Roger Waters’ massive, star-studded production of The Wall in Berlin in 1990, just eight months after the wall was torn down, remains one of the most surreal odysseys into the nexus of music, theater, and charity. Perhaps the greatest highlight during the show, which raised money for victims of natural disasters, was “Comfortably Numb,” which found Van Morrison and the Band joining Waters for the album’s climactic showstopper.
Waters sang his verses dressed in a doctor’s overcoat (a stagehand even hands him a stethoscope), and he faced the 60-by-600–foot Styrofoam-brick wall, rather than the 200,000-plus people in the audience, during his verses. But when the tune cut away to the chorus, it was the far more comfortably dressed Van Morrison, who sings David Gilmour’s lines, and his even more casually clad backup singers in the Band, who made it a highlight.
Morrison belted the words with his typical gusto — “My hands felt just like two bal-looons,” he sings — as Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson smile while singing along. Guitarists Rick di Fonzo and Snowy White (the latter of whom played on Pink Floyd’s original The Wall tour) played a mix of reverent and showy interpretations of the guitar solo — since Gilmour said at the time that there was “no chance whatsoever” he’d show up — and Morrison stole the show with a hearty, solo “I have become comfortably numb” at the end.
The concert took place on July 21st, 1990, in what was just a few months earlier the 35-acre no man’s land between Potsdamer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate, where Hitler’s bunker was once located. The show was a benefit for the Memorial Fund for Disaster Relief, a charity launched by Lord Leonard Cheshire — a hero for Britain’s Royal Air Force during World War II — and it featured a stunning gathering of guest artists: Joni Mitchell, Ute Lemper, Cyndi Lauper, Marianne Faithfull, Tim Curry, the Scorpions, Sinead O’Connor, Bryan Adams, and many others. The production also featured the 100-piece Red Army marching band, East Berlin’s Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra, 200 extras from the ranks of the West and East German British Armies, plenty of pyro, and an inflatable pig.
It cost $8 million to put on and raised $4 million for the charity, as it was televised in 30 countries and attracted a sizable in-person audience. Waters has since estimated some 350,000 people showed up, but Rolling Stone reported 200,000 at the time.
Waters was originally hesitant about performing the album in Berlin, since Cheshire first proposed staging it there while the wall was still standing. “I said, ‘No, we can’t go to Berlin and shout, “Tear down the wall.” It’s stupid,'” Waters told Rolling Stone in 1990. “All you’re doing there is accentuating a political division. But then the wall came down [on November 9th, 1989].”
He was excited to be working with Cheshire, since Waters’ father had died in World War II, and wanted to make a statement. “I’m in no way going to Berlin to celebrate what I consider to be a victory of capitalism over socialism, or the West over the East, or anything like that,” he said. “I’m going there to celebrate the victory of the individual over bureaucracy, and specifically a victory of the East German individual to rise up against some of the more uncomfortable levels of dogma under which he was living.” He also explained that The Wall “is about redemption, and we are redeemed when we tear our walls down and expose our weaknesses to our fellow man and sit ’round the fire and talk.”
That said, he had no kind words for his onetime Pink Floyd bandmates. “[David Gilmour] has been out in stadiums playing my piece, in exact opposition to my emotions and ideas and philosophies and whatever, for his own profit,” Waters said. “And I cannot forgive him for that.”
Although Waters and his crew had months to work out the show, it did not go off without a hitch. The production suffered technical problems during the first act — “It was a nightmare at first,” Waters said after the show — and some of the performances, including O’Connor’s rendition of “Mother,” were lost. When Waters issued a concert film of the event and a live album, he used her dress-rehearsal performance of the tune, and she told the press she was unimpressed by the production. “It was going to be very symbolic, a poignant celebration of the fact that the Berlin Wall was brought down,” she said at the time. “But it wasn’t at all what it was supposed to be. The audience hadn’t a clue what was going on … Masturbation, that’s what it was.”
But by and large, she seemed to be the only performer who felt that way. “It went amazing,” Lauper, who sang “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2,” said at the time. “I’ve never seen anything so big in my life.”
“To do this show, in the middle of all this, blows my mind,” Adams, who sang “Young Lust,” said.
Also, Morrison’s rendition of “Comfortably Numb” continued to resonate in later years. Martin Scorsese used it in the soundtrack to his 2006 picture, The Departed, and it appeared a year later in one of the final episodes of The Sopranos. The renaissance of the recording must have struck a chord with Morrison, who performed it during his solo shows in 2008 and 2009.