The Life and Times of “Comfortably Numb”
Pink Floyd’s The Wall is being released February 27 in an expanded Immersion Edition that charts the development of this landmark release. To mark the occasion, we take a close look at the album’s most enduring song.
“Comfortably Numb” is more than just a great song, more even than Pink Floyd’s final great achievement. It is the culmination of the fitful and often antagonistic partnership between Roger Waters, the band’s lyricist and creative visionary, and David Gilmour, its primary singer, lead guitarist and most accomplished musical technician. Never close friends, the two men had grown increasingly embattled as Pink Floyd ascended the pyramid of rock megastardom. “Comfortably Numb” marked the last occasion of artistic accord between them, an unlikely flowering of beauty that melded their complimentary gifts as no Pink Floyd song ever had.
For all the rancor they would unleash toward each other, neither man ever lost his affection for this song. Like a child of divorced parents, it would go on to live under a kind of dual custody; one writer has claimed, and I can’t gainsay it, that Gilmour and Waters have played “Comfortably Numb” at every single concert each has performed since the song was released. In that sense, there is nothing quite like it in the rock and roll canon; imagine if Lennon and McCartney had both insisted on playing “We Can Work It Out” at every one of their solo performances. The history of “Comfortably Numb” is like a fossil record detailing the last decade of Pink Floyd and beyond, with each permutation reflecting the essence of its creators and highlighting each man’s strengths and weaknesses.
Despite its climactic position at the end of Side 3 of The Wall, “Comfortably Numb” was actually conceived before the album was written, and it had no place in the song cycle as originally roughed out by Roger Waters in 1978. The song began as a wordless demo recorded by David Gilmour for his 1977, self-titled solo album. While missing some elements — lyrics, for a start — it is still recognizable, and there is undeniably the seed of something beautiful here:
Gilmour has said that he “ran out of time” before he could finish the piece for his album, but my guess is that this is a face-saving way of admitting that he sat on the song, knowing he wouldn’t be able to complete it satisfactorily on his own — and knowing who he could turn to for help. Gilmour has been candid about his lack of self-confidence as a songwriter and lyricist, which kept him from contributing to Pink Floyd on equal footing with the domineering Waters. Yet whatever Gilmour may have thought of Roger Waters as a person, the bassist had shown skill and great generosity in transforming Gilmour’s musical sketches into fully conceived, moving songs: “Wish You Were Here” and “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” both owe their existence to Gilmour guitar phrases that Waters made a point of building upon and completing — often seeing in them more potential than the guitarist himself.
Accounts differ — this is Pink Floyd we’re talking about — as to how keen Waters was to incorporate “Comfortably Numb” into The Wall. Waters, irked by his colleagues’ claims that he shut them out of the creative process, said recently that “I was desperate for [the other band members] to write, always, always, always.” Bob Ezrin, co-producer of The Wall, remembers, “At first Roger had not planned to include any of Dave’s material […] I fought for this song and insisted that Roger work on it.“ Whether Waters leapt or was pushed into working on “The Doctor,” as it was known at this stage, his first pass at the lyric sounds like a piss-take on Bob Dylan, with a suitably hammy vocal on this later demo:
Waters also asked Gilmour for some extra bars to accommodate the chorus he had written. The climactic melody Gilmour came up with gave the song its identity, and “The Doctor” was henceforth known as “Comfortably Numb.”
Apart from the odd lyrics (which, in fairness to Waters, may have simply been filler and never intended for the finished song) and the lack of a second chorus, the main point of difference between this version and the finished studio production is the rougher, more ragged accompaniment to the verses. Gilmour preferred this guitar-heavy approach, while Waters and Ezrin favored a cleaner orchestral arrangement. This difference of opinion escalated into one of the most heated and notorious arguments in the Pink Floyd saga, with Gilmour and Waters eventually reduced to shouting at each other over appetizers in an L.A. restaurant. Gilmour lost, and “Comfortably Numb” was recorded as Ezrin and Waters wanted it. (Though this by no means settled the issue for Gilmour, as we will see shortly.)
In its finished state, “Comfortably Numb” is Pink Floyd’s “A Day in the Life” — the song on which the band’s two chief creative forces came together at their absolute best. Gilmour’s chord progression is simple and effective in classic Floydian manner: a B-minor verse alternating with a D major chorus, each section acting as the distorted mirror image of the other. Singing as the doctor, Waters is all oily charm, his cajoling manner hiding an icy professional (“I do believe it’s working. Good!”) only interested in propping up the battered Pink for one more performance. Gilmour’s section depicts Pink at his most childlike and vulnerable; you can hear the voice of the pleading child in the melody itself. Waters and Gilmour had shared vocal duties on songs before, but never had the contrast between their voices been put to such powerful and dramatic effect. (It is telling that neither man ever attempted to sing the song entirely by himself.)
And then there are the guitar solos.
If you bothered to read this piece at all, you probably take at least a casual pleasure in David Gilmour’s guitar playing. And if you’ve read this far, it’s just possible that those signature high, pealing notes do something to you that no other player quite manages. Lots of guitarists of all stripes have a style; Gilmour is the rare player who has a voice, as expressive in its wordless way as Roger Waters’ most expansive lyrics. I actually find the first solo better — or at any rate more satisfying — than the show-stopping final one, not just for its economy but for the emotional high it delivers. The comfortable numbness into which Pink escapes in the first chorus is warm and welcoming, even rapturous, and Gilmour’s phrases are feather-light and flow effortlessly from one to the other. (For all the times Gilmour has played “Comfortably Numb” live, he never alters a note of this solo.) On the extended coda, he plays over the minor chords of the chorus, and the effect is much more unsettling. Phrases sputter to life and drop away, or jostle against each other brusquely. In keeping with its thematic role in the song, the solo has no clear shape; it is more of a sequence of utterances, short primal bursts of pain and confusion that hearken back to Gilmour’s signature work on “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” This is even more the case on this version, recorded during a live performance of The Wall (skip to 5:20 if you just want to hear the solo, and note that the video footage is taken from a different performance):Pink Floyd, Live in Concert (1982)
“Comfortably Numb” proved to be the final peak of inspiration for Pink Floyd. With founding keyboardist Richard Wright thrown out of the band by Waters, the three remaining members convened for one last album, the entirely Waters-driven The Final Cut, before all concerned acknowledged that Pink Floyd could not endure in its present form. In 1985, Roger Waters formally informed Pink Floyd’s record label that he was leaving the band, which he described publicly as “a spent force,” and one which he had every expectation would promptly lapse into dignified retirement. David Gilmour had other ideas.
There is no rock and roll divorce uglier and more rancorous than Roger Waters’ departure from Pink Floyd. Famously faceless throughout their ‘70s heyday, Gilmour and Waters exploded into the limelight in the mid-80s, ready at last to share with the world how deeply and abidingly they hated each other. Waters taunted Gilmour both privately and publicly — when Gilmour told him he intended to carry on as Pink Floyd, Waters sneered, “You’ll never fucking do it” — and the guitarist, for his part, had finally had enough. It’s just possible that, had Waters been more conciliatory and forgiving toward his colleagues and not gotten Gilmour’s back up so fiercely, his dream of a gracefully retired Pink Floyd might have come to pass, and the world would have been spared this altogether:
You might listen to this trudging, almost narcoleptic performance and wonder, “What happened to these people?” Like a new divorcee defiantly hanging up that St. Pauli Girl beer sign back in the rec room, Gilmour celebrated his freedom from Waters’ yoke by correcting the injustice he felt had been visited on his song by Waters and Bob Ezrin back in 1979. His vision of “Comfortably Numb” was altogether more heavy, more menacing, and more literal than the version recorded by Pink Floyd. Richard Wright, Guy Pratt and Jon Carin croak Waters’ verses like a trio of menacing ghosts, struggling to hold the slow tempo without distorting the words. Though the performance subtly picks up, it still clocks in at nine and a half minutes — a full three minutes longer than the studio version — and the overall effect is lumbering, self-satisfied and lacking in commitment: the epitome of dinosaur rock.
For Waters’ part, the lone bright spot of his first decade post-Floyd came in 1990 with a dramatic restaging of The Wall in Berlin, near the Brandenberg Gate where the actual Berlin Wall had recently stood. Relishing the chance to command the world’s attention on his own terms, Waters put together the biggest extravaganza he could, complete with gigantic puppets, a squadron of real fighter planes and a wall 80 feet high. Yet the guest list seemed lacking in firepower for such an otherwise high-profile event. Alongside the likes of ‘80s past-their-primers like Cyndi Lauper, the Hooters and Paul Carrack, Waters managed to net Sinéad O’Connor, then riding the peak of her popularity, and Van Morrison (whose presence was O’Connor’s sole inducement for participating in the event).Roger Waters and Van Morrison, Live in Concert (1990)
Gilmour’s favored line of attack against his old partner in the late ’80s was that Waters was an egomaniac, and it’s hard not to see his point when considering the Berlin Wall concert as a whole and “Comfortably Numb” in particular, which in Roger Waters’ hands displays a bad case of gigantism. This is as big as the song ever sounded, and while Waters takes care to leave room for himself to be heard in the verses, Van Morrison has to fight to stay on top of an arrangement loaded with keyboards, guitars, orchestra, choir, and backing vocals by Rick Danko and Levon Helm. There are times when he is simply swallowed up in the bombast, particularly during the climactic “I have become comfortably numb” passage, when he seems to lay down in front of the choir and let it roll over him. Waters either couldn’t secure a Gilmour-caliber lead guitarist or didn’t think he needed to, so the guitar duties were shared by Floyd sideman Snowy White and Rick Difonzo, who turn the second solo into a surprisingly effective duet that retains Gilmour’s best ideas while adding a more hard-rock touch. While I enjoy the performance overall, I doubt I’m alone in thinking that Van Morrison should have had more space to make an impression and put his stamp on the piece. (The version on Waters’ concert album In the Flesh uses much the same arrangement, with vocals by Doyle Bramhall II and rather uninspired guitar work from Snowy White.)
Following The Division Bell in 1994, Roger Waters belatedly got his wish and Pink Floyd fell into dormancy. Not much of note was heard from either camp until 2001, when Robert Wyatt asked Gilmour to appear at the annual Meltdown Festival. The guitarist responded with a surprising and risk-taking performance, stripping down his best-known songs to their barest elements.David Gilmour with Bob Geldof, Live in Concert (2002)
“Comfortably Numb” was treated to a stark arrangement of piano, cello, guitar and of course guest vocals, here performed by Bob Geldof. (Gilmour’s original Meltdown performance featured festival director Robert Wyatt in the Roger Waters role; a few encore gigs Gilmour played early in 2002 showcased Wyatt, Geldof and Gilmour protege Kate Bush.) Pay particular attention to the close: instead of the customary prolonged thrashing of the last chords, Gilmour brings the music up short, fires off a neat closing passage and brings it all to a quick and un-showy finish. Devoid of bombast and as spare and compelling as a Picasso drawing, this version expunges the sins of the dreary live recordings and reveals an adventurous side of David Gilmour that had been completely submerged by the confines of Pink Floyd — confines to which Gilmour seemed increasingly reluctant to submit himself again.
Then in 2005, the Pink Floyd story took a turn so unlikely that, were it a work of fiction, you would reject it as hopelessly contrived: Roger Waters agreed to rejoin the band onstage at Live 8. The deal had been painstakingly brokered by festival organizer Bob Geldof, who didn’t seem to notice or mind that the high ideals of his event were now permanently overshadowed by the resolution of rock’s longest ongoing psychodrama. Following a few days of touchy rehearsal, the four-man Pink Floyd lineup went onstage on July 2, 2005, for the first time in nearly 25 years. The four songs they chose to perform were all familiar favorites, and the last song in particular surprised exactly no one:Pink Floyd, Live in Concert (2005)
Just the sight of the “classic” Pink Floyd lineup on stage together was enough to bring many fans, quite literally, to tears, and one could hardly blame the band for not rising to the occasion. But the amazing thing was that they did. Without their customary battery of lasers, explosions or inflatable props to lead the audience’s eye away from the stage, all Pink Floyd could do was go out on stage and play, for what they likely assumed would be (and in fact was) the last time. Hired guns were kept to a minimum and stayed discreetly in the background. The pacing is quick and tight. Flashes of decidedly un-Floydian imperfection peek through: a howl of feedback from a stage monitor, several dropped bass notes as Roger Waters, swept up in the occasion, simply stops playing. Despite the somber tone of the songs and the loftiness of the setting, they sounded like they were playing together solely for the pleasure of it. Rick Wright can’t stay in his seat; Nick Mason tears off his headphones; Gilmour goofs around with the crowd; and Waters appears to have been abducted and replaced with a fist-pumping alien doppelgänger. Given the animosity that had for so long characterized this band, it is hard to say what more a Pink Floyd fan could have reasonably wished to see in his lifetime than this touching, soulful performance.
Rick Wright’s death in 2008 brought the Pink Floyd story to a premature and unexpected ending. Since then, the chief consolation for the fans has been an increasingly active Roger Waters and his still barely believable transformation from one of rock’s most notorious assholes into someone who, as a recent Rolling Stone cover story quotes him as saying, doesn’t “want to hurt anyone’s feelings ever again.” In keeping with this new spirit of non-assholery, Gilmour was able to cajole Waters into joining him onstage at a charity performance to sing, of all things, the Teddy Bears classic “To Know Him Is to Love Him.” In return for straying so far out of his vocal comfort zone, Waters accepted Gilmour’s offer to play “Comfortably Numb” on Waters’ Wall tour, a promise that was finally fulfilled on May 12, 2011.Roger Waters with David Gilmour, Live in Concert (2011)
I can’t deny it: When Gilmour sings out that chorus on top of the wall, and the crowd goes berserk, I get a little chill. But his smooth touch is noticeably stiff on this night, he sings the wrong lyrics in the second chorus and in general shows signs of making do with very little rehearsal time. The true highlight of this performance is not a guitar solo or a special effect but the simple fact of Waters and Gilmour being on stage together. There is no charitable cause or greater good to provide an excuse for these two men to put their differences aside and perform: it’s an act of friendship, in a way an even unlikelier thing than the Live 8 reunion six years earlier. That friendship — what there is of it — is held together by the music they made, and in particular by their shared masterpiece, perhaps the only song they can perform together on a completely equal footing. It’s ironic that such a powerful statement of alienation as “Comfortably Numb,” performed by a band as fractured as Pink Floyd, should come to represent accord, perseverance and, in its own way, forgiveness.