Word Magazine – October 2005.
(Transcript thanks to Natalie Lyons)
What’s My Motivation?
After 25 years of attrition, the reunited Pink Floyd stole the show at Live 8. Now their former leader wants them to tour Dark Side of the Moon. Where did it all go right? And what’s behind Roger Waters’s desire to carry on?
By Mark Ellen
We all know the story, in fact, given thirty seconds to pitch it to a Hollywood executive, you could probably condense the Pink Floyd into two sentences. “Ambitious bass-player assumes leadership of psychedelic pop group when singer retires in drug-accelerated heap but alienates others through inability to come to terms with success and leaves. To his public fury, remaining three win legal right to continue touring his material under the name Pink Floyd though, 20 years later, he concedes this helped keep the brand alive”. The cast is obvious – the complex and slightly earnest Richard Gere plays Roger Waters, the glacially handsome Rutger Hauer is David Gilmour, the frail and preoccupied Harry Dean Stanton takes the part of Rick Wright, and you’ve got Dustin Hoffman of course on the drums.
When the four of them last performed Breathe, at Knebworth in 1975, they did so against a giant circular cinema screen lit up with a pulsating heart. I remember looking up at one point, as a Spitfire buzzed the stage, to see a rocket sliding down a two hundred yard wire to a point behind the drum riser – oh the technology! – where it appeared to detonate a giant firework display.
When this line-up next played the song it was 30 years later. We watched beneath the sweep of a camera-crane carrying the show beyond the 205,000 rammed into Hyde Park and out to the gigantic global audience beyond. And we left with some very warm and old-fashioned feelings. A group without much technical support, and with so little time to prepare, had stolen the show in the face of unimaginable pressure, the only performers who didn’t have – or possibly need – an introduction. And the sight of the four of them, arms linked, taking their final bow, was genuinely touching in the light of that ocean of animosity.
Nobody appeared more galvanised than their former leader. It was Waters who engineered the curtain call, Waters who made emotional outburst, Waters who sang many of the lyrics off-microphone as Dave Gilmour delivered them, a routine that seemed to celebrate their existence while at the same time gently re-asserting a proprietorial claim as to their authorship.
His latest project is an opera but, when we sat down to talk about it, all manner of other issues bubbled back up to the surface. Ninety minutes in his company and you’re left with some resounding insights into the nature of artistic success. That no amount of money can compensate for lack of respect. That ideals matter more than popularity. The no formula, no matter how lucrative, can survive if the component parts can’t bear to be in the same room together. And that whatever obstacles stood between the Pink Floyd and their eventual reunion then – in his case, certainly – they’ve been removed, a message he clearly wants communicated to the firm of Mason, Wright and Gilmour. As he pointed out, and with transparent delight, an offer for the classic Floyd to tour was delivered direct to his restaurant table the very night it was announced that the four of them were reconvening to play Live 8. For a guaranteed $250 million. As ever, of course, you’ve absolutely no idea which pleased him more – that it was offered, or that it was offered to him first.
Pity the poor Richard Gere as, scene after scene, he turns to his director for help. He has the noble forehead. He has the noble forehead. He has the craggy good looks. He has the faded blue cotton shirt. But again and again he asks: “What’s my motivation here?”
Your latest release is an opera, the story of the French Revolution. Why does all your work seem to be on this enormous theatrical and intellectual scale?
Well, I don’t know. I’m trying to think of a proper answer to that. There is no proper answer. Why is anyone attracted to anything? Why was whoever wrote Silence is Golden attracted to writing three minute pop songs? I don’t know why. I guess my interest in the spectacular, if you like, grew out of our experiences in the early days of Pink Floyd. But I seem to have a natural leaning towards trying to express ideas that take more than three minutes to get from te beginning to the middle to the end.
And you started working on all this back in 1989?
Well they [Etienne and Nadine Roda-Gil] wrote the original libretto in 1987 so I made the original demo some time in ’88. I worked for six weeks with an engineer at my studio in East Sheen, mixed it on a cassette and sent it to Paris where it eventually found its way to the Elysee Palace and ended up on Francois Mitterand’s desk. And it sort of snowballed from there. Mitterand listened to my demo and said [French accent] “Zees must be used in ze Bicentennial celebration!” He wrote a letter to Pierre Berger who, at the time was not only running Chanel but was also the director of the Paris Opera. The French are far looser in the way they expect people to behave in the arts. You’re allowed to be a novelist and write pop lycics. You’re allowed to be the Chairman of Chanel and a director of the opera. It’s not compartmentalised in the French mind in the same way that it is here. Anyway it all to-ed and fro-ed and there was a lot of talk about it being the inaugural work at the Opera De La Bastille, it all came to nothing in the end. I think me being English finally stuck in the Gallic craw.
Did you think there were any parallels between the story of the French Revolution and what’s gradually evolving in your current home, America?
Well if you could see the French Revolution as a microcosm of the situation we have globally now, you might say there are parallels. I’ve never thought of this before but you could say that there is an enormous disenfranchised hungry minority and there is an old order. But the old order is no longer the monarchy and the divine right of kings – and kings were connected to God and everyone else sort of spread out beneath them. We now have the Bush administration – who believe they are connected to God by some divine right! – and under that an entrenched economically hierarchical structure, the modern day equivalent of the nobility, who cannel nearly all the wealth to a very small percentage of the population. And then everybody else is the modern equivalent of the third estate who are, by and large, incredibly poor and disenfranchised and have no power at all. So it may well be that the circumstances that caused the French Revolution apply today – but in a global rather than a national sense. Nationally the population is controlled by fear through the manipulation of the media.
Civil unrest is kept to a minimum!
Civil unrest is kept to a minimum and control is exercised in two ways. By the use of petty crime to divert attention – i.e. if you create an underclass that are killing each other on street corners, a criminal underclass forged by the economic conditions, then attention is diverted from the real issue. Which is that a very small percentage of the population have got all the stuff. Of course the other way to divert attention from the central issue of haves and have-nots is to create the enemy abroad.
It must be very liberating to sit down and write a one minute 39 second section of music called The Execution Of Louis Capet or So To The Streets in the Pouring Rain.
It is! But I wrote all the music – well, eighty per cent of it – to the French version of the libretto. It was Sony who pushed me to write an English version, but in parts the literal translation, shorn of Etienne’s jeu de mots and idiomatic and literary allusions, didn’t make much sense. I had to rewrite the English to fit the metre of the French text. In fact I invented some bits of history to advance the narrative. For instance the scene in the garden in Vienna in 1765 involving the young Marie Antoinette and the boy who grows up to become the revolutionary priest where he tries to warn her that there’s trouble at mill.
How do you calibrate the success of a venture like this?
Basically I feel that music’s job is to generate an emotional reaction. And if it does that, then it’s succeeded. Beethoven transcends time and is still moving people. That is the qualitative view of success. As regards the quantitive view, is it the more people you get to the better? Maybe. It’s always a very slippery slope on the other side of the numbers hill, a very complex area, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to manufacture a popular product rather than just doing the work.
Has your level of success allowed you this kind of artistic freedom?
Maybe, but a lot of poor artists do their work because they feel compelled to. If you’re an artist you do the work whether it succeeds commercially or not.
I imagine you consider rock music exhausted and derivative and that’s part of the reason why you’ve written an opera. Are you just bored of it all?
No, not at all. None of those things! I’ve just never been consumed by popular music. I mean I was turned on by Elvis like everyone else, but my interest goes right back to the early part of the 20th century, back to Leadgbelly, back to the first protest songs on the edge of the blues which is where the best of rock and roll still lives. We haven’t moved far really. If you listen to Rust Never Sleeps, essentially it hasn’t really strayed that far from Bessie Smith and Leadbelly. But I’m still a big fan of certain writers. I saw John Prine the other day and he was unbelievable. And Neil Young, John Lennon, Leonard Cohen… I could reel off twenty names of people I feel are really necessary to have around me.
Anyone more recent?
There’s been one or two songs in the last twenty years. Everybody Hurts by REM. That song is phenomenal. And Every Breath you Take by Sting. I loved that song One Headlight by the Wallflowers [Dylan’s son Jakob’s band]. It probably appealed to me the same way Tommy Steel’s version of Singing the Blues did when I first heard it and took up my position in the corner of the playground to defend it against the Guy Mitchell version!
How would you like to be remembered musically?
I’d like to be remembered for Dark Side, The Wall, Amused to Death, you know the songs. I’d like to be remembered for having a vision of arena rock as theatre, for developing the marriage between visual elements and the music to make the rock and roll experience more visceral. I guess I’d like to be remembered for unashamedly making my mark on the page without fear of failure or reprisal.
Are you there yet?
I think I’ve transcended that point where I care very much about what the critics think of what I do. I think I have. I had a very interesting meeting with recently with Guy Laliberté who started Cirque Du Soleil and we were discussing The Wall and whether I should proceed with a Broadway production. He said, “You’re mad. Why put yourself in the hands of a couple of critics when you could bypass all of that and go straight to the people!” Cirque Du Soleil have got their audience, they like it, they couldn’t care less about what anyone writes about it.
Word ran a piece about Live 8 in July, Geldof and Nick Mason’s versions of how the Floyd reunion was engineered. How was it from your angle?
Funnily enough, I’ve written that story down, I’ll read it to you if you want. “So, here’s what happened. I get an email from Nick Mason saying he’s had Bob Geldof on the phone bending his ear about reforming Pink Floyd to play Live 8. Apparently Bob had already approached Dave Gilmour and got a no. Bob wants Nick to try to persuade Dave. Nick is up for it, but doesn’t think he stands much of a chance of influencing Dave. Would I stick my oar in? It sounds like a good cause to me so I get Bob’s number from Nick and call him. Bob is just about to take his better half out for a birthday dinner so our conversation is a littler disjointed, lots of saving the world interspersed with, ‘That looks great, try it with the other shoes’. I tell Bob that if I’m going to make the call to Dave I need to know exactly what Bob wants us to do. Bob has to leave but says he’ll call me back. Two and a half weeks later he does call back. Apparently he’s written a long and impassioned plea to Dave to reconsider. He’s run this missive past Nick, before sending it to Dave. Nick’s told him it’s a waste of ink and that the only thing that might impact on Dave is a call from me Bob then tells me exactly what he wants us to do at Live 8. It all sounds cool to me, so I get Dave’s telephone numbers from Bob and make the call. Dave answers the phone. Notwithstanding his surprise, which is palpable, we have a very cordial conversation. He expresses some reservations, but agrees to reconsider his position. 24 hours later my phone rings, it’s Dave. ‘Ok, he says, ‘Let’s do it’.”
Onstage you said, “It’s actually quite emotional, standing up here with these three guys after all these years. Standing to be counted with the rest of you. Anyway, we’re doing this for everyone who’s not here, particularly, of course, for Syd.” Had you planned to say something beforehand?
Yes, I had but I didn’t know what I was going to say ‘cos I hate preparing things. But I’d told Dave I was going to say something while Tim Renwick was playing the introduction to Wish You Were Here.
I can’t imagine how much was packed into that word “emotional”. The concert itself. The fact that you were playing songs you hadn’t performed for 30 years – the last time I remember seeing Speak To Me and Breathe was at Knebworth in 1975. The fact that, to some extent, your songs had been taken away from you. The animosity with the other three, all that water under the bridge. Can you break the word “emotional” down any further?
Well, not really. It was just… really good. I was very moved to be on stage with Dave, Nick and Rick that night. I felt at ease and glad to be given the opportunity to let bygones be bygones and to demonstrate that, although we’ve had our difficulties in the past, we are grown men who understand that rapprochement is possible even in the face of differeing points of view. It was really good to transcend all the crap and say “Well, f*ck it, let’s just get up onstage. It’s been a long while. We can agree to disagree about all the old stuff and stand up here and play these three of four songs and it can be fun, it can be good”.
But what was your overriding emotion?
Just pleased. I just felt pleasure, playing the music, and hearing Rick playing his great keyboard parts which of course we know and love so much from the records. It felt good. I thought Nick played great. I thought everybody played great. Dave sang beautifully. It was a great feeling. When you get in to rock and roll – apart obviously from wanting to get laid and make a lot of money! – there is the great joy of being in a band and making all that noise, that’s why we do it. We have holes in our psychology and performing in front of large numbers of people who enjoy it is obviously part of the point of doing it. And so when it happens, trust me, it feels fantastic. It’s something I lost touch with entirely in Pink Floyd, which is why I wrote The Wall and why I left in the end. Since then I’ve started to do tours with my own band and I started to realise that I had allowed myself to let go of the past and just really enjoy – wallow – in that connection with people who know my work and appreciate it. We did a big tour in 02 of the Southern Hemisphere, everywhere from Seoul to Santiago. People knew every word to every song and they knew what they meant. They get it like I get Imagine.
You really feel your work was stolen from you?
Well I would have preferred it if Dave and Nick had not gone round the world using my songs, but it wasn’t to be. And in a way it wasn’t a bad thing that they did as regards keeping Pink Floyd’s music alive. Anyway I’m over all that now.
In fact Live 8 wasn’t the first Floyd reunion. Didn’t you get back together for the Dark Side DVD?
We didn’t meet but we were all involved, we fought like cats and dogs of course. The usual stuff, squabbling about who’d done what. Unfortunately the human brain is capable of inventing memories that suit its own agenda.
Syd Barrett was tracked down and photographed by a newspaper just before Live 8. Did you have any feelings about that?
Well I think they should know better by now. It’s well known Syd doesn’t want to be reminded of the past and avoids contact with the media. My suspicion is that schizophrenia is uncomfortable enough as it is without blokes in trilby hats with press tickets sticking out of the top beating down the door.
When did you last see Syd?
Twenty years ago. Syd’s mother always blamed me for his decline, I guess because she was uncomfortable with the idea that his illness didn’t have anything to do with Pink Floyd or rock and roll. It’s probably that his symptoms were exacerbated by his doing lots of acid but that didn’t cause his illness. One of the symptoms of schizophrenia is that you hallucinate. So hallucinogenic drugs are a bad idea. Syd’s been in and out of Fulbourn Mental Hospital in Cambridge for the last 35 years and he’s well looked after. But he does not want to see me or anyone else from those days. It makes him uncomfortable. It agitates him. He doesn’t want to dig up the past ‘cos he can’t make sense of it. It annoys him. It upsets him.
When you rang me at the office the other day you said there were inaccuracies in the Pink Floyd piece in Word, and that there was a general press perception of you as a cantankerous person with a chip on his shoulder.
There were some inaccuracies and untruths in Robert Sandall’s piece in Word but nothing as bad as ‘The Dark Side of the Floyd’ article which he wrote for The Sunday Times News Review the weekend after the Live 8 concert. I wrote a reply, but The Sunday Times declined to publish it.
To be fair, we did offer you the chance to contribute to the article. I pursued all your management and press representatives for days and was told repeatedly you wouldn’t talk.
Whatever, there was a lot going on.
How did that perception of you as ‘cantankerous’ arise?
Well certainly when I was younger, I could be a bit acerbic and sharp in terms of the way I communicated with people and it is true that I don’t suffer fools gladly. When I left the group there was a lot of bad feeling and a lot of mud-slinging in both directions. I think some of the criticisms they levelled at me were a way of reducing my power. “OK well he is the leader and he does make the decisions so let’s call him an egomaniac.”
You clearly agonise over ownership of the Pink Floyd catalogue, or certainly people’s perception of its ownership. Can you sympathise with Paul McCartney when he wanted to change the credit on some of the Lennon/McCartney compositions to McCartney/Lennon to reflect the level of his contribution? Is there something you understand here about wanting your work to be recognised historically?
Well there’s a section in a song of mine What God Wants Part 2 that goes “God wants friendship, God wants fame, God wants credit, God wants blame, God wants poverty, God wants wealth, God wants insurance, God wants to cover himself”. Sometimes wanting credit can get in the way of friendship. I certainly want my work to be recognised, so I can understand Paul McCartney wanting the same thing. We’ll never know who did what in The Beatles as we weren’t there. I confess I always felt an affinity with John Lennon in his troubled search for the meaning of life and love and truth. We all have our favourite Beatle, but whatever they did they did together.
You must feel the same way about the Pink Floyd?
That we did what we did together? Yeah, it’s true. But it’s a bit more complicated. If Paul and Ringo had toured as The Beatles, it would have been kind of weird.
Do you think the group or the press were responsible for creating the impression that you were in the wrong and the other band members were in the right?
Well people invest a huge amount of emotion in their attachment to a band and it’s like someone leaving the family when someone leaves. They want them to stay the way they are. It’s kind of cosy. The fact is though that it’s part and parcel of the process of creation. I felt it was necessary to leave.
Ultimately though, any successful band is surely greater than the sum of its parts?
True, though sometimes one guy stands out. Crosby Stills Nash and Young for example. Much as I love Stephen Stills’s voice and there’s a certain romance about David Crosby, in my opinion Neil Young stands apart in terms of talent and passion. And Genesis never had the same poetic edge after Peter Gabriel left.
But the brand of Pink Floyd is bigger than anything you can do individually?
Of course, yeah.
Don’t you think that there’s been so much written about the Floyd as individuals partly because it’s easier to write about musicians than the music they make?
Well how can you write about music? It is hard. But you don’t really need someone to explain Leadbelly to you. You either get it or you don’t get it.
But that press has helped the legend of the Pink Floyd expand, the mythology and the folklore of the band. And it’s very significant to a lot of people.
Well, I suppose we attach ourselves to the work via the personalities that created it. And there is something fascinating about creative people.
Have you ever regretted your decision to leave the group?
Not for one single second. There were times… like when I was in Cincinnati and I was playing to a half-empty arena, 3,000 people in a 6,000-capacity venue, and the Pink Floyd were playing to 80,000 people the next night – this was the Radio Kaos tour, it was 1987. I felt like Henry the Fifth – “We happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother” – meaning that because there are only a few of them there it is sweeter. Because of the camaraderie. And there was definitely that feeling from the 3,000 people that were there. I felt a huge kind of kinship with them. And I felt that the 80,000 people the next night were not, you know, getting it. It was a cobbled together facsimile of the work I used to do and they would probably never understand that they were being short-changed. And they still are. There’s still quite a large number of people who don’t understand the difference between Dark Side of the Moon and The Division Bell. They can’t tell one from the other. They don’t get it!
But it must satisfy them or they wouldn’t keep coming back.
Well absolutely. And that’s one of the reasons I left the band. There were larger and larger numbers of people who just didn’t get it. I felt a loss of connection. Not just for each other but with our audiences. In earlier times it was about ideas and communicating. One of the definitions of “popular” is “designed or adapted to popular taste”. In other words you are controlled by the expectations of the public.
Yes you felt envious that the other three in Pink Floyd were playing to 80,000 people when you were playing to 3,000.
I didn’t feel envy, I felt angry then.
Are you a happy person? Are you content?
But there was a time when you were apparently wracked with discontent.
Well there was s time when I didn’t feel I was getting a fair crack of the whip. Attacked from all quarters. But I simply had to get on with my life. Try and let go of the anger. I felt it was unhealthy and unreal and dishonest to carry on in Pink Floyd. How can a group of people who can’t stand working with each other call themselves a group?
Whatever, it was very emotional for a lot of us to see you back together again.
Oh it was terrific. I really loved it. I hope we do it again. It was more than good. If some other opportunity arose, I could even imagine us doing Dark Side of the Moon again – you know, if there was a special occasion. It would be good to hear it again. Live 8 was so great.
What would that occasion have to be?
A good reason. I don’t know. Something with a political or charitable connection. The day they announced the Pink Floyd were to play Live 8, I went out to dinner with a friend and an offer arrived – literally bang on the dinner table – for the four of us, the Pink Floyd, to tour again. An offer of $250 million. Guaranteed.
How does it feel to discover that the Floyd are being recognised by a new generation as one of the pioneers of electronic music?
I’m thrilled. It’s very edifying. I get people saying “My 11-year-old is really into you” but it’s usually when puberty kicks in! When people start getting rebellious and having “different feelings” and “what’s the meaning of life?” I love it. I never expected it to last this long but I am extremely glad that it has.