BRAIN DAMAGE: A PINK FLOYD TUTORIAL IN CHILE
I like Pink Floyd as much as the next guy. Actually, I submit I like Pink Floyd significantly more than the next guy. The next guy’s Pink Floyd record collection likely begins with Dark Side of the Moon. Mine stretches back to Meddle. Enough said. But if you need more proof, consider that in high school I snuck out of my house to see a Pink Floyd cover band called The Machine play a bar on Long Island. And for several months afterwards, I thought it was the best show I could ever hope to see. But it turns out, I have a lot to learn about Pink Floyd.
I was recently given a crash course on Pink Floyd by Brain Damage, a band from Santiago, Chile that has been described as “the most important Pink Floyd cover band in South America.” When I read that description I thought it absurd. How can a cover band be “important”? It’s an oxymoron. But more about that later.
For those wondering how I came to see a Chilean Pink Floyd cover band, I am currently hiding out in Concepción, Chile, and saw this poster as I was walking home from Spanish class:
The concert was scheduled for the Saturday night of Mother’s Day weekend. I suggested to my wife that seeing Brain Damage could be the perfect way to celebrate the holiday, but she countered that having to find a baby sitter in Concepción would cause her actual brain damage. So she graciously offered to stay home with our son while I scored a single ticket to the show.
The tickets were being sold out of a three-room office lined with book shelves on the ground floor of a non-descript building in a particularly rough part of Concé. Upon arriving, I was ushered into the back room and presented to a gentlemen in his late 50s who I assumed was the concert promoter. I gave him the cash and he marked an “X,” in pencil, on a venue seat map to memorialize the sale. He then removed a pre-printed ticket from a large stack and, using the aforementioned pencil, crossed some numbers out, wrote some other numbers in, and finally turned over the ticket to me in its adulterated form. I was anxious about the transaction. Couldn’t he at least have used a pen? But I've learned it's best to ignore feelings of anxiety in Chile and trust that the logistics will take care of themselves. I now look back in disbelief at how worried I was when we boarded the plane to Chile with no place to live and no school for our son. That was amateur hour.
Of course the unconventional ticket transaction proved rock solid. I arrived to the show a few minutes late because, unlike the Chilenos, I wanted to eat beforehand so as to avoid pushing dinner back to midnight. I handed my ticket to the same promoter guy who had sold it to me and made my way to my third-row seat which, happily, was vacant.
The band was already on stage. As I caught my breath, having sprinted to the venue from dinner, I tried to get my bearings. The band was playing a song I'd never heard before and that sounded nothing like Pink Floyd. I wondered if the musicians on stage were an opening band. But it was Brain Damage up there and they were in fact playing a Pink Floyd song, one called “Lucifer Sam” from the Floyd’s first album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Brain Damage rendered it as a straight-forward rock song, not a style I associate with Pink Floyd.
Before kicking off the next song, a video screen behind the band displayed the album cover for A Saucerful of Secrets and noted that it was Pink Floyd’s second record. Brain Damage then launched into a meandering, jam-infused version of “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” off that album. The cover to the soundtrack for the film “More” appeared next on the video screen along with an announcement that this was Pink Floyd’s third album. I now understood the format of the concert: Brain Damage was going through each Pink Floyd album in order and playing one track from each. My immediate reaction to sussing out the format was that I should've walked to the concert, not sprinted, and, more critically, that I should've stayed at dinner long enough to help my wife finish the wine. Notwithstanding the presence of Meddle in my record collection, I never listen to any Pink Floyd music released prior to 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon.
After reconciling myself to the format and to the wine left in the bottle at the dinner table, my head filled with questions, viz., what one track would Brain Damage choose to play from Pink Floyd’s double-album opus, The Wall, and what would they consider the ending point of Pink Floyd? After bassist/singer/songwriter Roger Waters left the band in 1983, guitarist/singer/songwriter David Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason carried on as “Pink Floyd” (after fending off a lawsuit brought by Waters to prevent them from using the name) but would Brain Damage take the post-Roger Waters records seriously?
I learned several things as I ruminated on these questions and waited patiently for Brain Damage to play their way to Dark Side of the Moon. First, if you're a single woman in Concepción, you should consider attending a concert by a Pink Floyd cover band. The men out-numbered the women by about 4-to-1. Although I wouldn’t say the men in attendance represented Concé’s best (present company excluded, of course), it's never a bad idea to play the percentages.
I also learned that Pink Floyd’s body of work reaches much further back than I imagined. After each song I thought “This next one has got to be from Dark Side of the Moon. How many albums could they possibly have made prior to 1973?” To my surprise, the answer is eight, or approximately twice what I'd thought.
But most importantly, I learned that early Pink Floyd music, at least as interpreted by Brain Damage, is masterful. “Careful With that Axe, Eugene” off 1969’s Ummagumma, “Fat Old Sun” from 1970’s Atom Heart Mother, and “Biding My Time” from 1971’s Relics, were full-bore, mesmerizing jams that went on and on much like the Grateful Dead’s best work. I've never thought of Pink Floyd as a “jam band” – their music is too choreographed for that; every note is carefully prescribed and in deference to an overarching structure (to say nothing of the external layerings of helicopters, dogs barking, radio static and other aural stimuli). But Brain Damage has caused me to re-consider that view of Pink Floyd, at least as to its earlier music.
When the iconic album cover of Dark Side of the Moon finally made it to the video screen, nearly an hour-and-a-half into the show, the audience was primed. A collective whoop followed by boisterous cheering filled the venue. Brain Damage delivered with “The Great Gig in the Sky,” a track with no lyrics but with a wailing female vocalist who stole the show. Here’s a clip I took that will give you a sense of the power of her voice (my apologies for giving a starring role to the head of the dude in front of me).
Next up was “Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Parts 6-9” from Wish You Were Here. This song again had me re-visiting my categorization of Pink Floyd as something other than a jam band. It went on forever and was exquisite. Yes, the band never lost sight of the song’s overarching structure and every note was intentional, but it made me feel like I was back home in the Bay Area.
The highlight of the show for me, without question, came next: “Dogs” off Animals. It was the song I most wanted to hear. The dueling guitar parts were perfect and reminded me of the Allman Brothers’ live performances of “Blue Sky.” Here’s another thoroughly unprofessional clip that I took (this one gets abruptly cut off when my phone battery dies).
At long last came The Wall. And the answer to my first question. Surely they would have to play one of the self-contained classics like “Comfortably Numb,” “Run Like Hell,” “Hey You,” or “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2.” Everything else on that record is too conceptual and doesn’t stand alone. But Brain Damage didn’t shy away from the conceptual. They chose to play the obscure “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 3” into the even more obscure “Goodbye Cruel World” that ends the first album. The two songs together clock in at 2:27. In a concert that lasted over two-and-half hours, Brain Damage dedicated less than three minutes to Pink Floyd’s seminal album. It was an interesting decision. It was as if the band was saying, “Hey, everybody already knows this album front to back; go study it on your own time.” I can’t say I disagree with that approach to the issue. Plus, I happen to love “Goodbye Cruel World” and was happy to hear it.
But I began to sense that Brain Damage was coming down squarely in the David Gilmour camp. Just as Beatles fans break down into John and Paul camps, the Stones into Mick and Keith camps, and the Dead into Jerry and Bobby camps (okay, everybody loves Jerry more), Pink Floyd fans tend to split between Gilmour and Roger Waters. Brain Damage, quite literally, did not have time for Roger Waters. That they dispensed with Waters’ brain-child and masterpiece, The Wall, in substantially less than five minutes made that plain. As did their next decision to play “Not Now John” from The Final Cut, a track that features Gilmour more than any other on that album – both his vocals and his signature guitar work. I can’t necessarily argue with that choice either.
But where I do part ways with Brain Damage is in the decision to include in their Pink Floyd anthology songs that postdate Roger Waters’ departure from the band. The Roger Waters-less “Pink Floyd” released three albums after The Final Cut (I was only aware of the first one, 1987’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason) and Brain Damage played one song from each of them. But as the album title suggests, The Final Cut, in my humble opinion, is where Pink Floyd is properly understood to end. As much as David Gilmour is a personal guitar hero of mine, to suggest that the band without Roger Waters is “Pink Floyd” is like calling a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without the peanut butter a PB&J. More to the point, though, it made for an anti-climactic end to the concert. Unlike the show’s first eight songs, sitting through those final three songs was more burden than revelation.
But overall, the concert was like a university course on Pink Floyd. I learned about the band’s early music and heard in a new way music that I was already familiar with. Which brings me back to the description of Brain Damage as “the most important Pink Floyd cover band in South America.” I can’t weigh in on the veracity of that claim. The Machine is the only other Pink Floyd cover band I've seen, they are from North America, and their importance was in providing an unbeatable context in which to get drunk in high school. But I no longer believe the concept of an “important cover band” is an oxymoron. Brain Damage left me with an entirely new appreciation for the music of one of rock’s foundational bands. And that is certainly important to me.