Tales from the dark side
After umpteen years of therapy, Pink Floyd's Roger Waters realised that he thought that, as a baby, he had killed his father. And, he still screams that pain with his music. Although Barry Egan finds him convivial, there are times when the darkness descends and he seems to be about to walk out
Published 08/05/2011 | 05:00
Iam in Roger Waters's suitably grand penthouse in the Hotel Arts in Barcelona. The local football team and their superstars Lionel Messi and Dani Alves could train up here, it is so big.
The former Pink Floyd leader has just come off stage having performed The Wall for more than three hours to 10,000 wired Catalans. It was the most intense, most powerful, most I-don't-know-what show I've ever seen. It makes Radiohead look like Jedward. I'm still wired from the emotional ferocity of it.
And the man who wrote it and performed it wants to stay up all night and talk about it to me. In a cover story a few months ago, Rolling Stone magazine noted that his 1979 anti-story about Pink, an alienated rock star oppressed by his mother, bears a distinct resemblance to Waters's own life. "Pink Floyd's original live version -- with its giant puppets, synchronised graphics and that wall, constructed brick by brick, then knocked down at the show's climax -- set a standard for every rock spectacle that followed, from the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels to U2's Zoo TV," wrote Rolling Stone. Waters wrote The Wall as an attack on stadium rock, and then it became the template for it.
An hour ago in Barcelona, at the end of the show, the 100ft-wide and 40ft-high wall is ceremoniously kicked down. The walls coming down are, of course, the walls that Roger constructed within himself as a child to keep the world out. When the Spitfires buzz the stage, crashing and burning, you can't help but think of his father Eric, who died in the Second World War when Roger was just a baby.
I ask him if The Wall was extraordinarily painful to write.
"It was a painful time, that time was. But I think it was a very important and therapeutic process for me writing The Wall," he says, adding that it was a very important part of making sense of his feelings; not only the trauma of losing his father, but trying to make sense of the fact that he felt alienated from other people. "I think music can be hugely therapeutic for people on all levels, not just if you're writing songs that mean something, but just making a noise can be a good thing."
Waters, a lyricist extraordinaire whose haunting meditations on death, madness and apocalypse put him up there, not just with the rock greats such as John Lennon and Pete Townshend, but the literary greats like George Orwell too, has added to The Wall and made it an epic autobiographical ode to post-war alienation. It isn't just his alienation anymore. The Wall, he says, is more relevant now than when he wrote it in 1979, because, he claims, of "the increasing numbers of senseless, unnecessary, inhumane, ridiculous wars. You'd hope that it would be decreasing, but it's not."
He talks about music creating an emotional response in the audience. He admits that his own response was "certainly about my father's death" but this version of The Wall is "much broader politically, emotionally and philosophically than the original in 1979. The empathy I feel for those who have lost loved ones in wars and other political conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is borne out by the losing of my father. The pain is an important contributing factor."
According to Nicholas Schaffner's book Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey, "Waters senior was only 30 when he died, slain along with 40,000 other British soldiers in a reckless British campaign to capture the bridgehead of Anzio from the Nazis." Eventually, through years of therapy, Waters came to believe he had carried guilt and shame over his father's death since he was a baby. He had felt responsible for his father's death, even though it happened when Waters was a only few months old.
"After umpteen years of therapy," the visionary author of Comfortably Numb admits, "I finally realised that a recurrent dream I had where I was terrified that I had murdered someone and I was going to get caught . . . I stopped having that dream when I realised I thought I had killed my father when I was a tiny baby. Because it is well known that children always feel responsible for their parents' divorce and they feel responsible, if they are young enough, for the death of a parent. Infants and very young children, because they are feel they are the centre of the universe, tend to take responsibilities."
Your father was a religious man, wasn't he?
"My father was a devout Christian. He was a conscientious objector on those grounds, but he then decided that his conscientious objection was trumped by the Nazi menace to the world and he joined the Communist party. I'm sure he remained a Christian, though. I never got to ask him that."
Was part of the healing process for you realising that your father died in a 'just' war against the Nazis?
"That's interesting," he answers. "At half-time, on the tour in America, 20 or so wounded veterans from Iraq come and see the show. They are all Pink Floyd fans. There is no justice in those conflicts but the pain of the loss doesn't make any difference whether it is just or not. The politics is kind of irrelevant. It is just inclusion. We don't need to talk about hate, rights and wrongs, except that we all intuitively understand. That the loss of life, whether in Libya or Afghanistan, is almost certainly unnecessary. It is triggered by fear. We can very easily demonise those on the other side."
Sixty minutes in Waters's company -- he is dauntingly tall at 6ft 3in and looks much younger than his 67 years -- and you're left with some resounding insights into the nature of The Wall, his masterpiece, which has sold 38 million copies. He is, perhaps, the most intense man on the planet right now. It is no exercise in tripped-out Floydian bliss talking to him. Ladies and gentlemen, I am not floating in space over Catalonia talking to Roger Waters.
Still, he is convivial, engaging and not what I had been expecting at all. Not bonkers and paranoid, in other words. I read a few things on the plane over -- the reactionary ogre who destroyed Pink Floyd and instigated rock's most epic feud, blah, blah, blah -- so I was more than pleasantly surprised when I finally met him.
He talks with blood-curdling intensity about communicating ideas and discussing thoughts as a way to bring us closer together. He says that governments are "agents of control so that we just keep consuming and don't think about these questions that we are bringing up. Keep talking. Keep thinking. Maybe there is something beyond commerce. And beyond control."
It is all there in The Wall -- this unimaginable head wreck of a show -- which has played to a gigantic global audience and reaches Dublin's 02 on May 23 and 24.
During The Happiest Days of Our Lives, he sings about his schooldays. There is also, of course, in Another Brick in the Wall that famous line: "We don't need no education/We don't need no thought control." At school, Waters would daydream that when his teacher got home his wife would knock seven bells out of him. And that he handed as much of that pain on to the children at school as he could. "They are all dead now," Waters remarks. "I was talking about a very rigid grammar school in the late Fifties. They were sort of pretending they were a public school. They weren't. They were interested in exercising their control. They were not interested in conversations."
Your mother was a very inspirational teacher back in the day. She presumably didn't approve?
"My mother would have disapproved of that. Her philosophy was that you should educate children by interesting them in a subject. My mother had this thing called The Centre of Interest. You don't make children sit down and learn; you interest them. And they get interested in it then, whether it is how to make bread or sheep farming in Australia. My mother was brought up in a Christian family in Golders Green in North London, with a big Jewish community. She did a teacher-training course in Bradford and she saw kids walking to school with no shoes on their feet in 1934. She saw the injustice in that."
Her chief ambition with him, Waters adds, "was that I would not become a travelling salesman. She had friends who had intelligence and they became toothbrush salesmen. That would have been death to her. She devoted her entire life to educating young people."
It is surreal to sit in a gargantuan suite overlooking Barcelona at half one in the morning, shooting the breeze about death, and the world around us and within us, with the godhead of Pink Floyd. He is not an easy interview. He doesn't do chat. He doesn't suffer fools gladly, or at all. Several times, he looks as if a cloud of darkness has descended upon him and he is about to get up and walk out of the room. He doesn't. But there are close shaves. Like when I bring up Dave Gilmour. Or try to.
Waters has endured decades of attrition with fellow Floyd man Gilmour. He doesn't want to talk about Gilmour tonight. Or any night, it seems.
He dismisses it when I raise the subject. In 1983, after The Final Cut album, Roger left the band in a huff that lasted two decades. Four years later, Gilmour and Richard Wright (keyboards) and Nick Mason (drums) toured as Pink Floyd. There had been lengthy litigation, and seething animosity ensued on both sides. Gilmour once made reference to Sid Vicious's infamous 'I Hate Pink Floyd' T-shirt. He told Rolling Stone that his T-shirt would be amended to 'Well, Most Of Them Anyway.'
That Pink Floyd went on without Waters and continued to play the songs -- without truly understanding them, he once said. Waters later compared it to "learning you'd spent your savings on a false Magritte or a fraudulent John Lennon manuscript. Not to mention the spiritual trust and emotion people invest in the symbolic power of any name."
"I have no interest in discussing that," he snaps now, his eyes darting somewhere else in the room, somewhere else in Barcelona. He has never -- "not for a single second" -- regretted his decision to leave Pink Floyd. Yet the legendary band sort of intermittently went on without him. If Paul and Ringo had toured as The Beatles, he commented once, it would have been kind of weird.
He never holds eye contact for very long. This great man will be long remembered with The Wall and The Dark Side of the Moon for, as Waters calls, "unashamedly making mymark on the page without fear of failure or reprisal . . . for having a vision of arena rock as theatre, for developing the marriage between visual elements and the music to make the rock 'n' roll experience more visceral."
He lives in the Hamptons -- P Diddy is his neighbour -- and is worth an estimated $300m. He allegedly quit England in 2006 for America because of the hunting ban. He said in one interview: "Some of us are gatherers and some of us are hunters. I'm a hunter. I need the mud of a river oozing between my toes." After he rejoined the band for one performance to play Live 8 for his mate Bob Geldof in London in 2005, Waters and the other members were offered a guaranteed $350m cash in hand to do a world tour. Waters declined.
On stage at Live 8, he told the three billion people watching: "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."
I ask him about Syd Barrett. He descended into mental illness; he left, or was pushed out, in 1968. Waters took over as Pink Floyd's creative and aesthetic driving force: from The Dark Side of the Moon until The Final Cut, Waters wrote the lion's share of the lyrics and devised the concepts that drove the albums.
"Although Syd was a few years younger than me, we became close friends as teenagers, and then we were in a band together for a very short time, and then he went crazy," Waters tells me, haltingly. "He was a schizophrenic."
Could you not help him?
"I did everything I could to help him. I couldn't help him."
How did you help yourself? How did you eventually knock down the walls of your own alienation?
"It was much more complicated than that. It was about women," says the three times divorced rock grandee, "and control." It is now 1.40am in Waters's football-field-sized penthouse suite. He seems anything but comfortably numb about his painful past. I was going to read him a quote that Dave Gilmour said about him many years ago: "There was a dramatic striking of the gong and the screaming in Careful With That Axe. Roger had discovered letting his pain out. I know John Lennon did that whole Arthur 'Primal Scream' Janov album, which Roger was very keen on, but he was screaming long before Lennon ever got to Janov."
I never get a chance to say this to the visionary demigod of big music -- time ran out and the wall came up courtesy of his tour manager -- but Roger Waters is still screaming his pain out in his music. And the scream seems to get louder with age.
Roger Waters plays the O2 Dublin on May 23 and 24, see www.aikenpromotions.ie
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