Pink Floyd’s The Wall – a rock opera on sexual shame
During my adolescence, in what I only later realised was a subtly but significantly dysfunctional family, rock music was the main fault line between my father and I. I was a shy, sensitive, unconfident teenager: my rebellion was of the ingrown toenail kind; the kind that turns upon itself and festers unseen.
By contrast, my father seemed an assured figure who had a precise grip on the course required to navigate the waters of life. He used to ‘hold forth’ and foist his opinions upon others without, I later realised, regard to their individual needs. I wasn’t encouraged to make my own decisions. I was assaulted with well-intentioned but predetermined outcomes that never quite worked.
My father loathed rock music with a vengeance. He used to bellow with laughter upon recounting an anecdote about the one-time organist of Bristol cathedral. This paragon of wit had been asked what he thought of modern music. He replied that he thought nothing of it, as it wasn’t music. This trouser-wetting morality tale failed to curb my love of rock music.
I was issued with a classical guitar and packed off for lessons with a bearded Swiss man with all the sensitivity of a Neanderthal. I can still feel the humiliation I endured strapping the guitar in its oblong cardboard box onto the back of my little motorcycle – another bone of contention – and careening through the streets to the tutor’s house. After a few painful lessons the guitar was mercifully re-employed as a dust-gatherer.
For all my father’s voluminous opinions, the one subject on which he never held forth was sex. Such was the underreporting of sex in my household that the entire canon of physical congress may as well not have existed. But the Summer of Love had ushered in a revolution and teenagers everywhere were feeling the hypnotic pull of bare skin.
I had to deal with my burgeoning sexuality yet was totally unequipped – psychologically but not physically, which only made it worse – to do so. Repressed, unconfident and introverted, unable to approach a girl let alone negotiate sexual consent, I consequently buried my fears. For solace I turned to the rock music my father so crushingly despised.
Wish You Were Here
It was the mid 1970s in New Zealand. The rock scene bristled with a new generation of stars. From England came Queen, Rod Stewart, ELO, Genesis and later Dire Straits. Fleetwood Mac mixed British Blues with sun-drenched SoCal soft-rock. From over the Atlantic came Neil Young, Jackson Browne, the Eagles and Meatloaf. Billy Joel’s literate New York piano ballads counter-pointed Bruce Springsteen’s New Jersey dispossessed working-class rock. But it was Pink Floyd who spoke to me most profoundly. To this day, listening to Dark Side of the Moon on headphones in a darkened room remains a transcendental experience. The title track of the Floyd’s 1975 album Wish You Were Here encapsulated my feelings at the time:
Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts? Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? Cold comfort for change? And did you exchange A walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?
That final word caught a whiff of what I was feeling. On the surface there was nothing to imprison me. But the world – and especially the world of girls – certainly didn’t feel like it was my oyster. Wish You Were Here was followed by 1977’s Animals, a rather leaden affair, but in 1979 word came of a new double-album release by Pink Floyd, The Wall. Something told me it was going to be special. I pre-ordered it – if memory serves, the only time I ever did this with a music album.
Pink Floyd’s The Wall
On the morning of The Wall’s New Zealand release I arrived home clutching the stark, brick-patterned cover to my chest, pulled disc 1 from its cardboard sleeve and carefully laid it on the turntable. I gently lowered the stylus onto the rim of the LP, just as my father had taught me – among the most useful contributions he made to my upbringing. A faint voice, caught in puzzling mid-conversation, uttered “we came in” before the Floyd – Richard Wright (keyboards), Nick Mason (drums), David Gilmour (guitars) and, unmistakably the ringleader, Roger Waters (bass) – launched into an eighty-minute rock opera precisely about the sense of imprisonment, alienation and inability to express sexual feelings that blighted my own life. At last I had a name for those feelings: the wall.
But what was the wall? It could not be seen, smelled, touched or tasted. I could hear it only when I put the Floyd’s album on my turntable and lowered the stylus into the groove. Yet it permeated every moment of my existence. It cut me off from friends and family, from love, from laughter, from human touch. What I didn’t realise was that, in the deepest cut of all, the wall separated me from myself.
For the next few years The Wall was the uncontested number one on my personal album chart. As my teenage years gave way to my 20s I stumbled through brief, car-crash relationships. My family became strangers. Friends fell away without replacement. I felt I was watching the world through the wrong end of a telescope: remote, clear and ever further from reach. I retreated within my shell and bricked myself in. The wall was complete.
The sexual-spiritual split
At some point in the early 80s I stopped listening to The Wall. With hindsight I believe it simply became too painful to bear: its compass pointed too straight at the true north of my pain. Over the next two decades I have no memory of playing it and slowly devalued its significance. But the wall remained – and one day I found a more descriptive term for it: the ‘sexual-spiritual split’.
This is a term used by Michael Picucci, PhD, of the Authentic Healing Process Institute, to describe an “internalized schism between our sexual and spiritual energies.” This schism, endemic in our society, holds that sexuality and spirituality are mutually exclusive.
In this context, spirituality doesn’t simply refer to being religious. It refers to being a valued and accepted member of society, something we all crave. We bask in the approving gaze of our peers when we dedicate our time to work, parenting, sport, art or charity.
But not sex.
For all our supposed permissiveness, sex remains fundamentally taboo, tolerated only within narrow confines: with our significant other, in the bedroom, in the dark, hidden from everyone including ourselves. As a result, during adolescence the unconscious awareness of this sexual negativity creates a tension between the desire for acceptance and the taboo desire for sex.
The result is a psychological split between our acceptable and unacceptable aspects, and the sense of something shameful and malign that we must hide. For those – such as me – sensitive enough to be significantly affected, this creates the impression of living in a cage or behind a wall.
Something rotten in the state of Floyd
The Wall was recorded between April and November of 1979, at which time Pink Floyd were on the brink of fracture. Once a democratic group, Roger Waters – the main songwriter – increasingly sought to use the band as a vehicle to express his rage and pain at the death of his father during World War II. Guitarist David Gilmour led the opposition to Waters’ increasingly despotic musical ambitions. Waters wrote The Wall almost in its entirety, though Gilmour has the lead credit on two of the album’s high points, ‘Comfortably Numb’ and ‘Run like Hell’.
Bob Ezrin, David Gilmour and Roger Waters produced the album – with a pungent comment on the sleeve that the listing was purely alphabetical. As often happens in rock, this caustic atmosphere brought out the best in both Waters and Gilmour. Nothing in the libretto indicates that Waters was conscious of the sexual-spiritual split. But the 26-song cycle that comprises The Wall perfectly describes the growing alienation – from those around him, from himself and from his sexuality – of the lead character, a rock singer known only as Pink. The album opens with the operatic bombast of ‘In the Flesh?’ Both the title and lyric hint at the sexual frisson underlying the album’s central concept:
So you Thought you Might like to go to the show To feel the warm thrill of confusion That space cadet glow
The next few songs deal with Pink’s childhood and adolescence in harrowing terms. In ‘The Thin Ice’, the young Pink is warned of the dangers of breaching accepted social mores. Though it’s not openly stated at this point, the most dangerous of these are sexual:
If you should go skating On the thin ice of modern life Dragging behind you the silent reproach Of a million tear-stained eyes Don’t be surprised when a crack in the ice Appears under your feet
Although The Wall is definitely Roger Waters’ baby, David Gilmour’s contribution should not be underestimated. Of all the British axe heroes of the 1970s, Gilmour was the best at using space in his guitar solos to create structure and momentum. His lead work on ‘Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2’ and ‘Comfortably Numb’ are amongst his finest moments. His hooks – such as the coruscating riff that propels ‘Run like Hell’ – and his rhythm work are equally effective. An infectious, bubbling rhythm underpins ‘Another Brick in the Wall, Part 1’. Here Pink bemoans the psychological damage (i.e. arrested development) arising from the loss of his father.
In the scathing ‘The Happiest Days of Our Lives’ and ‘Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2’, an unlikely hit single, Pink is thrown into a school system that regards him as nothing better than fodder – literally mincemeat in Alan Parker’s animated film of The Wall – and where the teachers delight in beating the children. (I attended a Catholic school where the nuns wielded teak rulers for infringements as minor as getting the times-tables wrong – an unhealthy nexus of womanhood, religion, violence and mathematics.)
Pink’s adolescence ends with the folksy strummed guitar of ‘Mother’. His over-protective mother seeks to insulate him from the perils of his own sexuality:
Mama’s gonna check out all your girlfriends for you Mama won’t let anyone dirty get through Mama’s gonna wait up until you come in Mama will always find out where you’ve been
This is the birthplace of sexual shame.
Pink’s natural sexuality emerges, but instead of receiving a healthy template for expressing it, it’s rammed down his throat that sex is fundamentally immoral. All of this stems from our core emotional and sexual disconnection, the mother wound. With no safe avenue for his sexuality Pink unconsciously splits off his sexual feelings from the acceptable aspects of himself and represses them, castrating his own psyche.
Angry, lost and confused by the resulting sense of disconnection, Pink makes his way into adulthood abandoned by his father, overwhelmed by his mother and ashamed of his sexuality. This transition is documented in ‘Goodbye Blue Sky’ and ‘Empty Spaces’, before Pink’s newly-awakened hormones run rampant in ‘Young Lust’:
Oooh, I need a dirty woman Oooh, I need a dirty girl
Hardly Shakespeare, but it makes the point. Pink has yet to lose his virginity but already he regards sex as a dirty and shameful activity. Society’s sexual negativity is evident in the use of words that denote a lack of moral or physical hygiene to describe sex. Gilmour’s guitar solo in ‘Young Lust’ covers a lot of territory, taking Pink from barely out of school to a transatlantic rock star in a long-term relationship. Yet, despite this outward success, all is not well chezPink, as he warns in ‘One of My Turns’:
I feel cold as a razor blade Tight as a tourniquet Dry as a funeral drum
The violence inflicted on the young Pink resurfaces as he grabs his favourite guitar and runs amok, driving away his wife. The failures of all Pink’s key relationships slowly increase his sense of disconnection, both from himself and others. Finally, brick by brick, the wall is complete – a wall founded on sexual shame.
Pink turns his back on everyone else in ‘Goodbye Cruel World’, falsely placing the source of his pain outside himself. The next few songs, from ‘Hey You’ to ‘Comfortably Numb’ – side 3 on the original double-LP, always my favourite – document Pink’s final alienation from the real world in agonisingly microscopic detail. ‘Hey You’ finds him calling out from behind the wall of his alienated feelings. The near-instrumental ‘Is There Anybody Out There?’ offers one of the album’s most poignant moments with a haunting acoustic guitar figure over a sombre orchestral backing. In ‘Nobody Home’ Pink makes an inventory of the pathetic existence he’s been reduced to:
I’ve got a little black book with my poems in I’ve got a bag with a toothbrush and a comb in When I’m a good dog they sometimes throw me a bone in
Then come two brief interludes, ‘Vera’ and ‘Bring the Boys Back Home’, alluding to the wartime death of Roger Waters’ father, followed by the majestic ‘Comfortably Numb’. Pink slides into a sedated vacuum to escape the feelings of shame and unworthiness roiling inside him. David Gilmour’s towering electric guitar solos speak as eloquently as Waters’ beautifully savage lyrics:
There is no pain, you are receding A distant ship smoke on the horizon You are only coming through in waves You lips move but I can’t hear what you’re saying When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse Out of the corner of my eye I turned to look but it was gone I cannot put my finger on it now The child is grown The dream is gone And I have become Comfortably numb
The only solution Pink has to his constant state of emotional pain is numbness. But numbness isn’t selective: numbing painful feelings also numbs joyful ones. In ‘The Show must go On’ Pink stops to examine his feelings, only to discover he has become a slave to his own success. The show does indeed go on. Pink is marooned in his hotel room while a “surrogate band” takes his place on stage.
And here Roger Waters’ story makes a hard right turn. The surrogate band turn into the leaders of a fascist movement intent on cleaning up what they see as a morally impure society, in the same manner as 1930s Nazi Germany – a movement that led directly to the death of Waters’ father. Yet this abrupt development works because it makes sense from the perspective of sexual shame. This is the mortar that unconsciously binds every brick in The Wall. On stage, the surrogate band sings ‘In the Flesh’, a reprise of the opening song where society’s bigotry and judgement is made plain:
Are there any queers in the theatre tonight? Get ‘em up against the wall There’s one in the spotlight He doesn’t look right to me Get him up against the wall That one looks Jewish And that one’s a coon Who let all this riffraff into the room?
The surrogate band and their followers – the ‘worms’ – are intent on imposing conformity to their narrow, puritan view of society. Difference is therefore equated with weakness; the least transgression is brutally punished. The sexual side of these transgressions is finally made explicit in ‘Run like Hell’:
And if you’re Taking your girlfriend Out tonight You better park the car Well out of sight ‘Cause if they catch you in the back seat Trying to pick her locks They’re gonna send you back to mother In a cardboard box
Pink recognises the futility of trying to escape in ‘Waiting for the Worms’. Knowing he will soon be caught brings a sense of relief. Beyond caring, he sits inside the bunker of his own alienation. Pink waits for the inevitable sound of hobnailed boots kicking in his door. This leads to ‘The Trial’, the most operatic and at the same time the most frightening episode in The Wall. Pink is brought before the judge, “Worm, your honour”:
The crown will plainly show The prisoner who now stands before you Was caught red-handed showing feelings Showing feelings of an almost human nature Shame on him This will not do
Just what are the urges of our shadow side, if not “feelings of an almost human nature”? Yet we suppress them, deny them, judge them and find ourselves wanting. A succession of witnesses – the schoolmaster, ex-wife and mother – pours vitriol on the emotionally broken Pink. He is sentenced to “the full penalty of the law”:
Since, my friend, you have revealed your deepest fear
I sentence you to be exposed before your peers Tear down the wall
Shame of exposure is indeed the greatest fear for those who live with the sexual-spiritual split. Cue a falling rubble sound effect. Pink’s supposed degeneracy is revealed as a warning to one and all. Then he’s cast on the scrap-heap of our so-called caring society.
In the closing ‘Outside the Wall’ a few brave souls – “the bleeding hearts and artists” – stage a pathetic protest but ultimately wither in the face of humanity’s inability to accept its fundamentally sexual nature. Finally, the faint voice that so puzzlingly began The Wall reappears, saying “See the script where…” Added to the “we came in” at the start of side 1, the on-going, cyclical nature of sexual shame is revealed. Each generation that represses its sexual impulses raises its children to do exactly the same. Another generation of young Pinks is doomed to repeat his journey into alienation and sexual misery so eloquently documented in The Wall.
Outside the wall
I have made that journey. In my house where sex wasn’t a dirty word, it was a non-existent one. Consequently, I wandered into the adult world with no sense of social legitimacy for the cauldron of sexual feelings that churned inside me. Stumbling from one relationship to another, I looked for love when sex was offered and looked for sex when love was on offer. I felt lost, imprisoned and alone. I turned my back on the world, hoping it would somehow stem the pain of my wounded psyche. None of it made any difference.
The wall was inside me all the time – every damn brick of it. I felt ashamed of the sexual impulses that stained all my relationships. Despising my inability to control them, I put myself on trial. I looked at myself and saw both the ‘good’ part of me – the husband, the father, the writer – and the ‘bad’ part of me with its endless sexual yearning. Then I saw it, in my peripheral vision, just as Roger Waters described in ‘Comfortably Numb’:
When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse Out of the corner of my eye
Tear down the wall
In the crack between the ‘good’ me and the ‘bad’ me I saw the sexual-spiritual split. It cut me in half, making one half of me judge the other. There was only one difference between these two aspects of myself. One part received my love and the other did not. Instead of sentencing myself to be exposed before my peers, the sentence was manual labour. To tear down the wall, brick by brick, by loving my wounded, ignored, repressed, despised and alienated sexual side. With love and time down came the wall. As my sense of alienation receded, I found myself returning to the albums I’d listened to in the 1970s. It felt like I’d buried pieces of my fractured psyche in the music during my adolescence and now had to recover them to make myself whole.
And so I found my way back to The Wall after a 25-year absence. Only this time I heard it from outside the barrier of alienation. For the first time, I fully grasped its magnificence. Its underlying subject matter – I discovered with a profound shock – was sexual shame and the sexual-spiritual split. Pink Floyd’s The Wall is a cultural document whose significance is vastly underappreciated. Unlike me, Pink failed to find the hole in the wall that led out of alienation. His lesson must not go unheard.
Lyrics © Pink Floyd 1979