Roger Waters, Huffington Post, 15th April 2013
Josh Zepps: More than three decades after composing his masterpiece, The Wall, for his iconic rock group Pink Floyd, Roger Waters has brought it back to life. Last year Waters took The Wall on tour to thirty-six cities in North America. It was hailed a smash success. This year The Wall comes back to Europe in a major tour. He is with us. Roger Waters, thanks so much for being on Huff Post Live.
Roger Waters: Very happy to be here.
JZ: If I could go back in time and talk to my fifteen-year-old stoned self listening to The Wall on loop over and over again… I want to ask you where your head was at when you were writing it, what were you trying to do?
RW: Nineteen seventy…eight? Nine, I think? I have to work out how old I was before I can answer questions like that. So I was born in forty-three, so I was thirty-five-ish… Where was I in terms of marriages?
JZ: You’re asking the wrong guy.
RW: Ah, I know, I was sort of about a third of the way through…
JZ: How can it be that difficult for you to remember writing such an iconic thing?
RW: Oh come on!
JZ: Wasn’t it at a time of your life… I mean, it seems as if it must have come from a huge outpouring of creativity, and that there must have been something monumental going on that you were trying to express.
RW: A few years before that when we were touring Animals I was having a hard time with being on stage and blah blah blah blah blah… A pig thing… Spitting at the bloke in the front row… da da da da da… And I drew on a little piece of exercise paper… I drew a picture of a wall across a stadium, between the audience, and the stage! And I thought “Eff me, what a terrific idea! I really wanna do that!” And I drew like another picture of like an audience with bombs raining down on them and, you know, people as they got arms and legs blown off were going “Yeahhhh!”
JZ: So it sort of started with the concert experience, not in the music?
RW: Exactly, yeah. And then I had to construct, intellectually, a reason for obstructing the audience from what was going on onstage. And so, the writing experience was actually a kind of technical exercise in theatre craft.
JZ: A sort of reverse-engineering of what the concert was?
JZ: I mean, over the years, now that you’re doing it again in these huge stadiums and so on, if ever there was an album that was as much political comment and moral comment as it is music, it’s this one. Has its context changed at all?
RW: Yeah, its shows are a lot more political now, as anyone who saw them over here will attest, than they were in 1979-80, unfettered as I am from the constraints of more middle-of-the-road colleagues. So I thought when I decided to take this thing back on the road, at the behest of my beloved wife Laurie, who said “If you’re gonna do anything else, you’ve gotta do The Wall”, I was absolutely determined to bring it up to date and make it more obviously and overtly political and humane than it had been. To look for those things and to play down the story of the poor, miserable millionaire (laughter). So I thought, no, we’ll play that down, and try and think about a) the fallen loved ones, which has become a big, big part of the show, and b) make more general political comments about how we are oppressed by malign authority, in general terms, everywhere, all over the world.
JZ: And when you talk about the fallen loved ones, you’re not just talking about the ordinary experience of losing loved ones, you’re talking about your dad in world war two, when you were five months old, his dad was killed in world war one…
RW: He was. George Henry.
JZ: Did that experience obviously shape your pacifism?
RW: I’m not a pacifist. But it shaped my…
JZ: What are you, if not a pacifist?
RW: I’m a believer in peace, but that’s not to say that I wouldn’t kill you if you came into my house and raped the wife. I would.
JZ: Mental note. Don’t try that. Thank you for the heads up. Because I was planning on doing that later tonight, I’m glad you gave me a warning.
RW: That’s out of the question. So… I would not make an argument against a genuinely defensive war, as anti-war as I am, and you can’t get any more… well, maybe you could. I’m not Ghandi. But I’m very, very anti war. For instance, the war that my father died in, which was the Second World War, I believe that the Allies really had no option but to fight against the Nazi menace and the Third Reich, coz that guy was insane.
JZ: Has there been a justified war since?
RW: I don’t think so, no. It’s very difficult to put your finger on one. Can you think of one?
JZ: I’m trying to think. Maybe Korea? I don’t know. Maybe not. Welcome back to “Let’s Talk War!” with Roger Waters and Josh Zepps.
RW: Yeah, yeah, well, there’s other things to talk about, but sadly it is ever-present in our lives, and there is an intention in this great country to make it a permanent state of affairs, which is another whole question.
JZ: Yeah, well, speak to that. Are you optimistic over all? I mean there’s some that feel that there’s a brighter future ahead. Are you an optimistic or pessimistic about our ability to overcome our differences?
RW: I’m very glad that better men than I, namely Chris Hedges and Noam Chomsky and other, are engaged in a legal battle with the executive branch of government in order to get them to clarify, whatever the paragraph is, 10-21, in the law that came after 9/11, what’s left of the patriot law, which allows them to detain anyone, almost indefinitely with no Habeas Corpus, which is a fundamental pillar of the legal system. The fact that it has been suspended is very, very frightening.
JZ: One of the even more peculiar quirks of Guantanamo Bay is that the supreme court in 2010, I think, said that Habeas Corpus does extend to people in Guantanamo Bay, but then whenever they try to challenge it the courts just say “oh we’ve got good reasons for holding you there anyway”, and sort of fell it out. So it’s almost Habeas Corpus in name but not in practice, which in some ways is even more corrupting than if you just denied them Habeas Corpus in the first place.
RW: It’s interesting that the Habeas Corpus question has never actually managed to reach the supreme court. We shall see. But the fact that they’re bringing this case, and the fact that you’re talking about it is extremely important. It’s something that many, many more American citizens should be aware of. I think most people just think “What is he talking about?”
JZ: Does this inform your work with veterans?
RW: Not really, no. My work with veterans is to do, I suppose with empathetic connections that are born from my non-memory of my father and my grandfather. Men who I never met but who I admire greatly and who I’ve missed all my life and so I have an empathy towards anyone who sustains injuries or loses their life, and the families of those men and women in war, whatever the war is. And so politics doesn’t enter into it at all. I started going to the Woodrow benefits at the Beacon called Stand-Up for Heroes, where they have comics Jon Stewart, Ricky Gervais and others do stand-up, and Bruce Springsteen always plays a couple of songs. And the first year I went all I did was wander around a room talking to men in dress blues with no arms and legs and I’m actually tearing up slightly because it’s so devastating to meet these guys. And so they asked me to do something last year and I thought about it, and it felt slightly odd to stand up on stage and do my thing, so I suddenly had an idea that I might put together a band of amputees. And I said “Can I do that?” and they said “Uh, uh, eh?”
So I did. And it was a remarkably rewarding experience. Funny enough, I was telling somebody in the green room just now, that I got an e-mail from Arthur Bloom who is the wonderful man who runs an operation at Walter Reed called Musicorp, where he uses the learning of playing an instrument, or the re-learning of playing an instrument for injured men, as part of their mental and physical rehabilitation. And it’s a great program, it’s really terrific. And he went, “check this out!” So I did, I went to this link, and bugger me, there were some of my men, and I still think of them as my guys, there were five of them, on stage with Yoyo Marr, in a Yoyo Marr, so they were one of the things that Yoyo Marr was working on. And it was fantastic to hear them. And the kid, Timmy Conlan, who sang, not one of my songs, he sang a song that was popularised by Levon Helm before he died that was called Wide River to Cross. And the reason he sang that song was because one day when I was at Walter Reed, I was sitting there strumming the guitar, waiting for some of the guys to come into rehearsal, because they all have to go to medical things all the time and the army obviously decides when they do what.
And I was singing Wide River, and half an hour later Arthur came to me and said “That song you were singing…” and I said “Yeah?” He said, “They all wanna do it.” It’s good with me. There’s a line in it that goes “Sometimes even the strongest soldier falls.” And you could see it was like an arrow in the heart for these guys, and they sing it so beautifully.
JZ: That’s one of the powerful things about music that it can touch us in a way that lifts us to those incredible heights. I’m reminded in a way of another one of those iconic moments in your career which was at the fall of the Berlin Wall when, appropriately, you performed The Wall at the Berlin Wall.
RW: We did.
JZ: What are your recollections of that, how that came about, and what that felt like?
RW: It came about because Leonard Cheshire, who was an ex-RAF group captain, who observed the bombing of Hiroshima, strangely, as one of his duties in the RAF. After the war, some wounded RAF bloke came to…
JZ: The RAF is the British Air Force, just to make that clear.
RW: Yeah, the Royal Air Force. He had nowhere to go, and Leonard took him into his home, and looked after him. And that started a whole thing. He suddenly took in some more, and then he started an organisation called The Cheshire homes for Wounded Servicemen after the Second World War. And then he went on, and he married Sue Ryder, who was a wonderful woman, and they just devoted their lives entirely to charities. He had decided he wanted to start a charity called the World Wide Fund for Disaster Relief, which was going to be his kind of legacy.
And he was very, very connected politically. And so he actually called me up and said, “Would you do The Wall, in Red Square, in Moscow?” and I went, “Ummm…. What for?” And he said “For me, for charity.” And I went, “Well, yeah.” And that was like in October of ’89. Then suddenly Gorbechev made his monumental announcement, and they started tearing chunks out of the wall in Berlin, and he said “Meet me in Berlin tomorrow.” So we flew to Berlin in November.
JZ: So you were literally there as it was being hacked down.
JZ: What was the sense like? What was the atmosphere like?
RW: Well it was extraordinary. It was absolutely extraordinary, because down the road from Checkpoint Charlie suddenly you could look through. And we went and looked at the minefield that was the… what’s that silly game they play on horseback with sticks? Polo ground! It was the polo ground for the 1936 Olympics, for the Third Reich. So we looked at that, and then we looked through the wall and there was the Potzdamer Platz, which is this huge space that not a single soul had been on since the end of the war. Well, since the wall came up, not the end of the war. So 1960. And we said, “We’ll do it there.” And they said (affects German accent) “You can’t do it there, that’s ridiculous, it’s full of bombs!” (Laughter) “Are you mad?” And I went, “Well, yeah we are a little bit. Come on, I’m sure we can clear the ordinance away.” So anyway, six months later it happened.
JZ: I alluded earlier to the cliché of the stoner teenager listening to The Wall on loop. But you’ve said in the past that you guys weren’t big druggies. How do you account for the association that the album has with drug use?
RW: I have no idea. It’s not for me to answer. I just… I dunno, how Pink Floyd fans ever came to formulate the philosophy that somehow it was all to do with outer space and whatever, which happened earlier! I think it had something to do with the fact that one song was called Interstellar Overdrive and another song was called Astronomy Domine. Both Syd’s, both compositions of Syd’s. And I think they thought that become it went “OOOOOOOH” (laugher) like that, that must’ve meant it was about celestial orbs, when it was never about anything but inner space. Even Syd’s songs back in those very early… in ’66, ’67, were much more to do with his attachment to English literature and Hilaire Belloc and a school of kind of whimsical English writing. It was about personal experience, nothing to do with the firmament. So I can’t explain any of that, frightfully sorry.
JZ: Speaking of walls, you’ve been an outspoken critic of the Israeli separation barrier and of Israel’s policy with Palestinians. You encouraged other artists to boycott Israel. What’s this deal about 92Y? You were going to give a speech at 92Y which is an institution here in New York City, and then… they cancelled?
RW: Yeah, but just before we scoot over the other business, I am considering my position. You probably noticed, or you may not have noticed, that the letter asking my fellow musicians to boycott Israel has never appeared. I am thinking all of this through extremely carefully, and I’m thinking it all through extremely carefully because I care more about the outcome, because I care about the people involved, than I do about the moment. So I’m being very, very careful to avoid some kind of dramatic moment that could very easily blow up and mean that I would, in the long run have less effect on the outcome.
JZ: What are the pros and cons of the outcome?
RW: Well, I’m trying to think strategically. Have you seen The Gatekeepers yet?
JZ: Yes, amazing film.
RW: Well, say, all of those guys from Shin Bet, the point that they make by and large…
JZ: Just to explain to people, this is a documentary film, it’s an Israeli documentary film. This is the first time that all the heads of the secret service there in the Palestinian occupied territories have sat down and been interviewed, and they’re all speaking in one voice, essentially, saying that the occupation is a mistake.
RW: Well, funny enough I’ve got something written down about this in my pocket about why I bother to get involved in these things. It’s about my father and my grandfather and whatever. But it ends up with exactly that notion, which all those leaders, ex leaders of Shin Bet agree with, and that is that the occupation and the settlement building is an impregnable obstacle to peace. There can never be peace unless the occupation ends and the settlement building ends. They all agree on that. And so all those six guys agreed that they based all their actions on tactics, not strategy. So that one guy at the end very interestingly says, “We may have won every battle but we lost the war.” And it’s quite touching in a strange way, because what is the end that everyone is looking for? Assuming you’re not ultra-right wing, religious sort of fanatic that thinks that Israel should extend from Turkey to Mali.
RW: Yeah, exactly! But assuming you’re rational and that you care about other human beings, the goal, strategically, should be a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, an end to the occupation, security and the right to lead a decent life for all the citizens of Israel, both the Jewish citizens and the Palestinians citizens, which they’re trying to present. So that’s the goal, the goal that those of us who actually care about people are attempting to encourage.
JZ: Do you think there’s a chilling effect in the United States on speaking honestly and openly about this though? I mean, the reason I raised the 92Y speech is because you’ve suggested that one of the reasons perhaps why they cancelled the event was because of pressure from the Israel lobby here in the United States.
RW: You know, this is one of those moments where you have to decide whether to open the box and whether it’s gonna blow up in your face, and whether it’s gonna render you a less effective advocate of peace in the Middle East or not. Interestingly enough, when we were in the green room just now I think I coined a phrase. I think I said it to you, I said “I have nothing to hide but the truth,” which, I’ve never heard anyone say that before, but it’s interesting. But if you go to ask Susan Engel who’s the director of lectures at 92Y why she won’t speak to anybody about the cancellation of my talk – actually it was an interview session, which is what 92Y is – she won’t speak to you, she won’t speak to anyone.
JZ: You haven’t got a reason from them?
RW: No. I’ve asked and asked and asked, and in fact in the end I gave up, I just gave up, because they won’t talk to me, they won’t talk to the New York Times, they won’t talk to the Washington Post, they won’t talk to any of the people, they’ve shut up shop. And my little piece was headed Not to Talk is Not an Option. SO if there’s one thing, and I’ve complained in the past about not being taken seriously by the mainstream media, well this is it, I am being taken seriously by the mainstream media here. And I thank you very much for the opportunity. Because the main thrust of my argument, or any argument that I might have with 92Y is not to talk is not an option. We HAVE to talk to each other.
JZ: I mean, this is what’s so frustrating as well. My grandmother was a Polish Jew that was hounded around Europe by the Nazis and settled, became a refugee in Australia. And as someone who wants the best for Israel and wants Israel to be the best that it can be, to see it dig itself into a position where the facts on the ground are making peace almost impossible, and then to see the chilling effect it’s having on conversation on this, especially in the United States, from people who equate any criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, is immensely frustrating.
RW: IT is, but I think I am optimistic that change is happening, because I have lots and lots of Jewish friends. I couldn’t be less anti-Semitic, and many of my Jewish friends express to me their distress a) that the government policies don’t reflect the way that they feel about the situation, and that they kind of agree with the heads of Shin Bet that the tactics are not achieving the results that they’d like to see, but also that they’re beginning to more and more be concerned that their government, because these are citizens of the United States, are so steadfastly opposed to there being any solution to the problems.
JZ: Do you think they’re steadfastly opposed? Or are they just apathetic?
RW: No, they’re not apathetic, because they exercise a veto in the security council on a very regular basis, ever since 1948, and certainly since 1967. If it happened been for the use of the United States veto there would have been resolutions galore in trying to steer the Israeli government in to a more strategic direction. A direction which is more likely to bring forward the outcome that all of everybody who cares about people, all over the world, are desperate to see, that would raise the blockade of Gaza and give a chance for there to be peace starting. The possibility of a two-state solution, I’m told by strategic-thinking friends of mine, is almost beyond us now because of the settlements. Which the United States could stop tomorrow. Now why don’t they? I don’t know, you don’t know. This is just one of those “I’ve got nothing to hide but the truth” questions, because if you ask anybody, they won’t tell you. You think, “Why? What is that all about?”
JZ: There are strong lobby groups here, I think. And you’d lose Florida, in a presidential election. There’s a lot of strategy in American politics, I think.
RW: There is.
JZ: I don’t think one needs to invoke a grand conspiracy in order to explain the United States knee-jerk support of whatever is it that Israel wants to do.
RW: Well, you may be right.
JZ: I’d love to hear your thoughts though, before we go, on Margaret Thatcher, who died last week. Do you have any desire to opine on her legacy?
RW: Not really. I was aligned so steadfastly against everything that she and Ronald Reagan stood for throughout their entire careers that the idea of them pottering off into the twilight together hand in hand… I’m perfectly content with that. Interestingly enough they were the only two heads of state who were against the boycott of the South Africa regime in the 80s.
JZ: Yeah, Thatcher was hectoring all the other allies to get them to support South Africa.
RW: She was, exactly. So, I won’t speak ill of her.
JZ: Ok, just a couple of comments coming in finally from our viewers online. Elizabeth Waters says “Roger, what should your fans expect from you in the future like new albums, tours, books or concerts? Also, how do you deal with hate you get for what you believe in or stand for, from the press or random people online? How do you feel about gay marriage and women’s rights?” There’s a lot to unpack in that, do your best in the time we’ve got left.
RW: Tours… well I’m doing this tour of The Wall…
JZ: Yeah, a one-word answer for all that!
RW: …for nine weeks. It starts in the middle of July, ends in the middle of September. Books… I’m being badgered by literary agents to produce my memoirs, because people like that sort of thing. And I have, I’ve started writing it.
RW: Yeah, I like writing, and I’ve discovered that I have a voice, and so I continue to do that.
JZ: How you deal with hate mail or criticism for what you believe in?
RW: Well, when I read those threads that come in response to something measured that I may have said, that I think was measured, and some of it is packed with vitriol and hatred, it makes me realise how very important it is not to take up extreme positions, and not to react, and not to respond to that kind of thing. But just, to keep plugging away atwhat my mother and my father and my grandfather believed in, which is that all human beings deserve to live in peace and dignity and security, if at all possible. And if you keep that as your basic… The All being the important word… I sometimes feel like saying to these people who hate me because I take a position on something, “I care about you as much as I care about them.” My position is that there is no us or them, that we are who we are by accidents of the geography of our birth, because that is what makes us who we are. Well done, by the way, winning the Masters yesterday! (Laughter)
JZ: Thank you very much, I take all the credit for Australia’s victory. I heard a great comment from an Israeli soldier, who said “It’s not us against them, it’s some of us and some of them, against some of us and some of them.” Which I think is a good way of putting it.
RW: That is a good way of putting it.
JZ: Two final comments. Winthorp says, “No way, Roger on set? Am I dreaming this? I often go to sleep listening to Floyd, so maybe.” DDD09 says, “I was supposed to see Roger at the 92nd Street Y. Shame on them for cancelling.” So we’ll keep an eye on that, anyway.
RW: We will.
JZ: Just finally, very quickly, do you think… I mean, there’s such a strong strain of sort of Libertarianism in your music, in your activism, such a mistrust of government and of authority, and that’s a strain that we see increasingly in the States in the form of The Tea Party and Libertarians here. How do you reconcile, I presume, your opposition to that kind of Libertarianism with a general suspicion of authority?
RW: Well, the minute you said Libertarianism I could feel the hackles rise on the back of my neck, because that’s not how I see myself. Libertarian feels sort of like anarchist to me. I’m a great believer in teh rule of law, and I’m a great believer in democracy, and I’m a great believer in people coming together and organising themselves in political ways for the good of everybody in society.
JZ: I remember, for example, those posters, those Pink Floyd posters that would say “Mother can I trust the government?” For example, you could see those at a Tea Party rally.
RW: Yes, you could. But that doesn’t mean that I’m philosophically aligned to the Tea Party.
JZ: No, I’m just interested in how you interpret that.
RW: Well, distrust of government is sometimes a good thing. You know, when I do gigs in Norway, I’m up there and I’m singing Mother, “Mother should I trust the government,” and I look round and I think, “Bugger me!” Obviously they’re going, (affects Norwegian accent) “What’s he talking about?” (Laughter)
JZ: (Also in Norwegian accent) “Of course we trust the government!”
RW: Yeah, “Of course we trust the government!”
JZ: “They’re quite nice people!”
RW: Yeah, “They grow trees and they collect the oil and they share it amongst everybody and they… What’s he talking about?! And we never invade anybody… Well yeah, of course we trust the government!”
JZ: Yeah. So it’s not about big government or small government, it’s about good government, as Barrack Obama says, perhaps?
RW: Well, the most important thing with this government as we said earlier in this interview, in my view, is that they must be gently guided back to the rule of law. The rights of the citizens under the constitution are fundamentally important to America ever moving forward from the consumerism that has driven it since the turn of the century.
JZ: Roger, I could sit here all day, I cannot, alas. Hopefully I will be able to make it to Berlin to come to the concert, that would be great. It’s an absolute honour and a pleasure. Thank you.
RW: Thank you.