Roger Waters on Tour: "The Wall," 20 Years Later

by John Ore


Before he launched off on a year-long tour, my (then very pregnant!) wife and I had the privilege to attend a rehearsal of Roger Waters’ live performance of The Wall-Live at the Izod Center in New Jersey.

We didn’t know what to expect. This evening was billed simply as a live dress rehearsal for the highly-anticipated tour-and that Pink Floyd’s The Wall would be performed live for the first time in 20 years. All we knew was that we, along with about 1,000 others, had tickets. I didn’t even know if I could get a beer.

I first saw the theatrical release of The Wall in the common room of my freshman dorm, sometime in the fall of 1988. I was passably familiar with the work of Pink Floyd, mostly via the ubiquity of “Another Brick in the Wall, Part II” and its demand that teachers leave those kids alone. As a punk rock kid of the 1980s, I was intimately familiar with its theme of rebellion and anti-authority; as a freshman at Berkeley, I was also incredibly stoned when I saw it.

I don’t remember that much about my first experience with the movie, but that’s more a function of time than weed. But I do remember this: I was deeply moved by the film, to the point that I had to leave the room when I surprised myself by tearing up during the “Comfortably Numb” scene. A few years later, in a similarly smoky fraternity house, the process repeated itself to the point that I thought there was something wrong with me. I mean, I’m a softy when it comes to animals, but it’s just a rat.

The 20,000 seat Izod Center is a pretty standard indoor arena, but it looked cavernous when set up for an “intimate” preview of The Wall. Roughly 2/3 of the floor was set up for general admission seating, with the stage representing your typical arena-rock show: lots of instruments, oversized round video screen, roadies everywhere. But what stood out was something that would prove to be a central theatrical device during the show: a partially-constructed “wall,” made of large “brick” panels that stretched across the entire arena and through the stage.

We picked a spot on the left side, on the aisle, 7 rows from the stage. There were empty seats next to us. This was definitely an industry event, with rock’n’roll-looking dudes and what my wife described as Band-Aids milling about. But there were also families here, many of them escorting kids under the age of 10.

And then it began: this was going to be a real concert. While the round video screen above the band began flashing images, it immediately became apparent that the bricks of the partially-constructed wall were going to assume a central role in the mix of props and multimedia that Waters would use to support the music. And in some cases, by design, it was the other way around: with the music supporting the attendant animation and props, just like the film. The first images came during the opening “In the Flesh?” E.F. Waters, Roger’s father, killed in the Battle of Anzio in 1944, presumably the inspiration for The Wall’s storyline of protagonist Pink losing his father in WWII as a child; an American sergeant killed in Iraq; an FDNY firefighter killed on September 11th; a woman killed as an activist in Afghanistan. A parade of lives lost, each one occupying a brick on the wall until it was filled and forced to make room for more. Waters’ politics are a well-known device in his craft, much like Massive Attack’s during their live shows, and the contemporary images were easily incorporated into the original narrative of The Wall this much later. But it’s a tough way to begin a rock concert.

As would become somewhat controversial soon enough, during “Goodbye Blue Sky,” an endless squadron of animated bombers is portrayed dropping a modern payload: the Shell Petroleum logo (Deepwater Horizon disaster?), Mercedes logo (classism?) dollar signs (the economy?), and symbols representing Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (a pick ‘em of religious intolerance issues). Corporate, monetary and religious icons that have been harbingers of strife for decades and centuries, relevant and each sometimes malevolent as ever. Obviously this did not read to me as “dollar signs and stars of David, oh my!”

While the prohibition of cell phone use precluded the forest of idiots holding their phones aloft, forsaking live music for YouTube, it did not preclude another ubiquitous modern concert annoyance: the chatty women and their dates sitting right behind us. Just our luck. Annoying enough to distract during the first set, especially during Waters’ acoustic rendition of “Mother.” Now, my wife has never seen the movie, so she may not have parsed the significance of Pink’s mother regarding the wall’s construction. But during the aching rendition, she looked at me with a sort of pleading sadness. I mean, she was 38 weeks pregnant, listening to the ultimate parental betrayal.

Perhaps it is a function of getting older, or being in a less-invincible-feeling stage of life, but The Wall strikes me less as a dark, brooding story and more as just a terribly sad one. A boy who loses his father to war, is brought up by an overbearing mother in a oppressively authoritarian school system and is betrayed by the one woman he thinks loves him and then goes on to sort of lose his mind? Roger Ebert, who includes the film in his list of all time great films, wrote: “So it’s difficult, painful and despairing, and its three most important artists came away from it with bad feelings. Why would anybody want to see it?”

And he also called it “without question the best of all serious fiction films devoted to rock.” In this incarnation, there are few opportunities to enjoy the actual rock’n’roll, and they come as a welcome respite.

Waters uses an almost inexcusably unfair device during the progression from “Vera” through “Bring The Boys Back Home” and into “Comfortably Numb”: images of schoolkids being surprised by fathers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, children breaking down uncontrollably at the sight of the parent that Waters himself never got to see come home from war. This is extremely moving, if, yes, outrageously manipulative. Looking around, I saw faces similarly frozen in the wonder of a song as powerful as “Comfortably Numb” — with Waters in front of a now fully-constructed wall stretching to the rafters.

When we were finally let up for air, it was for the hyper-theatrical “The Show Must Go On,” “In The Flesh,” “Run Like Hell” and “Waiting For The Worms”: the neo-fascist hallucinations of Pink in their true rock opera glory. In front of the wall, Waters and the band — including, my wife just noticed, G.E. Smith of Hall and Oates and Saturday Night Live Band fame — take up the fascist trappings of the crossed-hammers, complete with Waters in Pink’s full-length leather trench as martial images are projected on the wall.

In earlier incarnations, Waters has been a subdued performer, but here, he assumes the stage presence of Bob Geldof’s protagonist: roaming the stage, inhabiting different scenes, changing costumes. It’s a nice departure, and afforded, at least in this rehearsal, the chance to swarm up to the stage with about a quarter of the audience for the more rocking numbers like “Run Like Hell.” It was awesome: standing four-deep from Roger Waters while he affects Pink’s fascist dictator, belting out the lyrics and playing air guitar.

The show climaxes with “The Trial,” including projections of the same scene from the movie on the wall in front of us. Jarring, dark, disturbing. We found ourselves kind of spent at this point: including the intermission, the show runs about two and a half hours, but emotionally much longer. When Pink is finally ordered to tear down the wall, it literally comes down before us: the arena-wide prop that had been constructed before our eyes during the show comes down. It is truly an awesome sight, not just from the vantage point of the privileged few who got to see it from a distance that we’d never actually be able to afford, but as participants in a show that was awe-inspiring from start to finish. Emotionally, musically, visually and theatrically.

In the end, band comes out amidst the shattered wall to perform “Outside The Wall,” what I think of as the most unresolved yet poignant part of the original. Abandoning the dress-rehearsal uniform of all black, Waters and company play the sweet song that signals hope at the end of a tale mostly consumed with despair, absent any other props, video or animation. Even the end of the movie uses this music over images of children happily cleaning up after the chaos and riots of Pink’s fascist dictatorship, which may or may not have been the real world as Waters saw it. Its heart-rending sweet imagery closes out a performance — and an album and a movie — that leaves the audience unsure as to the fate of Pink.

But the image of children happily dealing with the mess that’s been handed to them is certainly relevant as I look at The Wall some 20 years later, preparing to be a father.

John Ore cannot put his finger on it now.