Roger Waters on Veterans, Patriotism and 9/11
The founding Pink Floyd bassist explains the political and social messages contained in his updated The Wall Live tour.
This is an excerpt from the Holiday 2013 issue of Guitar World. For the rest of this story (plus interviews with the four guitarists behind The Wall Live) and more — including Black Oak Arkansas, the Winery Dogs, Marty Friedman, a guide to the most incredible concerts and roadshows in rock and metal history, a holiday gift guide and John Petrucci's monthly column — check out the Holiday 2013 issue at the Guitar World Online Store.
“Benvenuto, bambini!” Roger Waters exclaims through his microphone to the line of children excitedly walking toward the stage inside Rome’s massive Stadio Olimpico.
On this blistering afternoon in late July, the former Pink Floyd leader and his band are in the middle of the soundcheck for tonight’s show, at which they’ll perform Floyd’s classic 1979 double-album, The Wall, for 50,000 Italian fans. Waters stops the rehearsal to welcome the children, who will appear with him onstage later tonight during the famous “We don’t need no education” refrain from “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2).” As with every performance of The Wall Live, the kids have been recruited from local youth organizations. They receive their stage instructions and soon begin yelling, “Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!” at the huge, menacing inflatable schoolmaster puppet that descends from the rigging above the stage.
Waters smiles and dances in sync with the kids. Even in this casual pre-show setting, his vocals are strong, possessing much of the same vulnerability and theatrical range that they had when The Wall was first released. Wielding his legendary black Fender P-Bass, Waters embellishes the song’s funky bassline with the assuredness and finesse reserved for only the most seasoned musicians.
Although tonight’s show arrives three years and nearly 200 dates into The Wall Live world tour, Waters’ excitement is palpable. In fact, his commitment to this larger-than-life production is so singular that he still soundchecks every concert to make sure the sonics and stage show—like tonight’s giddy children—are performance ready. Waters has a longstanding reputation for being a hyper-attentive, if downright controlling, musical director, factors that contributed to the myriad inter-band tensions that led him to leave Pink Floyd in 1985.
But a fierce creative drive isn’t the only force fueling his passion for this new production. For Waters, The Wall has become a vehicle to convey what he sees as vital messages about a host of modern societal plagues, from greed and corruption to nationalism and religious supremacy. In its original conception, The Wall was a way for him to exorcise personal demons: his feelings surrounding the loss of his father in World War II, the severity of the English school system and the isolation and dysfunction of rock stardom, among others. But Waters, now approaching his seventies, has come to terms with his past, and the current, contemporized production of The Wall Live demonstrates his concerns with how the forces behind these ills infiltrate society to the detriment of many.
“It took me a long time to get over my fears,” he wrote in a letter to fans in 2010 explaining why he was resurrecting The Wall tour. “It has occurred to me that maybe the story of my fear and loss with its concomitant inevitable residue of ridicule, shame and punishment, provides an allegory for broader concerns: nationalism, racism, sexism, religion, whatever! All these issues and ’isms are driven by the same fears that drove my young life.”
It was around the 30th anniversary of The Wall that Waters decided to update the show’s themes to address these global issues. He assembled a world-class team of musicians, video artists, set designers and projectionists to help him expand the project’s scope as well as deliver the live show that Pink Floyd failed to realize when they first attempted to perform the record in 1980 [see sidebar]. In addition to presenting the classic music—brought to life by his band of all-star musicians, including guitarists Dave Kilminster, G.E. Smith, Snowy White and Jon Carin [see sidebar]—the updated show delivered a high-tech multimedia narrative unrivaled by any rock show ever staged.
Musically, The Wall Live follows the arc of the original 1979 album. But for the new production, Waters has added two more songs that didn’t make the original release: “What Shall We Do Now?” and “The Last Few Bricks.” The show also features a newly written acoustic coda, “The Ballad of Jean Charles de Menezes,” which honors a Brazilian man shot to death in 2005 by London police after being misidentified as a terrorist. In context with the 26 tracks of the original album, the new tunes contribute to the dramatic exposition while infusing the familiar ensemble of songs with freshness.
A few hours after the soundcheck at Stadio Olimpico, the full scope of Waters’ vision is revealed when the show kicks off in a blast of pyro explosions and the aggressive opening lines of “In the Flesh?” wash across the stadium of screaming fans. Like the original album, The Wall Live tells the story of Pink, who loses his father in World War II and becomes the target of abuse, smothering and neglect from his teachers, mother and wife, leading him to build a metaphorical wall around himself. And as in the original staged production, a massive wall—mirroring Pink’s isolation—is constructed across the stage during the first half of the show, until it completely obscures Waters and his band from the audience’s view. Animations are projected onto the wall, and characters are presented as giant inflatables that soar above the stage.
But Waters has replaced the original images—specific to Pink’s psychological issues—with updated visuals that reflect broader messages against war, poverty, greed, religion and governmental abuse of power. For the track “Mother,” the music remains true to the original tune, but the projections of an elaborate “Big Brother Is Watching You” surveillance system take the place of the overbearing maternal figure. In “Goodbye Blue Sky,” animator Gerald Scarfe’s original airplane animations for the 1982 movie Pink Floyd—The Wall are given a timely update: Scarfe’s planes turned into crosses, signifying death, but in The Wall Live, they are replaced by B-52 bombers that drop religious, corporate and dollar signs onto the blood-covered ground below. Elsewhere, the touching ballad “Vera” features footage of young children during surprise reunions with their parents who had been deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, while “Bring the Boys Back Home” presents quotes from former U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower about the unseen costs of war for humanity. One particularly sobering moment comes during “Run Like Hell,” which includes WikiLeaks video footage of a 2007 airstrike in Baghdad in which two Reuters journalists were killed when they were mistaken for enemy combatants.
“I just didn’t want it to sound like it was empty polemic,” says Waters when asked what guided the selection process for the updated narrative. “I wanted every point that was made to be moving, clever and truthful. So for instance, you have the B-52 image dropping all the symbols, and the brilliant animation [creative director] Sean [Evans] did. I’d say to Sean, ‘You remember in the old movie how Scarfe’s got planes that turn into crosses in the sky? I don’t want that. I want to mix up national and commercial symbols and drop them.’ So we’re dropping ideas and commerce onto the land below, which is actually Kabul. We’re dropping these on the unsuspecting land below, which then becomes a sea of blood. The intention was to create something completely up to date.”
The show reaches its climax during “The Trial,” which culminates with Waters and, in turn, the entire arena of fans chanting, “Tear down the wall!” After the gigantic construction literally crumbles onto the stage, Waters and his band reconvene amid the rubble for the acoustic finale “Outside the Wall.” They take a few bows, jump into transport vans and disappear into the swarming Roman traffic, flanked by a police escort.
Near midnight, about an hour after Waters has stepped offstage, he has retreated to the outdoor patio bar in his secluded hotel, a posh affair tucked beneath the shadows of the beautiful Borghese gardens. The vibe is subdued, yet Waters is anything but. Over a few glasses of wine, he explains his views on how radical atheism is the first step to avoiding becoming entrenched in unwinnable arguments, intractable positions and endless wars between people asserting that their god is the only true deity.
“Radical atheism is the only hope for the world!” he announces between bites of pasta.
Seething with the ferocity that enthralled the fans at tonight’s show, Waters asserts that once people untether themselves from religious dogma, it will allow them to focus their energy on unseating the true puppet masters: the corporate giants and super-elite who hold 99 percent of the world’s wealth and power. That he is one of the most successful musicians in history—and certainly a member in good standing of rock’s elite one percent—is not lost on him. But as The Wall Live demonstrates, neither does he let his position lull him into indifference or numb him to his responsibilities as an artist. “Sure we’re sitting in this nice hotel, eating this beautiful meal,” he acknowledges. “But you can’t let yourself be fooled.”
In the following interview, Roger Waters decodes the imagery and symbolism behind The Wall Live and gives new insights into this landmark work.
GUITAR WORLD: You’ve updated the current staging of The Wall by adding new contemporary social and political issues into the imagery projected on the wall. One early somber moment occurs during “The Thin Ice,” which begins by showing a photo of your father, followed by photos of hundreds of fallen veterans that were submitted by fans. I understand that you also take time to meet vets during each show.
We invite 20 vets to every show we do, wherever we are in the world. For instance, on the last leg of the tour we were playing São Paulo, and the vets were coming out, and these men seemed like they were in their Nineties.
I asked, “What are they vets of?” I was told the Second World War. They were Brazilians that volunteered to fight for the Allies against the Axis powers in the Second War, because Brazil had no official involvement. But it’s always very moving to meet these vets. We don’t have much time, only about 20 minutes, because I do it at halftime in the show. I say hello to everyone, sign anything, and we chat a bit.
Are there any particular stories from those meetings that stand out in your mind?
I just dealt with one guy who had post-traumatic-stress-syndrome anger. He was dismissive and shouting at me. All I can do is put my hand on the guy’s shoulder and say, “Listen, brother, I’m glad you came.” But then there was another guy at one recent show in the States. He was in a wheelchair, and he looked older. He must have been in Vietnam rather than Afghanistan or Iraq.
He was quiet and didn’t say much, but he managed to shake my hand. He was there with his wife. As I’m going back out onstage, she grabs my arm and says, “This is the first time he’s been out of the house in three years.” I’m tearing up a little now just thinking about it. It knocks the stuffing out of you when you see what’s been done to these guys. It’s such an enormous tragedy.
When you speak to all these veterans around the world, do you find there’s any continuity in their post-war stories or experiences?
I think they may go in with an allegiance to the flag, and my suspicion is that most of them pretty well believed all the propaganda that has been fed to them since they were very small. And 9/11 was obviously a huge factor.
It calls to mind the very heroic football player who went out there to fight and got shot by his own side. [Ex-NFL football player and U.S. Army Ranger Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004.] It’s such a weird story.
People now, just now, are starting to be able to say—only very occasionally— that 9/11 was sort of a wakeup call, and speak about what the insane person bin Laden was actually saying. There is a rationale in his position that was completely dismissed. I’m sure you remember at the time, [ABC network] fired Bill Maher [and cancelled his show, Politically Incorrect] because he said the men [that committed the attacks on 9/11] were not cowards.
He said, “You can call them anything you want, but you cannot say that it was an act of cowardice to go on an airplane with a box cutter and then kill everybody. It’s not cowardice.” I cannot imagine what it takes out of you to do something like that.
But I think the fact is that the climate is just beginning to change a little bit. And I don’t mean to preach. I realize that if one wants to start a conversation with people that might be interested in different points of view that are not USA Today or network news, then one has to be reasonably diplomatic in expressing the view, otherwise you’re just turning people off.
I think on a basic level most people can agree that when horrific events happen, there’s a danger of having an emotion-based knee-jerk reaction. Which is why things like investigation and due process are so important.
Two years after 9/11, in March 2003, my wife Laurie [Durning] and I went to a dinner organized by a man called Andrew Stein. It was at Four Seasons restaurant just off of Park Avenue in New York. It was sort of a gathering of the great and the good, with many from the field of journalism. There was the businessman Howard Stringer, who was the head of Sony at the time, and [Vanity Fair editor] Graydon Carter and [talk show host] Charlie Rose with ladies attached to them, and [the late 60 Minutes correspondent] Mike Wallace. It was four days before the Shock and Awe [campaign in the Iraq War], and Laurie and I were the only dissenting voices at the table. Nobody else was even asking a question. They were like, But [Saddam Hussein’s] a monster, and he’s killed his own people. He’s got weapons of mass destruction! He’s building a nuclear this or that, and he could strike against Cyprus. We have to invade!
There wasn’t a single dissenting moment around that table, and I’ve never forgotten that. And obviously there were no weapons of mass destruction found. Interestingly enough, that’s exactly what the head of United Nations’ inspectors Hans Blix was saying. He was desperately trying to get them to give him more time. He said, “Listen, I found nothing and I’m pretty sure there’s nothing there. I can prove it if you just give me a couple more weeks.” They went, Fuck you. We’re gonna throw our grunts in there and kill people. And they did.
Another example of contemporizing the visual narrative of The Wall occurs during “Goodbye Blue Sky,” where bombers are dropping crosses, dollar signs and the logos for Shell Oil and McDonalds. To me, that evokes the notion that we’re moving past purely territorial conflicts and into corporate- and religious-sponsored wars.
It’s funny you should say this. I keep trying to make another album. I’ve kept failing because I couldn’t quite find a way to put something together that was thematically or conceptually coherent enough. Then in the middle of the last tour, I wrote a song. The song’s working title has always been called “If I Had Been God,” but it might be called “Lay Down Jerusalem.” Can you imagine telling people in the Bible Belt that title! It’s heresy! [laughs] I thought I hit pay dirt, so I started thinking about how can I make it work with other things. Then I wrote another song called “Broken Bones,” which is about turning our backs on Mistress Liberty after the Second World War—how governments, specifically the United States and the United Kingdom, made the decision to completely turn their backs on the idea of liberty in favor of commerce.
So liberty is absolutely sacrificed on the altar of commerce. That is what we’re living through. We’re living through the aftermath of 60 or 70 years of that, and we’re paying a heavy price. And part of that price is that we feel the need to be constantly killing brown people because…why? What’s the reason? For cash. It’s all done for cash, in my view. There’s no other reason. I saw a really interesting guy on one of the left-wing talking things, maybe MSNBC. And he was talking about how Obama is talking about pouring weapons into Syria, and what a brilliant idea that is. What? It’s insane! Another proxy war with [Russian president Vladimir] Putin? What do we gain from that? To prove that we’re just as fucking stupid and appalling as he is? Who gains? It’s just more dead people on the ground and more profits for the armament industry in Russia and here. [Defense contractors] Lockheed Martin and McDonnell Douglas are dancing around their offices going, “Whoopee!” because they need the United States to spend one trillion dollars a year to kill anything that moves.
But there are people beginning to fight against it. Like [journalists] Chris Hedges and Noam Chomsky, and others, who are suing Obama over the amendment to 1021, or what used to be called the Patriot Act. They’re trying to push this through to law on the grounds that the United States is still at war. They’ve somehow managed to convince themselves that the United States is at war with terrorism, this nebulous group that’s evil and trying to destroy this country. In consequence, that means the Bill of Rights can be suspended, as it was in the Civil War with [President] Lincoln, who would willy-nilly arrest any newspaper editor in the North that printed anything that was anti his government. Suddenly you discover you can do that with anybody. There is no recourse to the law. You suspend the Bill of Rights, habeas corpus and the rule of law. And you do it all in absolute secrecy, because you have to protect the people. I mean, what?
Speaking of absolute secrecy, did you happen to notice the logo for the NSA PRISM surveillance program? It kind of resembles the cover of Dark Side of the Moon.
It does! It’s amazing that’s the logo that appends to the program for gathering information. It actually looks like the Australian Pink Floyd logo, because it’s not exactly the pyramid. It’s some weird shape. With the Australians, it’s a stream of light going into a kangaroo and coming out the other side. [laughs] And actually there’s a very nice connection between those two ideas. The idea of a kangaroo would actually suit the PRISM program much better, because what they are all about is kangaroo courts. [laughs] Military courts to try anybody they like! They will arrest you in secret, hold you in secret and try you in secret by military.
Another striking moment in the show comes during “Run Like Hell,” where you project the infamous WikiLeaks footage of the Reuters photographers who were mistakenly killed by the U.S. military.
Yeah. We used the famous murder of Saeed [Chmagh] and Namir [Noor-Eldeen], the two Reuters cameramen. They’ve got the guy in the helicopter going, “Yep, that guy’s carrying an RPG [Rocket-Propelled Grenade].” But really he’s holding a movie camera. You can see it so obviously. There were a few people in that video. And if you watch it carefully from beginning to end, you do see two people with AK-47s at one point, but it’s nowhere near when everyone gets killed. The guys with the AK-47s are obviously not dumb enough to be standing around in the street when there’s some Black Hawk hovering over them about to shred them. Which is why all the people in the street were civilians and cameramen.
Throughout the past couple of years, the tour has arrived in some European cities during times of political upheaval. Specifically, you were in Athens last year right around the time of the riots.
Well, they weren’t really rioting yet. They were rather irritatingly staying up all night playing bongos outside of my hotel window in Constitution Square. [laughs] I think if I had a large enough detachment of storm troopers, I’d have gone down there and told them, “Shut the fuck up, I’m trying to sleep!” [laughs] All of that stuff was just beginning to happen then. Obviously it’s gotten a lot worse since. One of the saddest things, of course, about what’s going on is that, inevitably when you go through a period of depression and you have social unrest, then the extreme right raises its head and decides it’s all the fault of foreigners and gollywogs.
That sentiment is also reflected during “In the Flesh” when Pink begins to point out all the “riff-raff” in the room.
That’s the root of it. Like in Greece, since they’ve gotten rid of the colonels they’ve been a relatively humane quasi-socialist democratic society, even though obviously not a hugely economically efficient one. But now you’ve got these roving gangs of people that call themselves the Golden Dawn. They’re the young and disaffected and have become like the SA [Sturmabteilung, the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party]. It’s very like Germany in 1932 and ’33. When there’s no work and things turn bleak, people tend to put on a black shirt and say, “Well, it’s all the fault of the Muslims, the Jews, the others. Let’s go beat them up. We must make Greece pure again.” It’s sad! These are the descendants of Aristotle, Socrates and Plato.
Basically the central figures that laid the foundation of civilized Western thought and process.
Yes, it was the crucible of civilized thought. Well, I know they also used to fight their neighbors with regular ferocity. [laughs] I’m not sure I’d want to ever run into a Spartan in a dark bar at night. [laughs] I think they were quite uncompromising in sorting out disagreements with people in bars that had wishy-washy ideas. And I’m not sure I would have wanted to be a baby back then and be left alone on the mountain to see if I could survive. Having said all that, they did do quite a lot of sitting around and thinking about how to organize society. They did invent democratia.
When you’re performing The Wall in cities that are beset by political or economic unrest, is there a particularly unique energy to the crowds or shows?
Not really. But when I was in Chile last year, President Piñera decided that it would be a good photo op to invite me over to the palace. I’d also met with that young women student leader, [Camila] Vallejo, but we couldn’t have a proper conversation because my Spanish is non-existent and her English was too. But on the other hand, the presidente could jabber away. And I spoke with him for about an hour and a half. And I kept asking him about the police violence, because they were putting down the student unrest with tons of tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons…basically doing everything short of shooting them dead with live rounds. There were huge number of injuries. And, of course, we were doing the show in the famous stadium in the middle of Santiago [Estadio Nacional Julio Martínez Prádanos], which is where they took everybody and killed them after the Pinochet coup [which overthrew socialist President Salvador Allende in 1973]. So it was a pretty strange place to be.
Did you feel Piñera was simply trying to boost his reputation by meeting with you?
I had this meeting with the president and he showed me the room where [Salvador] Allende supposedly committed suicide, and the phone he used to make his last calls and all the bullet holes that were up the stairs. And then when I left there were thousands of protestors outside. I didn’t say anything to anybody. But then I thought it all through and I wrote a letter saying I thought he needed to listen to his people. I said it during the show as well. I also said it wasn’t gonna further his own particular ends selling porky pies to visiting pop stars. [laughs] Because he told me there had been only twelve hundred injuries in the last year and a half of social unrest, and of those, eleven hundred had been to the police. [laughs] It was like, You fucking moron! Why are you trying to tell me this shit?
“Another Brick in the Wall, Part 1” includes footage of Muslim kids playing soccer in the West Bank of Israel. It’s a subtle reference that hints to a larger, very divisive issue that you are passionate about. Have you had a chance to visit the Gaza Strip?
I’ve never been to the Gaza Strip. It’s very difficult to get in, and I’m fairly sure the Israelis wouldn’t allow me. They tend to stop people who have appeared on the Russell Tribunal [a private civilian investigative group that examines violations of international law of which the Palestinians are victims]. They hold them at the border for hours and hours, asking them questions and then telling them, “I’m sorry you can’t go in.” That’s not to say I wouldn’t like to visit, because I would. And when this touring comes to an end, I’m sure I shall, because I’m still deeply committed to the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, where I served as a juror in New York and Brussels. But I have traveled quite extensively through the occupied territories and Israel itself, seven years ago, a year after I did a gig in Israel.
How specifically did traveling to that region influence your position?
It was because of that gig in Israel that I was contacted by BDP [the Peace and Democracy Party in Turkey] and all kinds of other organizations all over the Middle East. They wrote me letters asking me not to go and to join the cultural boycott, which I did. And I don’t regret it for a moment. I’m sorry: what I should have said is if you haven’t been there [Gaza], it’s impossible to imagine how horrific it is. Impossible. Although there are three recent wonderful documentaries that are absolutely essential viewing if you’re trying to understand a different point of view that isn’t the point of view of the Israeli lobby in New York and Washington.
The first movie is The Gatekeepers, which is an Israeli documentary that’s based upon interviews with the last six heads of Shin Bet, which is the Israeli secret service, all of whom, without exception, at some point during their interviews say, We’ve got it completely wrong. Our entire history has been a strategic error. We thought tactically when we should have been thinking strategically. We’re a powerful military nation. We have won every battle, but we have lost the war.
The other one is called 5 Broken Cameras, which is from Gaza. It’s a very moving documentary about life in Gaza from before and after Operation Cast Lead and Operation Pillar of Defense, which were the two most savage attacks by the Israeli Defense Force on Gaza. A young woman made this documentary, and it’s called 5 Broken Cameras because she went through five video cameras before she got to the end of it. They weren’t quite shot out of her hands, but they were blown up or destroyed in one way or another. It’s really moving.
Then there’s one made by the sister of a friend of mine, called Roadmap to Apartheid. It’s paralleling the apartheid system in South Africa and what’s going on in Israel, and showing the similarities. The Israeli government—but not all Israelis, because I know a lot of them that are desperately trying to affect change in their country—reacts very strongly if anyone suggests they’re operating an apartheid system. But they are. It’s entirely apartheid. There’s a completely different set of rules whether you’re a Jew or not a Jew. And so it’s a very difficult and sad situation for everybody.
Switching directions a bit, one of the central themes in The Wall is dealing with the loss of your father, who died in World War II. You’ve been quoted as saying you’ve yet to visit his memorial gravesite in Monte Cassino, Italy. Has revisiting this material inspired you to make the journey?
Yep. We did it. I took young [Sean] Evans with me and a film crew and an old Bentley. I made the journey from Hampshire, England, and we filmed it all. First we went to a military cemetery, Maroeuil, which is near Arras in northern France to visit the grave of George Henry, my grandfather [who was a casualty of World War I]. On those two days I had my three kids fly in and join me to visit George Henry’s grave. And we all stood there. It was really good to take them. Then they went back to England, and we set off for southern Italy. We made a movie where various people appear in the car and we talk about various things. We eventually arrive at Casino and go to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Memorial Garden where on plaque number five is my father’s name, Eric Fletcher Waters. So we film my visit. There’s a bit of trumpet playing, a few tears shed...
Will the footage you shot eventually be bundled for a deluxe release of The Wall Live tour?
My plan is that that is an integral part of The Wall film. It will be completely edited into the movie that is The Wall Live tour 2010–2013. I really felt it needed to somehow be part of the story. Because it sort of is.
Photo: Sean Evans
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