Back there on the 6th was the birthday of Roger Waters, which I seem to have passed over. Well, actually, I thought his b-day was the 9th . . . as Jimi says “if 6 were to turn out to be 9, I don’t mind.”
Anyway, Waters was pretty much on his way to being the main Pink Floyd dude by the time I got interested in the band. The Dark Side of the Moon (1973) was mostly his lyrics and he even sang lead—usually David Gilmour’s job—on the last two tracks. Then he sang the “Crazy Diamond” parts of Wish You Were Here (1975) and sort of became the spokesmen for the “concepts” the band was exploring, especially with the two late Seventies concept albums, Animals (1977) and The Wall (1979).
Throughout all that period it became increasingly obvious what a downer Waters was. Dark Side, in its way, spoke to everyone, even though it was mostly the navel-gazing of rock stars hitting their stride and their doubts at 30. But, back then, it was still possible to look upon rockers as somehow living the life for their listeners. There was a lot of shared narcissism in rock, and a lot of it came from strong identification with the front-man or woman. The Floyd were different because there wasn’t a frontman and the music was the dominant focus. The band seemed just four guys dedicated to creating a range of “sounds”—eerie, trippy, one minute, bluesy, another—or pastoral, or a bit jazzy. They had a range. It was nice.
Dark Side began to change all that by taking shots at the cultural sideshow—of rock and of the press and of the sloganeering of everything from ads to political campaigns. It was a key album of its moment and it made the Floyd all rather rich. Wish You Were Here was a more complex album, in many ways, because it seemed to want to pay tribute to Floyd founder Syd Barrett, while viewing him as a casualty of the very game the Floyd had learned to play so well. With the upshot being that, if one had one’s druthers, one might well prefer a creative catatonia to the world of celebrity. The Wall made that view explicit, as it dragged its listeners through the mordant world of a rock star cracking up, flinging its ire at the educational system, the media, the courts, the post-war world itself (very important to Waters as he lost his dad in WWII). It’s one of the darkest albums in rock, though there are flashes of humor and bits of saving grace. Animals, between Wish You Were Here and The Wall, is where Waters started to become more venomous. That was fitting though as it was the year of punk and it didn’t seem out of place for a band whose music had seemed often so whimsical and inward to go suddenly for the throat. To me, it remains the band’s best rock album.
|Waters, Wright, Gilmour, Mason|
But where to go after The Wall? It could be said—especially with Richard Wright no longer participating after the tour—that Pink Floyd, as it had been, was over. It might have gone on except that Gilmour also was less than enthused about Waters’ direction. And yet Waters, to give him credit, was coming up with rock opera-style compositions, highly theatrical and, on record, full of interesting sound effects (which Pink Floyd music has always made pronounced use of) and cinematic touches. There’s nothing quite like The Wall as a story album, as a movie for your ears. And the film is rather less inspired, having to find visuals that will serve and mostly failing. If anything, the pleasure of listening is distorted by the burden of watching.
The Final Cut, released in April of 1983, is the end of the road. Thereafter Pink Floyd recordings would not include Roger Waters, but it’s rather more accurate to say that The Final Cut is a Waters solo album, made with some participation from Gilmour, guitar—and what amounts to a “guest vocal” on “Not Now John”—and Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, minimal. And as an expression of Waters’ vision of where things stand the album is telling. On the one hand, it makes use of material that was intended for The Wall, and so the “strung out to the point of psychosis” colorings—the dominant mood of The Wall—pertains. The near-suicidal condition of the rock star character—called in the film “Pink”—continues and is given its best expression in today’s song, the title track.
Waters, with his odd glee at the awfulness of his conception, gives us a figure who has retreated into seclusion; worse, to see him you have to get past “the minefield in the drive / And beat the dogs and cheat the cold / Electronic eyes / And if you make it past the shotguns in the hall” to “dial the combination” to his priesthole, he may communicate. At that point he shifts to “time was” imagery less inspired than the verses about “when I was a child I had a fever” in “Comfortably Numb” but in a similar register: “There’s a kid who had a big hallucination / Making love to the girls in magazines”—as if such adolescent thrills spell out antisocial tendencies. The point, though, is that we’re dealing with narcissism as the basis for “the career.” “He wonders if you’re sleeping / With your newfound faith / Could anybody love him / Or is it just a crazy dream?” It’s bathetic, soaked in both self-love and self-hatred. And in that sense, real enough. One feels like one has entered a realm of actual manic depression, so that the questions about showing “my dark side” start to take on personal valence. Much of The Wall’s portrayal of Pink centered on his inability to sustain adult relations with a woman, but also showed him as betrayed by a wife left to her own devices at home.
Here, the fear of this “castrating female” (if you like) is directly addressed: if he shows his dark side what will she do? “Sell your story to Rolling Stone / Take the children away / And leave me alone / And smile in reassurance / As you whisper down the phone?” Self-pity? Certainly. But surely there is psychic cost when you can’t trust people because of what they may choose to tell the press about you later. (And that’s a classic late-Floyd guitar solo there from Gilmour.)
In the end, the speaker—in that shrieking bellow that Waters patented on The Wall—considers “thought I oughta bear my naked feelings / Thought I oughta tear the curtain down”; a gesture that might be toward suicide (“I held the blade in trembling hands”) but could also be toward slicing through the façade. A bit like Cohen’s “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” in that regard. You may wish to kill yourself but what you really want to kill is the imago—the image of yourself that you can no longer stand to live with.
“Just then the phone rang / I never had the nerve to make the final cut.” A telling last line—the final cut of death is prevented, but also the final cutting off from others, from the social world. It reminds me a bit of the end of Eliot’s “Prufrock”—“Till human voices wake us, and we drown.” The voice on the phone brings him back to lived reality—rather than the reality solely in his head—and, rather than drown (or wallow further in his misery), he seems to take the call. The next song—in Gilmour’s voice—opens with the rousing, “fuck all that, we’ve got to get on with this.” A dark night of the soul has been weathered again.
Waters is the man who, in an early Pink Floyd song, penned the line “if I was a good man, I’d understand the spaces between friends” and “I’d talk to you more often than I do.” Even then the isolating aspects of “the life” were apparent. It’s hard to be good, in that sense. But few—in this world of popular music—have been so good at making self-laceration an art form.
I can barely define the shape of this moment in time