, but they also could plug in and rock out — did Yes ever record anything approaching “Money” or “Have a Cigar”? Today’s Pink Floyd roadshow may be as bloated and boring as that of most other aging classic rock acts, but back in 1980 they still had enough muscle left to make an exciting noise; you don’t need to see the flying pig to want to reach for the volume knob. Even playing The Wall, a show with hundreds of cues that had to be met with split-second timing, they find room to stretch out and let the music take off: “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2” is embellished with a jivey organ solo, “Mother” is opened out with some soulful guitar work by David Gilmour and “Run Like Hell” is rougher, and better, than the more anesthetized studio version; I move that the version here replace the studio recording on classic rock radio playlists for at least the next five years.

So we admit the band can rock; but on the other hand, Pink Floyd created most of its best work under the riding crop of one of rock’s most notorious control freaks, and the fetish-like attention to detail evidenced here, with every sound bite, echo and bass fill from the album faithfully included, makes Is There Anybody Out There? more interesting as a document of Roger Waters’ theatrical élan—and his obsessiveness—than as a musical performance. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You may hate Pink Floyd and you may really hate The Wall, but the album is still the most comprehensive statement ever made about the relationship between rock stars and their audience; it’s a flawed masterpiece, just like Sergeant Pepper (another album from a stadium rock act frustrated by an audience who cheered and screamed but no longer listened). With The Wall, Roger Waters attempted to overcome his alienation from Pink Floyd’s audience head-on, by flinging his frustrations back into their faces. The wall he built across the stage dramatized his feelings of imprisonment, but in a sense it imprisoned the audience too, forcing them on a frightening journey in which every atrocity the artist reveals, from losing a parent in war to being unfairly punished by a schoolteacher, is met with applause. (A sequence planned for the Wall film would have shown the audience being machine-gunned from the stage, and still cheering.) Waters wanted his audience to understand that such adulation, however well-meant, destroyed the artist’s soul, leaving him lonely, paranoid, and unable to regard the rest of humanity as deserving any more sympathy than a hive of ants. (Or, in more Watersian terms, worms.)

That The Wall was such a phenomenal success—it was #1 for months, selling something like 13 million copies—makes the story that much more remarkable. In a sense it’s a testament to failure; Waters must have known in his heart that the cheering Earls Court crowds weren’t really getting it. No wonder, introducing “Run Like Hell,” he becomes so wound up with mock rage it’s hard to know if he’s joking: “Put your hands together!” he bellows. “Have a good time! Enjoy yourselves!!

Revolutionary Fart Jokes: George Carlin

In September 1970, a famous comedian in a suit and tie went onstage at the Frontier hotel in Vegas and, before a drunk, peevish audience of golfers and conventioneers, inaugurated a revolution in stand-up comedy—and got himself fired.

“I don’t say shit,” the comedian told the crowd. “I’ll smoke a little of it, but I won’t say it.” As pivotal moments in popular entertainment go, it may not quite rank with Dylan going electric at Newport in 1965. But in a town whose comedic taste ran to the it’s-all-in-fun nouveau-minstrelsy of Sinatra and the Rat Pack, to out yourself as a foul-mouthed dope smoker was tantamount to throwing a drink in the Chairman’s face. For George Carlin, it was a shot across the mainstream’s bow. Sick of pandering to the prejudices of an intolerant white middle class, he was ready to risk his livelihood to become the first stand-up of the Woodstock generation.

The idea would have seemed foolhardy even a few years earlier. Occasional mavericks like Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory notwithstanding, the career of a successful comedian followed a predictable, orderly path: from radio to nightclubs to talk shows to theaters until, with luck, the ultimate reward of movies. Carlin ascended this pyramid as a mainstream comic, and, incredibly, grew a beard and did it all over again. He forced the establishment to re-accept him on his own terms, in the process expanding the very idea of what “mainstream” comedy could be. Gone were the square routines about game shows and TV commercials. In their place came openly drug-flavored ruminations about language, culture, and religion that make up the most familiar body of work of any comic of the last forty years.

Born in 1937 and raised in the then-Irish neighborhood of Morningside Heights, George Carlin had no aspirations to be a revolutionary; his chief aim was to avoid getting his ass kicked. The son of a working mother and an absent father, he honed his verbal gifts on the streets of the Bronx, where a well-timed remark might be all that saved him from a beating by the gang from up the block. Quitting high school to pursue full-time his dream of becoming the next Danny Kaye, he landed his first radio job at nineteen, and soon had worked up a comedy double act with a newsman colleague, Jack Burns. “Burns and Carlin” flirted with edgier, more socially conscious material before soon going their separate ways, but Carlin on his own was too ambitious to risk derailing a promising career. He spent the latter half of the sixties working a hard grind of talk shows, B-movies, and seedy middle-class drinking holes, increasingly aware he had nothing in common with his audiences, and that his own act was becoming an embarrassment to him.

When he finally hoisted his freak flag in 1970, he had the advantages of a well-known name and an ear for the nuances of voice and language that let him mimic everything from a hyperactive AM deejay to a first-generation Irish barfly. Beyond that was the accident of fate that found him in his mid-thirties at a time when, as he put it, “the whole country seems to be either 18 or 50.” Too young to mourn the passing of the social order the sixties had demolished, yet too practical to be swept up by the utopian optimism of the youth movement, he straddled the generation gap with unrivaled ease. He could deconstruct the absurdities of contemporary speech as easily as hit you with a killer fart joke—and in a single routine, too.

This process survives today in the six albums Carlin recorded for Little David records, which contain virtually all of the material for which he remains famous: “Baseball and Football,” “Class Clown,” “God” and, most famously, “Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV” (“shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits”–all he could think of in one sitting). He invented so-called “observational comedy” with a single remark: “Anything we all do–and never talk about–is funny.” His records, like Richard Pryor’s, became valued contraband among underage listeners, prized as highly as joints or Playboys and passed from friend to friend with a ritualistic fervor Jon Stewart likens to a rite of passage.

Carlin’s invention began to flag at around the end of the seventies, and by the start of Reagan’s second term drug use and ill health had sapped most of the vitality from his act. As comics like Steve Martin and Robin Williams became the new innovators in stand-up, the public image of Carlin froze into a caricature of the aging hippie, churning out pothead wisecracks (“Know how you can tell when a moth farts? He flies in a straight line.”) for audiences as old and out of it as he was. The image was not without truth—for a time.

For in the early nineties Carlin, who had already proved American lives could have a second act, reinvented himself again, this time as a raging, misanthropic prophet of doom, whose comic distance from life had grown so vast it literally encompassed the entire cosmos. Gone were the stoner’s winsome, “D’ya ever notice—?” wonderings; in their place, a pissed-off old man who paced the stage like a penned lion, unable to hide his contempt for a frightened culture eager to trade its freedoms for the illusory comforts of euphemism and “sneakers with lights in them.” In the world of comedy, where groundbreaking talents succumb to either early death (Bruce, Sam Kinison), infirmity (Pryor), or embarrassing movie careers (Williams), such a transformation is unprecedented. Perhaps it’s not so outrageous to compare Carlin to Dylan, another artist who’s found renewed vigor among the disappointments of growing old. Both forever expanded the vocabulary of their medium, and both offer permanent warning against ever dismissing an artist as “past his prime”–though Dylan, it must be said, has yet to come up with a really good fart joke.

XTC – “Apple Venus, Volume 1”

It begins modestly enough: a single water droplet lands in a pool with a bright thwop; it is followed, after a longer-than-expected pause, by an ominous plucked bass note. The next drop is answered by two more plucks, and after more than a minute of accumulation a full orchestra is picking out a pair of syncopated, stepladder-like phrases, marching giddily up and down in an eternal pas de deux. Then a horn section enters, sounding like a flock of ornery ducks, and before Andy Partridge even begins singing, you gratefully understand: this is exactly the kind of bold, sly inventiveness the pop world has lacked without XTC.

A stalemate with its former record label kept the band out of the studio for five years, during which time lead songwriter Partridge carried on anyway, writing a batch of songs that indulged the passion for orchestral sounds and textures he had begun to cultivate on the band’s 1992 release, the excellent (and much under-rated) Nonsuch. In a perfect world, Apple Venus, Volume 1 would have been in stores a good five or six years ago, but it ultimately doesn’t make any difference: this album is timeless, resting far beyond the reach of the music media’s pigeonholing clutches. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the aforementioned opening track, “River of Orchids.” Partridge weaves a vision of arboreal plenty, exhorting the listener to “take a packet of seeds/take yourself out to play” and reclaim primal nature from the cars and motorways that have despoiled it. What sets the song apart is the arrangement: a breathtaking cartwheel of overlapped horns, strings, and vocals, assembled with great warmth and wit. If Brian Wilson doesn’t wish he’d written this song, he ought to.

While none of the remaining ten tracks is as eyebrow-raising as this one–they couldn’t be–the album as a whole is the bravest and most emotionally affecting the group has ever made. Like 1986’s Skylarking, which many continue to rate as XTC’s masterpiece, Apple Venus, Volume 1 unfolds as a suite of semi-related songs, exploring the twin influences of nature and human relationships. The nature theme in particular is familiar ground for Partridge, and this album contains three of his best explorations of the subject. In addition to “River of Orchids,” there is “Easter Theatre,” a gorgeous song whose lyric recasts the nature pageantry of Skylarking’s “Season Cycle” into a bona fide spectacle in which the listeners become the audience at a celebration of rebirth:

Enter Easter and she’s dressed in yellow yolk
Now the son has died; the father can be born
If we’d all breathe in, and blow away the smoke
We’d applaud her new life.

Then there is “Greenman,” in which nature is personified in ruttingly male, rather than maternally female, terms: “Please to bend down for the one called the Greenman/He wants to make you his bride.” Musically the track is the most exciting on the album, a widescreen cinematic rush of strings thumped and caromed forward by a lively, pagan-sounding drumbeat. If ever a piece of music made you want to dance naked around a bonfire, it’s this one. (Just make sure the neighbors are away.)

That takes care of nature, but what about those pesky human relationships? Having gone through a nasty divorce during the band’s time off, Partridge, not surprisingly, has a few things to say on the subject. “Your Dictionary” is a bitter fuck-you to a divorced spouse, its two verses spat out with a most un-Partridgean amount of bile. The heavy-handed sarcasm of the lyrics (“S-H-I-T/Is that how you spell me in your dictionary?”) threaten to stand as one of his less inspired moments, but the song’s coda saves it: suddenly the key jumps from minor to major and the chords descend as delicately as a falling leaf, the lyrics now sedate and resigned: “So let’s close the book and let the day begin/and our marriage be undone.” Less troubled—indeed, outright bucolic—is “Harvest Festival,” which deftly combines (intentionally or otherwise) the nature/relationship threads into a nostalgic narrative of a schoolboy crush, suddenly dredged from memory by news of the now-grown girl’s wedding. “I’d Like That” is a silly, clever psychedelic folk song with a lolloping beat and lyrics that will make you smile or cringe, depending on how strong your sweet tooth is. The best of all of them, and a genuine breakthrough for Partridge, is “I Can’t Own Her,” a straightforward expression of regret over a lost love. It’s the most direct, personal song he’s ever written, with wrenching lyrics and an achingly beautiful score.

If Apple Venus, Volume 1 shows Andy Partridge advancing both artistically and emotionally, what about his partner and sole remaining bandmate, bassist Colin Moulding? Here he offers two songs, “Frivolous Tonight” and “Fruit Nut,” and both are enjoyable enough, but neither quite makes it to the finish line. The former is a bouncy McCartneyesque vignette about a night out with the lads, and all the drinking, bad stories, and beer-sodden camaraderie that goes with it. The simple chorus is probably the catchiest moment on the album, yet the song somehow falls short of expectations: maybe the lyric is too plain, or the humor too mild; maybe Moulding hadn’t quite worked out how much of the song was satire and how much of it was serious. More successful, though less sweet to the ear, is “Fruit Nut,” the ruminations of a garden-shed emperor surveying his tiny domain. “A man must have a shed to keep him sane,” he confidently explains, over and over, until you begin to suspect that this man is indeed, as the title suggests, a couple of sandwiches short of a full picnic. (The song also serves as a deranged counterpart-in-miniature to Partridge’s more grandiose nature songs, just as “Frivolous” serves as a simple ode to friendship next to his partner’s conflicted musings.) It’s been a while since Moulding’s songs matched Partridge’s in impact–Skylarking was the last time they appeared to work as equals–yet his presence is still integral to the band: he provides the necessary moments of thoughtful, private meditativeness amid the Partridge Theater of the Senses.

All told, Apple Venus, Volume 1 marks a considerable advance in the art of XTC: more ambitious, more accomplished, less prone to hide feelings behind arch lyrics and technical finery. Whether Apple Venus’s companion volume, a collection of noisy guitar-rock slated for release early next year, will maintain this standard is difficult to say. A straight rock album is what many XTC diehards, who hold their worn copies of Drums and Wires and Black Sea close to their hearts, have been longing for, but I’m afraid to hope that a set of three-chord bashers could rise to the thrilling heights this record achieves. Or, as Partridge says in “I Can’t Own Her”:

And I may as well wish for the moon in hand
As there’s more chance of that coming true …

Ah, what the hell. If XTC can’t bring us the moon, who can?

“Who on Earth Is Tom Baker?”

Eight actors have played the title role on Doctor Who, Britain’s decades-old time-travel series, yet the fourth, Tom Baker, is still the most famous and beloved. Just as the most Trek-ignorant tv viewer knows who Mr. Spock is, so does Baker’s unforgettable appearance–thick brown curls, floppy hat, long coat, and enormous striped scarf–stir a vague recollection, even among the jaded and uninitiated. Many factors contributed to Baker’s popularity (besides the costume), including excellent writing, strong supporting acting, and the fact that he played the part so damn long (seven years, a generation in television terms). But the true magic of the Fourth Doctor was Baker’s own. No-one captured the essential alien-ness of the character as he did, or suggested so much of the strange depths to be found in this 700-year-old Time Lord’s brain.

Baker inhabited a scene with a physical presence completely unlike that of anyone else. As Jeremy Brett would later do with Sherlock Holmes, he depicted genius as a kind of impairment, as if the Doctor’s brain ran too hot and too fast, its energy spilling over and sparking the tantrums, fusillades of sarcasm, and stony meditativeness that all served to distance him from those around him. Many of Baker’s fans (including this one) have suspected that weirdness on such a baroque scale could not be merely the product of the actor’s craft. Surely something deep within the man himself informed all those strange jokes and abrupt silences?

You don’t know the half of it. Baker’s autobiography, entitled Who on Earth Is Tom Baker?, is an eye-watering litany of suffering, embarrassment, bad decisions, and unbearable self-loathing; in fact, of all the biographies I have read, auto- or otherwise, only Charlie Chaplin’s begins in greater misery or maintains such a fever pitch of self-doubt and unhappiness. Yet, whereas Chaplin saw his life as tragedy (with a happy ending tacked on), Baker sees his for the picaresque that it is. The book is packed with witty asides—he describes his father noisily sipping tea as sounding “like pebbles being shoveled into a zinc wheelbarrow”—and steeped in a lacerating humor that its author turns on others as freely as he turns it on himself.

The hilarity starts in an Irish neighborhood of war-torn Liverpool, where Tom Baker was born and where, as a boy, he prayed that his mother would be killed by a falling bomb on her way home from work, so that, like Liverpool’s other war orphans, he might be showered with gifts and toys from America. The supreme being denied him this favor, yet this didn’t stop Baker from deciding that the religious life was for him. There was little else open to this gangly, repressed misfit: “The main thrust of a Catholic education all those years ago was self-loathing. The more you despised yourself the better you were … [I had a] feeling of self-loathing and a desire to be a slave to someone, anyone, as long as he knew what life was about and didn’t mind if you were thick.” At the age of 15, after years of dutiful altar boy service and general religious brown-nosery, he entered a monastery.

There were no beatings, no fire-and-brimstone sermonizing: just long hours of work, prayer, meditation, and endless, agonizing solitude. The novices were forbidden to make friendships, to laugh or converse idly, and the rule of modesty prevented them from so much as raising their eyes to each other; only once did Baker succeed in looking one of his fellow novices in the face. After nearly six years, half-mad with loneliness and filled with a gnawing itch to break all ten commandments (“Especially I had the urge to kill, steal and bear false witness”), he left the order.

Years of living in such self-abnegating solitude gave Baker an awkwardness around people which he never entirely lost. He completed his compulsory two-year stint in the Army without having made a single friend, and entered into a short-lived, disastrous marriage with a wealthy heiress with whom he had nothing in common and whose family despised him. Fortunately there was one avenue left to him. His performance in an Army theatrical led a fellow actor to offer encouragement: “‘[Y]ou’re terrible at the moment, absolutely bloody terrible, but there’s something in you that might make it work if you can find anyone to give you a chance.” Many did give him a chance, including Laurence Olivier, who took him into the prestigious National Theater company, where Baker played small parts and understudied big ones. His successes were modest, like those of most struggling actors, and he was supplementing his income by laboring on building sites when the BBC invited him to audition for Doctor Who.

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In Memory of a Dozen Friends

Like millions of other people, I lost a dozen of my best friends over the weekend. I had known they were going, of course; long years of declining health showed on their features. They were tired and had been with me a long time and I’d begun to feel that maybe it was time to let them go. Yet the ending came as a shock all the same.

A scant few months after announcing he would no longer write and draw “Peanuts,” Charles Schulz died of a heart attack Saturday, just as his final comic strip was rolling of the presses of the more than 2,000 newspapers that carried it. We’d been prepared to see the characters leave, but there was always hope — Schulz was confident that the cancer that had forced his retirement would subside, allowing him to work on the screenplays he’d been planning, and by which he hoped to bring Charlie Brown and the rest back to the screen.

Now that last hope is gone. We’re left with what we began with: the dozens of “Peanuts” books that have remained in print for nearly five decades, and the best way to introduce any reader to Charlie Brown’s sad yet optimistic world. These were among the first books I remember reading, certainly the first books I ever came to love. The boys’ fiction I grew up with was giddy, preposterous fun, adventure tales of children in space or traveling through time or saving their towns from bank robbers. “Peanuts” was the first time I and many others of my generation recognized ourselves in print. I was the bespectacled Linus, naive and insecure and tormented by an older sister, and I was Snoopy, a backyard adventurer with an imagination powerful enough to make reality an irrelevant detail. I was bossy, arrogant Lucy — to be that confident, even for a day! — and simple, sedate Marcy, as loyal and steadfast a friend as you could hope for.

And I was Charlie Brown, but then, we all were Charlie Brown. Anyone who doesn’t know exactly how Charlie Brown feels when, walking home after another walloping on the baseball field, he wonders “How can we lose when we’re so sincere?” has been living a coddled, spoiled life. Bad things happen to people who don’t deserve them in the slightest, and most of us have felt like we’ve received far more than our share of bad luck from time to time. Too bad. Though Charlie Brown’s team suffered the most humiliating defeats in baseball history, he kept going; he never forfeited a game. You can either complain about it and give up, or get back on the mound and keep pitching.

If there’s a heaven for cartoon characters, I hope Schroeder loosens up and gives Lucy a big wet kiss; I hope Linus gets to enjoy a quiet moment with his blanket, without fear of reprisal by older sisters, hyperactive beagles, or vengeful blanket-hating grandmothers; I hope Peppermint Patty gets an A on a term paper she spent fifteen minutes writing. And like everyone else, I hope Charlie Brown finally gets to kick the football.

We’ll never see it happen now, but maybe that’s OK. Deep down, Charlie Brown knows winning isn’t everything. When he asked Linus why he bothered playing day after day, dragging himself and his frail hopes to the mound despite the full certainty of getting his ass kicked, he replied, “Probably because it makes you happy.” It’s a theme that applied to all of these terminally frustrated characters, whether it was Lucy and her unrequited crush on Schroeder or Snoopy’s unending failure to shoot down the Red Baron. Maybe that’s why the strip, despite its sadness, always made us smile; maybe that’s why I always thought of the “Peanuts” gang as kids I would want to know. And maybe that’s why saying goodbye to them is so sad.

February 14, 2000