Ed. Note: This is an excerpt from the Billboard cover story interview with Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters. To read the full interview, purchase this week’s issue of Billboard magazine by clicking above.
In stark contrast to the wildly successful tour he began in September 2010, Roger Waters today is a man who has transcended walls, or boundaries of any type. Calling on a travel day before the June 19 Nashville show of The Wall Live, Waters is, as ever, a compelling conversationalist who clearly enjoys the discourse, and there are no walls between subjects, either. Waters moves easily and without obstruction, showing equal passion for the Large Hadron Collider, neurophysiology, the existence of God and, of course, rock’n’roll. He laughs easily and often, his voice “as strong as it’s ever been.” Waters has clearly overcome the demons that once tormented him and were manifested in Pink, the confused protagonist of The Wall, the landmark 1979 album by British prog-rock group Pink Floyd that was the beginning of the end for that beloved band, but has never left Waters’ consciousness.
The next night in Nashville, Waters owns the expansive stage and leads his exemplary band and vocalists through a highly charged, totally captivating performance. Confident, charismatic and even happy, Waters is in complete control, whether he’s in the role of the tortured Pink or the machine-gun-wielding Fascist, frontman or bassist. He and his band manage to not be overwhelmed by the often mind-blowing array of production elements, including the “wall” built during the show, and the entire presentation offers the interweaving of the sonic and the visual at a level that few rock tours have ever achieved. The audience was completely engaged throughout.
The Wall — an enduring, dark rock masterpiece that deals broadly with personal alienation juxtaposed against a backdrop of war and government corruption — has been presented in many formats, first as the album (co-produced by Bob Ezrin) and its subsequent “nightmare” tour, then as the 1982 film “Pink Floyd: The Wall” starring Bob Geldof, then as a benefit at the Berlin Wall in 1990 and most recently on this ambitious and technically stunning tour that began in September 2010. In the interim, the meaning of The Wall has shifted, at least for Waters, from his personal experience to a more global message of peace and, perhaps more than anything, the gift of empathy.
This is conceptual, high art for rock’n’roll, yet it sells the hell out of tickets. Even when the concert industry went in the tank in 2010, Waters and U2’s Vertigo tour were among the few that emerged unscathed, and the Wall tour has only gained momentum as it heads to what looks like its own wall at the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City on July 21.
More than 150 shows in, Waters shows no signs of weariness and, nearly 20 years since his last record of original material, even seems ready to record a new album. Billboard talked to Waters about all of this and much more.
Billboard: Throughout your career you’ve been an artist who looks forward and explores. So what is it about The Wall that was worth such attention and reassessment, particularly on this level?
Roger Waters: All those years ago when I wrote this piece, I thought it was about me, and about feelings that I had about my Dad being killed at Anzio [in Italy during World War II], how much I missed him, and the fact that I’d made some really poor choices in relationships with women — all of that crap. Which it was.
But in the intervening 33 years, I’ve realized that because of the theatrical construction of the “wall” — which was an idea that I had back in ’77 because of my disaffection with big audiences and stadiums and all that — the power of the metaphor lends the story a much more universal vision and appeal. So I’ve come to realize it’s not about me — it’s about anybody that has suffered the loss of a loved one in some kind of conflict, whether it be war or something else. It’s about the problems we all face with errant authority, or all the difficulties we all have in relationships with one another, whether they’re sexual relationships or political/international relationships.
That excited me about revisiting the piece, and in this most recent incarnation of it making a version that would work in stadiums and ballparks and football stadiums, which is ironic, because my starting point was my disaffection with that situation. But I’ve come to realize that not only does it work in big spaces, its appeal is such that people in big spaces feel intimately connected with the message. I’m sorry, this is a long and complex answer, but it’s a good question.
In the second act, I sing “Vera” walking down steps at the bottom of the stage, and in the last verse of “Vera,” I’m just behind the curtain of the stage, and I actually step out and sing the last verse — “Vera, Vera, what has become of you?” — and nobody’s looking at me, they’re all looking at the screen: a young girl in a classroom meeting her father who’s just come back from Iraq or Afghanistan or somewhere. And as I sing the words, “Does anybody else feel the way I do?” I see lots of lips in the audience moving, and I know that it’s not just anybody else that feels the way I do. They all feel the way I do. It’s just the reality of living a life where those feelings get expression and can affect governments and foreign policy. There is a wall between us and the realizing of our dream of peace, and that is what the show is currently about.
Pink isn’t a character that’s ever particularly happy, and I presume you were struggling with certain things when you wrote that character —
— but now you seem like a happy guy. So do you still relate to Pink?
I feel much less of a victim now. I’ve taken control of my life. I’m capable now, 30 years older and a little bit wiser, of resolving a lot of the issues that I wasn’t capable of resolving at the time.
ABOUT THE COVER:
The eyes of Pink Floyd fans should light up when they see this week’s Roger Waters cover illustration by longtime Floyd illustrator Gerald Scarfe. Scarfe has worked with the band since the mid-’70s, most famously for his contributions to Pink Floyd’s 1979 The Wall and its subsequent tour and film. In addition to serving as director of animation for Waters’ current tour, Scarfe has long been a political cartoonist for the London Sunday Times, and his work has been exhibited worldwide.
You’ve said that the loss of a father is the “central prop” on which The Wall stands. That angle of it, as I know, doesn’t go away. You live with it.
You live with it. But if it’s in any sense a gift — and I may get a bit wobbly here, because it means a lot to me — the gift is it encourages us to empathize with others.
I don’t know if you know or not, but we have 20 vets we give tickets to every night, and they come backstage at halftime, so I spend most of my 25-minute break with them. I sign photographs, and we talk a bit, but we never talk politics, because that would be entirely counterproductive. But somehow they get that, whatever our politics might be, that I empathize with their situation. I don’t invite them backstage because I applaud American foreign policy or because I’m jingoistic. I invite them backstage because I feel that to some extent I understand not only their plight — a lot of them have been wounded physically, very badly, but also been mentally scarred — but also that their families suffer, and they suffer in the same way that I suffered as a kid.
There was one guy about 70 or 80 shows ago, he was an older guy, a Vietnam guy, he stood back and he didn’t want a photograph or an autograph, but I noticed him and he just watched me. And when I was leaving the room, he just sort of stopped me, so I paused for a minute, I was just about to go back onstage. He looked me in the eye and he said to me, “Your father would be proud of you.” And I was fucked. I couldn’t speak. It was such a weird, emotional moment. I kind of swallowed a couple of times, and then I went on and we did “Hey You” and we carried on with the second half. Because, as you know, “the show must go on.” But it was deeply moving, and it made a sort of family connection.
Touring with such a mega-production, artful as it is, represents what you said were the initial circumstances that inspired it. It’s clear the irony of that isn’t lost on you.
No, the irony is not lost on me. But I feel I’ve transcended the problems of the wall between me and the audience, so the piece is rock’n’roll theater at the highest level, and it expresses the existence of all the other walls that I’ve talked about: the walls of media, the walls of government, the walls of religion, the walls of all kinds of extremism, and all those walls that exist between human beings. It very powerfully tells the message.
The song on Dark Side of the Moon, to which Rick [Wright] wrote beautiful music and I wrote the song on top of it, “Us and Them,” it’s a very simple song but it expresses how I feel about the disconnect between “us and them” very eloquently. My position is that there is no “us and them.” The difference between “us and them” is an accident of birth, it’s geographical. So whether we are a radical Muslim or a crazed right-wing Christian extremist somewhere in the Midwest depends entirely on where we were born and what our parents taught us.
That’s assuming that you don’t think there’s a huge plan, which I don’t believe in, which I’m sure you already know. If there was a plan, in my view, if God had figured all this out and done all this, he would not be creating Muslim extremists in Saudi Arabia and born-again extremists in Kansas. This would not be the sign of his handiwork. It’s the differential between all these extreme positions that leads me to suppose that there is no guiding hand.
Obviously technology improved a lot since the last time you staged The Wall, and you’ve surely learned much about what the current capabilities are on the Dark Side of the Moon tour in 2006-07. But is there anything that you visualized that ultimately you couldn’t pull off?
In this show, no. I can conceptualize things, but it’s all my technical people, like Sean Evans who is the designer, or Richard Turner who does the projections. I won’t go on mentioning names because they’re all very talented people and there are very many of them. So when I say to them, “Can this be done?,” they go [long intake of breath], “Yeah, maybe.” And then we try and do it, and we succeed and we fail. But, by and large, there’s somebody on my team that knows the answer to any question I can ask them. I have the most amazing team that anybody can imagine. I hate to sound boastful. Not that we’re exclusive, but we’re a very close family, me and everybody on the road with me.