Back from the dark side

Globe And Mail

14 December 2000

By Alan Niester

For ex-Pink Floyd bassist and long-time British rock music veteran Roger Waters, the nineties were pretty much a time of being gone, but not necessarily forgotten.

Gone, because he had not released an album since 1992's Amused To Death, and hadn't toured on this side of the ocean since the late eighties. Not forgotten, because classic Pink Floyd albums of which he was the prime architect, such as the insanely successful Dark Side of the Moon (which spent 741 consecutive weeks on the Billboard album chart) and The Wall,continue to sell in head-scratching amounts and remain staples of classic rock radio.

And while Waters hadn't exactly retired from the rock 'n' roll circus, there was certainly a sense that the frustrations he had encountered over the acrimonious split with the other members of Pink Floyd in 1986 had left him disillusioned enough to become little more than a rock and roll hermit, releasing an album every few years or so before scuttling back to hide in his mansion.

But with the release this week of the album In The Flesh, an aural document of his recent U.S. tour, Waters is, in effect, announcing his return to active duty. Oddly, though, it was a return he'd anticipated for some time.

"It actually began in 1992," admits the 56-year-old Waters, speaking over the telephone from a drizzly London, in a cultured voice that reflects his Cambridge upbringing. "When I was finishing Amused to Death in Los Angeles in 1992, I was asked by Don Henley to take part in his Walden Woods charity project. I had been unclear about what he actually wanted, but he'd said that he wanted me to teach his band a few of my tunes, and in the course of the show to actually do a few of them on stage.

"So, I spent a couple of afternoons with his band, and we had this wonderful evening in the Amphitheatre in Los Angeles. And when I went on stage and started to sing -- Mother I seem to recall it was -- there was this great warmth, this out-pouring of, well, love I guess you'd call it, from the audience. And it was a fantastic feeling, and I think it was in that moment that I decided that at some point I would like to do some more gigs. Unfortunately, it was seven years or so before I finally made it."

In The Flesh, a two-disc set that contains well over two hours of music, covers virtually the whole of Waters's career, going all the way back to Pink Floyd's 1968 A Saucerful of Secrets, and including passages from Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall, Animals and Wish You Were Here,as well as Waters's own solo works, such as The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking and Amused To Death.

It showcases an enthusiastic Waters, playing with a crackerjack band, in front of adoring audiences.

But as Waters grimly noted, the recent tour was a far cry from his previous North American concert dates, in 1988, in support of the Radio K.A.O.S. release (which perhaps understandably was not represented on the new album).

"I had a very unfortunate experience in 1988 touring with that album," he said. "There would only be 1,500 people in 8,000 seat arenas, while the 'other band' [a reference to the Waters-less Floyd featuring guitarist David Gilmour, keyboardist Rick Wright and drummer Nick Mason] were filling up 80,000 seat football stadiums playing some of the same songs. And that was, I'm sure, very good for my soul, but not really very much fun. So, it was beyond everybody's belief that the recent tour did so well."

The success of Waters's recent live dates might have something to do with a new approach he has taken to his audiences. In the notes that accompany In the Flesh,he mentions "reaching out to the audience in new ways." When asked to expand on this statement, he was brutally frank.

"In the aftermath of the Walden Woods concert," he confesses, "I actually found it possible to take more of a risk with the audience, to be more directly there, to expose my need for their love and my enjoyment of the situation in a way that I hadn't felt able to when I was younger. As a young man, I was that guy dressed in black, standing in the corner and scowling, lighting a cigarette and sort of giving out that 'don't come and talk to me' vibe. It wasn't that I thought I was too cool. Actually I was scared shitless . . . of rejection, I suppose. So I would hide away behind this cloak of irony. I was sardonic and witty, but rather sharp with it. But I'm more open now, more trusting of my fellow man, and particularly of audiences that come to hear my songs. Now I feel safe in that environment."

Of course, the acclaim that Waters so thankfully received on the 1999 and 2000 tour dates may have arisen because audiences finally have realized what Waters himself knew all along, that as Floyd's prime lyricist and a major contributor to the melody lines, he was almost solely responsible for the breadth and scope of Pink Floyd's finest works. Pink Floyd albums released after his departure (1987's A Momentary Lapse of Reason and 1994's The Division Bell) simply restated themes that Waters had long established. But even Waters is hard-pressed to explain the lasting popularity of his best-known efforts.

"You know, it's a question that people asked after Dark Side of the Moon had been out for 10 years, and even then nobody really had an answer for it," he said. "I think they were very well made, and the musical content and the way that we produced it derived from an emotional heart that strikes a chord. There was something in the simple directness of the music and the lyrics that was a kind of clarion call for us to recognize our own humanity. These works had resonance for people in their own lives."

As was evidenced by the seven-year gap between Waters's decision to tour again and then actually doing it, the man seems to move at the speed of a glacier. However, the next couple of years promise to bring at least two new Waters projects to light.

First, he said he is half-way through a new conventionally based rock album, one that grew from the themes expressed in the song Each Small Candle, the only new number found on the live album. Second, there is the imminent ("before the end of next year") release of the long gestating Sa Ira, which he describes as a neo-classical operatic work based on the French Revolution. This has been in the works since 1989.

While Ca Ira will first see the light of day as a CD release (with the likes of Bryn Terfel and Paul Gross singing featured roles), Waters hopes some day to do a full stage production, "with costumes and dancers."

"Although," he admits wistfully, "this would depend largely on whether or not an eccentric billionaire were to fall on us from on high."

But with Waters proven track record for big and memorable productions (who could ever forget those giant, floating, inflatable pigs) it would seem unwise to bet against it.

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