Monday, December 20, 2010

And after all we're only ordinary men.

Over the weekend, I read the book "Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd" by Mark Blake. I've been on a bit of a Pink Floyd tear lately, and I wanted more after watching a couple of documentaries on Netflix (which I had actually already seen).

I chose this one because it gets great reviews on Amazon (one reader said "This is by far the best book on this band," and if that's not a plug one shouldn't ignore, I don't know what is)... and because the library had it.

I know. I'm not very discerning.

Anyway, aside from the documentaries, this is the only book I've ever read on the Floyd (I love referring to them now as "The Floyd;" it makes me feel very English for some reason, and a little old, which is surprisingly not bothering me in this case), and though the library is still currently holding a copy of Nick Mason's memoir ("Inside Out"), I'm not sure if I'm going to pick it up.



Mark Blake clearly did an excellent job researching and compiling information and interviews and quotes and stories from all sorts of disparate sources, but there's a lot of repetition, a ton of unsubstantiated opinion, and a lot of tiny little anecdotes that never really add up to anything. Also, when the guy had to write a sentence from scratch, I wasn't all that convinced he was up to the job. I mean, I don't want to sound too harsh, but there could've been some better editing going on.

Also, though I guess for most fans, and for the band themselves (so I realize that what I'm about to say is probably going to piss somebody off), it's true that the important character in all the Pink Floyd history is the ghost of Syd Barrett, and while I think Syd's story is tragic and the early stuff interesting and I see that his presence was inspirational and integral to the band and their writing... the truth is I'm just not very interested in him (well, look who needs an editor now?). It seems like a huge waste, what happened to him, and it's nice that the band took care of him financially after (rightfully) kicking him out and getting on with it, and Roger Waters obviously needed a subject to obsess about... but the guy, as cool as he was, wasn't a genius. Those early songs are fun but not the best stuff Floyd ever put out.

(Yes, I am imagining you throttling me, you 21st century music nuts who are discovering "Bike" and "See Emily Play" for the first time, or you people who are cooler than I am who find that stuff fascinating. I thank Jay Schwartz for that mix tape he gave me in the 10th grade that I'm sure I've talked about before, for introducing me to the early songs, but I'm sorry, "Candy and a Currant Bun" didn't change my life or anything.)

So to spend almost half the book talking about him, telling what felt like an endless number of stories about Syd and his antics and his wardrobe and his girlfriends and his painting and how beautiful he was and how people were into him (Mick Jagger!)... it just got to be too much. I went into the book curious about him and came out overwhelmed with information that may or may not even be true. Now, I'm probably the exception, I get that. You might like to read a hundred stories about his ghostly appearances at Pink Floyd gigs after David Gilmour took over, or how he shaved off all his facial hair or how he showed up at the studio while the band was recording "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" and nobody recognized him, or how he was supposedly locked in a linen closet/bathroom by his flatmates... but those stories don't add up to any real insight. The guy had nothing to say for himself and just one interview or snippet of first-hand clarity would've been worth all the stories about him not succeeding in the studio after he was ditched by his mates. And yes, I get that this lack of information is what makes everyone fiendish for more. But not me. The guy lived, he died, and he chose never to say anything for himself, and that's done. The rest of it is just... stories. He's a character, and yeah, that's interesting, but in the end you get nothing because it could all be made up or misinterpreted.


After that part, I hoped the book would supply meatier descriptions of the recording process (how they actually did all that stuff, with the tape all over the recording studio, the technical stuff), or the creative processes that the band went through, but nope, other than saying (rather relentlessly) that Roger Waters is a workhorse (and probably a bullying asshole), and that David Gilmour (who comes off as passive-aggressive) isn't, and that Nick Mason couldn't handle a lot of the drum parts and bought a lot of cars, and that Rick Wright wasted a lot of time not being in the the studio by being "depressed about his failed marriage[s]," not a whole lot of insight occurs in this book. You could pretty much get that information from watching a 45 minute documentary on the making of "Dark Side of the Moon" (and Mark seems to get off on the fact that for the re-release, they added a "The" in front of the album title). That they don't get along and bitterly argued and and pettily kept score about who was more instrumental to the band's recordings and still acted like children with a shiny toy ("Pink Floyd is mine, it's mine I say!") in their 50s and 60s... well, that's nothing new.

The truth is, I'm a fan, but I guess not a very loyal one (I own nothing past "The Wall," though I did listen to "The Division Bell" a lot when it came out because Drew liked it). I think the superficial information I had before reading this book was really all I needed. I listened to the early songs like "Arnold Layne" and "Scarecrow" on the way to work just to brush up... and then decided that "Dark Side of the Moon" was more appropriate for a rainy commute, and when I arrived at work this morning with "Time" ticking away, having read this book made me no more and no less happy with what was blaring out of my car's speakers.

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