The Word Magazine May 2008.
(Transcript thanks to Natalie Lyons)
NO PAIN NO GAIN
Is this a new Roger Waters, Forgiving and gently philosophical aboug his former Pink Floyd partners? Or has a fresh consignment of grief arrived to get his goat? “You can’t suck me down that whole pit of despair again. I can’t go there,” he warns Mark Ellen.
It’s an “absolutely stunning” morning in Manhattan, the sunlight streaming into an apartment on Lexington Avenue, the current home of Roger Waters. These days you can’t help but feel there’s also a gentle wind at his back, and that the road is rising to meet him. His two current projects are firing on all cylinders.
The first is the restaging of his opera Ca Ira in Brazil in April, in the same magnificent theatre that appears in Fitzcarraldo. These three shows precede the upcoming second swing of his performance of Dark Side Of The Moon, a massive success in 2007 and returning to the United Kingdom in May.
And, fairly obviously, there’s a third project too, blossoming with much the same vigour as the others, an emerging facial thatch that makes him look as though he might have just returned to his new American base, not in a first-class window seat but at the helm of a papyrus raft.
The Word last talked to him just after Live 8, his conversation still fired by Pink Floyd’s brief reunion and careful to leave the door ajar for David Gilmour – for 20 troubled years the group’s director – to reactivate the show-stealing foursome for another world campaign. Some things never change, so Waters went out and did it himself.
Two-and-a-half years later, he’s softly philosophical but still brimful of vim and vigour – Hillary-hating, Radiohead-resistant, nostalgic about his artistic and personal life at the time of the record that revised their fortunes, and comically resigned to the lumbering broken marriage of the group that made his name.
A member of Led Zeppelin once told me that one of the things that keeps him working is the fear of having to play golf with Alice Cooper, of that awful clichéd vision of rock star retirement. What motivates you?
Well certainly not the fear of playing golf with Alice Cooper! Though Alice actually started playing golf very seriously about 40 years ago, and he plays every single day, so he’s almost certainly frightfully good. But no, the last few years have been a huge revelation, to discover that there’s a young audience out there who are devoted to your work – I had no idea really – and I’ve discovered huge changes in my personality, I no longer feel even faintly constrained to spit at anyone, to feel angry. So I get a huge kind of emotional payback.
When I interviewed you just after Live 8, you talked about these “huge holes in your psychology” that needed to be filled by large crowds of people appreciating your music.
Yes, but I’m not sure you even have to have huge holes in your psychology, and in recent years I’ve grasped that. And I love it now. How much longer I’ll go on doing it I don’t know, but I do work every day – and work and sex even come before sport on the Pleas-o-Meter. Mind you, [Arsenal] beating AC Milan two-nil last night was pretty spectacular. If only Chelsea had lost…
If only. You keep an eye on the game partly out of homesickness?
Well, as you know, the coverage of the English Premier League, and even the Championship, is actually better over here. You actually get to see more matches than in England. And I’ve been an Arsenal fan all my life. I lived there from 1968 to 1975, and when I wasn’t on the road I went to every home game. Stood under the clock, before they built the stands. I can name the whole squad now (he does so). I can still remember everyone going out into the street in Islington at the end of the cup in ’71 [Arsenal beat Liverpool in extra time], wandering about, slightly dazed, just remembering the pleasure of it. Which puts me in mind of listening to the radio inside and then going back out into Rock Road in Cambridge back in 1956 when Jim Laker took ten Australian wickets. Another of those moments that never ceases to be magic. They never evaporate.
If you don’t feel competitive about touring and recording, I can’t imagine there’s much point in carrying on. It’d just be a hobby. Don’t you have to want to win – and badly?
I would absolutely own up to this. I confess that when I get those e-mails from my PR that tell me I’ve come third in some poll somewhere I have to own up to a little glow of pride. There may be one of two exceptions but, by and large, most musicians are pretty insecure. A bit less so than they used to be but, nevertheless, insecure. And we crave that kind of attention you get by standing up in front of thousands of people. And if you’re interested in music, you don’t have to go for that aspect of it. You don’t have to flog round the world and make huge fortunes and play huge places. You can just do it in your bedroom.
Correct any misunderstanding about you. Write your own Wikipedia entry.
Oh, you can’t suck me down that whole pit of despair. I can’t go there. I’m sure there are lots but I’d have to leave that to others.
The track Echoes [from Meddle in 1971] came up on my iPod the other day and I couldn’t believe how contemporary it sounded – the lyric, the vocal, the “inner-voyaging” sound effects. Why does this music still survive and so much else released at this time sound dated? Weirdly, it lasted exactly the same length of time as my tube journey from Hammersmith to King’s Cross – 23 and a half minutes.
God, that takes me back. I used to travel on the tube from Goldhawk Road to Paddington a lot, back in the late ‘60s when I lived in Shepherd’s Bush. And there was this terrific piece of art I passed every day, graffitied on this very long kind of concrete wall. So as you pulled out of Goldhawk Road tube station and headed for the darkness, while you’re still up in the light, somebody had written, SAME THING DAY AFTER DAY. It was about 30 yards long. The whole thing read something like this, HAVE A CUP OF COFFEE, GO DOWN THE STATION, GET ON THE TRAIN, GO TO WORK, COME HOME, WATCH TV, GO TO BED – SAME THING DAY AFTER DAY. And it was repeated again and again, going faster and faster as you accelerated into the blackness of the tunnel. And I was thinking, “Who did that?” This was 1968 or whatever. IN fact there was an advert in the tube around the same time – and I don’t think I’ve ever shared this before – not sure what it was advertising, a band or building society or something, and it said GET A GOOD JOB WITH MORE PAY – though there were no vowels, only consonants. And I remember connecting those two images from the underground – one was art and one was commerce – and they sort of married in my mind. And that’s where the lyrics for the song Money came from.
But in answer to your question, I really don’t know why its popularity has sustained. Dark Side is just very accomplished sonically and musically; the work we were all doing – particularly Rick – terms of chord structures. Rick described that rather eloquently in the documentary, all these jazz influences that start with Miles Davis’s Kind Of Blue. And also obviously Dave’s playing and singing, which is just beyond good. So all those things really.
It was complicated music to have reached so many people – he idea of the life cycle from birth to death in the songs themselves. The only records that sold more in America were a lot more superficial – Thriller, The Eagles’ Greatest Hits, Saturday Night Fever, The Bodyguard soundtrack…
Funnily enough, The Wall has sold a lot more than Dark Side in America now. I think it goes Thriller, The Eagles, The Wall, then Dark Side. But it always sounded like a very popular record. I remember when we finished it off thinking it would be a huge hit. I honestly don’t know why. I just did. It had a lot of class but it was also deeply appealing. And of course Money was seriously embraced by the AM radio, the cash register thing struck a chord. And radio was a big factor then. Which is why they were always bribing them with cocaine and cash! But I like to think there’s a political dimension of honesty about the whole record that gives it a flavour of truth. That’s also a contributing factor to is longevity. People understand immediately when they hear it that there’s nothing contrived about it.
Did you imagine any of the political issues it raised would have changed in 35 years?
No, probably not. Though to some small extent they have changed. They go through cycles. That sort of slavish attention to Reaganism, to Thatcherism – although it was actually pre-Thatcher and pre-Reagan. But I stare out of my window every morning down Lexington Avenue and you can’t live in New York without being very aware that money is still the primary god. But there is this sense, particularly in this election year, that the great unwashed may, finally, just be beginning to twig it a little bit, to just begin to understand that they’re being fucked over by the 3 per cent of the population who own 98 per cent of the world and dangle that apple of billionairism in front of them. And that they may – may, particularly in the light of the debacle in Iraq – they may just be on the verge of beginning to twig that the people who had their heads busted for starting unions in the ‘20s and ‘30s were maybe on to something. They may start to vote with their mortgages, with the disaster of their economic lives, in a more realistic way. I mean how anyone with an income of 50,000 dollars a year can vote Republican is absolutely beyond my understanding.
But isn’t the problem partly the whole economic structure of virtually any political election anywhere in the world, but particularly in America? To have the table stake to even be able to play, to be able to launch a campaign that will get any publicity, you need enormous funding. And, if elected, you’re permanently in a political compromise with the organisations that gave you the money to get elected in the first place?
Yes, but that’s not true of Obama. That’s the most elevating and exciting about the race for the Democratic position: Obama’s money is coming from the people! It’s coming from small contributions from people with access to computers. And that is very exciting. I mean, I am a huge fan of Barack Obama and I was so disappointed the other night when the ghastly Hillary got Texas and kept the whole thing going. Please God, let’s not have this woman! Not because she’s a woman, just that she’s old guard. And we’ve had enough of he Clintons and Bushes. Hillary will want to make her mark and show that she can be just as good as a male president and she will fucking invade Iran. Trust me. She voted to declare the Iranian Republican Guard a terrorist organization!
After the Vote For Change tour in 2004 – REM, Springsteen, etc – you wonder, honestly, whether a rock star’s view can ever persuade anybody.
I don’t agree. And if I thought there wouldn’t be a huge reaction, I would buy a whole page in The New York Times and fly Obama’s flag and lend support to his cause. But I would be terribly afraid that they’d go, “This is that pinko shitbag whose, you know, attacking our President in time of war” or whatever.
And a lot of Republicans would presumably stop buying your records.
I don’t give a shit about that. I’ve been going all over this country doing this show and one of the songs I do, Leaving Beirut, is pretty strident in its political message. So I’m standing there giving them both fingers and when I sing lines like “Oh George! Oh George! That Texas education must have fucked you up when you were very small” – which give me a great deal of pleasure to sing – most of the audience respond very positively. But then we’re living in an eye-blink. It’s very easy to lose sight of the fact that social and political changes happen over very large timescales. It’s only now hat the globe is beginning to grapple with some of the thinking dating back to the 18th century – the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and Le Declaration Des Droits De L’Hommes in Paris in 1789. The idea that human beings had rights. Because before that – and this is only 200 years ago, which is really sort of nothing, it’s two lifetimes if you think about it; these days people live to 100 – before that, by and large, the political systems have been feudal. OK, we English had a little bit of a revolution about 150 years before but, by and large, people believed in the divine right of kings – that the king was appointed by God and that he was connected to God – a bit like the Catholics still believe that you can only find God through the divine ruler. So this idea was only really dismantled in the late 1700s. And the fact that it is still being dismantled and the idea that ordinary people have rights has come even as far as it has in the last 200 years shows that these changes are happening and will continue to happen. But it’s important to keep a sense of perspective.
Do you think the attitude to rock music is different in America? I have this theory that American media embrace it because they’ve got less cultural history – F Scott Fitzgerald is up there with Walt Disney and Steven Spielberg and Madonna; they’re all part of popular culture. But there are still sections of the British media that find it hard to take rock music seriously in a cultural history that includes, you know, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Hogarth and Dickens.
I think that’s absolutely true but it’s also true that American society and culture is much more positive and more giving generally. There’s a lot less criticism. I found in the UK there’s a sort of mealy-mouthed reluctance to pat anyone on the back or whatever. It seems that the first national reaction of any measure of success is a stab in the back rather than a pat on the back.
But that’s just the great “earthing” capacity of the British cynical filter! Americans tend to envy success but the British fear that it’ll make them lose touch with someone they feel a connection with.
Is that what you think it is? That you should be “poo-er” forever? But they sort of hate you for being good at anything – unless it’s kicking a pig’s bladder about, anything else you get attacked for. But I’ve been over here for a few years and people go (Yorkshire accent, bizarrely) “Well done, son! By gum, you did well!” You don’t get any of those amazing blistering vitriolic attacks on what people call progressive rock or whatever – “Who do they think they are? Over-blown self-indulgent crap…”
Can you hear the influence of the Floyd in all these clever British rock bands – Wire, Talk Talk, Blur, Shack, Coldplay, Radiohead?
Can I? No I can’t. That bit of my brain has no power, I think. It doesn’t attach. I don’t really listen to Radiohead. I’m sure it’s very good and everything – I’m absolutely sure it is because everybody says it is – but I listened to the albums and they just didn’t move me in the same way, say, John Prine does. His is just extraordinarily eloquent music – and he lives on that plain with Neil [Young] and Lennon. I don’t have satellite radio in my car yet – which is stupid and you can get whatever you want and as much of it as you want – but if I’m flipping through channels in the car I’ll stop for old stalwarts like Neil and John, but usually you can be certain that the thing you’ve stopped for is going to finish in three minutes and the thing that comes after it will be unlistenable. So you sort of don’t bother. That’s why I never watched MTV – because of the programming. Nothing ever seemed to go on long enough to be worth watching. And even if that particular video was interesting, you’d get something directly afterwards that inevitably wasn’t.
That’s interesting. So, for you, brevity automatically implies superficiality.
Yeah, and that’s one of the tragedies of the death of FM radio as it was in the late ‘60s. People played whole albums, or Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands or whatever, and that made it much more interesting. Then the businesses got hold of it and decided they had to respond to the bottom line and the audience figures were the only thing that mattered, and that sort of destroyed it. Which in some ways could be seen as a microcosm of – or at least a warning sign to – society in the United States at the moment. If you make that the only thing that matters, you destroy many potential avenues for society to change.
Have you given up hope of finding a replacement for Neil Young or John Lennon?
Well, no, I mean… no, I haven’t given up hope at all. If one comes along I’ll notice it. John Prine is one, but he’s almost a contemporary. Can you think of another?
I honestly think you should give Radiohead another try. There’s not a lot of brevity in your Radiohead album – some songs are in four movements – but it’s got all the good parts of what we used to call progressive rock and none of the bad bits. It’s not complexity for its own sake, just the reverse: everything is designed to support the lyric and the soul of the song. And they seem very influenced by Pink Floyd. I don’t mean to twist your arm here but…
No, I’m very happy to have my arm twisted. Seriously! Maybe I’ll give them another go. It would be very nice to discover something else to listen to.
If you could go back to your 29-year-old self, is there anything you’d rewrite on Dark Side Of The Moon?
No, I don’t think there is. But I remember when I wrote Time – yes, I was 29 at the time – it was all true. It’s not like I made the song up or anything. What happened was I suddenly had this revelation. I was 29 before I suddenly twigged that I wasn’t in a rehearsal. That I wasn’t preparing for anything. That actually my real life had been happening for some time without me noticing it. It was that weird feeling, you know, that I’ll soon be ready and then life will begin. But I loved the way we worked back then. Dark Side’s forerunner was a thing we did at the Royal Festival Hall [in 1969] called The Man And The Journey, which was this strange rambling sort of piece that was put together but it had some of the elements that later showed up on Dark Side Of The Moon. I have this memory of arriving with this song Eclipse one afternoon – in Cardiff, I think – and saying, “Look I’ve nearly got an ending for this.” And we may have even done it that night in the show. It was that free and easy. That night I seem to remember we’d suspended a giant elbow at the back of the stage. We went through this long period where “giving someone the elbow” would be very important! Can’t remember why.
I saw an old pal from college the other day and told her I was going to interview you and she got in a right old pickle. She said, “For God’s sake, the Pink Floyd – they ruined my sex life! You’d be sitting around with a few blokes, one of them would put on three Floyd albums one one of those Selectors – you know, all stacked up, Ummagumma, Meddle, Dark Side Of The Moon – and then you knew nothing was going to happen for at least 90 minutes, after which everyone would probably be asleep.”
Well, yes! (laughs) Women did tend to have a slightly different reaction to us than men! But I’m happy to say that women in general – and young women in particular – are attaching themselves to this stuff a lot more than they used to. There’s definitely a big more knicker-waving now, which can be nothing but a good thing. My audience now is packed with young women, whereas it always used to be young men in great-coats. You look at some of that old footage on Youtube and you can see that the audience used to sit there, actually sit, very still and quiet, concentrating and listening very carefully.
Syd Barrett died in 2006. How accurate do you think the perception of him was in any obituaries you read?
I think it’s a great shame really that people swallowed the notion that he suddenly took a lot of acid and it destroyed him. This is absolute bollocks. There was something much more fundamental about Syd’s schizophrenia than taking too much acid. But I felt very sad. I still feel regret that we weren’t able to enjoy his company for all those years when he disappeared into the illness. But I think of him often. No least because I’ve been editing some of my shows recently and we’ve been doing Shine. We now do this with a 60 by 30 LED screen with footage of Syd. I went to the opening of Rock And Roll in New York, having been in London and met Tom Stoppard and become friends with him. Have you seen this play? It’s really, really good. Particularly if you’re me as it’s about three things I’m particularly interested in – Communism, Cambridge and Syd.
Will the Live 8 lineup of Pink Floyd ever perform together again?
I’m contractually obliged to ask you. World readers would murder me if I didn’t – and rightly so.
It’s always the same answer. I always chuckle.
So the answer is “possibly”?
The answer is… not up to me. The answer is: I’d be very happy to do it but it’s sort of up to Dave, I guess. But I don’t think he wants to do it, so I don’t think it’ll happen. And that’s absolutely fair enough. It’s not going to change my life. But I did love Live 8. I thought it was really, really special. If that’s the only thing we ever get to do again to underline the collaboration then I’m very glad there was at least one moment we could do it. But I thought it sounded great. He feeling was… it was so… it was so intense. But I’m not sure that we all felt that. In fact I’m quite sure that we didn’t all feel that. But most of us did.
How are relations between you and Dave Gilmour – cordial?
Well we never speak to each other. But we don’t speak to each other in a very cordial way! I feel no enmity at all.
Tell us something about the Pink Floyd we don’t already know.
Read Nick’s book. It’s the gospel truth! Of course it isn’t, but no, Nick and I have a more than cordial relationship. We met up on a beach in Mustique and we’ve become great friends again. So the book [Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd] is a running joke. He said that when he sent me a draft – when we were still faintly estranged – that when it came back it had a blue pencil through almost everything.
Did he take any notice?
Not much. But you know, so what. The great thing about all of that is that we now know – because of all the research that’s done in neurology – we now know that we can’t actually remember very much, so a lot of the arguments about who did or said what are actually irrelevant because, however much we may think we remember, we now know the brain will invent memories that suit the ego of the person who owns the brain. It’s not a reliable instrument, even faintly. So, for instance, if Nick thinks he helped me make the cash register loop for Money and I seem to remember doing it on my own in a shed in the bottom of my garden, then there is absolutely no way of knowing whether he did or he didn’t. It’s not like somebody’s lying. The person who has the false memory will believe it absolutely and so… Oh, but who gives a fuck really? (laughs) I got this brilliant e-mail passed through to my office the other day – “Dear Mr Waters, I gather you may be casting a feature film about the recording of Another Brick In The Wall and I’d like to put myself forward to play the part of Nick Mason, who I believe to be the central character in the Pink Floyd story. I think I’m absolutely meant to play the part, with my extraordinary character acting skills and ingenious use of make-up…” and it went on like this for some while. And there were some Jpegs attached. I open one up and it’s Netty, Nick’s wife, dressed up in one of his old hats with a scarf round it and a false moustache. I know! (laughs) It was really, really good.