A-Tribute to Roger Waters (of Pink Floyd)

I have long been convinced, from my narrow experience, of the excellence of Pink Floyd, one especially indebted to its lead songwriter and lyricist, Roger Waters. Great bands and solo acts there have been, such as the Stones and Beatles, Yardbirds, Mott the Hoople, Love, Kinks, Traffic, Dylan, the Band, early R.E.M., U2, … the list can go on. Of the great bands, one stands out head and shoulders above the rest, though awkwardly so.

Nothing in pop music compares to the greatest moments of Floyd, to songs such as Us and Them, Shine on You Crazy Diamond, Dogs, Hey You, Them Three Bricks, Mother, Comfortably Numb, and above all Brain Damage and Eclipse. The lyrics are transcendent and penetrating, timeless and relevant.

Again from my narrow inexperience, I find the music of Pink Floyd to be the most complex and subtle in pop music. Listen, listen again: Suddenly, a soft note from the piano is heard. Perfectly placed. Why hadn’t I heard it before? In writing this article, I only now heard what seems to be a bassoon quite early in the calm of Is There Anybody Out There, before the violins come in. Or is it just the cello sounding like a bassoon? It could have been a bassoon! (A cello does come, with violins.)

And then there are the chord sequences. The marvelous instrumentals. The soothing, enchanting voice of Gilmour, echoing back or answering the harsh yell or stark talk of Waters. (I’ll grant that Waters once sang well.) The light and the dark. The melodious and the tense, buildup and release. The real.

My first experience with Floyd was, surprise, at night. No drugs. You don’t need drugs to enjoy Floyd. (Comfortably numb is a critique, in its occasional cause, in its lyrics, and in its dramatic enactment.) At any rate, I was falling asleep. I had my Walkman and decided to play a tape my uncle gave me to use as a blank tape. I saw the title “Pink Floyd” and decided to give it a go. I was probably fifteen, but maybe fourteen. As I lay in bed, looking nowhere, I drifted through Breathe and On the Run, somewhat attentively but mostly dreamily. Then I heard the ticking of clocks. I quite enjoyed it but the sound was quite like background music. The alarms gave me a bit of a jolt. But what struck a chord was the bass, following the intriguing drums, the bass against the drums. Simple and profound. Developing. Or was it Unfolding? The keyboards laying an ethereal foundation and rising above it. The bass striking, again but lower, again now higher. Elegant simplicity or subtle complexity. The marvelous timing. The rests. Then the shift to a new key; it had to be. If what I say mocks the ears of the trained critic, I have claimed my ignorance, but with one solitary note I caught a glimpse of a new key, out of the corner of my eye. The keyboards have been lightly suspending the music, and now the piano joins in. Bass returns to original key, with just one note, piano continues. The drums ready, and then the vocals.

My first run through I was completely mesmerized in that introduction.

The vocals came in like a cruel wakeup. I wanted to go back, back to the bass, the drums, and keyboard – with that piano’s few brilliant notes, back home. Yes, I wanted to go back home to where it was warm; these old bones were dying under the cold sun of the lyrics. But I could go back home, unlike men in real life, so I did. I rewound the tape. A few times I think. But at some point I had to go through the whole song and face those vocals. As with many a song of Floyd, the harsh vocals were offset by soothing refrains. And the female vocalists, I think they had to be black – marvelous! Throughout this first visit to this strange land, the lyrics grabbed me. The song called me back for more. I gave it another dig and found the whole a marvel. This was the end of the old ways for me. The end of the old ways.

Back then, I hadn’t known what to go for in life. A strong urge to fly, but nowhere to fly to. The only thing that seemed to propose itself was to make money. I hadn’t done much reading. Didn’t like to. Math was my bag, and science. “Ticking away the moments that make up the dull day.” That was me. That was my friends, sitting on small front stoops of houses, in the stinging sun, tired of the video-games, wondering what to do. Go to someone else’s house. Kick around on another ground of stoop. The TV full of it. No rain to wait for.

Then this Floyd thing intruded itself into my life. I began to pick up books and read. I tried my hand at poetry.

Each of us, no matter how duped, each of us hears something of the real in our heart, no matter what courses we have taken or darkly laid plans followed. It does stick, it can stick, no matter how sad and desperate our teachers and parents are over us. “It” being a right word. “No one told you when to run; you missed the starting gun.” “Yes,” I said, “that’s me. I’m missing it right now. No point. No way. Where’s that home? What’s this dream placed within me?”

I suppose I began to live the reflective life at that point. Not that Socrates would be proud, nor Waters for that matter. At least, I began to search for the reflective life. That’s something. I dove more and more into this album, the Dark Side of the Moon. I still consider it the greatest album of pop music. Not that this excludes anything else from beauty. The album is perfectly balanced. The songwriting is well distributed across the members of the band. Songs that don’t have the immediate grab, songs that perhaps don’t have an independent excellence, go together integrally to form this statement, this experience. I wrote “statement,” but its message is not heavy handed. It sings still and doesn’t preach. It sounds the pith and marrow of man: “For want of the price of tea and a slice, the old man died.” How much more tasteful than Aqualung! (Good song, disgusting lyrics.)

From Dark Side I turned to the Wall. A challenge and a reward. It remained so for a long time, challenging and rewarding. A marvelous metaphor. Brilliant songs, especially on the first and third sides, and not just the remembered ones. But who can forget Goodbye Blue Sky and the reprise of In the Flesh? And the surprising harmonies of The Show Must Go On. Was that a nod to the barbershop at the end? Sure, the fourth side doesn’t get airplay but it is chock full of rock’s finest operatic moments. All one can ask afterwards is, “Tommy Who?”

Though seated prominently on the fourth side, operatic beauty runs throughout the whole album. Am I alone in hearing French horns in Comfortably numb, dimly behind the strings, taking the refrains up two notes? (They could have been French horns!) I went on from there to Wish You Were Here and Animals. Those took quite a bit of getting used to. I later came to find Shine On and Dogs to be among the best of the Floyd repertoire. I have never much liked Have a Cigar, and Welcome to the Machine has weak moments. The cigar was too heavy handed, though the joke is nice.

I do believe what would have worked better, a possible past of Floyd, would have been for Waters to have allowed Gilmour’s melodious voice to lead more frequently. The Waters takeover, evident in the Wall and blatant in The Final Cut, began to dampen the music in The Final Cut, which at the same time in other respects reaches new heights. Gilmour is quite right about the dampening. The few contributions he, Wright and Mason would have been able to make would have enhanced even the Wall and would have brought balance and melody to the Final Cut. Waters can no longer sing lead. Unless he disciplines himself to a harsh verse or unstrained verse, answering or echoing Gilmour or another fine singer. Their reciprocity in Waiting for the Worms, Mother, Comfortably Numb, and so many other musically fine tracks, there harmony in Goodbye Blue Sky — these were the ingredients for greatness. And not just these two. Us and Them is the most elegant of their songs, written by Waters and Wright but sung by Gilmour and Wright. Those were the days. 

It seemed to me that Waters’ fall from singing melodiously affects his work, at least since Radio K.A.O.S. Even the writing seems to constrict itself to the narrowing vocal range. The beautiful counterparts cannot offset the harsher moments as well. But the lyrics sung are the stuff of pop music! It’s ok for a singer to preach a little, perhaps to a clarinet for a minute or so. That may be enough! Waters’ later music I have left too untried. Saw him in 88 or 87 in Chicago. Could a Gilmour still sing for him, and play the magical guitar, like ballast on a great balloon keeping things on the ground, Waters could have soared without drifting off somewhat. Ballast and balloon. Maybe that’s it. A kite can’t fly without someone on the ground.

I miss the trademark Floyd harmony with Waters backing Gilmour. The trademark harmony is, well, … I think it’s nice.

Lately, Gilmour has fashioned himself a multi-instrumentalist. And so he is! As he rules the guitar without an air of superiority, even loving it as a woodworker does his chisels, making it sing like no one has or probably ever will, so he plays the Saxophone with significant grace. As for his guitar work, it may be cliché to say, but it is true: It is unparalleled in all of pop music. I take the hat off to Jimi, without question. Little Wing is elegant. Still, Hendrix’s guitar sang only a few times. Are You Experienced is among the high points. By contrast, Gilmour’s sang every time he played. The solo at the end of Comfortably Numb is simply unbelievable. But so are the quietly played arpeggios, if that’s what you call them, in Eclipse. And there are never mentioned moments, such as the solo in the middle of Hey You. Hey You is a remarkable song.

The great Floyd music all came together. That’s just it! It was a symphony, the many singing as one. Together they stood. Divided they fell.

 

But there is something more tragic than the end of an era. It is the lack of vision in a great man grown old.

For some time, Waters has been engaging in politics. In doing so, and in his various interviews, he has proved to me what I long suspected: he is a man of remarkable intelligence. Poetic. Quick-witted. Insightful. Tenacious. Keen. Eloquent. What has surprised me, being all heavy-hearted with the serious world of Floyd, is how he seems to be light-hearted, at least until a journalist digs where Waters thinks he shouldn’t.

The tragedy is with Waters’ hope, or lack thereof. In what does Waters hope? In whom does he hope? He mentions God at every one of his turns. Think of the following prominent poetic moments: “acolyte” and “breaking bread and mending nets” and “softly spoken magic spell” and “tell me true, tell me why, was Jesus crucified?” and “the cold and religious” and “grace and pride” and “heaven from hell” and “What God wants.” In the movie The Wall, a climactic moment is the wall’s expansion unto the destruction of a church. In an interview with Stern, he admits that he has been blessed and says that “you cannot dictate” things like talent and inspiration.

Does he follow out these clues, does he read the image on the faded mirror, the trace that tells of the original? Does he read the vision in the higher room? I have not found him do so. Waters plays with deeply religious images, yet he wants to mount a rebellion against God and “make [his] eyes water.”

Waters’ knowledge of Christianity, for all its familiarity with images and creedal moments, seems deeply flawed. I need a whole evening meal, drawn out over cigars and wine, to speak of this in a manner that is right. His compass wants healing because it has no North Star. He has the bits and pieces, various scribbled messages from his mixed heritage of Marxism and Christianity, but he has not the soul of religion, of True Religion. He has alighted on the need for relationship. This comes through in interviews of late. The Floyd era or aura had been rather solitary, seeing another’s motions and not hearing their meaning, seeing signs on the horizon but not reading them for the signified, being overwhelmed by deep sentiment. It touched me at an opportune time for me, but it did not lead me forward. It woke me from my slumber but shone no light by which to Live. How could I recommend it to another?

Waters says now, “It’s not Us and Them, it’s only Us.”

There is much truth in this. Our bombs are dropped almost solely without reason. Surely money is a large root of this evil, but they’re giving it away to the bombs not the people. I agree that our sundry wars of late are pointless interferences causing the ‘inevitability’ of more wars.

Still, if you’re not with Waters, you are to him the “Them”. 

The notion that there is no enemy is enemy to anyone who says there is an enemy. So does that make me the only one with enemies? No, for it is also vice versa: Those who say there is an enemy are Waters’ enemies. If Waters can rise from his chair, availing himself of the usual expletive, “What the f….” when a Stern or a this or a that interview him, he shows the rage he says is dead still lives.

A moment later, the same Waters can calm down and even break into tears as he relates how a veteran, about the age his father would have been had he not been taken, said his father would be proud of him.

Roger Waters is a deep man, a great man. But he remains deeply flawed. At the moment, tragically so. Not by nature or other man’s craft, much less by divine malice. I would be wrong to venture any why. I only indicate that.

How a man finds Ultimate Fault gives you the mark of the man. Waters killed God (read “Sheep” on Animals). God, however, sent his Son as Lamb and each day aims to wash the filth from us as we rage against Him. Waters thinks human heartfelt sentiment can bind up the wounds and carry us home, make us one, make man a living temple. Home. I too want to go home. But where is it? We may well have been guilty all this time. Not totally guilty, of course. That was Luther’s idea. Not totally guilty, but not lightly either.

There are I suppose four broad ways of marking the fault. First, one can fail to mark it. One has all one needs, one dreams easily of buying a football team. No guilt to speak of. Nietzsche’s great man. Second, one can mark the guilt without distinction, spreading it over all finite things before the Infinite Tyranny. Here, the healing is to be told to feel good, although one must remain really bad. This is Nietzsche’s sick man. He proposes him as Paul, but it is really Luther. Third, one can mark guilt well, in the heart’s deep abyss that took its quick turn from one deeper still. Here, guilt lies in what freely comes out wrong of the heart made right. Here, the healing is to be shown and to be made good, a goodness deeper than the sentiment.

There is a fourth way that often mimics the third. One finds guilt in the heart and in decisions. However, one marks its darkness and its what against the compass of one’s own clever wit, measured by the five senses. All that you touch, all that you see, all that you taste, all you feel.

What else can you love? What is the real anchor here? What the basis of unity? The fourth way may be the most dangerous. It is the way of Lennon’s “Imagine,” a way that abolishes truth by abolishing the negation of falsehood. In the abolition of truth, there is the abolition of religion, real religion. The end of the fourth way of marking fault is to trace back fault to the very act of Creation: “You! Yes, You! You put me here! You wronged me!” In the end, Freud leads one to accuse God. I have been abandoned. That is the reason for fault, not my own wicked heart. This fourth way is the rebellion of the Enlightenment and of the French Revolution. The fourth way is not lazy, as is the first way. The fourth way rightly rejects the second way. However, the fourth way either misses or blinds itself to the third way. Fearful of truth as though love of truth is a bully’s weapon, this is also a path of convoluted sickness.

It is no surprise to me now that Waters pokes at the eye of things Catholic in praise of one of the most hideous and hypocritical revolutions ever in his one Opera. (I remember thinking in 1988 that he should write one.) Poke around at that revolution a little more, and Waters might find that the fighting was all about property. Not about its distribution so as to create fraternity, but about its confiscation by the new aristocrats. Poke around at the prior tragic war, the 30 years’ war, and he might find that it was really not religious but political. Power was what the fighting was all about. The narratives that the 30 years’ war was all about religion are false deceptions meant precisely to stab the neck of all religion and bring it bleedingly down, so that man might rise up in the wake of its tide. And what a row of wars this great murder of religion has unleashed! Revolution after revolution. Stalin and Hitler. Mao. Hiroshima. Dresden.

In that 30 Years’ War, Catholics killed Catholics. Protestants killed Protestants. Catholics allied with Protestants. And Protestants with Catholics, and each set of allies fought another set. Were there murders in the name of religion? No question. What was the fighting all about? Power and land were what that war was about, while the mere dress of religion was used as tool when useful.

Augustine, lusty bright man that he was, who lived with two women and had several more, heard a young voice “Take it up and read.” He took up St. Paul and found a way Home and happiness. I heard Waters’ lyrics. I took it up and read. I left lame hopes to make it big with money. Shallow hopes have not all left me, but I find no rest in them.

At some point, however, I had to ask: “To what home is this Floyd ushering me? What is their haven? Whither the siren’s song?” They piped me a dirge, and I wept. (“Great Dance Songs” was a joke.) But their dawn races its way to dusk, though you run like hell to catch it.

Waters does not see the dawn whose East Rises with Ah, Bright Wings. Nor does he spy the starry sky but for its black holes, nor has he really heard the tolling of the iron bell, so as to fall to his knees to worship the Lamb slaughtered by the world’s malice, slaughtered by hopes badly mapped. There are those for whom the quest for Truth is an annoyance, even if they mask it by overtly bleeding hearts unprincipled in prudence. Even for these, too much insistence on truth evokes not only “What is Truth?” but even, “Out of the way, it’s a busy day; I’ve got things on my mind.”

I found my way to pursuit of the question of truth. Or rather, Truth found its way to get me to question it, really to question it. A real question is an intimate thing, not a Trial by an accusatory Judge. A real question leads towards union. If Waters’ critique of US policy is often not off target, his vision has not reached high enough. The stakes are far higher, the fault runs much deeper, and the solution far costlier and easier.

 

There are waters that slake great thirst without price, living waters above the cloud bursts, ones that follow the signs and save from the damn. I hope Mr. Waters finds them before the old man dies. Don’t tell me there’s no hope at all.

The healing of these waters binds up possible pasts, no longer to be pined for. It is the real, where life dwells towards really possible futures. The impossible can never be, and possible pasts lay cast in this lot.

Perhaps it may be unlikable to turn to a woman as example at this point, but I must. (I am Catholic, after all.) I turn to Elizabeth A. Seton, who lost her father early in life. Yes, she was fatherless, too. She found in her want another, much greater. She could neither touch him nor see him in the usual way. But if for some, a word from a stranger is enough to draw forth tears, perhaps a Word from a Father whose hug is stronger than death, a Word in the flesh, which some have touched, some have seen, and some still make known to ears unplugged by the din of the second (diseased) path, ears open unlike the first dead path, a Word unbought, perhaps such a Word can bind up the possible pasts into the Real Present. Love’s hurt has its End.

We lamb cutlets are not. Let not poetry dominate a mere metaphor, to mislead you away from the Shepherd’s real intentions. To read Truth, you must wait for her. She is your Last Refuge. Love’s End is Real. Lift high your gates, and stretch the canvass of your heart, O Mad Bugger.