"O h, by the way ... which one's Pink?"
That was the wry punchline to an old Pink Floyd song that spoofed a record industry type who was so dim that he didn't even know the Floyd moniker referred to a group, not an individual.
Yet it's no longer a joke, but a legitimate question now that the pioneering art-rock group has split into warring factions: former creative leader Roger Waters (now touring and recording on his own) vs. old bandmates David Gilmour, Nick Mason and Rick Wright, still working under the Pink Floyd name. Each side is caught up in trying to convince the public that he or it really is Pink in spirit.
Waters came through town two months ago as a solo artist, brazen enough to offer T-shirts for sale in the lobby with a "Which One's Pink?" logo--a gutsy challenge if ever there was one.
But it seems clear now that the average fan prefers to stick with the known brand name, for while Waters couldn't even sell out his single L.A. arena show, the new Pink Floyd lineup commenced a five-night stand Thursday night at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.
At times during the band's retrospectively spacey opening night concert, it was easy to take the deserter's side and feel that the real spirit of Pink Floyd was being betrayed without the former fearless leader on hand to guard the group's integrity.
Waters dealt with strong themes and raw emotions on a spectacular theatrical scale, but without his influence, the spectacle in this show is mostly meaningless and all of a sudden two decades' worth of unfair criticisms from Johnny Rotten and the rest of the punks--who used Pink Floyd as a favorite target a decade ago to decry the excesses of big-time rock--suddenly have merit.
On the other hand, if you strip away the silliness of the special effects and don't look too hard for substance, you're left with the current band's musicality--which (sorry, Rog) is still mightily impressive, even in its obvious conservatism.
And if Gilmour--the leader of this edition of Pink Floyd--has limited skills as a social commentator and apparently none as a conceptualist, his remarkably lyrical guitar work remains enough of a special effect itself to justify even such a bloated, showy show as this.
It's a cliche, but the instrument really does plaintively sing in his hands; given the emotion expressed in the barest minimum of notes, that beautiful, airy voice of Gilmour's seems almost superfluous.
The stage support team was not so minimalist, but still uniformly excellent: Gilmour, keyboard player Wright and drummer Mason were joined by a bassist (Guy Pratt) who replaced Waters not only instrumentally, but also vocally on two older Waters/Gilmour duets ("Comfortably Numb" and "Run Like Hell"); plus a sax player, second guitarist, second keyboard player and second drummer.
Amid the hippie head-trip atmospherics of the light show on stage, the look of modernity was helpfully provided by three comely female singers adding the requisite amount of celestial/soulful wailing.
But oh, that tacky light show.
Had we stumbled into "stoners' night" at a Laserium planetarium, or what? And what was with the R2D2-like light-projecting pods that kept popping out of the stage? And why send out the decade-old "Animals" pig to hover over the crowd when not even playing any of the corresponding album?
Predictably, the show was divided into halves: After the opening oldie, "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," the first hour was given over to most of the Floyd's new record, "A Momentary Lapse of Reason"--which is not a concept album, seemingly lessening any real need to play such a minor work all the way through uninterrupted by past hits. Greatest hits had their day after intermission.
Spontaneity, of course, is not the key word--Gilmour rarely changes a single note of his solos, with some justification, given the integral part they play in the respective compositions; but extended bits were added now and again.
So which one's the real Pink? The better songwriter or the more compelling musicians?
Johnny Rotten might still say a pox on both their houses, and it's easy--in an age of such majestic yet socially relevant music-makers as U2, Peter Gabriel and Sting--for non-believers to declare that this high-scaled extravaganza is still lost in space.
Yet there is much that's intensely personal and affecting about the music of Pink Floyd over the last two decades--something that's getting lost in the cracks of the schism between the current band's backward-looking approach and Waters' shaky visionary spirit. Unless these bitter opponents declare an unlikely truce, fans will continue to get two separate pale shades of Pink.