Most old rock gods, says David Gilmour, are driven by vanity - but not him. Pink Floyd's guitarist tells David Thomas that he's through playing the multi-millionaire star; all he wants now is to play better.
THESE are not good times for Britain's ageing rock stars. Elton John recently told an American concert audience that he was quitting the record business. Rod Stewart has been dumped by his record label. Even Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger have both seen heavily-promoted solo albums greeted with massive public indifference.
David Gilmour: 'You collect Ferraris and then you collect people to look after the Ferraris ... then you need more people to look after the people who are looking after things'
Meanwhile, down on a West Sussex farm, another veteran rocker is preparing to meander back into the limelight. David Gilmour, the 54-year-old Pink Floyd guitarist and singer, will take the stage this month for two solo concerts at the Royal Festival Hall.
Once so full-lipped and long-haired he worked as a teenage male model, Gilmour is now an unashamedly middle-aged man of burly girth and beefy limbs, whose pate shows through his greying hair. He seldom wears anything more formal than a T-shirt and frequently neglects to shave. There's something bear-like about him, and it applies to his manner too. He has a piercing gaze, coupled to a taciturnity that can convey a nerve-wracking sense of disapproval, like a grizzly who might, at any moment, bite.
"I tend to be very silent and my silence intimidates people," he agrees, in a quiet, middle-class voice. "They don't realise I'm just inarticulate."
Beneath his shell, however, he is more friendly and more talkative than first acquaintance might suggest. When I tell him I want to set our interview in the context of other stars' problems, he responds with a frankness that suggests absolute indifference to the possibility of offending his peers.
"It's hard for me to imagine why people would churn stuff out the way they do. In a lot of cases, it isn't art that is driving them. It's their vanity. They can't bear the thought of being obsolete, when they quite plainly are. They've got the bug of success and that's what drives them, not art."
Perhaps it's a matter of honesty, I suggest. Truly grown-up artists put up a mirror to their own mortality: they and their music mature together. Can the same be said of Mick Jagger?
"He doesn't know how to open up and be honest," replies Gilmour, utterly matter-of-fact. "He's been a Rolling Stone for so long. He's been Mick Jagger for so long. Pink Floyd aren't quite the same."
The Floyd are certainly far more anonymous than the Beatles or the Stones. But their blend of anguish and atmospherics has appealed to successive generations of moody teens. Their 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon is currently in its 1,290th week in the US album charts, the longest chart run of any record, ever. Their new Echoes compilation album has sold millions of copies. And their last world tour, in 1994, grossed more than $100 million in the US alone. Any way you look at it they're huge.
"Yeah, I suppose," sighs Gilmour, whose personal fortune has been estimated at £60 million. "It doesn't feel like it to me for some reason. I can't quite relate to it."
He certainly doesn't seem to care about being A Rock Star any more. He lives in a farmhouse: very beautiful, but a family home, cluttered with toys and children's paintings, rather than a mansion. Dinner is served around the kitchen table and Gilmour often cooks it himself.
Last summer, he and his second wife, the writer Polly Samson, took their three young children (a fourth is on the way) on a camping holiday in Cornwall. "It was terrific," he says, enthusiastically. "We spent four days on a campsite and three days in a hotel to recover. And actually, we didn't need it. We all agreed we should have stayed on the campsite for the whole week and not done the hotel at all."
Gilmour doesn't always rough it. He owns a house in Greece and a share in a yacht in the Mediterranean. In his time he has collected classic cars, and even vintage aeroplanes. But, he explains, "you collect Ferraris and then you've got to collect people to look after your Ferraris, and you've got to collect buildings to house the Ferraris, and then you need more people to look after the people who are looking after things. Life gets very complicated. And eventually, at least in my case, you think, 'I don't need this stuff.' And suddenly life gets simpler."
As if to underline the point, Gilmour recently sold his London house to Earl Spencer for a reported £4.5 million, giving the money to Crisis, a charity caring for the homeless.
"I don't need the money and I just thought it would be a good thing to do," he says, with an air of mild apology for such ostentatious decency. "I've had that house for nearly 20 years. It's made a fat profit and I've scarcely used it for the last six or seven years. You can't live seriously in more than one house. Everything else is just a holiday home."
His music is going through a similar downscaling process. Last summer Gilmour abandoned the gigantic stadia in which the Floyd perform for a Festival Hall appearance, as part of the South Bank's annual Meltdown music season. Pink Floyd concerts are delicately balanced between a son-et-lumiere spectacular and a Nuremberg Rally. Gilmour, by contrast, just walked on stage, picked up a guitar and started playing.
"I deliberately tried to make it as intimate as I could, and it felt fantastic, really liberating. But it's much more frightening. The audience are right there in front of you and you can see the whites of their eyes. And my voice was really shot. I'd foolishly been to an Eagles show three or four nights before, and sung along to every song and it did my throat in a bit."
The change was as much one of tone as of scale. For almost 20 years after the departure of Pink Floyd's founding genius, Syd Barrett, the group's lyrics were written by bassist Roger Waters, who was fixated by increasingly misanthropic themes of insanity and alienation.
"I've spent so much of my life singing Roger's words," Gilmour muses. Waters left Pink Floyd in 1986 and the two men are no longer on speaking terms, the bitter conclusion to a process that began as a schoolboy friendship and ended with mutual loathing.
Gilmour, Barrett and Waters all grew up together in Cambridge: middle-class, public-school boys with a shared interest in music. In 1968, Barrett suffered a drug-induced breakdown from which he has never recovered. Gilmour was given his place in Pink Floyd. He still feels a sense of guilt that his big break should have come at his friend's expense.
"One can easily justify it all. The guy was very ill. But maybe there was more we could and should have done. So of course it bothers me. And I miss the person Syd was. He was fantastically witty and clever with words.
I haven't seen him, but I might do one of these days. His sister Rose used to think that maybe it wasn't a great idea for people to see him, because he could be quite upset by it. But maybe it's time I did."
As the newest, youngest member of Pink Floyd, Gilmour was never treated as an equal by Roger Waters, who was two years his senior. "Roger assumed leadership of Pink Floyd because he was leadership material. He was bossy and pushy, and I'm very grateful that he was there to take the reins. But I felt like a new boy. And Roger, the jolly old soul that he was, rubbed it in to me: both the younger bit and the new-boy bit."
Gilmour provided the lead vocals to many Pink Floyd classics, and the soaring guitar solos that pierced their sometimes lumbering backing-tracks. But while other Seventies guitar-heroes dazzled fans with dazzling dexterity, Gilmour relied on tonal beauty. This was, he admits, a matter of necessity.
"I just have not got very good co-ordination between left and right hand. My fingers are very slow. I couldn't do what all these other guitar-players could do, so I had to do something different. And my way was trying to create guitar melodies over what we did."
Pink Floyd fans still trade rumours that the group will tour again: misguidedly, says Gilmour. "I doubt if I'll bring out the Pink Floyd brand-name again. I don't need it, really. I don't know exactly what I do need. Maybe I don't need to be doing anything, and should just face up to that. But I've got over 100 new pieces of music in my computer, that all want to be worked on and played."
His new work has a romantic delicacy far removed from Floydian pomp. Gilmour may, eventually, turn it into an album. It's all, he insists, a matter of motivation.
"There's no reason why you should be written off. A lot of people are still ploughing their furrow. Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison - they're fantastic, blasting on. These people aren't searching for a fashionable style. They're driven by art and it's what comes out."
Besides, what else is a lifelong musician to do? "If you stop, you have to have an alternative," Gilmour observes. And then, matter-of-fact as ever, he adds: "You can't just sit on your bum the whole time."