Which one's Pink?
The deeply cynical question that underlined Pink Floyd's 1979 rock epic, "The Wall," was intended to convey just how absurd it had become for what was then the world's biggest rock band. The question captured the irony of playing in a band that had become more famous and powerful than ever and yet somehow more anonymous and disconnected. At its commercial peak, Pink Floyd was no longer about art, but about market share -- at least according to Roger Waters, the band's songwriter, singer and bassist.
To many fans, "Pink" was Waters, who created the themes, wrote the lyrics and shaped many of the best songs on Floydian masterpieces such as "The Dark Side of the Moon," "Wish You Were Here" and, of course, "The Wall." But since Waters left the band in the early '80s, neither he nor his former bandmates -- David Gilmour, Nick Mason and Rick Wright -- have produced an album comparable to any of those '70s works.
In 1986, Waters sued to prevent the other band members from resurrecting the Floyd name for new albums and tours. He failed, and a year later he had the indignity of watching the new Pink Floyd -- augmented by sidemen and elaborate visuals -- rake in $30 million on tour while his solo career languished. "It was character forming because it was so tough to watch," Waters now says. "I will never forget being in Cincinnati playing to 1,500 people in an 8,000-seat arena and my ex- colleagues playing the next night in a sold-out football stadium."
It was the last time Waters would tour -- until now, that is. His first road trip in 12 years brings him to the Rosemont Theatre for a sold-out show Saturday, in what is one of the most highly anticipated concerts of the summer. Before going into rehearsals with a six-piece band, one of the finest songwriters of the rock era cleared the air in a rare interview about life with and without Pink Floyd.
Tribune: True or false: Besides fly-fishing and beginning a new family the last few years, you've been working on an opera about the French Revolution.
RW: True! Man cannot live by rock 'n' roll alone. It's an operatic history of the French Revolution, and I hope to have it done for release next year. Although it's set in the late 18th Century, it's about change in general as much as that specific revolution.
Trib: But surely you've observed the fates of rockers who dabble outside the genre. When Paul McCartney put out "Liverpool Oratorio," the classical aficionados threw stones and his fans scratched their heads. What makes you think this will be different?
RW: I understand the knives will come out; that's inevitable. But one of the problems that people in the classical world have is how many recordings of Mahler or Beethoven symphonies can you make? They're always looking for new music, but many of the new serious composers are into academic forms, which strike some people as sterile and cold. I think I've made a work that is melodic and emotional; I think I've done something that can move people. The libretto is very much relatable to my earlier work, because it has that humane element.
Trib: Is there a rock record in the works?
RW: I've written a few songs and I have a broad idea of something I want to do. I've got studio time scheduled in February to make another pop record.
Trib: Will it be conceptual?
RW: Yeah, definitely. Why change now, really?
Trib: And that concept is.......?
RW: I am at a point where I can identify what the theme might be. But I'm not going to tell you.
Trib: So why tour now? You have nothing to sell.
RW: I know (laughs). When I did my last album ("Amused to Death" in 1992) I had the desire to tour, but not to spend the millions of dollars required to do a really serious show, especially after the unenthusiastic reception in 1987. This year, I planned to spend the summer in the States with my family anyway and I thought why not do a few gigs at reasonably small venues where I can interact with the audience and they with you? I wanted to see if I could rekindle some of the magic that I remember from the early days with the Floyd -- the magic which, in fact, had disappeared by 1977 when we got so big and all anybody seemed to be focusing on was numbers, which is what made me write "The Wall" and swear I'd never play stadiums again.
Trib: I know you're planning on including a number of Floyd songs in your set. Is that your way of reclaiming the legacy?
RW: I saw a video my ex-colleagues did of one of their recent tours and it became obvious to me that they never understood any of it at all. And neither did quite a large number of the great unwashed: As long as there are lots of lights going off and they can recognize the tunes, they're relatively happy. My ex-colleagues remain connected to the numbers (profits) but you don't feel the connection with the original magic.
The working relationship I had with Dave and Nick and even Rick up to and including "The Dark Side of the Moon" (1973) was very exciting and interesting and worthwhile, but after that it became very problematic. We'd done everything we had set out to do, and we kind of clung together from that point on in a very uneasy marriage because of the name, because it was easy and we'd created an enormous audience. Dave did some great work after "Dark Side," but I provided the philosophy, the politics, the heart behind those records.
With all due respect to the people who bought them, the albums they put out after I left have been rubbish. It's been about trying to write songs that sound like Pink Floyd, without the ideas. On the last record, Gilmour got his wife to help write the lyrics -- that's pure "Spinal Tap." Eric Stewart of (British band) 10cc told me he got a call from Gilmour saying, "We're trying to make a new record and we need a concept. Got any ideas?" It's funny now, but it really pissed me off then... that no one saw through that at the time. But I think history is starting to show that none of that stuff is really lasting.
Trib: But the same charge has been leveled at your solo albums.
RW: They all have some songs on them that I am really happy with. I think I went down a bit too much of a techno road on "Radio K.A.O.S." (1987). I'm not sure I made all the right decisions making those records, but I don't regret making them. And "Amused to Death" is I think a kind of classic masterpiece (laughs). I think it's a really great record.
Trib: As good as "Dark Side" or "Wish You Were Here"?
RW: Absolutely. I don't think there is any question that if that record had Pink Floyd written on the front of it, it would have done huge numbers.
Trib: The one thing that links "Amused to Death" to your best work is its moral perspective, its compassion.
RW: My hope would be my work would enable spiritual change in people. I hope that's what it does for me. It seems to me that if art has any responsibility, I described it in a poem I wrote after reading Cormac McCarthy's "All the Pretty Horses." The poem starts off: "There is a magic in some books/That sucks a man into connections/With the spirits hard to touch/ That join him to his kind." Those couple of lines express what it is that I feel about art. When I read that novel it touches me in a way that helps me to connect.
I suppose that my work over the years has been partly a way to explain to myself my feelings about the loss of my father (who died in World War II) and to express my feelings of shame and alienation. I hope to express myself in a way that accessible to other human beings and to illuminate not only my life, but theirs as well. I look back to a song like "Echoes" (from the 1971 Floyd album "Meddle"), which has the lines "Two strangers passing in the street/By chance two passing glances meet/And I am you/And what I see is me." It's that connection that is central to all my work -- not just with other men, women and children, but with whatever you want to call God.