#4 – Pink Floyd, The Wall

Hopeful surfing

If ever there were an act that required uncompromising perseverance, yet yielded maximum reward, learning to surf is surely it. If that sounds too physical, or you simply can’t be bothered, then watching someone you care about learn to surf will do the trick. You may feel a sliver of dread, tinged with hope. Or maybe just enough hope, tinged with some dread.
I watched my wife take a surfing lesson last week. It was her third ever so not a total novice, but still beginner enough to give rise to the odd chuckle and grimace. Watching a loved one learn to surf is more exhilarating than it sounds. There are prolonged periods of being on-edge. Brief spells of boredom. You watch each swell that passes thinking ‘that’s the one’, only to be disappointed. When they finally catch the perfect wave, are on their feet cruising, the surge of pleasure you know they are experiencing is unrivalled and you think to yourself, there must be nothing better. When they crash and burn face-first into 2 feet of water and a second wave puts them under again for good measure, Schadenfreude momentarily supplants admiration as the foremost sensation you’ll feel.

Watching someone you care about learn to surf and seeing them do it quite well, and quite badly, can, I found last week, be compared to listening to Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’.

This is my 4th blog, there are millions of albums to choose from. Why in Dave Gilmour’s name would I choose to write about ‘The Wall’ and all its celebrated eminence?

PhDs may have been written on interpreting the meaning of ‘The Wall’. I’ll spare you, therefore, the operatic grandeur of destructive isolationism that is the journey of Pink’s detachment from life and society. Although with the recent election of a certain President partial to a wall of his own, the appeal of depression-relieving analgesia to make one comfortably numb has arguably never been greater.

I was going to write about ‘The Wall’ because I was recently bought the album on vinyl as a gift. The sleeve, the ‘hand-written’ lyrics inside, brought back all the magic I felt holding my parents’ original copy of it as a teenager.

More profoundly, I was going to write about ‘The Wall’ because I recently met a 91 year-old man on a train. An hour later, after hearing tales of his life dating back to the late forties, we reached our destination. I then met up with some dear friends and their 1-year old baby boy. The dichotomous contacts with a 1 and 91-year old, friend and stranger within close proximity made me question whether any piece of music, any album, can adequately capture the journey from cradle to grave in the way that, say, great literature can. I need only to think back to the last 3 books I’d read to recall ‘Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant’, by Anne Tyler. An outstanding example, illuminating the extremes of both joy and sorrow that mundane, everyday life can bring. Books map these journeys far better than music does almost all of the time. ‘The Wall’ being, in my view, the one great exception.

I had the pleasure of seeing our friends all weekend, in awe of the little one’s curiosity. When I got home I listened to ‘The Wall’ and concluded that no piece of music better captures the endeavour and achievement of learning to walk quite as well as ‘In the Flesh’ does, the opening track of the album. The shock of getting to your feet. The triumph. Like standing up on a surfboard. The upbeat melody coming at just the moment you realise for the first time you can walk, or nearly walk, then fall, then try again. A riff that stays with us throughout the album, a gait that stays with us throughout our lives.

On the edge of collapse

But now, I find myself writing about ‘The Wall’ because watching my wife surf last week, I went through much of what I went through listening to the album for the first time. The briefest tedium. An unsatisfactory ending. A chuckle, a grimace. Dogged perseverance. But my, what extremes those tracks can take you to. The hope. The dread. The angry thrills. Sadistic elation with “my favourite axe.” The guitars, the lyrics, the melodies, the groove, the lot.

When it gets there, when you’re up on that metaphorical surfboard, teetering on the edge of collapse, it’s among the best, most emotionally charged music ever produced.

One of the last things the kind & humble 91-year old stranger said to me on the train after I’d listened patiently to his heartfelt stories, was:

“Before I go to bed every night, I now think to myself, am I going to wake up, and still be here tomorrow.”

I’d never felt such sorrow for someone I’d only just met.

I wonder whether one day I’ll wake up and this album will no longer be relevant. I slightly dread that generations to come won’t get to experience the beauty that is ‘The Wall’ in its entirety. I mostly hope that musical masterpieces such as this will be there forever, transcending the fickle and cyclical modalities we’re forced to endure of communicating or listening to great works of art.

Be it learning to walk, or learning to surf, or learning to age, ‘The Wall’ can accompany you through the highs and the lows of such great adventures.

With a sliver of dread, tinged with hope. Or maybe just enough hope tinged with some dread.

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