Roger Waters: Still Kind of Full of Piss and Vinegar
The legend opens up extensively about his solo work, career with Pink Floyd, and staring down the inevitable end.
Thirty-six years after releasing The Wall with his former bandmates in Pink Floyd, Roger Waters remains every bit as caustic as he was at 36 when the album came out. The culmination of grandiosity and ultimately the final blow to the already fragmented group at that time, The Wall was and is the quintessential Waters invective, directed at both his own fears and vulnerabilities and the society in which those trepidations manifested themselves in the literal and figurative traumas of war, grief, and childhood. At 72-years-old, it’s no secret that the founding member of what’s arguably the most influential rock ‘n’ roll band has spent the wealth of his lyrical endeavors, both with Pink Floyd and with his acclaimed solo career, delving into the innermost reaches of personal loss and disillusionment.
With the 1982 film of the same name and what’s largely considered the most elaborate stage setup and live show in rock history, The Wall has become inexorably rooted to pop culture well past its release and now even past the confines of its original thematic framework. Released in September of this year, the documentary Roger Waters the Wall is deceptively named or at the very least deliberately misleading and brilliantly so. Yes, the documentary features ample footage (masterfully shot and directed by Sean Evans) of Waters’s The Wall Live tour that eventually became the highest-grossing tour of all time by a solo artist.
While Evans makes terrific use of an obviously elaborate and heavily involved production, the documentary’s strength, not unlike its subject, is the unadorned vulnerability of Waters as he’s confronted by the well worn past and his own memories that have for so long threaded themselves through nearly every lyric. But the documentary and even the album itself isn’t exclusively the admittedly self-involved excursion that it once was for Rogers. What was once an almost an epically rendered voyeuristic glimpse into every component of Waters’s psyche, both admirable and deplorable, has now taken on the narrative of its social, cultural, and political contexts.
In recent interviews promoting the documentary, Waters’s notoriously clipped nature with the media has been in full force, though what was once an unabashed disdain for the media in general has now been traded for a decisive urgency. Where Waters for so long was inclined to spotlight his own personal demons, climaxing no more compellingly than with The Wall, the present finds him gravely concerned and alarmed by the repetitive but no less avoidable nature of human history at its most evil. That’s not to say that Waters himself has suddenly become engaged in the socio-political sphere. He’s long been an opponent of what he sees as the oppressive actions of governments worldwide. At the same time, he’s been as staunchly dedicated in his advocacy for those organizations devoted to human rights and the positive progression of society as a whole.
As a lifelong Pink Floyd fan and avid listener border lining on obsessive, I’d never really associated Waters or his former band with anything remotely positive. Though it’s not a definitive guidebook on how to be a sad bastard, Pink Floyd’s catalogue isn’t exactly an excursion into the happiest parts of human existence either. Add to that the fact that Waters’s well-known intolerance for ignorance or the willful stupidity of people in general but specifically the media mouthpiece, and the hour or so before my phone call with him was an equal measure of excitement and dread over the possibility that I would unwittingly transform into a stuttering jackass and end up interviewing a dial tone.
Despite my surety that it would happen however, Waters spent the whole of our half hour and some change without once calling me a “wanker” or “daft.” While part of me genuinely wishes he would have unexpectedly let out one of his characteristic howls or screeches out of nowhere, our conversation became a drawing back of the curtain in many ways or in this case, a welcomed breaking down of barriers. Picking up the line with a simple, “Hello, Jonathan,” Waters’s voice is disarmingly calm and level. It remains that way throughout the entirety of the interview, even when he touches on what are those obvious social and political passions.
Waters is still the unabashedly emotional battering ram of his youth, but experience has carved multiple patterns of reason, empathy, but most of all, objectivity. Whether categorically dismissed by critics as an egomaniac or unwaveringly embraced by the millions of fans worldwide, Waters is inarguably vehement and immovably rooted to a cause that extends well beyond a troubled rock star or the young boy whose father never returned home from war. Like any life does, the story has been shaped by the experiences of its narrator for whom the words “Don’t give in without a fight,” no longer echo the desperation of an individual lost soul but instead resonate as a call to action and a hope for peace.
Noisey: Of all your releases, whether Pink Floyd or your solo work, do you see The Wall as being a work where that storyline or narrative is open-ended or constantly evolving?
Roger Waters: Eh. That’s an interesting question, a good question. No, I think the narrative has an ending. I think we kind of developed it as far as I wanted to in the movie that we’ve made. Though having said that, I have had on my agenda for the last 20 years or so the idea of doing something in traditional musical theatre in a small space in a fixed place. We still might do that. I’m working with Lee Hall, and we’ve done some workshops that have proved very moving. I’ve also set up a production company to make it with Eric Fellner from Working Title, so I think that may well be on the agenda quite soon, but we will see. As far as the live shows and things are concerned, I’ve no reason or desire to extend that narrative. The only thing that I will say is that we might do one more big live show. We’ve kept some of the hydraulics for the wall building and stuff just in case we can ever persuade the United States of America and Israel to give the Palestinians a bit of freedom and tear down all that separation that is in the West Bank. If that should ever happen, I’ve promised that I would go and do one last production of The Wall there for the people of Palestine and Israel as a celebration of what would be a huge triumph of empathy over enmity.
Certainly. But I think the album itself has evolved from essentially being an elaborate manifestation of your own personal issues and introspection into something much larger and, if you don’t mind my saying so, much more socially relevant and important.
Absolutely. Well spotted. [Laughs.] That’s exactly right. One of the things about it is I lucked on to the idea of The Wall, and by in my head creating this spectacle of physically building a wall across an arena and doing a rock show and walling a rock group off from an audience, and that was based upon my feelings of disaffection with audiences when I was a relatively young man back in the late-70s. Everything that has developed since has been based upon the fact that that very simple theatrical idea lends itself to myriad interpretations, and here now 42 or 43 years later, the interpretations that Sean [Evans] and I arrived at working together on this film of the tour and film of the journey that we make has led us into a place where we are making very broad and sweeping political statements about how disappointed we are with the fact that we didn’t heed the call from Eisenhower that you see on the wall during “Bring the Boys Back Home,” and all his warnings the military industrial complex, and how that could erode our liberties. We now, you and I and all the rest of us, we live in the face of the absolute certain evidence that we did not heed Eisenhower’s warnings, and that all our rights and powers, written quite eloquently by the founding fathers in the original Constitution of this Republic, are being eroded at an alarming rate due to all sorts of factors I haven’t got time, and I’m sure you wouldn’t want to hear me pontificating about it now, but we are, and so any encouragements that we the people can glean from anywhere, including this movie, I hope, are desperately needed. We need something of a revolution. Not a bloody one, but we need one because the slippery slope to tyranny is becoming steeper and slipperier with every minute that passes.
You’ve always had common thematic threads where you’re confronting these notions of childhood, loss, and fear. Was there a kind of finality for you with this documentary where you were able to find a catharsis for what’s felt like decades of unanswered questions?
[Laughs.] Well, yeah. It’s super cathartic for me to have seen the fulfillment of this project, and it’s deeply moving to me to have been in theaters from time to time when we’ve had showings, and to see people weeping; people genuinely moved by bits of the show. There is a moment in the middle of when we were doing the live show, and it comes across very powerfully in the movie during “Vera.” In the live show I actually come out through some black curtains singing the second verse of “Vera,” standing in front of the stage, but because everybody is looking at the screen and looking at that picture of that little girl welcoming and getting the great surprise of seeing her father come back from the war, which is an extraordinary little bit of film that we found through some TV news station I think in Washington State or something. But I look at the audience, and I can see people weeping in the front row when they’re watching that, and then I have the enormous honor and great pleasure to sing the words: “Does anybody else in here feel the way I do,” which is the last line of the song. It’s always a bit of a lump-in-the-throat moment, but it’s a huge privilege to be able to sing that and to see people responding because, yeah, so many more people now 30 years later, do feel the way I do. We went through a bit of a nadir in protesting our situation where we kind of wore ourselves out beating our breasts over Vietnam, quite rightly, and other things like economic issues in the late 60s, and there’s been something of a lull for us. We’ve gone through 30 or 40 years of playing video games and being obsessed with Kim Kardashian’s bum.
Well, I think we’ve come out of that slightly now or more than slightly. It definitely feels now that there’s a spirit alive and certainly here in New York where I live, and I think maybe across both the coasts of the United States, which we hope will spread across the Midwest and the South, but there is a spirit that is getting ready to embrace what the Constitution of the United States of America was meant to be, and what was intended by the founding fathers, as flawed as they were with their slaves and their concerns for democracy might not be a good thing at all, which is why your representational voting system was developed in the first place. They were deeply worried that if you actually gave power to the people, they would fuck it all up, but I think now we may almost be ready to move beyond the heresy that is your system of government now and move back towards figuring out how to make this work. You have an absolute responsibility as the richest country and as the most powerful military on earth to embrace some form of leadership, not just to go around the world raping and pillaging and ripping everybody else and stealing their oil and taking everything over and having 135 million bases and all of that crap which is absolute imperial nonsense. So you have a huge opportunity in this country to really start the lead. The only thing I would say about that only because I am sort of faintly engaged is that the last thing you need is Mr. D. Trump and his nonsense. It’s beggar’s belief, and I know you all know, but it still is beggar’s belief for anyone to take this moron seriously, and he is a moron. He is. It’s all very well for us to be sitting here in New York City, or if we were in Los Angeles, or in Seattle, but you have to understand in the South, they actually may believe in this bullshit.
Oh, I know. I live in the South, man. [Laughs.]
Oh, well, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to preach to the choir. [Laughs.]
No worries. It’s not like you’re wrong. It can be difficult sometimes when surrounded by an overwhelming number of people you know vehemently and sometimes violently disagree with you whether about your politics or choice of chewing tobacco.
[Laughs.] Well, you will multiply and spread, because the word is spreading inexorably, and it makes me very happy to see it. It is gonna be a very, very hard and difficult fight, but we the many are energized, and I hope that we may become empowered, and that we may finalmente arrest power from the military industrial complex and the neo cons and all those who support that inhumane regime. We’ll see.
Going back to your writing and not just with The Wall, has age provided you with a keener perspective on your own experiences? Are you still in some ways that young boy whose voice carried through so much of your music?
No, I’m not. [Laughs.] No. I’m not. If I were I’d be an infantile old man, and I’m not. I’m not even an old man. I’m only 72 for god’s sake, and I feel kind of full of piss and vinegar as we say back in the old country. Having said that, though, at age 72, one realizes that the clock has always been ticking, which I sort of wrote about when I was 27 or 28 when I wrote: “Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day.” I’d suddenly realized that this is not a rehearsal, and you only get one go at this as far as we know, and that you better make the most of it if you are to be fulfilled and so on. Now at 72, three-quarters at least is gone, and I intend to make the most of the time I have left and to forge more friendships and to build upon the bits of love that I’ve found in my life, and to tear down as many of the walls that have lain between me and other people as I can, and also to encourage our governments and our religious leaders and our nationalists and our naysayers and our immigrant haters and our Donald Trumps to move kicking and screaming in that direction along with me, because if we don’t, we’re fucked.
Thinking about the albums that came before The Wall, as we’ve already discussed, the themes weren’t really new at all, per se, but the vehicle in which you and the band presented them became a huge spectacle. Looking back at it now, do you see The Wall as this sort of culmination of all those experiences from losing Syd to the band’s own inner turmoil reaching its boiling point? Is it the zenith of frustration essentially?
I would say it’s a point in the journey. I did make a record, Amused to Death, which was a very important record from many years ago. I’m working on a new record, but to go back to Syd, I did a gig in Washington, D.C., three weeks ago with some wounded veteran friends of mine from Walter Reed Hospital, and one of the songs that we did was “Shine on You, Crazy Diamond”. If you go to my website or the Facebook page, you can see the black and white video that Sean has edited of these friends of mine and Tom Morello as well doing that song. There’s a man there who stepped on an IED, and he’s now playing guitar better than he did before he was wounded as he says in the little interview. His name is Greg Galeazzi and the other man who’s singing is Tim Donnelly, and although it’s a song I wrote about Syd and the love I had for him, it nevertheless expresses how precious it is that we make the most of all the time in our lives when we’re competent and paying attention and get to make decisions before we’re struck down either by old age or illness or whatever it might be, because it is gonna happen sooner or later, so I don’t take my remaining time on earth lightly.
Is political activism something that’s always been as passion for you or more something you grew into as you saw the world around you?
No, there’s nothing I can put my finger on. I’ve been saddled with it since the moment I was conscious of anything. I’m saddled with what looks and feels like the responsibility to love as much as I can by the kind of heroic transformation of my father from Christian conscientious objector into fighter against the Nazi menace to being a kind of dead hero that is something to look up to, but you can never sort of aspire to, but you can also never forget. When you see that kind of sacrifice, particularly if it’s your old man, you can’t avoid it. Having said that then, I was a child when I first experienced that, and to shoulder the responsibility is a role I feel I’ve grown into in the intervening 70 years. When in the movie I tell the story of the vet saying to me, “Your father would be proud of you…” [Long pause.]
We can take a break if you need a moment, Roger.
No, no. I just can’t even say that to you now without getting a big lump in my throat. I can’t even speak those words, and I never will be able to because it means too much to me. Although the death of a parent is a burden, it’s also a gift. It’s a gift to have a role model in a parent that is that powerful, I guess I would say. When people ask me why I do this or why I do that, although I’m loath to admit it, I always reply that I really have no choice in the matter. [Laughs.] That’s not to say that I’m an automaton or blindly following in my mother’s and my father’s political and humanitarian footsteps, but I am deeply grateful that both my mother and my father were great role models who taught me what we should all teach our children, and that is that all human beings are equal under the sun, and that they all deserve rights both legal and otherwise, and that we should all have the freedom to follow whatever religion we want, and that we can have free speech, and how that’s super important. We have to teach our children that, Jonathan. We have a responsibility to them and to the world to do that.
Jonathan Dick is a writer based in Alabama. Follow him on Twitter.