There are few artists whose music is so ubiquitous, so influential, it's part of the collective unconscious - Madonna, Lennon & McCartney, Roger Waters.
As founder and primary driving force behind Pink Floyd, his songs have shaped more than one generation's aspirations and fears. Dark Side of the Moon (1973), for which bassist Waters wrote all the lyrics and some of the music, stayed on the Billboard charts for 15 years (until they changed the rules). The Wall, the double album that detailed the madness of being a mega rock star, went platinum 23 times over. Pink Floyd's debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, recorded with unstable genius Syd Barrett, helped define the emergent psychedelic sound of the late '60s.
Waters left Floyd in 1983, after The Final Cut. His one major appearance during the '90s was a $US8-million staging of The Wall at the site of the recently demolished Berlin Wall, watched by a live TV audience of more than 100 million.
This year's In the Flesh live show is part of Waters' first world tour for two decades. Classic Floyd tunes are matched with 360-degree quadraphonic sound, large-scale video projections and an 11-piece band, and it'll be some show, that's for sure.
EG met the reclusive Englishman (born in Cambridgeshire, September 6, 1943) in a London hotel.
How does your motivation in 2002 vary from your motivation when you started?
"There are two strands of motivation. The first is almost subconscious, the desire to be loved, to have people pat me on the back. That strand will probably always stay exactly the same. It's the second strand that has changed. When I was 15, I wanted to get laid, I wanted a sports car and I wanted to make money. Eventually I got laid and I got a sports car and made money, you know? Those motivations don't really exist any more. The work has become a motivation in itself. I'm less attached to what I can get out of making music than I am to the joy of creating it."
Do you feel you still have something to prove?
"I wouldn't put it like that. I surprise myself sometimes. It's interesting you should ask that, though, because it's only recently that I've begun to understand that I've actually achieved quite a lot and that I don't have anything much left to prove. Nevertheless, I see my work as analogous to painting, and I'll probably go on painting until the day I drop dead, because it still does speak for me."
Around the time of Wish You Were Here you were quoted as saying you felt the world was a sad place. Do you still feel that way?
"My work flickers back and forth between introspective writing and general political comment on the way the world works. It also tries to make sense of both of those things together. If one looks into one's own life and discovers what it is we find joy in, deep fundamental joy and pleasure, it's nearly always connections with other human beings, whether they're family or friends or people who are strangers.
"I wrote a poem a few years ago after I read Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses. The very beginning of it goes 'There is a magic inside the books that sucks a man into connections with the spirits hard to touch that join me to his kind'. Through my life, I've found myself closer and closer to making connections with those spirits hard to touch that join me to my kind. It's only through those connections that we might find the answer to this question: Is the human race capable of evolving beyond 'Ug. Give me my food' into something more joyful? We don't get long. Each individual human life is fleeting, but we each have the potential to pick up the flame and run with it for a few faltering steps before we hand it on to the next generation.
"Yes, a lot of the world is very sad, but I'm optimistic. I feel that we're capable of greater empathy than could be described in the way the world works at the moment. The questions are becoming more open. They're becoming exposed with the burgeoning of this information technology."
Was dissatisfaction with the outside world one of the reasons you withdrew from the public arena for such a long time?
"I didn't really, not after the '70s. I toured Pros and Cons in '85. I toured Video Chaos in '87. At that point I stopped in the face of a lack of demand. People didn't come. Well, they did; I could play in New York, LA or London, but apart from that it was a real struggle.
Because the other guys were touring as Pink Floyd, it became too difficult for me and I didn't want to do it. I felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall, and it was uncomfortable, so I stopped doing it.
"The reason I've started doing it again recently was because of this concert I did for Don Henley in 1992, a charity concert for his Walden Woods project. I borrowed his band, walked out on stage and felt this enormous whoosh of blood. I'd forgotten that I'm a performer and I like doing it.
"Also, I'd identified some major problems that I've had in my life. For one reason or another, I had some powerful feelings of abandonment when I was a very young child that I'm only beginning to extricate myself from now. I'm nearly 60 years old and I'm just beginning to feel I can operate as an adult. It's exciting to feel I'm on the edge of maturity, emotionally."
Do you feel pressure when you're performing a song loved by millions of people around the world, to live up to their expectations? Do you feel the song no longer becomes yours?
"No, I don't. I've been doing gigs recently. In '99 and 2000 I toured the States. The songs are fresh for me every night, all of them. Having said that, I keep the arrangements pretty much as they were on the records. We reproduce some solos note for note just because I like them. Some of the things Dave (Gilmour) did were really good.
"Also, I know as an audience I stopped going to see Bob Dylan because it became, like, guess the tune. You'd think, 'What's he playing?', and then you'd suddenly realise, 'Oh my word, it's Lay Lady Lay'. I don't see the point in that. I've learnt the value of the songs that I do best, and the lyric as well. The melody structure is a vehicle to carry the lyric, and the lyric is attached to an emotion, and the emotion resides in my heart."
What do you think about when you're on stage?
"I try to think as little as possible and just be there and enjoy the connection with the audience, which is something that's quite new. Before, I did these tours and I was very circumspect about what that relationship was and what it meant, whether me being there was authentic, you know? As is well documented, particularly in the '70s when I was touring with Floyd, I used to feel disconnected, and that's one of the reasons why I wrote The Wall. So I've come full circle.
"But part of that is the fact that I won't do very big shows. I'm prepared to play in front of up to 20,000 people. That's OK. That still feels intimate in a strange way."
During the '70s, did you ever think while writing a song, "Oh, this one's going to go on to sell millions and millions"?
"There were a couple of things. I remember when I finished making the demo of Money. I had it on a loop and had recorded the basic rhythm structure and bassline, and I kept playing it again and again. I also remember when I took Rick's (Wright) piano piece and made Us and Them, thinking it was really powerful. Eclipse, the final piece on Dark Side of the Moon, wasn't written until we'd done a few shows. I can remember going in and saying, 'Oh, by the way, I've written an ending', because it didn't exist for a long time.
"With The Wall, I had sent two-inch multi-tracks back to England to Nick Griffiths, who was working in Britannia Studios in Islington. He recorded this loop on his own of the multi-tracks and sent it back. I remember putting the multi-track up in the producer's workshop to see what happened, pressing play and hearing all those kids singing for the first time. I knew immediately this was the mother-lode. It felt like pure gold. I immediately decided to make it two verses long, one verse with David singing and then this verse with the kids. I was absolutely convinced there was no way this would not be a hit record. It was just brilliant. The kids' voices made the song."
Why do you think songs such as Shine On You Crazy Diamond have such resonance, even now?
"I don't know. I suppose it's honest and heartfelt and quite poetically expressed. It expresses a deep sense of loss at the loss of the relationship. It's about the loss of a relationship with a friend (Syd Barrett). Wish You Were Here is another one."
Do you ever get over that loss of the relationship?
"No. You never get over it. I take comfort from the pain and the loss of a loved one because it means I can still feel. My love for the people that I've lost is important. And the pain of the loss dulls eventually, obviously. It doesn't stay the same. It's not as immediate, but it's precious. The residue of the grief is precious because it keeps the love alive. So I guess the answer is no, you don't get over it, and that's OK."
Do you worry about reaching the stage where you can't feel emotion?
"Not for me. It's something I can count on, feeling stuff. There's an interesting book called Violence by a doctor, about how violence is endemic in American society, politically within the penal system. It's really about political control through institutionalised violence, but in it he talks about serial killers, people who have devoted their entire lives to these crimes of violence. When they're caught, most of them describe themselves as feelingless. They actually describe their arms as a set of ropes and pulleys. They don't feel human. They don't make that connection that makes us human, which is the connection of having feelings. So they live in a world that is utterly unbearable because they don't feel anything. They're completely numb and it's unbearable. I can sort of understand that. I can feel how unbearable that is."
Recently there's been a spate of rock stars killing themselves. Do you have any idea why?
"Maybe there's a copycat element involved. Maybe it appears to be a trend because it's reported more. Most of us would admit to having had suicidal feelings at some point, but we don't act on them. Most suicides are hysterical. They're a way of getting noticed, albeit drastic, and that's why a lot don't succeed. All right, if you're going to stand in front of an express train that's going 70mph, it's unlikely that that's a cry for help, but it may be a way of punishing those left behind. Because we externalise our feelings and despair, we think somebody else is responsible for them.
"My mother was a Samaritan for umpteen years, and I have a number of good friends who are Samaritans as well. I think that people who call the Samaritans need exactly what I got from Cormac McCarthy, or what maybe people get from some of my songs, which is an understanding that that connection exists. It's held up in front of you, and thank God for that. It's ephemeral, but somebody makes it more concrete for you so you may feel. I can have that connection and then I won't feel this despair."
At the height of your popularity in the '70s with Pink Floyd, you were helped to support entire communities, gave hundreds jobs. Did you feel under pressure to write a record that sold millions to perpetuate that? It seems some bands do.
"I don't believe that. You get a lot of double-speak and double-think in this business. It's like U2 saying, 'Oh we have to play football stadiums otherwise all our fans can't see us'. That makes sense. But then why charge 60 quid a ticket? Why not charge five quid? So it's not for the fans. It's because they're in it for the money, or partially in it for the money.
"People going into rock'n'roll are pretty self-centred. I am. To write what I've written, you have to be self-centred. To write the words that the lonely people can connect to, the authenticity in that, whatever it is, that you discover in the lyric and the music, there inevitably is narcissism in that, and you have to accept that's what it is. That's what all art is.
"Without that disregard for what anybody else may think, you don't produce anything. I certainly don't buy into the notion that bands keep going because they care about their roadies or the people selling T-shirts. They care about themselves. Some people become addicted to the life, addicted to the attention, addicted to the limelight. The limelight addiction is very real."
Have you ever had that addiction?
"It's something I could see developing its own power in the '70s, and that's why I went, 'Stop'. It's very seductive. Now I feel like I've arrived at a comfortable place. What I do feels authentic, how the audience responds. I'm happy there."
Roger Waters plays at Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne Park, on Monday night. Flickering Flame: The Solo Years, Volume 1, an overview of Waters' solo career, is out this week through Sony.