The thought of mingling with a room full of strangers, and the requisite small talk that entails, leaves Roger Waters ill at ease. He’s no recluse, but as the legendary (and legendarily outspoken) singer-songwriter will tell you, his life and his work are best defined by an intense desire to explore the burden of isolation.
Yet in 2011, midway through Waters’ three-year theatrical reprisal of his rock opera The Wall, he was invited to a glitzy cocktail party in Washington full of wounded military veterans hosted by the Bob Woodruff Foundation, whose namesake was nearly killed in Iraq while reporting for ABC News in 2006. Over the last nine years, Woodruff’s organization has raised millions for veterans’ support programs throughout the United States, focusing on the physical and professional challenges facing those wounded in combat and their caregivers.
“They said, ‘Will you come and wander about and have a drink?’ And I said: ‘I can do that. I’m good at that,’” Waters recalled as he was rehearsing for Music Heals, his celebrated concert at D.C.’s Constitution Hall featuring Billy Corgan, Tom Morello, Sheryl Crow and 11 wounded vets. But he was bluffing. “Actually,” Waters confessed a moment later, “I’m not good at that. I very rarely do that.”
Today, Waters is enjoying another creative peak in what’s been a successful, if frequently controversial, solo career since his split from Pink Floyd. At 72, he’s finalizing the Dec. 1 Blu-ray release of his new documentary chronicling this most recent telling of The Wall, an emotional account that also aims to answer how he has come to terms with the lifelong heartache over the death of his father, Eric Fletcher Waters, during World War II. At the same time, Waters is assembling his first album of original material in nearly 25 years.
Playing no small part in this resurgence is the little-known story about that cocktail party and the unique friendships — and new bandmates — he’s gained as result. They’ve changed for the better, he says, a man once so famously distant.
“I’ve become close to these guys, and they’ve become my friends,” Waters says. “And together we’ve made huge strides. A lot of my work has been about being closed-in. My walls. So the more open I can become, the more I shall like it and the luckier I will count myself in my life. This helps me to be more open.”
The new album, which Waters has described as a conceptual “radio play” examining the bloody 30-year conflict that divided Northern Ireland, has no targeted completion date. It does, however, promise to evoke the anti-war message he delivered night after night during more than 200 live performances of The Wall.
Waters bristles when prompted to contemplate how he reconciles such views knowing that his wounded bandmates may still regard the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as worthy of their profound personal sacrifice. “Don’t get me started,” he scolds. “My politics are another matter. We never talk about politics here. It’s not that I don’t have opinions. I do. But I don’t bring them up. We operate in a world without political conflict because none of us brings it up. We’re here for the music — and because we have a certain amount of love in our hearts.”
At the cocktail party in 2011, Waters met Juan Dominguez, a Marine infantryman who only months prior had lost his right arm and both of his legs after falling on a hidden explosive while patrolling in Sangin, one of the Afghanistan war’s most ferocious battlegrounds. Throughout 2010 and 2011 alone, more than 50 U.S. Marines were killed there and another 500 were wounded while fighting a well-entrenched enemy desperate to protect the valley’s abundant poppy crop, which continues to bankroll the Taliban insurgency.
Their conversation was illuminating, Waters recalls. At the time Dominguez, now 31, was relearning to play the drums as part of the MusiCorps rehabilitation project at the military’s Walter Reed medical center just outside of Washington. Woodruff and his wife, Lee, hoped the one-on-one interaction would compel Waters to get involved with the foundation’s annual Stand Up for Heroes benefit.
“They were suggesting I might do a gig,” Waters says, “and I had the idea of meeting some of the guys and trying to put a band together.” MusiCorps’ founder and organizer, composer Arthur Bloom, brought Waters to Walter Reed, and an immediate friendship took root. “I had no idea what to expect,” Waters continues, saying that initially his hope was to put on a performance lasting 20 or 30 minutes.
Led by Waters and longtime collaborator G.E. Smith, the wounded warrior band performed during Stand Up for Heroes at Madison Square Garden in November 2012. A day later, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, one of the country’s most visible advocacy group for those who’ve served since 9/11, named Waters the recipient of its first ever Artistic Leadership Award. The honor specifically cites his “Fallen Loved Ones” project, a poignant photo memorial displayed during each performance of The Wall.
Under Bloom’s steady tutelage, the MusiCorps veterans have made enormous musical progress in the three years since, Waters says. To emphasize that point, Waters points out that their setlist for Music Heals spanned two hours, what he called a “proper gig.”
Among the titles they performed was Waters’ anthem “When the Tigers Broke Free.” It’s a bitter account of the tactical failures that allowed his father’s unit — Z Company, 8th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers — to be overrun by the Germans after the 1944 Allied landing at Anzio along Italy’s west coast. To Waters’ most faithful fans, the song is an absolute jewel, the rarity that appeared in Pink Floyd’s original film adaptation of The Wall but was otherwise rejected by his bandmates, who found the song’s message overly personal and depressing.
Eric Waters was killed in a foxhole some 12 miles from the coast, a fate Roger Waters learned about just two years ago after a fellow Anzio veteran uncovered an official report documenting the Germans’ counterattack that day. The British officer’s body was never recovered, but a monument bearing his name was installed last year to mark the spot where he died. For the son, there was closure. And for the artist, a new day.
As he explains in the new film, at the set break during one performance of The Wall, Waters was approached by an older veteran with a brief message: “Your father would be proud of you.” It unnerved him. While it’s true that Roger Waters despises conflict and the suffering that war inflicts, he respects those like Juan Dominguez, men and women who’ve lost nearly everything yet still see more light than darkness. “Situations like that,” Waters adds, “help you to open yourself more.”