"Tonight will be the first time since 79 A.D. that there's been an audience watching something here," David Gilmour jokes about returning to Pompeii, referencing the devastating volcano eruption that turned much of this part of Italy to ash in the first century. "And there were gladiators, I guess, but the history of it all is something that has crossed our minds."
Tonight, Gilmour is staging the first-ever rock concert for an audience in the stone, Roman amphitheater, which was built in 90 B.C. Forty-five years ago, as a member of Pink Floyd, he performed a special show – to an empty venue – which was chronicled in the 1972 film Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii. His return is something he's been awaiting for a long time.
"It's a fantastic building," he tells Rolling Stone backstage, seated next to his wife and sometime lyricist, novelist and journalist Polly Samson. "It's an extraordinary place to be because it was preserved exactly as it was. There are many other sites. If you visit any other antiquity-type sites throughout the world, they're very damaged with what's gone on over the centuries since they were abandoned. But this one was just, like, sealed, so you're looking at rock surfaces and the carving of letters and names in the stones looks like it was done yesterday." History, it seems, is fluid.
How has it felt so far returning to Pompeii?
David Gilmour: It's a magical place. I was slightly overwhelmed yesterday when we came here for the first time. We came back here about 10 years ago, with our kids, to show them around the arena. And they were rocking around in there. But coming back yesterday and seeing the stage and everything, it was quite overwhelming really. It's a place of ghosts … in a friendly way.
Is it a similar feeling to 1971?
Gilmour: No. We're going to do a full show. There's an audience. The pressure's on. Back then, we probably played some of the songs several times. We were filming, which meant you could take it once, stop, set up again and do it again.
Polly Samson: I presume you had right of veto over the music.
Gilmour: I don't even know if we did. We mixed the sounds ourselves. If they were going to put the sound back onto our film, we wanted to mix it ourselves. So we had the control over making sure the sound was pretty good. Mind you, we had to record on an eight-track recorder, which is tricky, with a full band playing.
What are your most vivid memories from filming here?
Gilmour: I remember Adrian [Maben, director] had lots of problems with red tape and dealing with stuff. I think we lost two or three days. Maybe those were the days we had to walk around the summit of Vesuvius, and we went around to the sulfur pits where the ground is bubbling. It's near here. It's fantastic.
We were just getting on with it. It was very hot. I had to take my shirt off, it was so hot. We had to do some recuts of songs in Paris for continuity, and they tried to convince me that I wouldn't notice in the final thing.
Samson: But the continuity was rubbish. Rick had a beard in one scene and not in the other. Not that you were conning them.
Gilmour: Yeah, we definitely conned them in.
There's an exhibition in the back of the amphitheater that shows photographs and presents a history of Pink Floyd at Pompeii, and it's billed as "Rock's Wackiest Idea." Do you remember your initial reaction to the idea of making the film?
Gilmour: Adrian Maben came to us with the idea. And we just thought, "Well, why not?" I don't think any of us thought it would be as well received and last in people's minds for as long as it did. All credit to him. It's his idea and it was great.
When is the last time you watched the film? Has it been family viewing?
Gilmour: I meant to watch it on the run up to this but I didn't get to it. I haven't watched it in years. I find it excruciating.
Samson: I can remember trying to watch it with you and you just go, "Ugh."
Gilmour: All the interview stuff and the bits and pieces of stuff we wrote, I know there's a lot of other footage that got lost. Some of it was apparently burned.
The thing that strikes me from watching it again is just how into noise you all were at the time.
Gilmour: Yes, we were very much more experimental in those days. For me, gradually over the years, you refined your tastes in the way you do things and it becomes maybe less experimental. I think I'm still trying to be experimental on everything I ever do, but it's not as obviously way-out and experimental as what we were doing in those days. I can remember a lot of nights performing in those early years where you felt that you hit some good moments, but a lot of the time you're thinking, "Oh, God, this isn't quite making it." So I think that is what makes you in the end refine your view of things a little bit.
You recently brought "One of These Days," one of the experimental songs from the Pompeii film, back into the set. How has it felt to revisit that one?
Gilmour: Well, that's Meddle, isn't it? It's great fun to do. We're doing that tonight.
When this Pompeii show was announced, there was talk of incorporating songs from the Pompeii film into the set list tonight. Are you doing any of the others?
Gilmour: We're certainly not doing "Echoes." We're trying to do things that are more or less that time into the set tonight to give it more of a Seventies feel. But I am working on current material, a new album, and that is all still my main motivation of going out and working. We haven't gotten rid of all the new stuff in favor of the old.
How did you feel when you walked in here to do this concert?
Well, now you're an honorary Pompeii citizen.
Gilmour: Oh, that was a zoo.
How have you been enjoying this tour as a whole?
Gilmour: It's been great. God knows when we'll do it again. Setting out to find the nice, beautiful, classic venues has been fun. Those are few and far between in the States. We came to Radio City. It's a nice room, and you can see the difference. My objective is to find beautiful places. I am enjoying this one, but I think this will be enough for a while. I don't live my life on the road. I'm getting on a bit and there's a lot of other things in my life. Our lovely children and their lives. It's more of a part-time business these days.
Did you bring your children to this show?
Gilmour: We've got a 21-year-old and a 19-year-old here with us at the moment, and they're really enjoying themselves. My son Joe got up onstage a little while ago during soundcheck and pretended to be me with the shirt off and the strap. [Both laugh.]
What was it like turning around and seeing that?
Gilmour: It was shocking [laughs]. He wanted to get a gig and we didn't have one.
How does it strike you to come back and do this as a solo artist?
Gilmour: [Pauses] It's hard to say. Being a solo artist is what I do. It's what I've been doing for the last 20 years and a bit before then. I can't remember really what it's like to do it within Pink Floyd. In my mind, that's a thing of the past.
Samson: But it would be lovely if Rick was here.
Gilmour: Yes, it would be.
Samson: In a way, I think that's one of the ghosts. When you're here you become really aware of the absence of Rick. And the fact that you can't play "Echoes."
Gilmour: Yes, it would be lovely to play "Echoes" here, but I wouldn't do that without Rick. There's something that's specifically so individual about the way that Rick and I play in that, that you can't get someone to learn it and do it just like that. That's not what music's about.
David Gilmour played Pompeii for the first time since Pink Floyd shot their 1972 concert film.