The Show Must Go On: Roger Waters’ Wall Revisited

Aside

During Pink Floyd’s 1977 tour of their concept album, Animals, their chief songwriter and bassist, Roger Waters, was profoundly disturbed by an incident where he spat on a particularly unruly audience member. Stemming from this incident and its subsequent soul-searching was the concept double album, The Wall— a chronicle of distrust, self-doubt, repression, and most notably isolation. After years in the making, it would be released before Christmas in 1979. The album, the last one featuring Pink Floyd’s classic lineup of Waters along with guitarist David Gilmour, keyboardist Rick Wright, and drummer Nick Mason, would become the best-selling double album of all time, a veritable classic of its era and beyond it.

A still of an original Wall concert in 1980

After twenty-six ridiculously expensive and not altogether successful shows that the rapidly fragmenting band performed all over the world in 1980 and 1981, people rightfully assumed that The Wall would probably never again be performed. This was to the great dismay of Pink Floyd fans who were not able to catch the original shows, especially since no footage of the original concerts has been released. Although Waters has toured The Wall solo several times since those original shows, most of us young fans conceded that probably we would never get to see Waters’ magnum opus performed live.

Some of us 21st century fans got very lucky though when Roger Waters announced that he would embark on a new solo tour with The Wall. After a run of sold-out and critically-acclaimed shows all over the world in 2010 and 2011 with a touring band that included G.E. Smith, Snowy White, and Waters’ son, Harry, Roger again embarked on the tour for 2012. And just a few weeks ago, that massive tour returned to Los Angeles, this time, outgrowing its previous host, the Staples Center, to inhabit the massive LA Coliseum, a venue used for the 1984 Olympics.

Waters at the LA Coliseum show I saw on May 16th, 2012

The long silence on this blog is largely due to the fact that it took me days to even process the scale and sheer power of the event. To see The Wall performed in its entirety by the chief mastermind behind it thirty-two years later with the show that the original essentially wished it could be was an experience I will never forget. However, as much as the masterfulness of the original music blew me away, the thing that made the experience truly exceptional was the way that Waters has managed not only to keep The Wall relevant, but to make it more relevant and in-touch than it has ever been before.

From my understanding of The Wall’s development, it began as basically a personal project for Waters– an expression of his personal struggles, elements of his past and present including his breakup with his wife, the death of his father in World War II, and his perceived isolation from both the people around him and even from emotion itself. Over the years though, it has become much, much more than that, seemingly for both Waters and for his audience.

No longer simply a story of personal struggle, this newest incarnation of The Wall delves into larger issues than those of one life. Waters uses his performance as a platform for the issues he finds important. Anti-war and sometimes anti-government, Waters is not simply a purveyor of pop causes. “We don’t need no thought control” is only the beginning. Waters’ positions are indeed controversial, and in some respects, that is what makes his expressing them so admirable.

Waters in 1980

A performer as respected and popular as Roger Waters has more influence than most people know. Some could perceivably criticize him for using this influence for political means. I have heard people express the belief that music is music and politics is politics. My agreement with many of Waters’ positions might be a factor, but even outside of that, I don’t believe that this particular criticism is a valid one. Whether or not people like it, there is no denying that celebrities have become an important source of information in the 21st century. This is not always good– especially when the celebrities in question have opinions  that are shallow or uninformed. However, this cannot be said of Waters. His interests are genuine, and his sentiments are valid. If anything, critics should be glad that of all the celebrities who could be spreading their gospel, Waters is the one in question.

Additionally, something must be said for the sheer spectacle of the show itself. It would be very easy to create a massive, but alienating show– especially one like The Wall which centers so specifically on the idea of isolation, but Waters manages to go beyond it. The show, with projections (including spectacular animations both original and from The Wall movie in 1982), pyrotechnics, and massive inflatables, is a piece of art– a solid and cohesive statement that does complement the album, but instead supplements it. With an album like The Wall, it seems nearly impossible to expand. But Waters has done so, and by doing so, he has shown his own enormous growth in the years since the album originally came to be.

Waters now refers to himself at the time The Wall was originally written as “the fucked-up, miserable little Roger of thirty-two years ago.” With this show, he has done his best to leave that legacy behind, and build himself a new one– that of a socially-conscious, generous performer. At the show I saw, there was a problem with Roger’s mike at the beginning of “The Thin Ice.” After “In the Flesh,” when Waters began to sing the next track, his mic appeared to be completely nonfunctional. At most shows, especially ones of that scope, he probably would’ve just soldiered on until the problem was fixed, but instead of pushing through, he called for the band to stop  the song. The band did stop, and stayed stopped until the problem was fixed. At that point, they started the song over again, and continued the show as usual.

The sheer professionalism of the incident was unnerving, but at the same time, so was the utter humanity of it– same with the point near the end of the show when Roger spoke of the disappointment of the first Wall tour and how much it meant to him to bring such a better show back to Los Angeles. For a show criticized for its many nonhuman elements, this show is unbelievably human, using technology as it should be used– an extension of the natural ability of the performers, and the sheer power of the music in question.

In short (although yes, this piece has gotten rather long), I feel that in witnessing this tour, I have witnessed a piece of musical history– not only in getting to see Roger Waters perform what many consider his magnum opus, but also in seeing a show the likes of which have not been seen in rock before. Equally concert, art project, and play, it is difficult to overestimate this show’s importance, and it was my absolute privilege to see it.

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Jorma Kaukonen Interview

Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen

My first meeting with Jorma Kaukonen was pure fluke. In February 2009, just months after I had uploaded to youtube a cover of “Hesitation Blues,” a song Jorma made famous both with Hot Tuna in the 1970s and with Janis Joplin on a bootleg recording called The Typewriter Tapes,  my dear friend and I went to see him perform with G.E. Smith at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, a legendary small venue in Santa Monica, California. The many times I have seen Jorma since then attest to the fact that it was a terrific show, but it was special for me in more ways than that.

Before he and G.E. played “Hesitation Blues,” Jorma told the audience that he had just seen a thirteen-year-old girl “sing the shit out of this on youtube.” There I was, in the middle of an unspeakably awful 9th grade year– complimented by my absolute musical hero. After I explained the situation after the show first to a McCabe’s employee and then to Jorma’s manager, Jorma used his few minutes between the early and late shows to meet me, an experience for which I am still grateful. Turns out that not only is he a terrific musician, but also an exceedingly kind and generous person.

Since that show, I have seen and spoken to Jorma several more times, but it was only recently that I decided to attempt an interview– the following is the email transcript.

Jefferson Airplane, 1967– Jorma is the one in stripes

LA: You taught guitar in the early 60s before your work with Airplane and Hot Tuna. Was it strange going back so many years later to teach at the Fur Peace Ranch?

JK: Indeed, I started teaching early on in my fingerpicking career. I had really only been playing that style about three years when I moved to California and found that for a while I could make more money teaching than performing. I didn’t really get back into teaching until the mid 80’s when I taught for two semesters at the New School For Social Research in New York City. In the late 80’s, Happy Traum of Homespun approached me to do an instructional and over the next decade I did a number of them for him. When wer got the Fur Peace Ranch off the ground in 1998, it was like coming home.

LA: What motivated you to get back to teaching guitar?

JK: It just seemed like it was something that I needed to do. I enjoy being able to pass on what I have learned, the fellowship of musicians is very special and incidentally it has made and continues to make me a better player.

LA: Do you feel that all your years of touring and recording have made it easier to teach?

JK: There is a co-dependent relationship here… as things have transpired, I think teaching has made touring and recording easier.

LA: If you could impart one thing about playing music to your students, what do you think it would be?

JK: First of all… love to do it. Then focus on attainable goals… learn to be constructively self critical and don’t forget to practice.

LA: I also wanted to ask you a little bit about roots in music, and variety in musical styles. 

In listening to both Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, I am probably struck most of all by the mix of different styles in both—you can discern rock, blues, jazz, folk, and pop in Airplane, and folk, blues, rock, jazz, and gospel in Hot Tuna. Do you think it’s important for groups not to limit themselves to one genre or one style?

JK: If you consider the disparate bunch of characters in the Airplane it is not surprising that there is such an eclectic artistic mix. Generally speaking, one needs to follow one’s heart. It is always constructive to bring something fresh into any musical mix… obviously there are no rules here. That said, even though I do not consider myself strictly a blues musician… there is no question that blues has colored the way I look at things.

 LA: Hot Tuna’s recent work and your solo material both have a heavy emphasis on roots sounds—what do you think is the importance of roots in music?

JK: There is strength in tradition but don’t forget, at one time what we consider ‘roots’ music today was new. It would be interesting to know what someone like, say, Robert Johnson would have considered to be ‘roots.’ For me, traditional music is very important.

LA: Your work is now better-known than that of many of your biggest influences. How do you feel about that?

JK: Well, for better or worse, that is the way of things. One of the things that I am proudest of in my career is to be able to bring some of those artists I consider to be ‘masters’ to a wider audience.

LA: My generation’s influences are often from the 60s through the 90s—not many people I know listen to the early-20th century folk, blues, and jazz musicians that inspired your generation. Do you feel that for younger bands, roots have been somewhat displaced? 

JK: Roots as such will always be changing… for you to listen to music of the 60’s would be like me listening to music of the 20’s when I was young. The good news is, that thanks to digital technology, it’s all out there and you can easily find it if you want to. There is no shortage of new talent… hopefully there will always be a place for old talent too.

Donovan Leitch Interview

When I had the opportunity to see Donovan Leitch perform and be interviewed at LA’s Grammy Museum in honor of his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I expected a fascinating interview and a great performer, but I had no idea that I might get the chance to ask this legendary singer-songwriter of the 1960s and 1970s a few questions myself. The evening itself was excellent, but the real excitement was to come later, when while walking back to where my family’s car was parked, I saw a man carrying Donovan’s guitar case (which we had seen earlier) into a restaurant with none other than Tommy Smothers.

After some cursory decisionmaking, I decided to go in and introduce myself to the man– Donovan’s manager– who then introduced me to Donovan himself. During my brief meeting with this genuinely nice and down-to-earth performer, who informed me that he had written a song called Lily once, but that it was for his cat, I managed to score a five-question interview over email– this is the direct transcript.

LA: I think that one of the major reasons I am drawn to music so much before pmy time is perhaps what seems to me to be the more organic nature of it– stars weren’t made by American Idol or Youtube, and music didn’t have to be digitally corrected before it was considered finished. What do you think has been lost with music in the digital age? What has been gained?

DL: Music has lost nothing, it is always rising up from the deep wells within us. All new composers need to do is practice the forms with dedication. The forms are folk and blues and their children, pop and rock.

LA: Do you think that in this time, it is still possible to find poetry in music?

DL: Poetry and Music were one and they were separated. My generation re-united them. New poets need to practice the forms—the forms are lyric and free verse .

LA: Its position has obviously changed over the years– do you fear it is becoming obsolete, or that it ever possibly could?

DL: New poets need to study William Butler Yeats’ early poetry of Myth & Magic. Poetry is the language of the invisible world and always exists.

LA: In so much of your music, you express what was actually going on in the world– for instance, “From Susan On the West Coast Waiting.” How important do you think social consciousness is in popular music?

DL: New composers should reflect current events more often. Personal songs of love and relationships are always dominant though.

LA: Transcendental Meditation has played a huge part in your music. Nowadays, it seems as if the only kind of spirituality that can be found in popular music is in so-called “Christian Rock.” Do you feel that spirituality is an essential part of music?

DL: In traditional cultures the Shaman Poet Musician leads the society to the Realm Within through storytelling, chant and vision. Music is the invisible sound that calls the tribe to transcend. The Great Religions of the Passing Epoch have lost their efficacy and a New Form is emerging to suit the New Age being born. Read Joseph Campbell to see where we are in the transition.

LA: Lastly, how is it possible for you to stay passionate about a song forty years later? Do you think that forty years ago, you expected that you still would be?

DL: The songs I sing are archetypal and are not limited to my own life experience. The song is singing of all our lives, and so I am not reliving an earlier experience, I am echoing the drama of relationships that we all share. The song is ever young and wise.

I hope these replies are able to enlighten your readers to the Poet’s Role in Societies in the past, now and in all futures.

Donovan