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

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

"I probably was rather scary," says Waters. "I had a tendency to lash out." (He has really changed: Digging into a plate of lasagna backstage at one rehearsal, he bites a large metal Phillips screw that his caterers have somehow managed to serve him. After looking aghast for a moment, he handles the situation quietly and with good humor – at least while I'm around.)

Waters would eventually begin two decades of therapy and come to terms with his past. But in the meantime, he addressed his problems like a proper rock star: He sat down with a synthesizer and a mixing board in a secluded house in the English countryside and wrote a rock opera. With additional songwriting contributions from Gilmour, it would become their generation's last great concept album. "I was trying to make sense of my life," Waters says, "and to some extent, I did."

Always a visual thinker as much as a musical one – vocational testing had pushed an aimless 18-year-old Waters toward architecture school, where he met future Floyd members Rick Wright and Nick Mason – Waters based his idea around a sketch he drew: It showed a giant wall built inside a sports arena. The live show was built into the concept from the start, though his original idea was to construct a wall in front of the band as Floyd played, and end the show as the final brick was laid. But as his story developed, he realized that the wall would have to come down.

"Clearly, there was a reason that I thought of the idea of building a wall between me and the audience in the first place – somewhere at some unconscious level, I recognized how frightened I was," he says. Waters is sitting at a glass conference table in the downtown Manhattan production studio where he has been preparing for the tour. Before he sat down, an assistant cleaned the glass with Windex. This is where he's been spending much of his time since January – several of the office windows open onto a brick wall, a coincidence Waters enjoys. His feet are bare – his laceless Converses get hot, so he tends to kick them off. He's wearing the same outfit he nearly always wears: thin black T-shirt, pale jeans, platinum Rolex. He seems to be hard of hearing, and he may or may not be aware of it: Charmingly, he tends to say "What?" with an edge, as if it's your fault for mumbling.

"All of the pushing away of people that went on in my young life and all the aggression and all the spikiness and difficulty all came from the fact that I was absolutely terrified every waking moment of being found out," he says, "of people discovering that I wasn't who I wanted to be. I had built this wall that I then described in theatrical terms around myself, all kinds of sexual insecurities, huge feelings of shame."

He unloaded everything in this set of songs: his grief over his father, his hatred of England's regimented schools, his frustration with his wife's infidelity, his own dalliances with groupies. In their id-baring frankness, the songs had less in common with, say, Tommy than with one of Waters' favorite albums, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (it may not be coincidental that both that album and The Wall have songs called "Mother"). For good measure, Waters added elements from the life of original Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett, whose combination of drug abuse and mental illness led his bandmates to force him out in 1968. Waters filled that leadership void, pushing what was once an arty cult band to record The Dark Side of the Moon, one of the bestselling albums of all time.

For all the spacey elegance of Floyd's music, Waters was an instinctual songwriter who considered himself a musical primitive – his favorite artists include Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Lennon. "Roger's a folk guy," says Bob Ezrin, who co-produced The Wall. "The music goes where the lyrics take it."

As Waters composed the music, he began lingering on an ominous three-note theme – it's best known as the chorus melody of "Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)" but recurs in multiple contexts throughout the album. He now acknowledges that the tune is a recasting of a riff he wrote a decade earlier, in the 1968 Floyd tune "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" (which, rather eerily, contains the line "Witness the man who raves at the wall?").

Before Pink Floyd recorded a note of The Wall, Waters recruited cartoonist Gerald Scarfe to begin designing the ornately grotesque inflatable puppets and cartoons that would largely define the look and feel of the work. He brought the demos over to Scarfe's house one day. "When he'd finished and he turned the tape off, it was kind of like an awkward silence," Scarfe recalls. "Because anything one would say was inadequate. And I said, 'That's great.' And there was another awkward silence, and Roger says, 'Well, I just feel as though I've pulled my pants down and shit in front of you.'"

Waters is sitting very still, watching a young Gilmour play the celestial guitar solo to the Wall track "Comfortably Numb," perhaps the single greatest Pink Floyd song. The clip, playing on a huge Mac monitor in a video-editing suite, is from long-lost, newly restored footage of the original Wall shows, which fans will no doubt have a chance to buy someday. Waters didn't intend to play this segment. He wanted to see a secondary solo taken by backup guitarist Snowy White, who, unlike Gilmour, will be coming along on the new Wall tour. But Waters takes in every second of the solo, saying only, "That's not Snowy."

There's a lot of competition, but Pink Floyd probably had the single ugliest breakup of any major rock band. Waters came up with the concepts, wrote all the lyrics and a good chunk of the music – as far as he was concerned, he was the band's unequivocal leader. Gilmour wasn't so sure – he had the stronger singing voice, was one of rock's most distinctive guitarists and created plenty of music. "This was mainly about David and I," says Waters. "We had grown in different ways. I didn't want to argue with him about things anymore, and just because we had different opinions about things – musically and politically and philosophically – it became inevitable that it would become combative."

The band began to splinter during the recording of The Wall, as Waters transformed the group into a mere vehicle for his highly personal vision. Floyd collapsed during their follow-up, The Final Cut, which felt like a Waters solo album. Waters left the band in 1985 – and was astonished and then apoplectic when Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason decided to carry on as Pink Floyd. He tried to stop them in court, but they played two monster tours without him, releasing four albums, even as Waters struggled to sell tickets as he toured behind his solo LPs. "He isn't [Pink Floyd]," Waters said of Gilmour in 1987. "If one of us was going to be called Pink Floyd, it's me." They settled, allowing Gilmour and Mason to use the Floyd name but giving Waters sole ownership of The Wall.

By 2005, relations had thawed to the point where Pink Floyd's original lineup (minus Syd Barrett) reunited for a four-song set at Live 8. "I'm so thankful that we managed to do that 18 minutes together, that the four of us got to draw some kind of a line under it," says Waters. "Things have gotten better since then between David and I. We don't see each other socially – he very much lives in the middle of the countryside in England, and I very much live in Manhattan, so our paths don't cross – but a couple of times when we end up being in England, we'll probably have dinner once in a restaurant. But yeah, there's no fussing and fighting going on." Warmer relations with Gilmour mean a great deal to Waters – he's determined not to offend him.

In July, Waters and Gilmour unexpectedly reunited at another, much smaller benefit, performing for 200 people at a fundraiser for Palestinian children in Oxfordshire, England. It was Gilmour's idea, and he promised Waters that if Waters did the gig, he'd show up and play "Comfortably Numb" at one of Waters' Wall shows (London seems a good bet, at least more so than, say, Omaha). Beyond that, Waters can imagine at least one more Pink Floyd performance. "David and Nick and I might do a one-off somewhere, but there's no way we're going to do a tour," he says, suggesting that they might consider a single benefit concert – "like a Live 8 but probably just with us. It's such a shame that we didn't get around to it before Rick died [in 2008]."

Waters and Gilmour probably won't record together again either. Waters bristles slightly at the idea that there was some kind of irreplaceable magic in their collaboration. "Certainly, David had a huge influence on my writing, all that great harmonic and melodic stuff," he says. "But the idea that I'm incapable of creating something with somebody else that can stand up alongside The Wall or Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here, I disagree, and living proof of that is [his 1992 solo album] Amused to Death, because it's extraordinarily beautiful in parts."

Waters doesn't think it matters that he's the only Floyd member on the new Wall tour. "If you look at the program from 1980, the first page says 'The Wall: Written and Directed by Roger Waters, Performed by Pink Floyd,'" he says. "Well, my view is that this piece could be performed by anyone. I just happen to be directing this production and performing in it, same way I did in the other one. But some of the other performers are different."

For this show, he's replaced Gilmour with two separate performers – an L.A. session singer named Robbie Wyckoff handles his vocals, while the virtuosic Dave Kilminster (Waters calls him "the Killer") handles most of his guitar parts. The rest of the band ranges from former SNL bandleader G.E. Smith on guitar and bass to Waters' 33-year-old son, Harry, a jazz musician who has played keyboards with his dad since 2002 (his first contribution to Waters' music was recording the child's voice at the beginning of the Wall track "Goodbye Blue Sky," which will still echo through the arena every night).

The Wall tour, which sold out most of its dates within hours, is the final stage in Waters' reclamation of the Floyd legacy – which began with his first successful solo tour in 1999 and continued with his Dark Side of the Moon outing in 2006. He's finally found a connection with fans – "I'd rediscovered the idea of it being OK to be in an auditorium and accepted something of a love affair between me and the audience" – and escaped his resentment of losing control of the band name. "It's very likely that if I couldn't do these tours, I might still be bitter," says Waters. "People are acknowledging the work that was mine."

Waters is so comfortable being in charge that it's difficult to imagine him as anything other than a solo act. "You can't do something like this democratically," he says. "And that was probably the absolute central reason why I had to part company with David and Rick and Nick. Because it was becoming increasingly uncomfortable for everyone. Really, this is my natural state. This is how I'm happiest. I love working with other people, and I have enormous respect and love for the musicians I'm working with. I want to hear everybody's ideas all the time, but I don't want votes or anything. I feel for writers who work in the film industry – where the producers have all the power and the writer just has to do what they're told, really. I would just go, 'Fuck you! Write your own fucking script!'"

Around the time Waters turned three, in 1946, he started to see other children's fathers return from the war to his hometown of Cambridge. His own father, Eric Fletcher Waters, had died two years earlier in Italy, in the Battle of Anzio, but Roger was unable to process that fact. "My mother told me I said to her, at age three, 'I'm going to go to Italy and get my father in a tractor.' 'You've never seen quite so fierce a little boy as you were,' she told me. She tried to explain that I couldn't go get my father in a tractor. Apparently I looked at her and narrowed my eyes and said, 'In that case, I'm going in a double-decker bus,' and stomped off. Which is kind of funny, but it's very sad, as well."

That loss defined Waters' life in many ways. "I use his heroism almost daily," he says. "Although I don't lead a blameless life by any means, and I'm not always nice to everybody, I'm not claiming to be a fucking saint, but I use my father's heroism as a foundation." As he explains in a poem included in the tour program, he believes his grief connects him to everyone who's suffered a similar loss in a war – which was the key to broadening The Wall's message. The damage Pink suffers from the violence of war stands in for all such damage: At several points, the wall is covered with photographs sent in by fans of loved ones lost in conflict, as requested by Waters on Facebook (he's enamored with the idea of social networking – maybe Pink wouldn't have been so bummed if he'd had Twitter).

Waters knows that lacing a beloved classic-rock artifact with a political message may trouble fans. For the program, he drafted an essay suggesting Christianity, Judaism and Islam are equally invalid: "The time has come to put aside the notion of an omnipotent presence."

"Do you think I can get away with this in a rock & roll program?" he asks with a smile. He ultimately decided the answer was no – and cut the essay.

There are multiple references to Israel's West Bank wall in the show, including a flash of a Star of David at the climax, as voices chant, "Tear down the wall." The animation that plays during "Goodbye Blue Sky" shows planes dropping bombs in the shape of various symbols, from Muslim crescents to the Shell logo; at one point, Jewish stars drop from a plane, followed by dollar signs. When I suggest that the juxtaposition could be construed as anti-Semitic, Waters shrugs it off as unintentional.

"There are huge, huge profits to be made from war, and that, by and large, is why they happen so often," he says. If you get him started on this subject, he enters lecture mode and can go on for quite a while. "This show is unashamedly about all those big questions – and the success of the work I did with Rick and Dave and Nick gives me the power to have a platform. Some people think that people shouldn't use the platforms that they have because of their celebrity or success. I don't subscribe to that view at all, I always loved Hanoi Jane. I love it when Sean Penn comes out and says something or takes part and John Lennon or any of the other people who stood up to be counted... I have the same responsibility to put on this production as Picasso did to paint 'Guernica.'"

Nine days before the tour's September 15th debut, Waters is standing in the middle of an empty arena in New Jersey, looking hard at his partially built wall, which stretches 240 feet across an entire rear of the venue. Suddenly, the lights go out, angry red lights blanket the arena, and a guide track of Pink Floyd playing "In the Flesh?" roars: There's no one onstage, but the show has begun. There's still a lot to do, but as he stands in the reddish darkness, Waters can't help looking pleased.

Rehearsals have been going well. A week earlier, in a studio near Waters' house in the Hamptons, the band made it through nearly the whole second half of the album before hitting any snags: The rhythmic transitions and guitar sounds in "Run Like Hell" proved tricky. "No," Rogers says, gently. "And by no, I mean no." And Waters wasn't quite satisfied with the backup singers' repeated "run, run, run" part: "They should be full-on quarter notes," he says.

As the band watches from folded chairs on the floor, the entire first act unfolds: Puppets – the wicked teacher, the monstrous mother – inflate and stalk the stage, the uncannily bright and vivid video projections turn the wall into one of the world's biggest movie screens, and the barrier itself expands, cardboard brick by cardboard brick, thanks to workmen behind the stage. Not everything is ready: The pyro isn't set up, and a plane prop is lying forlornly in the cheap seats.

The video, which combines spruced-up versions of Scarfe's animation with creative director Sean Evans' new imagery, is projected at a resolution well over that of an Imax screen – the production-studio servers needed up to half an hour to render each frame of animation. The video projection is so precise that the bricks don't light up until they're fully in place.

Each brick is actually a hollow cardboard box, attached to telescoping columns that can be activated by computer, pulling the wall down in a single moment – which should make it easier than in 1980, when Mark Fisher had to manually activate the collapse. "I was condemned forever as the man who had to sit at the back and flip the switches while everyone else stood 'round the front giggling at it," he recalls.

In real life, Waters says, the collapse of his wall was never so dramatic. "It comes down brick by brick," he says. "That's what growing up is. I would suggest it's a dismantling of our wall, brick by brick, and discovering that when we let our defenses down, we become more lovable." Waters is planning his fourth wedding, to his girlfriend of 10 years, Laurie Durning. "I'm not saying I've discarded my wall or walls entirely, but over the years, I've allowed more of it to crumble – and opened myself to the possibility of love," he says.

As the show continues, Waters prowls the arena – with his slightly curved posture and lurching walk, he bears a vague resemblance to one of his puppets. He offers the occasional tweak into a microphone – "Paint that B-3 organ black. Everything has to be black" – but mostly just takes the whole thing in.

The final brick locks in, ending the first act. The musicians applaud, as does Waters. "Well done, the carpenters," he says. A few minutes later, the crew gathers on the arena floor, and Kilminster brings out an acoustic guitar. Today is Waters' 67th birthday, and the tour's singers have a surprise for him: a lushly harmonized version of the Phil Spector oldie "To Know Him, Is to Love Him," which Waters recently performed with Gilmour at their benefit reunion. The lyrics have been tweaked slightly and filled with inside jokes: "For him, we love to sing/Until he changes everything... Just to see him smile/Makes this tour worthwhile."

Waters accepts a gift of a Tabasco T-shirt – he uses the sauce on everything – puts it on over his standard black tee and clears his throat. "Thanks, everyone," he says, sounding choked up for a second, before delivering a pre-tour pep talk. "It's gonna be a piece of piss," he says. "It's the easiest thing in the world. Thank you for everything you've done." He pauses and offers a smile. "Now, back on the stage."

Related
Video: 30 Years of Pink Floyd in 17 Minutes
Roger Waters Bringing the Wall Tour to American Baseball Stadiums
Nick Mason: I Can't Let Go of Pink Floyd
Alan Parsons on 'Dark Side': 'Roger Knew Something Great Was in the Making'
Storm Thorgerson: How I Designed the Cover of 'Dark Side of the Moon'
Erykah Badu, Billy Corgan and More on Legacy of 'Dark Side of the Moon'
Behind the Scenes of Pink Floyd's 2011 Reunion
Inside Pink Floyd: Rolling Stone's 1987 Cover Story
The Madcap Who Named Pink Floyd: Rolling Stone's 1971 Interview with Syd Barrett
The Dark Side of Pink Floyd: The Illustrated History of the Band's Last Days and Bittersweet Reunions
Rolling Stone Readers Pick Their 10 Favorite Pink Floyd Songs
Photos: Roger Waters Rehearses For the Wall Tour
The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Pink Floyd, 'The Dark Side of the Moon'

This story is from the September 30, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1114: September 30, 2010
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