Friday, May 06, 2005
PINK FREUD (BOOK OF ED, CHAPTERS 70 & 71). With Mothers Day upon us, I find myself thinking about one of the more puzzling performances in the very odd event known as "The Wall, Live in Berlin." I can't begin to guess how popular or obscure the DVD of this concert is, so forgive me if you already know the particulars I'm about to recap.
In 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Roger Waters delivered a concert of the album he had conceived with the band Pink Floyd. To fill in for the missing musicians, Waters solicited the aid of innumerable past and present stars, including Cyndi Lauper, Bryan Adams, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, James Galway, Rick Denko, Jerry Hall, the Scorpions, Thomas Dolby, Marianne Faithful, Albert Finney, Tim Curry, the Military Orchestra of the Soviet Army(!), and the peculiar young woman shown above. An audience well in excess of 100,000 people watched what amounted to a musical stage production of The Wall, featuring a massive prop wall set against the backdrop of the former Berlin Wall.
The show was a kaleidoscope of ironies. At first blush, all the musical content had in common with the milestone it celebrated was its title. An earthshaking change in global politics that affected hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people was meant somehow to be symbolically akin to one of the most grandiloquent expressions of solipsism in the history of pop culture. Just as Oliver Stone has contrived to make the Vietnam War a sinister conspiracy to ambush a young Oliver Stone, Roger Waters has transformed World War II and its Cold War aftermath into a vicious plot against the happiness of Roger Waters. There is no hint on the stage in Berlin of the ghosts of those who died seeking literal freedom on the western side of a very real wall made of stone, concrete, and barbed wire. Instead, there is the bizarrely ass-backwards use of vast, long-term tragedy as a metaphor for the self-absorbed sexual neuroses of one poor little rich kid.
This fundamental inversion of meaning is echoed in different ways throughout the performance. Waters builds his big metaphorical wall LIVE and then actually performs from inside an artificial womb within the structure, peeking out at us through the hole that will be bricked in after the song. In the next number, Paul Carrack and other musicians perform with their backs to the audience, staring fixedly at the terrible monolithic prison created by the sins and omissions of Roger Waters's mother. Which brings us to the psychological core of the piece, the intensely weird arrangement of the song "Mother." On the original album, Waters sings it himself, and quite rightly, because the lyrics are his plaint against the unfair circumstance that he is, thanks to WWII, fatherless and therefore helpless against the walking, talking, devouring vagina dentata that gave birth to him.
Mother, do you think they'll drop the bomb?
Mother, do you think they'll like this song?
Mother, do you think they'll break my balls?
Mother, should I build the Wall?
Mother, should I run for President?
Mother, should I trust the government?
Mother, will they put me in the firing line?
Is it just a waste of time?
But the Live in Berlin production is about inversion, and so the part of Roger Waters is sung by Sinead O'Connor, presented in deliberate androgyny with a shaven head and baggy unisex clothes. Her performance seems unmindful of any irony, including that of a supposed feminist participating in a paean to misogyny. The chorus, which represents the voice of the castrating mother, on the other hand, is sung by three men, including Waters himself and a rather embarrassed-looking Rick Denko.
Hush now baby, baby, don't you cry
Momma's gonna make all of your nightmares come true
Momma's gonna put all of her fears into you
Momma's gonna keep you right here under her wing
She won't let you fly, but she might let you sing
Momma's gonna keep Baby cozy and warm
Ooo Babe, of course Momma's gonna help build the wall
Strangely enough, this far into the inside-out proceedings, the show does begin to make a certain kind of sense out of its setting. Waters is acting out for us the moral and cultural collapse of the western world that accompanied the Cold War. While Eastern Europe was killing and imprisoning millions of flesh and blood people and using up its entire physical infrastructure, much of the western world was engaged in a process of spiritual suicide whose climactic moment occurs in this very performance: spoiled narcissists who have finally forgotten what freedom is just as it has been procured for a continent and a half of former slaves. The children of the west have stared into the darkest hours of the twentieth century's existential terrors and seen that the greatest villain is, uh, the Mom who can't make everything perfect in our little Universe of One.
I yearn to know whether the thousands of young people in attendance, presumably liberal about social and political matters, gave any thought at all to the implications of Waters's material. His "Mother" stands at the very beginning of the great Baby Boom, and she is therefore a prototype and archetype of the single mother who has become the damaged anchor of the decaying nuclear family. Under her wing, no boy can truly become a man, and in her new responsibility she can no longer remain purely woman, twin circumstances which lead to the gray androgyny of the X and Y generations, perfectly embodied by the lunkhead elf Sinead. And when the audience participates by wearing thousands of identical subhuman masks, are they aware that this is not meant to be play-acting but a sardonic demonstration of the reality? Or is their unawareness -- of themselves and the outrageously inappropriate performance they're supporting -- the whole point?
What, I wonder, must the Military Orchestra of the Soviet Army have thought of this grotesque Passion(less) Play? Did they marvel at how they could have lost a 40-year-long war against such an empty and rudderless opponent? Did they, perhaps, read Waters's 'Mother' as a cunning western allegory of the smothering mother state inevitably created by socialist dogmas? Did they (think they) perceive(d) a new connotation of the term 'Motherland'? Or were they, like so many of us (apparently), simply dazzled by the spectacle itself and its galaxy of unquestioning stars?
Of course, the event took place 15 years ago, and perhaps we shouldn't dwell on these old ironies or take them very seriously. All those single mothers are doing a better job than Waters would have us believe, aren't they? Their kids are growing up more enlightened than their predecessors, after all, tolerant and more than tolerant of homosexuality, multiculturalism, hip hop testosterone, and alternative rock's gravel-voiced estrogen. They're not as confused as Waters, are they? They're so confident of their sexual identities that the girls are happy to dress like Times Square hookers, while the boys know to dress like gold-toothed ghetto druglords. And look at how many of them stared into the crucible of 9/11 and came away with the conviction that nobody as young as they are should ever be asked to die in a war of any kind, for any reason. The nightmares of The Wall haven't all come true, have they?
Mother, will they put me in the firing line?
Is it just a waste of time?
That's enough of that, I guess. But for all the mothers out there, and all the fathers, who are still trying to build and nurture strong families, I wish you a beautiful, happy, and joyous Mothers Day.