Roger Waters: The septuagenarian firebrand

Roger Waters is 77. He is still selling out concerts around the world. He is a loud voice on human rights issues — sometimes aggravating and occasionally troublemaking.

 |  6-minute read |   06-09-2020
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“Time is linear / Memory is a stranger / History is for fools / Man is a tool in the hands / Of the great God Almighty / And they gave him command / Of a nuclear submarine / And sent him back in search of / The Garden of Eden.”

Such imagery, while critiquing our mindless obsession with media, could only have been the handiwork of one man.

I saw Pink Floyd live on June 22, 1988, at Chateau de Versailles, near Paris. I am not being entirely truthful — 75 per cent truthful, actually. The original band members on stage were only three — Dave Gilmour, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright. The fourth member — the bassist — was absent. He had left the band three years earlier under unpleasant circumstances. But if you consider his contribution to the band, then I saw much less than half the band. Many songs sung that day were his. The band just could not do without his songs. You can read what I wrote about this concert here.

I would finally see the missing piece in 2007 at his solo concert. And reconfirm that the man was indeed the embodiment of the band.

Roger Waters.

The ageless war dog is defined by his decades-spanning collection of concept albums that dive headlong into hot-button social and political issues that include capitalist greed, as portrayed in Animals (1977), youthful alienation in The Wall (1979), and the futility of war in Amused to Death (1992).

Before delving any deeper, first here is the background for the uninitiated.

main_roger-waters_re_090420065216.jpegRoger Waters still cuts an authoritative yet hip figure, the coolest grandpa ever. (Photo: Reuters)

Waters did not start playing music until he was almost 20. His childhood was haunted by the departure of his father to World War II to join the British Army. He died in combat when Waters was five-months-old. In 1965, he co-founded the progressive rock band Pink Floyd. Waters initially served solely as the bassist but following the departure of singer-songwriter Syd Barrett in 1968, he also became their lyricist, co-lead vocalist, and conceptual leader.

Waters asserted a heavy degree of creative control for the album The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), penning all the lyrics, creating the concept, and receiving music writing credits on all but three of the songs. The Dark Side of the Moon turned out to be the pivotal album in Pink Floyd's career, an instant hit that turned into an enduring blockbuster. Two years later, the band delivered Wish You Were Here (1975) — a concept loosely based on the departed Barrett. The dystopian Animals followed in 1977. During the supporting tour for Animals, Waters felt himself retreating from his audience, and he used this as an inspiration for writing the semi-autobiographical rock opera The Wall (1979). The 1979 double album was a smash hit. By this point, Waters was the band's leader and he shepherded them through The Final Cut, a 1983 album that was billed as "A requiem for the post-war dream by Roger Waters, performed by Pink Floyd." This subtitle suggested complete control of the band by Waters which inevitably lead to ill will leading to Waters leaving the band.

In 1984 came his solo album The Pros & Cons of Hitchhiking. Waters officially left the band in 1985, filing a lawsuit to dissolve it the following year. His claim was rejected. Gilmour, Mason, and Wright continued as Pink Floyd, while Waters continued his solo career. 

In 1987 he released the ambitious concept album Radio KAOS. Once the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, Waters decided to revive The Wall as an all-star tribute concert in Berlin in July 1990. Two years later he released his Amused to Death (1992) — an antiwar concept album.

He released two antiwar songs on the Internet in 2004 — To Kill the Child and Leaving Beirut. A reunion with Pink Floyd followed in 2005, with the group appearing at the Live 8 benefit at Hyde Park. Greeted by rave reviews, the band nevertheless did not capitalise on it, choosing to stay separated. Waters released his opera Ca Ira in 2005, and then beginning in 2006 he spent two years touring The Dark Side of the Moon. He next recorded Is This the Life We Really Want? in 2017.

Waters is now a touring machine. He cannot be stopped. Even as a septuagenarian, Waters is a firebrand, imbuing his tour with politics and edginess.

While many singers have used music as a medium to highlight injustice, Waters has taken activism to a whole new level. Nothing is off-limits. Sponsors have pulled the plug, governments have expressed outrage, the opposing side has protested, but it does not faze him one bit.

Consider this. In his latest album Is This The Life We Really Want? Waters turns his sceptical yet hopeful eye toward refugees and President Trump, among other topics. The album’s most biting songs, featuring ferocious lyrics, are also the highlight of his latest concert film, Roger Waters: Us + Them (2019), that earns its stripes by affirming the timelessness of Waters’ thematic concerns and proving that fresh material can be as good as the classics. Us and Them was a song in The Dark Side of the Moon. Replacing the “and” with a plus sign makes the point that if humanity is going to survive the only way forward is together. The concert film features characters that include Refugee, Drone Pilot and Palestinian Girl. Waters still cuts an authoritative yet hip figure, the coolest grandpa ever. His voice — cracked and battle-scarred warble — conveys authenticity and righteous fury. For a man championing peace, he sounds furious.

He is a loud voice on human rights issues. He has a particular interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has publicly condemned other artists like Madonna for performing in Israel. He is also involved with other causes including malaria eradication, poverty alleviation and the fight against climate change.

Earlier this year, Waters even did not spare events in India. He protested the citizenship law (CAA) at an event in London, where he also recited from the poem of a Delhi poet-activist Aamir Aziz. The event was held to demand the release of Julian Assange.

I watched Waters’ The Dark Side of the Moon concert in Mumbai on February 18, 2007. It was a delightful and emotionally charged show. The crowd knew the words to most of the songs that clearly moved Waters and he made a mention of it at the end of the show. There were many Pink Floyd songs interspersed with his solo repertoire. And of course, the full The Dark Side of the Moon album. The show ended with the eternal crowd-pleaser (by that time the crowd was at its ecstatic apogee on music, smuggled drinks, and other stimulants) – Comfortably Numb. The theatrics were all there – including the prism colours of Dark Side. For good measure, the incorrigible Waters also had a floating pig sporting ‘Kafka Rules’, ‘Get Rid of the Caste System’ and ‘Sab Jaati Ek Hain’. When the pig was let loose to float away, ‘Free at Last’ could be read emblazoned on its belly.

main_roger-waters-co_090420072000.jpgI watched Waters’ The Dark Side of the Moon concert — a delightful and emotionally charged show — in Mumbai on February 18, 2007.

Today, September 6, Waters turns 77. He is still selling out concerts around the world. He is sometimes aggravating and occasionally troublemaking. “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way,” is a line from the Pink Floyd classic Time. It is not Roger Waters’ way.

Also read: Pink Floyd is dead. Long live Pink Floyd


Ajay Mankotia Ajay Mankotia @ajaymankotia

The writer is an author, former revenue official and a music aficionado.

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