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Pink Pigs and Scarred Psyches

One man's triumphant journey through Pink Floyd obsession

It started, as do so many of life's guilty pleasures, in junior high school. My more prescient friends were busy mail-ordering indie punk singles by the crate, documenting the New Wave blow by blow on their parents' crappy turntables. Although I finally, almost by accident, brought home the Sex Pistols' debut album and had my relationship to music (and to my father) changed dramatically, at this larval emotional stage I was still hooked deep on Pink Floyd.

I owned every album. I looked forward to repeated viewings of the Live at Pompeii concert. I had a friend mail me a Saudi Arabian bootleg of The Final Cut. I pored over both extant solo albums by founding and long-absent pop mastermind Syd Barrett, and cherished the legend that the homebound madman himself had been seen stalking the grounds of the Abbey Road studios while the surviving band recorded Wish You Were Here, allegedly dedicated to Barrett. I joined the rest of the 16-year-old world in getting stoned out of my gourd and trekking to midnight matinees of The Wall. I could tell you that the calligraphic lyric sheet from Animals was drawn by drummer Nick Mason. Stupid shit. I was a real Floyd geek.

It carried over from my bedroom, where the stereo was, to the rest of my life. When my friends and I went to the mall, which was the only place to find a record store in Clear Lake, I debated the merits of limited-issue singles versus cheapo Mexican greatest-hits compilations on a budget too small to afford both. While my debate class spent the afternoon in the UH library researching briefs and precedents, I was planted in front of the microfiche, indexing old Floyd references and xeroxing pictures. At one point I saw a billboard advertising the services of a private detective firm -- We Find Anyone for $150 -- and toyed with the idea of somehow raising the money to dig up Barrett. Didn't know what I'd do if I found him -- maybe ask what it felt like to absorb so much acid through your scalp that your brain turned to chorizo.

Sitting here now, recalling what surely sounds like an obsession, trying to recall the mood of the times with a home-dubbed cassette of Wish You Were Here, all I can think is that I should have been collecting the SST catalog and Leather Nun imports, which would at least have some dollar value at Sound Exchange. As it is, all I've got left of my adolescent fascination is a few homemade tapes and a lingering hangover of embarrassed disdain.

It's a sense, almost an attitude, that I bring full-bore to the news of Pink Floyd's imminent arrival in Houston -- my first convenient chance to see a band I fairly worshipped but never had the opportunity to experience live. Roger Waters' first solo tour at the Summit, which I attended with a joint and a bottle of peppermint Schnapps, was as close as I got, and much of the magic was already lost. Now, not only is Syd Barrett long gone -- a sense of loss from the moment I first listened to the band -- but also bassist and chief songwriter Waters, the band's grumpy, misogynist post-Barrett navigator.

Perhaps most important, gone is the fascination I felt as a child. I've heard the post-Waters Floyd albums, at least as far as they get played on classic-rock radio, and I think they suck. I've seen the new tour's promotional blimp, and I think Fuji did a better job with the same resources. I've glanced at recent record company promo pictures, and remaining Floydians David Gilmour (guitar), Nick Mason (drums) and Rick Wright (keyboards) look like they've had their heads beaten into fleshy cubes by the two-by-four of the last ten years. The Rice Stadium gig, billed as "the most advanced rock performance ever staged," will almost certainly be a bloated, jaundiced, arena-sized cloud that will darken fond adolescent nostalgia, but I'll be damned if I won't be there to take my seat. There's a sense of duty involved. The duty to bring a long-waning obsession full circle, to finally, at least, see the damned band that wasted so much of my youth and gave so little of lasting value in return. I expect also that the kill-the-father syndrome that leads so many of us critics into idol-toppling crusades may have something to do with my desire to see the lame ducks of art rock tumble and fall, to witness as the final nail sinks into the heart of an ugly fetish. I expect to be in a pissy mood after the show -- that's why I'm getting this out of the way now.

But since we're getting it out of the way, and since there will hopefully be no excuses to consider the matter after the fact, let's consider whence this Floydian fascination springs. I'm not the only one who's been plagued. Pink Floyd was the first, and perhaps remains the only mass-audience cult band, and the sales statistics on Dark Side of the Moon alone bear testament to the Floyd's infiltration of the brains of countless millions.

Teenage males, not surprisingly, were the hardest hit. The little girls never did understand. Floyd was ugly, for one thing, and to a young woman who not only did not envy a penis but most certainly had no desire to be strapped to an oversized wooden one with six strings that she could yank around all day, Floyd's songs probably sounded like one long public yank session with less-than-savory overtones.

But undeterred by ugliness, and kinda hip to the idea of jerking off all the day long, the boys tuned in. How could we resist? Floyd possessed all the elements of classic cult appeal for pimply-faced (or pock-brained) youth. First of all, they were guys with long hair and without real jobs who complained about their overbearing mothers and their dead daddies and how everybody's an ass-licking leech when you're rich and, oh yeah, school sucks, kids. The music itself -- too artsy to call rock, really, but free of the fey classical pretensions of art-rockers like Yes -- created a tight, claustrophobic inner space where an impressionable kid could come to find a way out. We could relate. We definitely hated school, everybody bummed on their mother now and then, we all had a few dinnertime fantasies about dad's demise, and if these cats could resolve all that with long hair and guitar solos and in the meantime be paid alienating millions by people they then turned to and told to bug the hell off, then damn straight, boy, I'm with that program.

And if a close mental empathy with the indulgently morbid aspects of early teen angst secured the Floyd a place in the dark heart of every maladjusted boy in the land, the band's eminent collectibility made sure that the passion could be followed through into a long and fruitful search for band trivia, rumor and innuendo. Like Steely Dan, the Floyd presented itself as an enigma -- the rock band as onion -- offering layer after layer of information and conversational tidbits. Photos were rare, and so of infinitely greater interest. The band's legend contained in Syd Barrett that juiciest of all obsessional nuggets -- a rock genius driven insane by too much acid and his own sudden ascent to pop godhood. To those stricken, Johnny Rotten's widely reported scrawling of "I Hate" at the top of his Pink Floyd T-shirt wasn't a musical manifesto or the bellwether of punk, but just one more thing to know about the Floyd. There was a multitude of solo albums to be tracked down and catalogued, obscure films to be rented for the moody Floydian soundtracks, and plenty of trippy Hipgnosis cover art to absorb as you de-seeded your quarter bag in the gatefold. You could sink as deep into the Floyd as you wanted.

I've seen a few sink a little too far. Not everyone left the Floyd behind after high school, and that overwrought tonic for overwrought sensibilities has combined, more than a few times, with college and bad acid for memorably unpleasant trips. To put your head in the vice grip of a tab of vitamin A and delve into Waters' grotesque caricatures of vicious women and conspiratorial men was enough to drive any poorly formed psyche into a downward spiral of ugly vibes. And yet for many, the inner-space sonics of the Floyd fairly mandated chemically manipulated listening. There's a scene in the rockumentary Live at Pompeii video wherein the interviewer questions Gilmour about the band's allegiance and musical debt to drug use. Gilmour, stringy-haired and slumping, wildly dilated pupils in a face glowing with that unmistakably oily acid-eater shine, responds: "A lot of people think we're a drug band. We're not. Really." Long pause... "You can trust me." He's lying.

But whatever fan attrition rate can be ascribed to psychic growing pains never had a significant effect on the band's zombie army of followers. And while it was an army swollen by teenage males, it wasn't confined to their ranks. Audiophile and would-be audiophiles from the world of suburban fatherdom latched on to the Floyd's quadraphonic sound experiments, and by the time I was turned on to the Floyd, a dad with a listening chair, hi-fi headphones and a copy of Animals in its freshly-minted CD format wasn't so much unusually hip as standard issue. According to my recollection, the two objects a kid could reliably expect to find among the possessions of any suburban household harboring an adult male were a copy of William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Dark Side of the Moon.

I don't see either quite so often these days (though, come to think of it, I've got those two objects stashed on shelves somewhere), and I think that's probably for the better. The music doesn't stand the test of time as anything more than a vast body of extreme indulgence, and it's almost painful now to hear the opening notes of "Wish You Were Here" beamed into the dash radio. I, like many of us, have moved on to more satisfying forms of indulgence in the post-teen trajectory, and unlike the bracing splash I still get from Never Mind the Bollocks or New Day Rising or The Clash or any of the other of dozens of records that carried me to this point, a revisit to Meddle or The Wall or Umma Gumma provides only distaste. Been there, done that, get me the hell out of here.

But like I say, I'll be sitting in the seats when the pink pig floats again. Partly out of professional curiosity, and partly just because I can. But mostly because no matter how far taste may stray, no matter how much times may change, no matter how distant adolescence may lie in the past, the essential and original power of Pink Floyd over two generations of fuddleheaded kids and audio-wank adults is not to be denied. Because when the seductively exploitative music and mythos of Pink Floyd hooks you in that ugly and fear-filled place of the soul, it hooks you deep.

Pink Floyd will play Tuesday, April 5 at Rice Stadium, 629-3700. Tickets are $32.50 and $22.50.

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