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Friday, July 6
Better than: The Yanks taking three of four from the Red Sox.
Size matters. Roger Waters proved this Friday night at Yankee Stadium when he put on his biggest-yet production of one of the biggest albums of all time, his former band Pink Floyd’s double-LP The Wall, which has been certified 23 times platinum. With Macy’s-rivaling fireworks, vivid animations, 360-degree sound effects and giant puppets, it was one of the most stunning stadium rock concerts ever, presented in one of its largest venues yet, tweaked by its auteur for maximum impact.
In a way, Waters has proven himself to be the George Lucas of hard rock, having embellished the original version of his masterpiece with new scenes and characters (luckily none on par with Jar Jar Binks). Since its 1979 release, The Wall has grown from Waters’s Hamlet-like roman à clef about an arrogant rock star internally avenging the memory of his father’s wrongful death and into a statement about resisting tyranny. It’s a big theme, but thanks to an incredibly impressive stage show—a few subway stops away from the Great White Way, no less—Waters’s production was up to the task. In 1980, a New York Times reviewer called Pink Floyd’s Wall residency at Nassau Coliseum the “most spectacular, lavish show in the history of rock,” and, as Waters proved Friday night, it’s still a fact.
The Wall of 2012 is the rock icon’s biggest and most ambitious production yet—figuratively and literally. For starters, Pink Floyd’s wall was 40 feet tall and 130 feet wide at the top. The 2010 version made up for its 35-foot height by stretching 230 feet across at arenas like Madison Square Garden, and Yankee Stadium’s 40-foot-tall barricade one is nearly twice the size; the wall will be at its longest when the production reaches its final North American date in Quebec, when it will span over 800 feet. This edition also comes with heavy polemics—most of which boils down to “question authority,” be it teachers, capitalists or the government—and it’s presented in a way that can reach everyone, regardless of their news source of choice. With this version, Waters has succeeded in shifting the focus of The Wall from the war inside his head to the one surrounding the audience.
Where the original plot of the album loosely told the story of a coldhearted rock star named Pink whose father died in World War II as he comes to terms with his bitterness, Waters has universalized his message and updated his script. No longer strictly autobiography, The Wall is pop journalism, incorporating video from WikiLeaks of American soldiers firing on unarmed Iraqis, fan-submitted photos of people who have died in combat, and even a brand new acoustic song paying homage to a Brazilian whom the London police misidentified as a terrorist, leading them to shoot him in the head seven times. That song, “The Ballad Of Jean Charles de Menezes,” which is named after the victim, comes at a pivotal place in the set list—just after the album’s mega hit “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2″—and even incorporates the same melody of the hit. And if anyone in the audience wasn’t paying attention, Waters made it a point to reiterate Menezes’s story to the audience. Just like the animated hammers who march their way through the second act, all of the singer’s points are driven home.
Throughout the night, the show displayed more written commentary than a Jenny Holzer exhibit, as words appeared over photos of victims of famine, video of wartime combat and illustrations of corruption and greed. At one point the word “Capitalism” was scrawled in the Coca-Cola font (Yankee Stadium carries Pepsi beverages) and at another there was graffiti of a figure that looked eerily like George W. Bush pointing a gun at his head, captioned with the word “sorry.” Various phrases like “iPay” and “iBelieve” popped up from time to time, as did images of men in suits with pig heads listening to music with Apple headphones. (Ironic, considering how many iPhones were filming the event.) During “Mother,” a surveillance camera was projected to be watching the audience, and the words “Big BrMother is watching you” were displayed on the wall. And as “Goodbye Blue Sky” began, animated bombers fly toward the audience, but instead of explosives, they dropped crosses, hammers and sickles, crescents and stars, stars of David, and the logos of Mercedes, Shell and McDonald’s. All accumulated at the bottom of the wall as a red, bloody sea. (The only drawback to all of this was the concession-hawkers screaming “cold beer” in the middle of songs.)
In perhaps the most poignant moment of the show, video played of military personnel surprising their sons and daughters at school during “Bring the Boys Back Home.” One girl’s face goes from a smile to tears of joy in a matter of minutes, and it’s so heartrending and honest you’d have to be dead not to be moved by it. Near the end of that song, the wall bore a quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Chance for Peace” speech: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” The words “a theft” were highlighted in red and the phrase came up again later just before the wall crumbled. Whether Waters has studied the science of suggestion or not, messages like “a theft” were presented in a way that stuck. (It’s a quote he stands behind so much, he even reprinted it in the tour program for the show.)
Not everything in the evening was so heady, though. Throughout its 32-year history, a few images have become staples of The Wall. Illustrator Gerald Scarfe’s caricatures of Pink’s overbearing schoolmaster, mother and wife all made appearances (as did his famous lettering). One of the most fun moments of the night came during “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2,” when Waters brought out local schoolchildren who, he says, were practicing their dance routine after school. They pantomimed and pointed at Scarfe’s monstrous schoolmaster, giving the song a lighter edge. And two props that appeared in the 1980 staging came back bigger than ever. One, a plane that flies over the outfield and into the wall, now causes a mountain of flames over the wall; the other, a giant inflatable pig, circles the audience. This time, it’s emblazoned with the logo “Trust Us” and its belly contains a pseudo-fascistic line from “In the Flesh” when Pink sings of all the minorities at the show: “If I had my way, I’d have all of them shot.” A villain like that is classic vaudeville, and the pig got its comeuppance when it crashed into the stands at right field and was deflated and dismantled by elated fans.
But that’s not the only place where the audience became a part of the cast. When Waters wrote the rock opera, he included many spaces for crowd participation. During “Mother,” which he sang along with a 1980 video recording of himself, all 30,000 people in attendance seemed to sing “my balls” along to “do you think they’ll try to break my balls?” In the same song, when he asked, “Mother, should I build the wall?” they cheered with approval, and later still, there’s that line that even made it on the cover of the tour program: “Mother, should I trust the government?” The fans roared, “No!”; Waters returned in kind by including the words “No fucking way” on the wall. After an intermission, the show resumed with “Is There Anybody Out There?”—which may just be the greatest crowd-baiting song of all time, based on the reaction—and even a few people cheered when Waters asked, “Are there any paranoids in the audience tonight?” before dedicating “Run Like Hell” to said headcases. It all hit home; people appreciated the show so much so that a few even took video of the songs where nothing but a wall with spotlights shining aimlessly behind it was visible.
Of course, the secret behind the power is the musicians’ performances. The singer has put together an all-star cast of musicians for the tour, including guitarist Snowy White (who played on Pink Floyd’s Wall tour), multi-instrumentalist G.E. Smith (who used to helm the Saturday Night Live band) and vocalist Robbie Wyckoff (who records big band music but masterfully approximates David Gilmour’s smooth and husky singing style). Waters’s own performance was impressive, given his 68 years; he didn’t miss a note while snaking around the stage. During the album’s most theatrical song, “The Trial,” he adjusted his body language for each character, even bending over when the Judge (who, we might add, is literally an asshole) talks of defecating. It’s such an impassioned performance that if this whole stadium thing doesn’t work out, he might have a home on Broadway. By the end of the night, the musicians look spent as they come out for the acoustic “Outside the Wall,” and it’s hard to imagine them doing this every night.
But that in and of itself might be the real secret behind The Wall. For its size and its extravagance—assembling it brick-by-brick, firing off explosives at the right time, cuing live music with ginormous puppets and animation—the cast and crew pull off a once-in-a-lifetime performance every few nights. That’s 192 productions in all since Waters revived it in 2010. Whether this tour turns out to be the vocalist-bassist’s final one or not, he’ll certainly have a hard time topping it. But one thing is for sure: When he’s done, he may—just this one time—be at peace with his greatest achievement.
Critical bias: The Wall was the first rock album to speak to me. When I was 11, I sequestered myself in a room and listened to my dad’s copy, uninterrupted. I entered that room a boy and came out a man…an incredibly dorky man who soon knew all the words to “The Trial.” When Waters brought The Wall to Madison Square Garden in 2010, I went twice.
Overheard I: Woman in the row behind me: “He looks like Richard Gere now!”
Overheard II: When Waters sings, “I’ve got 13 channels of shit on the TV to choose from,” during “Nobody home,” a man in front of me said, “There’s a lot more than 13 these days.”
Random notebook dump: “Someone’s bringing home the bacon,” when the audience caught the flying pig.
Outside the Wall
In the Flesh?
The Thin Ice
Another Brick in the Wall Part 1
The Happiest Days of Our Lives
Another Brick in the Wall Part 2
The Ballad Of Jean Charles de Menezes
Goodbye Blue Sky
What Shall We Do Now?
One of My Turns
Don’t Leave Me Now
Another Brick in the Wall Part 3
The Last Few Bricks
Goodbye Cruel World
Is There Anybody Out There?
Bring the Boys Back Home
The Show Must Go On
In the Flesh
Run Like Hell
Waiting for the Worms
Outside the Wall