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Back To The Wall: Rolling Stone's 2010 Profile of Pink Floyd's Roger Waters

How Waters tamed his demons, reclaimed his legacy and resurrected a masterpiece

September 30, 2010
roger waters wall london
Roger Waters performs 'The Wall Live' in London.
Marc Broussely/Redferns

Roger Waters is about to launch a tour where a 36-foot-high wall will rise up each night between him and his fans – and right now, you wouldn't blame him for wishing the thing was a bit more portable. The former Pink Floyd leader has just ducked his still-gangly six-foot-three-inch frame into a town car for a ride to a midtown Manhattan restaurant, and it is immediately clear that the driver is way too excited to see him. Waters braces himself. "Been a fan all my life, man," says the driver, a baseball-capped, middle-aged dude named Fred, with a broad New York accent. "'Wish You Were Here' – I was backpacking in Europe when I got turned on to it. I was like, 'This is the best album evvuh!' It must be an unbelievable feeling to know what an impact you made on my generation."

"Normally, we don't know until we get in your car," Waters replies in his crisply British tones, buckling his seat belt. As usual, it's hard to read his chilly blue-gray eyes – color-coordinated these days with his longish, silvery hair and professorial beard – but it seems he's decided to be amused. It helps that Waters just shared an excellent bottle of Montrachet, in celebration of the end of a long workday: After driving into Manhattan this morning from his house in the Hamptons, he endured a biceps, triceps and abdominal core workout ("It nearly kills me, but I need to get a little stronger"), sang scales with the vocal coach who's been helping him reclaim the high notes of his youth, met with a stylist to select stage clothes in various shades of black (rejecting one pair of leather boots as "very Bruce" and another as "too Pete Townshend") and spent hours in a downtown production studio, making minute tweaks to lighting and digital animation.

He's been working at this pace since January, determined to perfect the first real touring version of what he considers the defining work of his career, the 30-million-copy-selling The Wall – the 1979 tale of an alienated rock star named Pink whose biography bears a distinct resemblance to his own. Pink Floyd's original live version – with its giant puppets, synchronized graphics and that wall, constructed brick by brick, then knocked down at the show's climax – set a standard for every rock spectacle that followed, from Steel Wheels to Zoo TV. But it hit a mere four cities worldwide, with months passing between each block of shows. No footage was officially released from the performances, so they've become a dimly recalled legend – except for Gerald Scarfe's surreal animation, which also appeared in 1982's film version.

The shows lost money at every date – tickets were around $12 – and the band was falling apart. "They were getting to the point where they couldn't stand the sight of each other," says Mark Fisher, the architect who built both the 1980 and 2010 versions of the tour (and also worked on the "spaceship" stage for U2's 360° Tour). "It was all too convenient that they got to declare that the whole thing was a turkey and way too expensive and walk away from it on those grounds."

Lighting director Marc Brickman, who also worked on the new show, was brought in just before the beginning of the original performances. "It was just mind-blowing – I was speechless," says Brickman. "It was mounting opera at a rock & roll show. In 1980, you couldn't even dream of that show." For Waters, the idea behind arena theatrics was simple: "You can't ask people to go to the circus and just have fleas in the middle – you've got to have elephants and tigers."

With its undisguised scope and ambition, The Wall was the last stand of what punk and New Wave bands would have called Seventies dinosaur rock – but the upcoming tour is much more than a Jurassic Park-style re-enactment. Waters has retrofitted the show with strident political messages: anti-war, anti-oppression. The lyrics to "Mother," for instance, are unchanged, but the accompanying video, with its images of an all-seeing surveillance camera, is about an oppressive government instead of an overbearing parent. "It's basically the same show, but with a broader meaning," says Fisher. "We had to deal with the fact that it was one thing for a man in his 30s to sing about his young adult life, which was sort of an echo of his upbringing at that point. But it's something else to go on doing that when you're in your 60s."

The show benefits from 30 years of technological advances, most startlingly in the ultra-high-def video projected on the wall throughout. In a couple of weeks, Waters will turn 67, and he's pretty sure this will be his final big tour. "It's a huge undertaking, and I wasn't sure I could do it," he says, not quite selling the line: He seems positive he can do it.

As the car cruises uptown, Fred whips out his cellphone and starts reading texts from his young daughters out loud, until we suggest he wait for a stoplight. ("Normally, I shout at drivers for texting," Waters says mildly.) It turns out one of Fred's daughters was listening to The Wall at the gym earlier that day. "Thank you for indoctrinating them," says Waters, who's beginning to enjoy himself. "You see: They do need education! I was so fucking wrong."

Fred is beyond delighted: "They don't need thought control, man!" He pauses, then goes for it: "What is the next line? 'No dark sar–..." What is that?"

"'Sarcasm,'" says Waters.

"People always sing the wrong words to songs, but we've got the fucking authority right here!"

"I don't know that I'm the greater authority on fucking, but thank you," says Waters. Soon, he takes Fred's card and promises him tickets to the show.

Thirty-three years ago, during a chaotic Pink Floyd show at a Montreal stadium, a younger and far less cheerful Roger Waters had an infamous encounter with another overzealous fan. It didn't end quite so well. The show, the final stop on Floyd's tour for 1977's Animals album, was a disaster from the start, with a weak sound system nearly drowned out by a wasted, unruly crowd (on a bootleg from that night, you can hear Waters shouting, "For fuck's sake, stop letting off fireworks and shouting and screaming. I'm trying to sing"). Finally, one kid climbed up the netting separating the band from the crowd. Waters spat on him.

Afterward, Waters was shaken. How, he wondered, could he do such a thing? What was wrong with him? He was 33 years old, the driving force behind the biggest psychedelic band ever. But his first marriage had already failed, and his band was following suit – he and Floyd's other key creative force, guitarist and vocalist David Gilmour, were growing apart. Waters was rich and famous but angry and unhappy, unable to escape the problems of his childhood – which began with the absence of his father, who was killed in World War II, five months after his son's birth.

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