The music of Pink Floyd can be polarizing. To devotees, Floyd is a band unrivalled in ambition, studio precision and lyrical depth; a planetary force in pop music who expanded the reaches of blues-based rock, outdid even the Who in their attempts to marry rock with longer narratives, and gave rock a seriousness of tone and purpose galaxies beyond the reaches of teenage heartbreak. To detractors, Roger Waters and co. produced the sterile, indulgent, narcotic music that sold a million lava lamps and glow-in-the-dark felt posters.
Debate on the issue has been civil for the most part, although apocryphal evidence recalls a young Johnny Rotten capturing the public eye by his hobby of walking around late 1970’s London and expectorating on all the Pink Floyd tee-shirts he encountered. But common ground emerges; usually even those cool toward the band will admit that Piper at The Gates of Dawn rules, and that following certain activities The Wall becomes a pretty cool movie.
As the most famous scene from The Wall involves a dour congregation of deformed school children riding conveyor belts to the meat grinder, it could be a little incongruous to find that Mary Farmar Elementary’s own Melissa Harley is a regular backup singer for House of Floyd, a Pink Floyd tribute band based in the Bay Area.
Harley, a fifth grade teacher by trade, shrugged off the comparison.“That’s a tongue-in-cheek song about an oppressive education. My students are little creative spirits.”
When I called Ms. Harley she was on her way to a sold-out show at Eureka’s 700-seat Arkley Theater. Unless you’re one of the few innocent old lumberjacks who still associate the Emerald Triangle with logging, you’re probably keen as to just why such shows might prove popular in California’s rugged and aromatic Northern reaches. I asked her to speculate on the causes behind this strong fan-base, and her answer came through a series of (wholesomely derived) giggles.
“It’s pretty epic,” she says. “We’re kinda cracking up. We’ve been up like six times in the past three years.” And while there may be suspicious sources for their popularity in Humboldt County, Harley hardly pooh-poohs that crowd. Those die-hards get to see the most ambitious shows. While Grass Valley and Tracy might hear a conservative sampling of Floyd staples, anything goes in Eureka, and anything means something for a band with numerous songs that sail far past the ten minute mark, often guided toward their cosmic destinations by ambient synthesizer work, explorative and eloquent lead guitar, and a Planetarium’s worth of laser lights. On House of Floyd’s website, bassist Lou Portela says that he thinks of Pink Floyd’s songs as “‘mini-movies’, theatrical plays, or even operettas”.
Harley will readily admit that House of Floyd is “not where [she] expected to end up. I had an opportunity to perform with Mark [Showalter, lead vocalist, saxophonist, and keyboardist for HoF in another project. He had heard me sing, bless his heart, and told me their back-up singer was leaving.”
Now she’s leveraged her performances into a part-time job, and she plays weekend shows throughout the school year. Lest this seem like too much time away from loved ones, Harley is quick to point out that her touring life has become a family affair, with each member getting a chance to exercise his/her talents. Her husband does all the projections, her youngest daughter sell merchandize, and her oldest take pictures.
Having the impression that she balanced her two callings well, I asked if there were any other correlates between teaching and performing. “There’s definitely stuff in common,” she says. “A good teacher is a good performer.” She also likes to share the excitement and nervousness with her students, who are intrigued to find that the personification of adult authority and composure still gets the heebie-jeebies before going on stage.
She’s not a lifelong devotee like her bandmates, but Harley has a few theories as to why Floyd’s mesmerizing music, even in covered form, still compels people to come out to shows in great numbers. “At first I thought it was just people reliving the glory days, but now I think it’s really a multi-generational thing. If I had to be really deep, I think spectacle has something to do with it, the lasers and theatrics…also I think the messages resonate for a lot of people…people just dig it because it’s totally counter-culture. It’s intelligent, very complex music with complex messages.”
And it’s the type of messages she feels all too happy to spread, and to learn more of her self. At the time we spoke, she was looking forward to the upcoming Floyd founder Roger Water’s show, and to her band’s own New Year’s bash in Benicia.
I asked Harley if Waters or any of the other surviving band members had ever reached out to HoF. She said they hadn’t; there are actually quite a few Pink Floyd Tribute bands in the U.S. But still, it’s hard to imagine that a band with sci-fi themes and astronomical interests wouldn’t be flattered to know that well into the twenty first Century, their unofficial avatars still fill venues with grateful fans.