Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Final Set

The final bow. Pink Floyd, July 2005. David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright. The greatest rock band of all time.

July 5, 2005. It is late afternoon and I’m sitting in the basement of my brother’s house watching Pink Floyd live at Hyde Park in London. It is a great image on a 50-inch high-definition flat screen TV. It is late evening over there. It is the first time Roger Waters has performed onstage with his former band mates in well over two decades.

A heartbeat. Repeating. The crowd roars as the curtain opens. A female artist singing a scream in tune with the bass. In the crowd hundreds and hundreds of flashs of light from digital cameras trying to capture the moment. Then they ease us back into themselves with Breathe. Ah, yes. The Floyd. Glacial. Poetry. This is followed by what I consider to be the best version of Money I’ve ever heard anywhere, including the original record. Dick Parry joins them on-stage to brilliantly recreate his original saxophone segment of the tune. Amazing. I am so blessed.

But then the US coverage of the worldwide performance interrupts this historic moment for a few words from our sponsors. WTF! In my disappointment I realize I am not in London. I am at my nephew’s birthday party and hot dogs are being served to be followed by presents and cake. My life goes elsewhere.

Gilmour and Waters manage to harmonize pretty well through the chorus of Wish You Were Here. We didn't get to see this live in the US.

Fast forward. The night before we left for Boston. I just finished reading the new biography on the band. It goes into great detail on what is for me a familiar story. The initial importance of Syd Barrett and his influence on the band after he went crazy. The way the band meandered for years, struggling to find a definitive style that would be artistically satisfying to them. “Psychedelic noodling,” David Gilmour called it. The sudden, meteoric success with Dark Side of the Moon. The slowly growing tensions within the band as Roger Water’s ego struggled to overwhelm the other band members. The financial difficulties the band faced as a result of gross financial mismanagement.

There were some surprises in the biography. I never realized how much of the material for Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here was performed live in the band’s tours before it was ever recorded in the studio. The band used their live shows as laboratories to tinker with new tunes, which evolved over time before any studio work was actually performed.

I also never realized how bad the Floyd’s financial situation became after they lost almost all their enormous fortune due to a series of bad investments made on their behalf by a financial advisory company that ended up failing. It was also new and interesting to me to learn of the few, scattered attempts Roger Waters actually made after the band’s Live 8 performance to get together once again. David Gilmour had no interest. He still doesn’t. Roger made things so difficult for so long that the thought of a fully reunited Pink Floyd is just unthinkable for him.

For David Gilmour it was always more about the music than the ideas. He is one of the world's greatest guitarists. He retains an incredible singing voice. He was the Yen to Waters' Yang.

One small section particularly interested me because, after years of frustrated attempts, I have developed a profound liking to the massive novel by Marcel Proust. But, I know how difficult it is to get in to Proust. The Floyd encountered Proust in 1972, before their rise to super-rock status.

“Earlier that year Floyd had been approached by choreographer Roland Petit to write a piece for his dance company, Ballet de Marseille. Petit wanted to stage a production based around Marcel Proust’s epic novel, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Lindy Mason was a ballet dancer, so Nick, for one, was well aware of Petit’s credentials. The idea immediately appealed. ‘The French have a more emotional. More intellectual edge to the arts,’ he enthused in the press that year. After an initial meeting in Paris, Roger bought the entire twelve volumes of Proust and suggested the band start reading, before giving up himself after just one volume, with David Gilmour supposedly bailing out after just eighteen pages. The outcome would eventually be five performances in Marseilles in November 1972 and a further run in Paris a few months later.” (page 157)

Been there. Got beyond that. Interesting that the Floyd was involved in a failed ballet about Proust’s brilliant novel. I didn’t know that.

All in all it is a very good read and the most complete book I’ve ever come across on the history of the Floyd. Its one shortcoming for me is that it does not go into any great detail about the actual creative processes involved with any of the records and only superficially discusses some of the technical aspects of their very complex live performances. The Floyd was a pioneer of live rock music, but the book doesn’t really go into all that. It is very much a stick-to-the-facts, dollars-and-cents type of history. The considerable Art of Pink Floyd is left rather opaque.

Despite the US televised commercial interruption of the band’s set, I still felt lucky back in 2005. I never thought I’d see Roger Waters with the other three members on stage again. The last time that had happened I had not even gone to India yet. Another lifetime ago. Then a few months later I discovered that the BBC had broadcast the entire set of BreatheMoneyWish You Were Here Comfortably Numb uninterrupted. I downloaded the large divx file.

Seeing the entire performance brings a high sense of wonder to me. They are all playing so well together. The crowd of over 200,000 there in London is totally into the music. Millions around the world are watching. They sound great on Breathe. They totally nail Money. Roger’s voice is gone but Gilmour carries him well - they are, in fact, harmonious - through the chorus of Wish You Were Here, a terrific piece of poetic writing by Waters. Gilmour’s guitar totally overwhelms the space at the end of Comfortably Numb. The crowd goes wild.

Roger Waters on bass. A hugely powerful and poetic rock visionary whose ego ultimately destroyed the band in the early 1980's.

Jennifer and I watched this file for the first time on my PS3 over the weekend. The video quality of this divx file on our high-def TV is about the same as VHS tape. Certainly acceptable. The sound, as usual with the PS3, is outstanding, deep and rich. Over the last four years I’ve watched the 23+ minute file many times on my PC and listened to it in my marvelous Bose headphones. Just an incredible performance. They sounded like they’ve been playing together all this time.

Of course, anything but.

I am a huge Pink Floyd fan. Pink Floyd gets my vote for the greatest rock and roll band in history. I’m in the minority view there, of course. There are a multitude of other great bands. But a strong case can be made based upon the commercial success and artistic excellence in The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, and The Wall.

They are definitely the band of the 1970’s for me. At the time, however, I was a huge Eagles fan. My adolescence. That’s all changed now. Of course, no one tops Neil Young in my book, but he’s not a band. (Don’t try telling Neil that.)

I was in college before I discovered Pink Floyd. Dark Side of Moon was an album every roommate I ever had already owned. I never bought the album myself (I now own the remastered CD of it). My first Floydian purchase was Wish You Were Here, which is still my favorite Pink Floyd effort. I bought Animals and thought it was incredible.

When The Wall was released college guys would hang out together, get totally wasted and listen to it all the way through. We would have conversations about what it was about. About the philosophical and psychological aspects of the music. Of course, you could also disconnect from all that and just get into the brilliantly performed music. (This is true of all the aforementioned albums.)

Roger Waters, the driving force behind the ideas of this spectacular flare-up period which saw Pink Floyd sell many tens of millions of records worldwide, fascinated me. David Gilmour’s voice and guitar rocked me. These two guys were made for each. For all that Waters possessed in poetic, biting lyricism and richly thought-out concepts, he very much benefited from Gilmour’s amazing musicianship and his strong, distinctive, effortlessly pleasing vocals.

Nick Mason on drums. He is, in fact, the only member of Pink Floyd to survive all the band's early incarnations, making him truly its only original member.

There was a sharp edge to all these albums. Gilmour softened them somewhat and made them musically acceptable to the mainstream audience who didn’t always care for Waters’ deeper message. They just wanted to rock. Yet, ultimately Roger wanted a dictatorship. The band split after years of unparalleled success coupled with intensely divisive internal bickering. To be reborn sans Waters for a few years afterwards. Rogers sued the other band members. He felt that without him no one should be known as “Pink Floyd.” He lost. But, despite the considerable financial success of the post-Waters Floyd in general and the artistic merits of The Division Bell in particular, the David Gilmour-Nick Mason (with Wright) version of Pink Floyd was never quite the same as when Waters did the writing.

Plenty of bad blood. But, after 20+ years, Floyd fans got a reprieve in 2005 for one final set. There was hope that another set might be in the future. But, Gilmour had no interest in it.

In 2008 Richard Wright, the keyboardist, died suddenly of cancer. So, now it is no longer a matter for a truce in the Gilmour-Waters feud to decide. Death has made Hyde Park the final set.

Richard Wright plays keyboards with Pink Floyd. His jazz influence contributed much to the band's style on several albums. He would die three years later.

There is a certain weight to that finality. Richard Wright wasn’t that much older than me and he looked to be in fine health, similar in frame to me. You have to be careful to “breathe” and not let that weight weigh you down. There is the music itself. Hold to that while accepting the sobering truth that you have been on this earth a long time already.

Rick Wright, Roger Waters, and David Gilmour rock over 200,000 in London plus millions worldwide on television.

Note to Readers: The title of this blog comes from Pink Floyd’s fourth album. It is a double album with one record devoted to the band’s early live performances and the other devoted to various experimental pieces of music by the individual band members. As such it is a collection of scattered personal ideas linked to a record of the band in life. Kind of like this blog itself. Thus the name. Legend has it that the word also has certain erotic connotations which I find clever and are somewhat revealing about myself. Don’t tell my mother.

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