Friday, August 04, 2006

Out of the corner of my eye

Bill Gnade, the hyperintelligent proprietor of Contratimes, has hosted a discussion about The Greatest Rock Song of All Time. I weighed in last week with my nomination, Springsteen's Born To Run (see the comments section here).

Yesterday, Gnade posted his pick for greatest rock song and a defense thereof. I started to post a reply in his comments section, but I was struck with a serious bout of diarrhea of the keyboard. So I decided to post it here instead.

Read on, if you're not already too bored.


That's a very fine deconstruction of that song. I'm a huge Pink Floyd fan, as regular reader (sic) of my blog would know.

Roger Waters is one of the music world's best lyricists, and your assessment of the guitar solos (not just in this song) is spot on. I could (and have-back in college) listen to The Wall for ages and always hear something new, not to mention Dark Side and Animals. All are very high concept albums, indeed works of art in the finest sense.

That said, I don’t think I can support your assertion that Comfortably Numb, great as it is, is "the greatest rock song of all time."

The only reason I say this is the simple fact that it doesn't rock. It lacks that certain quality that makes me want to get up and move, that certain je ne sais quois that makes my toe tap and my adrenaline rush. Indeed, it makes me want to sit quietly and reflect (which is an important call to action).

But for a song to be the greatest rock song of all time, as Christopher Walken would say, "I gotta have more cow bell."

One other comment on your interpretation of the song: I think I agree about 95 percent with you discussion. But...

It's a bit unfair to discuss this song out of context with the rest of the album, particularly because it comes at such an important point in the story of Pink. It's a bit like just reading about Judas' betrayal and Jesus' crucifixion in the Bible, then stopping. You miss the most important part (resurrection).

However, a very fine point of differentiation is that I think Voice 1 (and indeed the entire first "act" of the album) is really about the amalgamation of "characters" and events in the world that drive us to self-destructive behavior. These people and events (different for everyone) are what cause us all to have our own demons, and to build our own psycho-spiritual walls. It's the very process of adolescence and what makes it so painful (does anyone really want to go through junior high again?)

But I think the point of the album (driven home in the last two tracks), is that we should strive to avoid indulging our inner demons and dragging around the psychological weight of all the crap that everyone goes through. Instead we should look for positive influences (both external and internal). If we can do these things, we stand a better chance of not breaking through the thin ice of modern living, and we will be happier in the end.

Man isn't meant to live inside his own mind. We need to be open to our feelings and the love and kindness of others, and that's incredibly difficult for some of us.

No man is an island, after all.

All alone, or in two's,
The ones who really love you
Walk up and down outside the wall.
Some hand in hand
And some gathered together in bands.
The bleeding hearts and artists
Make their stand.

And when they've given you their all
Some stagger and fall, after all it's not easy
Banging your heart against some mad bugger's wall.

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  1. Dear emaw_kc,

    Thank you, thank you, for offering this excellent criticism of my nominee, "Comfortably Numb". You make excellent points.

    Part of me did not want to place the song in the context of Pink Floyd's The Wall for two reasons. First, the song really belongs to David Gilmour, I believe, and not Roger Waters. I believe this is the ONLY song on The Wall that finds its genesis in Gilmour's own muse. Moreover, as the Wikipedia entry discusses, it is the only song on the whole of The Wall that stands alone.

    The second reason I did not place it in the context of The Wall is because The Wall is incomplete. If memory serves me well, The Wall was considered too desperate and too bleak by producers and the rest of the band; Waters balked and fought, eventually making concessions and allowing the album, and the film, to end with more optimism than he ever intended. In fact (if memory serves me truly), Floyd's next album, The Final Cut, was actually the outtakes from The Wall (you'll recall in the film that Pink is reciting lyrics from The Final Cut when he is swirling his hand in the toilet while collapsed on the floor).

    Hence, I felt that I had no choice but to discuss the song outside of The Wall; I do not believe that lyrically or musically it is (definitely) connected to resurrection considering the (implied) total nihilism of The Final Cut.

    And I am sure you know that Waters and Gilmour often battled over Waters' obsession with the abyss. That battle led, in part, to Waters' departure from the group.

    So I can't in good conscience connect the song to anything larger than itself: I believe the question, "Is there anybody out there?" followed by the rhetorical, "Is there anybody in there?" sets the tone for the entire song; hinging, of course, on the "fleeting glimpse" and "this is not who I am."

    I hope that this makes my reasons for the sin of omitting The Wall more reasonable. You are right, though: The Wall is hugely important; Pink's story is essential to the whole. But I think that I nonetheless painted a fair picture of Pink's struggle sufficiently without naming Pink; and I do note the preamble of the song where all those conflicting, demanding voices can be heard. (Plus, I had to consider how much readers were willing to read.)

    As for the toe-tapping, I understand. But my first premise is this: if one completely surrenders oneself to the total toe-tapping dynamic of the rock and roll lifestyle, toe-tapping ceases: melancholy is the final emotion of indulging in toe-tapping (the rock identity) for its own sake.

    There are far better rock songs for rocking out. Egads, there are dozens. But this one rocks in its frank criticism of what may be the greatest danger of human life: a bland indifference. Picture the Church of Laodicea: Christ spits it out because it is tepid, lukewarm. My experience (and that is all I really have), is that the rock spirit always leads to Pink's harrowing screams and lurches in the final frames of The Wall's "Comfortably Numb."

    But you know that there is no one right answer here; we both know it. There are tons of great songs. Your choice (at my site) "Born To Run", was a great one. Since you gave the best defense of your choice, I was hoping to feature your defense in a few days. What do you think?



  2. Hey Emaw_kc! How the hell are ya? I absolutely love Pink Floyd! I may be a little off the subject but last year during Live Aid here in Philly, I was on call the entire weekend and we were watching glimpses of what was going on in England (I think they had the best show) and they played with Roger Waters for the first time in years and they aired a little of it. Was cool to get a chance to watch even though it was across the pond and the tube.

  3. Hola,

    Came over via your comment at Contratimes, although I recognize you from Blog Meridian, as well.

    I enjoyed Bills analysis, but I think I agree with you viz. the "toe tappin'" quality of rock.

    Had the question been "Greatest Song of the Rock Era," then Bill's analysis is sound. But to get up and jam, as it were, I think there are better choices. (Mine was Lawyers, Guns and Money.


  4. Got to say that R. Sherman has a better toe-tapping choice than my rather flat-footed one. Oiks.


  5. Echele,

    Thanks as always for commenting. My own nomination was from your fellow Jersyan(??) The Boss, who, in addition to you, is one of the best things to come out of New Jersey.

  6. r.sherman,

    Thanks for getting my back. We midwesterners have to stick together.

  7. Bill,

    As always you make excellent points.

    I hope I didn't suggest that the song is about resurrection. My point was that listening to a single song from the album is like reading a single story from the Bible.

    Or, maybe a better analogy would be reading the first two volumes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, then stopping.

    Granted, Comfortably Numb has a different creative roots than other tracks on the album, but it's still a part of an artistic gestalt which is informed by the creative energies of all band members (well, probably Gilmour and Waters for the most part). I really think The Wall is greater than the sum of its individual bricks.

    And, as for being incomplete, many of the great works of art are "edited." The movie version of the aforementioned Lord of the Rings trilogy contained huge ommissions from the book, for example, not to mention the directors original cut.

    And many consider the Bible incomplete because it omits some of the "other" gospels (although, I have no intention of getting into a discussion of Biblical study with you, I would be waaaay out of my league).

    Of course, none of this really contradicts any of what you wrote about the song in your deconstruction.

    As for my comments re: Born to Run, you're welcome to reproduce any part of it that you think your readers will tolerate.

    Thanks for stopping by and for starting the great discussion.

  8. Hi,

    I shot people over to Bill's and then this post from my blog. Suffice it to say, this is a great discussion.


  9. Emaw_kc,

    I want to thank you for once again going the extra mile -- the extra two miles -- to deepen this discussion. I am sorry it has taken me so long to reply. I can't say I've been too busy; depression (sort of) might be closer to the truth.

    Indeed, The Wall is greater than its sundry parts. Though we must agree its parts are even greater than themselves (at first glance), if that idea can make any sense at all.

    Your Bible analogy is a good one, up to a point. For surely as you know nearly every teacher or preacher of that Holy Book does indeed lift stories, parables, even single words from their total context. So my liberating "Comfortably Numb" from its confines is certainly permissible in a sort of lit-crit, Biblical-exegesis kind of way. But you do not push too hard with your analogy, so we are not really in disagreement.

    Have you ever read the book, "Irrational Man"? It is the perfect primer, I believe, for delving into the philosophy of Floyd. I had the privilege of living for a year in a mountain cabin; there I read that book while listening (there was electricity) to Floyd in a critical, academic spirit. It was eye-opening; the book is one of the best works I've ever read (it is a classic survey of existentialism). For me, as a 24-year-old looking for purpose (I am still looking), the book was life-changing.

    Here's to rocking out. By the way, I've got to say that I am smitten right now by the guitar solo at the end of The Red Hot Chili Peppers' newest release, "Dani Hollywood." It certainly gets my toes tapping. I have no explanation for this at all. A quirk in my psyche, I guess.



    PS. I am from Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. Alas, you've shown your hand. Now, at best, I can only be the third best thing to come from that state. I mean, surely ahead of me are the Boss, then echele (what eyes!), then, well, I guess Bon Jovi ...

    Perhaps I would have fared better had I hidden my NJ roots and simply announced that it is more apt to describe me as a native of the great state of confusion.

  10. Bill, I would definitely put you above Bon Jovi (although just below echele).

    But in a quick tangent, I would highly suggest you listen to the Comfortably Numb cover by Copperbox. It's a sort of zydeco-style cover and it's one of the best (of many) cover versions of this song.

    Not sure if it's on iTunes, but you can listen to it online in this episode of Coverville. It's the fourt track that Brian plays, but you can ffwd through if you want. Well worth the effort.


  11. The only song that stands alone? What about Hey You, probably the best track on the album?

  12. Thanks Gael. Other singles from the album are Another Brick in the Wall (Part III), Run Like Hell and Young Lust.

    At least, those are songs I remember hearing on the radio.


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