When Roger Waters was watching an in-progress cut of his new concert film, Roger Waters The Wall, he realized something in it was missing. Throughout the production, images of people whose lives have been irrevocably changed by war — those who are missing loved ones, those who died while fighting — flash on a giant wall constructed around the band, as it plays Pink Floyd’s landmark 1979 double album.
“I was attaching to all of the people’s fallen loved ones whose pictures we showed on the wall,” he says. The 72-year-old singer-songwriter, dressed casually in a black T, jeans and unlaced shoes, is reclining on a couch in a suite high atop the Sony building in Manhattan. “I realized that there was a bit of my narrative that was sort of missing. So I came up with the idea of making a road trip to my grandfather’s grave and to the memorial to my father. Plus, it will give me an excuse to buy an old Bentley.” He smiles widely and warmly.
With the addition of Waters’ road trip, which takes some surrealistic turns between numbers from The Wall, the film became something more than a typical concert film. While it majestically presents the singer’s stunning production of The Wall, which he performed 219 times between 2010 and 2013, it also conveys the absurdity of war and the loss it has indelibly left on Waters, who breaks down when reading the letter his mother received informing her of his father’s death in World War II in a scene between songs. But when coupled with the concert footage, Roger Waters The Wall is at once moving and hopeful.
“We decided to interweave this narrative as a bit of relief instead of just, ‘Let’s sit here and watch a rock concert in a cinema,’ which always seemed like a bit of a stretch,” Waters says. “I think that the road-movies sequences illuminate the political and humanitarian philosophy behind the whole thing.”
In anticipation of the widespread theatrical release of Roger Waters The Wall, which will screen in cinemas around the world on September 29th, the singer-songwriter met with Rolling Stone for an in-depth interview to discuss what The Wall means to him now as well as his plans for the future.
Has what The Wall means to you changed over the years?
No, not really. The context changes but the story remains the same. If people see this movie, what I hope is that that they may look at one another and go, “You know what? We are a community, and we are many. There are a lot of us.”
The non-concert portions of the film seem very personal to you. It records the first time you visited the beach in Anzio, Italy, where your father died. How is it that this was the first time?
I’ve never tried to visit, because my father’s body was never found. I never really knew the circumstances of his death in any detail.
How did you learn what happened?
We’d been in southern Italy, filming in the memorial garden at Cassino — a lot of people gathered, including a news crew. And some old bloke, a British expat named Harry Shindler living in Italy, saw it on his TV. He went, “I might be able to help that person.” He traces people from the Second World War who are missing and tries to fill in the gaps. He called me and I went, “Well, that’s nice.” Bugger me, if he didn’t find, within the size of this room, he found the spot where he was actually killed.
How did you feel when you first got there?
The bit in the film that is just me looking at the sea, that is actually Anzio Beach. It was very moving to be there, but the whole trip was very moving.
You were moved to tears looking at the letter from Major Harry Witheridge, informing your mother of your father’s death.
I’d only ever looked at that letter once before in my life, about 10 years ago, and I put it where I never looked at it again. And then I gave it to [director] Sean Evans, and said, “I will look at it somewhere over there.” And that’s where we did it. And I’ve never looked at it again.
Did you work with a script for the non-concert scenes?
No, it’s all off the cuff. I knew I was going to have that [Gabriel] Chevallier book, Fear, with me. I’d read it and been very impressed with him. It’s a really well-written book. It’s just his experience during the First World War. But I love that bit from John Berger’s introduction I read out at the gravesite, so I knew I was going to read that because it’s so good: “They are abject.” But apart from that, I had no idea what I was going to say to the kids. We had no idea what we were going to talk about in the car or anything; it’s just what came out.
There’s a disconcerting scene where you’re driving and outside the window, a Nazi shoots a priest in a field. What inspired that?
Martin Scorsese gave me a copy of his documentary, My Voyage to Italy, which is about post-realism in Italian cinema. And I knew the movies; I knew the Paisà and Roma Città Aperta, and obviously Bicycle Thief. But there’s that scene in Roma Città Aperta, where the Catholic priest, Don Pietro, is taken out and they put in front of a firing squad. The Italians won’t shoot him, so the German officer walks over and shoots him in the head. So the scene I shot, I said, “I want to have a nod at Città Aperta. I want a Nazi in a field with a priest and I wanted him to shoot him as we drive by.” I know it sounds a daft idea, but somehow, particularly where it is, alongside the collateral murder footage from Baghdad [in the production of The Wall], it’s pretty intense. It does exactly what I wanted it to do.
How did you feel when you saw the production from the audience’s perspective?
I feel all right. Honestly, I only see me straight on in the mirror, which is my best angle. So you know you go, “Fuck me, who’s that old bloke?” a bit. But you can’t get around 70. But I think that the energy, and the energy of the production and some of the performances as well, and the audience, and the response, is all beautiful. I love it.
Was there any part of the show that was particularly challenging?
Yeah, some of the high notes are difficult. That’s why I can only do two nights in a run. “Run Like Hell” is definitely a tone down. It’s in C now; I used to do it in D. I can’t sing it there anymore.
What was difficult from a performance standpoint?
Parts of the second half. When we started doing the show, I stood on a podium and there was nothing around it. There were steps up to it, and that was it. Sometimes, I would stand there in my “Nazi” gear, doing all my shtick, and I am staring straight into blinding projections. And once or twice I went “uhhh,” and I look down, and with the podium, it was like nine-and-a-half feet to the concrete. So after a while I went, “Guys, I need a hoop of metal bar welded to the back of this fucking thing. ‘Cause I’m not feeling that safe.” I can’t see anything. And you lose balance. My ears are screwed up because of all the noise, so my balance isn’t great, because it’s your inner ear that keeps you upright. So I did have that put on. That was easier after that.
The other thing, of course, doing a show like that three nights a week or four tops, there’s so much adrenaline. What a great drug adrenaline is, except when I got to the end of it. About a week after I had finished it, I went, “Oh, my God, I am fucked.” I was so tired, three years of it.
After the screening of the new Wall movie, you’ll be answering some questions with Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason. How are you two getting along these days?
Great. He was staying with me last week.
And you recently got together with him for a 50th-anniversary commemoration for Pink Floyd at your alma mater in London. What are your most vivid memories of those early days?
Somebody had recommended the new Hendrix documentary, so I watched it on Netflix a few nights ago. I didn’t much like it, I have to say; I found it repetitive. But it’s what they’ve got, you know, so there’s a lot of Monterey and there’s a lot of focus on Monterey. But it made me go back and see if there’s anything out there in Google-land about Hendrix’s first gig in London, which was in October 1st, 1966. The only reason I remember it is because I was still at college then at Regent Street Polytechnic, and we had an end-of-term gig in the Small Hall, which was a little theatre with a proscenium with a curtain across it, and the headliners were Cream. They came on; they opened with “Crossroads.” And he came on and played with them. He’d just arrived the day before, apparently, and in he came on. And he played, and he jammed with them.
I thought he was called “Junior” Hendrix for about three or four months. ‘Cause he hadn’t got the band. There was no band yet. That was before he’d even done the sessions to get Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell. So that reminded me of it, being there.
Pink Floyd toured with Hendrix, too.
Yes, that’s another thing that wasn’t in the documentary. It started on November 3rd or something in 1967 and went till December the 19th. It was about six weeks going all around the U.K., playing in cinemas and little guildhalls and that sort of thing. I remember we used to go stand in the wings and watch Hendrix at the end of the evening, because there was nowhere to go anyway. And he only did 35 minutes. He’d do “Purple Haze”, “Hey Joe” and “Wild Thing.” That was sort of the set.
What was he like to talk to?
Oh, he was lovely. I never felt very close to him. But he discovered at a certain point that I knew a lot about science fiction. I’d read a lot, and he just sort of discovered Theodore Sturgeon and Robert Heinlein and Kurt Vonnegut and Asimov. He was a bit childlike, Jimi. He was kind of innocent. Lovely fellow, as far as I know, the sweetest man. Obviously brilliant.
“We put the radio on and listened to ‘Sgt. Pepper.’ It was pretty revolutionary.”
The sounds like a great tour.
Yeah, it was great. In fact, it was during that tour that we pulled off into a lay-by, turned the engine off in a Zephyr IV, since we traveled in a car — we wouldn’t go in a bus with the rest of them — put the radio on and listened to Sgt. Pepper. They played the whole album on Radio 1, when it came out. I’ll never forget sitting there and going, “Fuck me. Whoa. This is such an amazing album.” Well, we’d heard quite a lot because they were recording, we were in the same studio, at the same time, making our first album. Yeah, it was pretty revolutionary.
You haven’t been in Pink Floyd for 30 years, but David Gilmour recently said that it’s officially done. How do you feel about that?
I think that he’s making the right decision [laughs]. I mean, it’s nothing to do with me; they do what they want. Yeah, except I guess the legacy’s got something to do with me. It’s none of my business. Anything they do, after I left, has absolutely nothing to do with me. It’s none of my business.
Did you listen to their most recent album, The Endless River?
I heard little bits of it.
Did you like it?
No, but that’s — that’s so what. There’s an awful lot of records that I hear that I don’t like.
Getting back to your film, you’ve said The Wall would be your last big tour. Do you still feel that way?
I don’t know. I’d like to do one more if I can. I’ve got this new piece I’m working on, and if I can figure out how to turn that into an arena show, I might go out once more. I think I’ve got one more in me.
You explained that your new work will be a radio play about a grandfather and a kid in Belfast. Previously, you’d said you were working on an album called Heartland. Is this the same thing?
No. Heartland was based around two things. One was a poem that I wrote. It was about America, and it’s called “Heartland.” I wrote it in 2004, when G.W. Bush was reelected. It was about my worries about all of that, but it’s basically saying that in America there is, in the heartland, there is a people who are hospitable, well-meaning, slightly get strayed off-course. But I talk about the idea of neighborhoods coming together and looking after one another, which is sort of a mythology if you like. At the end of this poem I say something about “the young and brave, they need but touches in the old forgotten god to reach the moral high ground in the cloud,” or something like that. So it’s my heartfelt cri de cœur, if you like, to young Americans to eschew Trump’s stupid fucking hat.
Have you abandoned Heartland?
No, that poem might not crop up somewhere.
I thought it was an album.
Well, it was. I’ll tell you what it was. I wrote a song for a crappy movie with John Travolta in it called Michael, which was about an angel. They asked me to write a song for it, and I did. It was a really good song. They didn’t want it, obviously, which I thought was funny.
But I used the word “heartland.” There’s a whole stanza of things at the end of it. “I take the heat out of the sweat lodge of the bold Arapahoe/And the something of the rifle can make this heartland whole.” Or something like that. “Hey, Michelangelo, tell me why’d we kill the buffalo?/Was it for coats, hats and fur-lined shoes, for bloated wool street cats?/Was it to feed the hungry Chinese gangs that laid the railroad tracks?/Oh, Michelangelo.” And it goes on like that for the end. And there’s a bit at the end that goes, “Oh, the man who sold his kid for meat to a broker in Bangkok/And got a color TV and the keys to the executive washroom and a space in the company parking lot./Oh, Michel-ange-lo.” So it’s like that. I don’t know whether that’ll make it ever into a record. Maybe, maybe not.
What else will be part of your radio play?
There’s a lot about my antipathy towards organized religion. And some of it is expressed in similar to that lyric I just sang to you. For instance, there’s a song called “If I Had Been God.” I’ll just tell you, I love the first two verses. It goes, “If I had been God, I would have rearranged the veins in the face to make them more resistant to alcohol and less prone to aging/If I had been God, I would have sired many sons, and I would not have suffered the Romans to kill even one of them./If I had been God, with my staff and my rod, if I had been given the nod, I believe I could have done a better job.” And then it goes, “And if I were a drone, patrolling foreign skies with my electronic eyes for guidance and the element of surprise, I would be afraid to find someone home, maybe a woman at a stove, baking bread or making rice, or just boiling down some bones, if I were a drone./Lay down, Jerusalem, lay your burden down.” That’s how it starts.
When do you think it will come out?
I don’t know. We’ll see. I really feel for the young people. How do you worm your way through the fucking pirates in Spotify and Pandora and that, who just want to steal everything from you? It’s difficult. And you would think butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, the way they talk. “This is sort of public service. This is the right thing to do.” No, it’s not; you’re just stealing. It’s just theft. You’re stealing from the mouths out of the children of musicians who might be prepared to make a living doing this. They pay, like, hundredths of thousandths of a cent for a stream. It’s just ridiculous.
Your music and the Pink Floyd catalogs are on Spotify. You haven’t seen a difference since those went up?
No. I thought of Randy Newman then. You know his great song “My Life Is Good”? My life is busy. You know, I have work to do. I haven’t got time to listen to that debate, you know, it’s very important. And also, they’re so powerful and also because the record companies got it so wrong when this reared its ugly head all those years ago. And they did nothing about it. They didn’t go, well, we’ve got to figure this out so we can represent our artists. All they’ve done is take a chunk of stock from all these people. But they don’t pass it on to the artists, because it’s not written in the contract.
“‘Very interesting,’ is what my mom used to say about my music.”
Getting back to the film, what did your mother think of The Wall, considering it was inspired in part by the absence of your father? Did she like your music?
Yeah. I’m pretty sure that she would have come to The Wall back in 1980. She used to come to the shows. “Very interesting,” is what she would say. “Of course, you know, darling, I’m completely tone deaf. The music means nothing to me at all.” And I’d go, “I know, mom, you’ve told me that, interminably since I was about that tall.” She would occasionally tell me that she’d meet somebody who the music did mean a lot [to], and she would say, “The people take this very seriously.” “Yeah, I know. It’s cool.” “Well done.” She was a big sort of slap-on-the-back, “well done” kind of person. She died when she was 96, two or three Octobers ago.
Did she like the song “Mother”?
We never really talked about it. It wasn’t about her anyways.
One thing I’ve always wondered about “Another Brick in the Wall,” is where on earth did the bit about “If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding” come from. Was that your family?
It’s something that I must have heard somebody at some point admonishing a child to get them to finish their meat. Maybe. It wasn’t my mother. It might have been something that my grandmother — my mother’s mother — might have said sort of as a joke. But I don’t remember anything in my family being forced to eat meat before you could have any pudding. But the character that I slip into, at that point, the mad Scotsman, that would be something that he would espouse, that he’d be firmly behind. This Calvinistic idea that you have to suffer before you can enjoy. And meat was so gristly, or it certainly was where I came from, you only got crap, really. Because it was rationed, and this that and the other. “If you don’t eat your meat…” People often ask me, “Who is that?” And I go, “It’s me, dummy, obviously.”
I just think it’s funny that that line is on the radio all the time to this day.
“How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat? You — yes you behind the bike sheds. Stand still, laddy.” Bike sheds were a big motif always at school. Because that’s where you went to talk about masturbation or girls or to smoke cigarettes. Those were the absolute no-no’s when I was a kid: cigarette smoking and sex.
I don’t think that’s changed too much.
Probably not. Everybody thought there was a big sexual revolution going on in the Sixties. I must say, I don’t remember much of it personally [laughs].
Since we’ve been talking about your life, have you been working on a memoir?
I do write from time to time. I’ve been writing things down since 2011 maybe. The first piece I started writing was called Moving to Cambridge, and it’s just about moving to Cambridge when I was a year and a half old at the end of the Second World War. I keep going back and writing other bits, and I will figure out how to edit them together and turn it into a cohesive piece of work. Unfortunately, I’m not much of an archivist. So a lot of stuff will have gotten lost. What can you do? Either you hoard things or you don’t. And I’d rather be me than be Bill Wyman anyway. I’ve got nothing against Bill, but he’s a hoarder. He’s an archivist. So is Nicky [Mason]. Nicky’s an amazing archivist. He’s meticulous.
He did his book, Inside Out, too.
Yeah, fabulous photos. We were still kind of estranged when he sent me the manuscript. We laugh and laugh about it. Because I sent it back with a big blue line through the whole thing. I just wrote, “Rubbish.” [Laughs] Which is really funny. But it’s a great, it’s a beautiful piece of work. I think it terrific. I love it.