Another brick in the Wall
INTERVIEW:‘You keep going until you stop, and when you stop you die.’ Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters remains as restless today as ever, writes RONAN MCGREEVY
Roger Waters will be 70 in September. He could have followed his surviving Pink Floyd bandmates, Dave Gilmour and Nick Mason, into a comfortable and well-monied retirement (Gilmour to his Thames houseboat; Mason to his collection of vintage and fast cars). He could have stopped now, content in the knowledge that Waters, the solo star, is every bit as big a draw as Pink Floyd were in their pomp. No longer for him the ignominy of playing gigs in small halls while his erstwhile band mates, who he believed could not survive without him, play stadiums.
The Wall tour has taken $377 million (€280 million) over the past three years. Nearly every show has sold out.
He has got the vindication he has sought and could have played out the rest of his days as an Englishman living in New York, listening to cricket on the BBC World Service and generally mooching around. Instead, Waters is embarking on a 25-date stadium tour of Europe this year, a supreme irony given his hatred of stadium concerts was the catalyst for The Wall in the first place.
The years have been good to Waters. Holding court at a hotel in London, the distinctive horse face has softened somewhat. He is handsome now, in a way that he never was when he was younger – the nose is not quite so dominant – and fitter looking too.
There was no indoor arena big enough for him to play in South America on the last tour, so he had to play stadium concerts. “There’s something about connecting with that many people outdoors which is actually extremely gratifying,” he says.
There is, though, a sense that Waters was born restless, and that contentment is something he neither has nor wants.
“As one starts to creak a bit more, and you start to have aches and pains, it is something that you come to understand: that you can’t stop moving. As you get older, you just have to push yourself harder and harder, and it takes more and more effort to stay active. You keep going until you stop, and when you stop you die.”
Waters remains the most compelling character in Pink Floyd. A grammar-school boy frequently mistaken for a public-school graduate. The anti-establishment youth who bought a country pile as soon as he had the money. A man who wrote about alienation and disillusionment, until Pink Floyd became the personification of everything punks hated about such music, distancing themselves from the prog-rock vibe by writing songs about . . . alienation and disillusionment.
Waters, the man, provokes strong emotions in those who know him. “I’d have to say that Roger Waters is one of the world’s most difficult men,” Mason once said – and he is a friend.
Waters had a reputation for being argumentative, domineering, arrogant and somewhat aloof, yet also a compassionate man who rails against injustices, especially for those who are victims of war, as he was once.
In an age of vapid, timid rock stars, he’s lost none of his sense of self-importance, recalling how he met the “what’s her name, the president of Argentina”, Cristina Kirchner, on his South American tour, and she asked him to intervene with the Falkland Islands’ administration.
The Argentines want to send in a Red Cross team to identify the remains of 123 soldiers who are interned at a cemetery in East Falklands.
Waters wrote a letter to Sharon Halford, a member of the Falkland Islands’ legislative assembly and has been thus far rebuffed. “They are a bit wary of it. We will keep exploring all diplomatic avenues so the parents of these boys know the spot to put the flowers on.”
The Wall album is, from beginning to end, a Waters’ album. “We pretended it was a democracy for a long time, but this album was the big own up,” he told Newsweek magazine after it was released in 1979.
The most salient event in Waters’s life happened when he was just five months old. His father, Eric, a conscientious objector and communist until he realised the threat from the Nazis, was killed at Anzio, in February 1944.
Waters is one of millions of children left orphaned or fatherless by the second World War. For the most part they have remained nameless and voiceless, but Waters has taken the opposite tack. The man who once famously sang that “quiet desperation is the English way” has made understanding his father’s death an act of public remembrance.
There are echoes of the second World War in the album, most notably in Goodbye Blue Skies and the spooky refrain: “Did you, did you hear the falling bombs?” and in A Brick in the Wall Part 1: “Daddy’s flown across the ocean, leaving just a memory.”
The most intensely autobiographical of Waters’s song about his father, When The Tigers Broke Free, did not appear on The Wall album, but it is in the film of the same name directed by Alan Parker. In it Waters evokes the circumstances of his father’s death:
It was just before dawn one miserable,
morning in black forty-four,
when the forward commander was told
to sit tight, when he asked that his men
be withdrawn, and the generals gave
thanks as the other ranks,
held back the enemy tanks for a while,
and the Anzio bridgehead was held for
the price of a few hundred ordinary lives
Waters never remembered his father and was traumatised by his death, not helped by an overbearing mother, who is cruelly portrayed in The Wall.
“As far as my father is concerned is that one of the things that I discovered many years ago in therapy talking about it, is that I had a recurring dream that I had murdered somebody,” he says now. “I would wake up from this dream in terror thinking that I was going to be found out. Eventually, I came to believe and understand that it is something I have carried since I was a baby, that I felt responsible for my father’s death just because it happened when I was a few months old. That’s gone. However, the loss of my father remains a prime motivation for doing this show.”
This Wall tour will be bigger than the last one, which was a gargantuan spectacle. The wall will be nearly twice the size, with enhanced Imax visuals projecting images of the victims of war.
Nobody could ever accuse Waters of a lack of ambition.
The “wall” of the album and tour was intended to symbolise Waters’s alienation from his audience provoked by an incident in 1977, in Montreal, when he spat at a fan.
He now says the wall was a metaphor for the disconnection within the band and that his hatred of stadium concerts was provoked by the atmosphere within Pink Floyd. Musically and personally they were at each other’s throats, the other members chaffing at Waters’s dominance.
“You’d have to talk to the people who portrayed me as a villain. We started a band when we were young men, and we did some really good work together, and we grew apart musically and philosophically. It started to unravel long before The Wall. We clung together under the safety of the trademark for many years. It finally became most uncomfortable, so I left.”
The Roger Waters version of Pink Floyd split up in 1985, although the band carried on until 1994, much to his chagrin.
In 2005, Pink Floyd reunited for Live 8 in London’s Hyde Park. In an age where so many established acts have worn out their welcome with relentless touring, the Pink Floyd reunion was the singular memorable event of that night.
Sitting in a pub in Waterford on a warm summer’s evening, it was instructive to watch the revellers ignoring act after act on a television in the corner. Not even Robbie Williams, The Who or Sting could disturb them from their Saturday night pints, but then Pink Floyd came on and the sound went up. Everybody watched.
The band members, who had not played together for 24 years, were immaculate, inspiring and reminded the world why they were once so huge. A fan held up a banner: “Pink Floyd reunion: pigs have flown”. It was an apt summation.
The reunion inevitably fuelled calls for more. Waters signalled his willingness to do more shows, but neither Gilmour nor keyboardist Rick Wright were interested. There were too many ghosts.
The questions ought to have stopped after Wright’s sad death from cancer in 2008, but they continue. Fans were given a tantalising glimpse of what might have been when Gilmour made a surprise appearance on The Wall tour at the O2 in London, in May 2011, to reprise his incomparable guitar playing on Comfortably Numb.
“No there’s no plan for more. I think David is basically retired now,” says Waters wistfully, as if retirement was the worst idea in the world.
“People develop attachments to these things. This is 27 years ago now. That is a long time for other people, fans, to be saying why don’t they get back together. Get used to it. There were reasons why we broke up, and they are just as valid now. We are never going to get back together again. It was over in 1985, and it is going to stay over. Forgive me if I don’t sound that interested.”
Roger Waters will play Dublin’s Aviva Stadium on September 18th. Tickets from €69.50 are on sale now
Wall to Wall matters
The original Wall tour in 1980 and 1981 was performed only 31 times. It was a logistical nightmare.
Roger Waters later played The Wall live in Berlin, shortly after the Berlin Wall came down.
The Wall tour 2010/2011 included two dates (out of 217) in Dublin. Waters was joined on stage one night by children from St Joseph’s co-ed school in East Wall for the chorus of Another Brick in the Wall, and by innercity Musical Youth Foundation on the other.
The Wall was the third most successful tour of last year taking in €140.5 million.