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Roger Waters Knows What He Wants

USA Today – 6 August 1999
Roger Waters Knows What He Wants
By E. Gundersen
Roger Waters may be resurfacing In the Flesh – his first tour in 12 years – but he never really escaped the public consciousness. As Pink Floyd’s dark visionary, Waters left indelible impressions on pop culture and pop music with a pair of imperishable classics. No album in history has charted longer than 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon, spending its 1,166th week in Billboard; 1979’s The Wall has tallied 537 weeks.

Waters, 55, is enjoying similar longevity in a field littered with stunted careers and forced retirements. He has occupied a prominent perch in rock mythology since forming Pink Floyd in 1965 with Nick Mason, Richard Wright and Syd Barrett (replaced by David Gilmour in 1968). After nearly single-handedly shaping 1983’s The Final Cut, Waters bitterly departed to pursue a solo career. The progressive- rock architect of such tunes as Comfortably Numb says he remains “uncomfortably estranged” from his ex-bandmates, who continue as Pink Floyd, undeterred by his failed 1986 lawsuit to bury the name.

Though his current show emphasizes Floyd tunes along with tracks from such solo albums as 1987’s Radio K.A.O.S. and 1992’s Amused to Death, Waters is not settling into the oldies circuit. After completing a French opera, he plans to begin recording a rock album early next year.

Q: What lured you back to the stage?
RW: A gig I did a few years ago for Don Henley and his Walden Woods project with Neil Young and John Fogerty. I did four or five songs, and it was such fun that I thought, “I must do this again.” I planned to spend this summer in Long Island and decided to do some dates and see how it feels. I started relearning a bunch of the old songs, and it felt very exciting.

Q: As the author of lines like “We don’t need no thought control/No dark sarcasm in the classroom,” you seemed particularly attuned to disenfranchised youth. How did you react to the spate of school shootings in the USA?
RW: In the Colorado shooting, the media seemed to change their tack a bit. Though they attached ghoulishly to it, covered it 24 hours a day and even gave it a logo like “Horror in the Rockies,” they did address issues of alienation and pain rather than just saying, “Oh, these aberrant teen-agers have to be stamped out.” After denigrating self-help ideas for the last 20 years, the media are beginning to look at the psychology and not just the police work.

Q: In relating bleak subjects, do you tap into your experience, or are you just a good observer of your generation?
RW: A lot of it is autobiographical. I have never in my life thought, “Hmm, what can I invent?” Feelings inside me bubble to the surface in a fairly passive process. I went to a very uptight, strict, all-boys school in England in the ’50s. The regime was a very oppressive one, and there was nothing for us to do but rebel against it. People often say, “Why do you write such dark songs?” I don’t choose what to write. I paint what I see.

Q: Are you surprised that kids today are connecting with lyrics you wrote more than 20 years ago?
RW: I remember reading an interview that Rick Wright gave at one point, and he said, “We weren’t interested in the lyrics.” Well, I’m sure he wasn’t, but I was. Lines like “Breathe in the air, don’t be afraid to care” are easy to attack as puerile, adolescent, head-in- the-clouds nonsense, but on another level, it’s a very straightforward exhortation to be here now and to live, something we all need help with. I still do.

Q: Do any of your early songs seem dated or obsolete?
RW: Yeah. Before I found my voice, there were orchestral experiments that sound pretty (lame) now, and on albums like Meddle (1971) you can detect a groping for form. But most of the songs survived reasonably. The song Echoes, a long, drawn-out piece, has a lyric about strangers passing on the street that’s become a recurrent theme for me, the idea of recognizing oneself in others and feeling empathy and a connection to the human race.

Q: Fame tends to widen the gulf between celebrities and audiences. Do you still feel a strong bond to your fans?
RW: Some of them. I get a lot of letters that just say, “Please send me 42 autographs on these cardboards. They’re for my grandchildren.” I bet. But I also get very moving letters, and I have a lot of contact with schools. Students all over the world want to put on productions of The Wall, and I always give permission. I never give permission for commercial productions. I love the thought of young people exploring it, and I hope it provides a steppingstone for them to do their own work.

Q: In 1990, you staged an all-star production of The Wall at the Berlin Wall. Do you foresee a revival?
RW: It’s very unlikely. After doing it in 1980 and 1990, I did think I might do it in 2000. But I don’t want to get involved in a big commercial thing. Berlin was for charity, and it was fantastic, but it was a debilitating feat, and I hated the jungle of management. It would be fun to do it on Wall Street, but closing Wall Street for a week isn’t going to happen.

Q: It would be easier at the Great Wall of China.
RW: Probably. But I don’t want to do anything big anymore. The very early days of Pink Floyd were magical. We played small auditoriums for entranced audiences, and there was a wonderful sense of communion. We got overpowered by the weight of success and numbers – not just the money but the size of the audience. I became very disenchanted. I had to make the choice of staying on the treadmill or making the braver decision to travel a more difficult path alone.

Q: Do you have any regrets about leaving Pink Floyd?
RW: Absolutely not. It was painful, like any divorce, but necessary. We had grown in different directions.

Q: In the end, your vision was the dominating force in Pink Floyd. Is it more gratifying to work alone than to collaborate within a band?
RW: The Wall was more comfortable than Wish You Were Here, when there was still quite a lot of fighting. Although I got my way, it was at great cost, because Dave and I fought tooth and nail. By the time we got to The Wall, there wasn’t much fight left in him. His contributions were considerable, but I felt no interference anymore. If I’m painting sunflowers, I don’t want somebody leaning over my shoulder going, “They’re not yellow enough.” I know what I want.

Q: Didn’t leaving the band and losing that identity hurt you commercially?
RW: Yeah. I’m incredibly proud of Amused to Death, which wasn’t enormously successful and didn’t get wide acceptance. If it had Pink Floyd’s name on it, it would be sitting alongside The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon. That’s part of the price I paid for leaving the band. But I’ve been very lucky. A lot of people die before anybody takes their work seriously.

Q: How did you come to compose Ca Ira, an opera about the Revolution?
RW: Etienne Roda-Gil, who wrote the libretto, is a very old friend who asked me to consider setting his piece to music. His wife, Nadine, had beautifully illustrated it. It’s a poetic history of the revolution rooted in fact, but I also liked it because it deals in generalities about change. I made this demo that was passed around until it foundered in the political arena. Then, sadly, Nadine died of leukemia in 1990, and Etienne disappeared into his grief for a few years. We met again a few years ago and decided to resurrect this. We have about 80 minutes in finished form. We’ll finish it up, and Sony Classics will probably release it early next year.

Q: Did you find natural parallels between rock and opera, or was this a jarring switch?
RW: Music is music. It didn’t seem like much of a leap to me. always loved classical and choral music, so it’s a fairly natural move for me. What people make of it remains to be seen. I’m sure everybody will get their knives out and wave furiously. But I am used to that. Stick your head out, and people will chop it off.

Q: Is it easy to put aside people’s expectations?
RW: No. I still feel the desperate need for acceptance and applause that I felt as a child. It was a major motivation toward learning to play the guitar and starting to warble. You may become more comfortable with who you are and may judge yourself less and less, but the child inside lives for this forever.

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