Since none of us will be seeing any concerts soon, I thought I’d reflect on the biggest show I ever attended…
After college, as I’ve often complained about in these pages, I took a job for a mammoth corporation who sent me, yes, to Arkansas. I’ll be the first to admit that Kansas City isn’t Paris, but Arkansas felt like exile, especially in the beginning when I was placed in a small town named Ft. Smith, Arkansas. More like Ft. Hell, Arkansas. Back then no one under forty should have been stationed in Ft. Hell. It felt like the most remote corner of the universe, although admittedly it was only 5 hours from everywhere (Dallas, KC, Shreveport, Memphis). There was a guy in the office who loved Ft. Smith. He had been born there, married there, raised kids there and for all I know he died there. I get it, he was a native son and he loved it. He also used to pull his suit pants up to his nipples…no accounting for taste as the saying goes. He used to stand at my desk and espouse the virtues of his hometown… I always just kinda mumbled, quoting Muddy Waters, “Yeah man, but, uh, “I Can’t Get No Grindin’.”” I guess I was too much of a “yankee.”
By 1989 they’d moved me to Fayetteville, Arkansas, a move I believe that was made out of pity rather than cold profit and loss. That place was infinitely better. There was a college and a groovy little entertainment area on Dixon Street. My friend Ross and I used to pub crawl that street but those memories are more than a little blurry. The only good thing about Arkansas was befriending Ross, who remains a dear friend to this day. I remember sitting on the used hide-a-bed couch in my apartment (with its lovely cigarette burn) watching the Berlin Wall come down that November. That was a cool part of history to watch happen. However, from Arkansas I thought I was watching it all unfold from another planet. Despite Fayetteville being a better place for a young man, I knew I had to get out of there. History was taking place and I was missing it.
I decided that November, watching the Wall fall that I was done with Arkansas and the mammoth corporation. No more working for the man! I would finish the year, cash any check they gave me and hightail it out of there. In February of 1990 I came careening into my parent’s driveway in my U-Haul with my meager possessions and moved back in with them. They were thrilled. My father didn’t talk to me for six months. It was a pretty hostile atmosphere so I didn’t really hang around at my folks’ house much. Instead I hit the road. I drove to see friends I hadn’t seen in a few years. I was “On the Road.” I went from Kansas City to Dallas to Louisville where I attended the Kentucky Derby, something every bourbon lover should do. Mint Juleps for everyone. All that Jack Kerouac’ing around was fun, but in my heart of hearts, I wanted to go to Europe. Many of my friends had gone, either with siblings or alone and I wanted to tour the continent as well.
A guy I knew, with the unfortunate nickname Flytrap, loaned me his giant backpack which was really nice. When I went over to pick it up, he said, “You know Roger Waters is going to perform The Wall at the Berlin Wall… surely you’re gonna go?” Actually I’d heard but no, I wasn’t planning on it. “You’ve got to!!” exclaimed Flytrap. Apparently I wasn’t the only one watching the Berlin Wall come tumbling down. Roger Waters in an interview had said flippantly to a reporter, “I’ll perform The Wall when the Berlin Wall comes down.” Originally, Pink Floyd had only performed The Wall in the States at 10-gig stints in New York and another in Los Angeles. In the lawsuit against his former mates in Pink Floyd, Waters had won the rights to The Wall and the band got to carry on… The Wall was expensive to stage and not practical in an arena. He was doing it to raise money for the Memorial Fund for Disaster Relief, so it was for a good cause.
The Wall is one of those seminal albums for me. It was the first Floyd album to come out after I’d turned on to rock and roll. I can remember riding in my buddy Brewster’s Mazda, he had a great stereo, and cranking “Another Brick in the Wall (Pt. 1)/The Happiest Days of Our Lives/Another Brick In the Wall (Pt. 2).” After hearing “Comfortably Numb” in that same car, I went out and plunked down the then hefty investment of $16 to buy the double-album. Sonically I had heard nothing like it. I had Dark Side of the Moon, but this rock opera/concept album blew my mind… But actually attending the performance with 350,000 strangers…in Berlin? I was too small minded to think it was even possible. But somehow, I had to make it happen. There was no internet back in those caveman days so I would have to figure out how to get tickets once I got over to Europe. At least now I had a mission.
I left the United States on July 3rd and arrived in Rome, Italy on July 4th. I guess I’m not a Yankee Doodle Dandy, leaving my country on its birthday. When I arrived in Rome they were experiencing a 100 year heat wave. I didn’t sleep on the plane and after securing my hotel room I got lost looking for it… the street signs were up on the buildings in that ancient city, not on the stop lights and I couldn’t navigate. I was, to say the least, addled. I was accosted by a group of gypsies, but before anything weird could go down, in frustration I let out a giant Ginsberg-ian “Howl.” That scared them and calmed me down… I found the street signs and breezed to my hotel. It was a wobbly start.
Rome was a hot, hazy blur but by the time I moved on to Florence, I’d gotten my travel legs. Eventually I went on to Venice and then to Munich. I remember pulling into the train station in Munich and someone was blaring AC/DC. I love Germany. I found a phone number to buy tickets to the impending Waters concert (billed as Roger Waters and Special Guests) on a poster and called and bought a ticket. They said it would be at “will-call,” which I never found. Luckily the concert wasn’t sold out and I was able to buy another ticket, pictured above, the day of the show. By the time the concert rolled around I was an old-pro, hardened veteran at the whole traveling by train thing.
I was hanging in Amsterdam prior the concert. There were no hotel rooms in Berlin. I’d actually been in Berlin prior to that and had gotten the lay of the land before coming to Amsterdam. My plan was to take an overnight train into Berlin, find a locker for my backpack and go to the show. There was no train out of Berlin until the next morning and I figured I’d do what I’d seen so many travelers do, sleep at the train station on a bench. When I got to Berlin on the 21st, all the lockers were taken in the train station. I didn’t want to lug the enormous backpack to the concert… I was starting to panic when at the last second I spotted an open locker. Another American was standing there and when I exultantly threw my backpack into the locker he looked at me and said, “Do you realize how lucky you are to have gotten that locker? It’s probably the last one in Berlin.” Indeed I am my friend, indeed I am.
The stage was set up on a patch of ground between Potsdamer Platz and the famous Brandenburg Gate. The area was known as “No Man’s Land” as it was a patch between East and West, between Communism and Democracy. Many people had been shot trying to escape tyranny on that very spot… This was hallowed ground indeed. The gates opened at 2pm in the afternoon and after rebuying another ticket, I was in line when they opened. I had never been that early for a show… or that sober. I didn’t even sniff a beer before the show. I had never seen a crowd this big in my life. I was able to get relatively close to the stage, but it was far enough that I thank God they had video screens.
I bought a bottle of water in a crush of people at the concession stand and took up my spot in the middle a fair ways back but still able to see everybody on stage… they weren’t so tiny I couldn’t make out who was who. I remember an Irish band playing, it might have been the Chieftans. Then the Hooters came on… I was not impressed with the Hooters. But then, the Band came out and did a set. Obviously Robbie Robertson wasn’t there (and Richard Manuel was sadly already gone) but Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm were all there. They even drug Ronnie Hawkins out to recreate his “Who Do You Love” from The Last Waltz. That was truly great. I’d have rather seen Dylan pop out than Ronnie Hawkins but dirty travelers can’t be choosers.
I don’t know why but there was a moment that has always stuck with me from that dusty afternoon surrounded by people. In between acts, they were playing music over the PA system. They put on Prince’s “Sign ‘O’ the Times” and the crowd went nuts. It was the first time I’d ever heard the song… I’d kind of lost track of Prince after Around The World In A Day. Maybe it was the huge cheer of the crowd, or the great sound system, but I’ve loved that song ever since…
Finally, the main event began. I didn’t really know what to expect in terms of the “Special Guests” and I was wondering who might show up. When the show started and Waters’ back up band, the Bleeding Heart Band launched into the opening track, “In the Flesh,” I realized that Germany’s own, the Scorpions were on stage. I love Klaus Meine and he was really into it. This was going to be something very different. I will say all the guest stars Waters brought on stage made this feel like the Who’s Tommy movie. I enjoyed the spectacle but it made me wish Gilmour, Wright and Mason were there instead… It was like a photo copy of the Mona Lisa. It was still a great, great show… but I’m a purist.
As the performers sang, the crew slowly built the wall around them. There’s the sound of a helicopter early on the album and for this performance Waters flew over in a real helicopter… knowing the history of that patch of land it sort of gave me goosebumps. My memory of specific guest stars is spotty… I remember Cyndi Lauper coming out for “Another Brick In the Wall (Pt 2)” and she was awful. Apparently Joni Mitchell was there and I have no recollection of that. Sinead O’Connor was great during “Mother.” They brought Bryan Adams out for the rocking “Young Lust” and I guess that was an appropriate choice at the time. I read later that Rod Stewart was the original choice so I look back at that performance as a bit of a missed opportunity. Jerry Hall did the “Are all these your guitars?” monologue and it was the low moment in the performance… her reading was as flat as a pancake, truly cringe-worthy.
The highlight for me was naturally “Comfortably Numb.” The Bleeding Heart Band did a great job with the material and by the time they were playing from behind the actual wall, I was only slightly still missing Gilmour. When they played “Comfortably Numb” taking the Gilmour vocal was none other than Van Morrison. I love Van the man. That was truly a great moment to witness. “The Trial” was over the top… The ultimate moment for me came at the end of “The Trial,” when the crowd was chanting (along with the band), “tear down the wall, tear down the wall.” The crowd of lusty Germans were screaming so loud you could feel it in your chest. Right before the wall fell, they projected an image of the actual Berlin Wall’s graffiti onto the giant white space that was “The Wall.” A crowd that was loud before got even louder, their ecstatic cries practically lifting me off my feet. I felt like I was floating, it was an ecstatic moment…and then the wall fell and it was fucking pandemonium. People were suddenly hugging me. I had tears in my eyes.
Waters and the entire company came out and did his solo track, “The Tide Is Turning” from Radio K.A.O.S., and it was the perfect choice. For the first time since sitting on the couch watching the Berlin Wall fall while exiled in Arkansas, I felt like I was alive again. I was back in the middle of something great.
Was it the greatest concert ever? I can’t say it was, but it was a very special show at a very special location at a very special point in time and history. I’m glad I got that gentle nudge from Flytrap that helped spur me to go. By the end of the show, I’d floated backwards and when it was over I fled to the train station where I discovered they’d scheduled a midnight train to Amsterdam to get rid of some of the concert goers. I jumped on that packed train and by the next day was sitting in a bar named the Bull Dog where I debated the Waters vs Pink Floyd issue with some guy from Cleveland.
Needless to say, it was quite a trip. As I like to say, buy the ticket, see the show. Always!