What I watched: The Last Duel, the 2021 period film starring Matt Damon, Adam Driver and Jodie Comer, about the last trial by combat in France. The idea behind trial by combat is that someone is accused of a crime and instead of having the lawyers hash it out, two people try to kill each other and the one who lives is the winner of the trial. If the winner is the accused, then they go free. If the accused loses, well…then they get executed. Anyway, the approach to the film is an interesting one, in which we get to see a series of events as seen through the eyes of the three main characters. The upside of this storytelling approach is that we get to see just how differently people perceive the same things. The downside is that this movie is L-O-N-G, clocking in at 2.5 hours, but it feels like 5.
What I read: The Good War, by Studs Terkel. Published in 1984, this was an oral history of World War II. Terkel interviewed a shitload of people from all different aspects of the war, from front line soldiers (not just American or even Allied), to victims of the Japanese internment camps, to POWs, to wives at home, to government officials, to entertainers with the USO. I really enjoy oral histories and I prefer to listen to the actual people speaking whenever possible, but this is a good 2nd option. Terkel doesn’t polish up their grammar or sanitize the horror, so this is as clear a picture of the realities of the war as you’re likely to find.
What I listened to: This week’s stop on the best engineered albums of all time brings us to Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd. Released in 1975 and engineered by Brian Humphries, this is probably my favorite Pink Floyd album, and I’m not alone. It routinely appears on various and sundry lists of the greatest albums of all time. This is Floyd at their most expansive, with only five tracks but a run time of 44 minutes. The overall concept of the album was the destructiveness of the music business and the alienation of the artists. Two of those tracks, Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Parts I-V, and Parts VI-IX are an opus to their former bandmate, Syd Barrett, who was kicked out of the band after his extreme LSD use—and subsequent mental breakdown—made him so erratic that they just couldn’t deal with it—or him—anymore. Two other tracks, Welcome to the Machine, and Have a Cigar, are skewerings of the music industry and how it can be soulless and crushing to the artists. The title track is another hat tip to Syd.
Humphries had previously worked with Floyd on the album More, and had done some live work with them. However, he was not familiar with the setup at Abbey Road Studios (then called EMI Studios), and accidentally wiped a backing vocal track on Shine On that the band had worked on for hours. However, he redeemed himself in the end with an exquisitely recorded album.
One of the more interesting bits about this album was the surprise appearance of Syd Barrett during one of the sessions. When he arrived, nobody knew who he was because his appearance had changed so radically. He was overweight and had shaved his head and eyebrows (something that was used when Bob Geldof played “Pink” in the movie version of The Wall). Eventually, the band realized who he was but were so shocked at his decline that some of them wept in his presence. Syd said that he’d come in to “do his bit” on the album, but clearly that wasn’t going to happen. The irony of this entire episode was that the album was about him and even though he was listening to the tracks in the studio, he didn’t make the connection. Eventually he left without saying goodbye and that was the last time that most of the band members ever saw him again.
Fun fact: the lead vocals on Have a Cigar are performed by Roy Harper. Waters was having a terrible time getting through the song after punishing his voice for Shine On, and Gilmour gave it a go, but wasn’t up to it. Harper was in a studio across the hall (where Gilmour had played on a few tracks) and was asked to come in and record the vocals. I’ve had the opportunity to hear all three versions and while Waters’ is clearly the closest, it really doesn’t hold up to Harper’s version.