WASHINGTON — He bent the arc of music history like a colorful ray refracted through a prism.
But nothing has brought Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters more joy than helping wounded vets.
“It’s the most rewarding work I’ve ever done,” Waters tells WTOP.
“I think the program is a wonderful, wonderful program,” Waters says. “We’re trying to raise money so that the program, Music Corps, can spread through other veteran communities across the United States and hopefully eventually across the world because we are all brothers, after all.”
The 72-year-old British rock legend first became involved with helping U.S. military vets five years ago at New York’s “Stand Up For Heroes” event. He was invited there by founders Leigh and Bob Woodruff, the U.S. journalist who was critically wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006.
“One year, they said to me, would I go along and meet some of the veterans at a cocktail party at the Natural History Museum, and I said, ‘Yes, of course I will,'” Waters says.
There, he came across U.S. Marine LCpl. Juan Dominguez sitting in a wheelchair after losing both legs and one arm after stepping on an I.E.D. in Iraq.
“After we’d been talking for a minute or two, I could see in his eyes that it suddenly dawned on him who I was,” Waters says. “He went, ‘You’re, you’re,’ and I went, ‘Yeah,’ and he went, ‘Wow! I play the guitar!’ I look at him and thought, ‘This is a stretch. How do you play a guitar with one arm?’ And he went, ‘Ahh. Well, I used to play guitar. … Now I play the drums!’ And that’s how it started.”
After that, a light bulb went off in Waters’ head.
“I called them back and I said, ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea. … What if I go to Walter Reed and meet up with these guys?’ I had heard on the grapevine that there was a program there with a guy doing rehabilitation work using the learning of musical instruments as therapy. I said, ‘What if I go down there and we put together a band with these guys and we’ll do a set?'”
So, Waters began regularly visiting Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Rockville, Maryland, where he met Music Corps founder Arthur Bloom.
Seven or eight members of the Music Corps Band will join Waters on stage Friday, along with Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine.
“With people in rock ‘n roll or the music industry, they’re pretty busy and they get booked up a long time in advance and many of them weren’t available. But these guys were and they jumped on it and said ‘we’d love to do it,'” Waters says. “Everybody who joins in with this thing becomes part of the Music Corps Band, so although some of us are professional musicians, we become part of their band.”
The set list includes a lot of Pink Floyd, but also a number of uplifting standards, including Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” and John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
“Before we did ‘Imagine,’ I went to the men and women and said, ‘Are you guys cool with doing this song?’ Because it’s John Lennon and it’s very pointed in its political and philosophical attitudes, and they all just went, ‘Absolutely.’ Which is not to say that their political affiliations might have anything to do with that, but they recognized that it’s a beautiful song this is actually about love. … When we did it, I sang it. When we do it on Friday, Tom Morello will sing it. I can’t wait!”
Sheryl Crow, who cannot make it live, visited D.C. on Sunday Oct. 4 to film a performance with the vets singing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which Waters expects will be “stunning.”
“They’re uplifting songs about the potential that we have to (A) help one another, (B) to heal one another, and (C) possibly, in the long run, change the way the world is organized so we don’t have to be dealing with these problems,” Waters says.
In a way, Waters has been singing about this hope his entire career, disguised in a serious of psychedelic and metaphysical songs that can be carefully unraveled with utmost profundity.
WTOP wrapped the interview with a rapid-fire Q&A about the band’s most famous lyrics, sparking some honest, colorful and politically charged responses. What else do you expect from Waters?
Q&A with Roger Waters
“Wish You Were Here,” after all these years, do you prefer a green field or a cold steel rail?
I’m a bit of a green field guy, personally.
Are you getting better at telling the difference between a smile and a veil?
I think I am! That’s a very good, serious question. Yeah, I absolutely am. This is one of the few good things about getting old. I do believe that the possibility exists that we get wiser as we get older, and we get better at spotting those things.
You mentioned older, but let’s go back to when you were a child in “Comfortably Numb.” Did you really ever have a fever with hands like two balloons? Was that an actual incident?
Yes. That’s just description of having a very high fever, probably 106 (degrees) or something, when my tiny brain was kind of boiling, and yes, I did have those illusions. Also, I’ll tell you this — this is an anecdote that very few people know — at some point in the mid ’70s, probably during the making of the record “Wish You Were Here,” I was in the Cantina Abbey Road one day talking to the band, and suddenly, everything looked as if I was looking at it the wrong way through a pair of binoculars. And I thought to myself, f**k me! This is what having a nervous breakdown must feel like. Now I get what it must’ve been like to have be Syd (Barrett) and hearing voices or whatever. Reality suddenly turns into something plastic that you have no control of and it’s not right, and you know it’s not right.
So I got up and I made my way up the stairs, I sat down at a piano in Studio 3, Abbey Road, and started playing the piano with my eyes shut, and I played for a bit, and I played for a bit, and I opened my eyes occasionally, and within about five minutes, everything came back into normal focus. You brought up “Comfortably Numb.” (The chorus lyrics) “There is no pain you are receding” is actually a reference to that moment, which is the closest I’ve ever come to thinking I’ve gone mad.
In “Money,” you said in the song that it’s the root of all evil. Do you still think it is today?
It’s not money. Money is the device. It’s the love of money. And I would expand that to the love of power. The love of money and power are the twin roots of all evil.
That kind of relates to your line in “Have a Cigar.” Has riding the gravy train become the name of the game for too many people?
Maybe. I’m not here to criticize people. Whatever. We all make choices in life and some of us make choices that have more to do with the bottom line than others of us, I like to say.
Which brings us to “Hey You” when you say, “Together we stand, divided we fall.” How does that message still apply today?
You’ve almost made me go lump in the throat because my friend who I’ve never met, Shaker Aamer, has been told, four days ago he was told that in 30 days time, he’ll be released from Guantanamo. I know this man because of a letter to his lawyer, who’s a wonderful advocate for those incarcerated without trial … He’s been incarcerated in Guantanamo for 13 years and as far as we know … he’s entirely innocent of any crime … He said the lyrics to “Hey You,” which he never hears because he’s not allowed recorded music, but he’s got the lyrics in his head and he keeps them there and he repeats them to himself, are one of the mechanisms he uses to keep himself sane in that predicament.
That kind of leads us to “Time” a bit. When you’re locked up, there’s a lot of moments ticking away that make up a dull day. What’s that for you? Obviously there’s nothing anywhere near to GITMO for you, but if you’ve got a dull day, how do you tick them away?
You know what? I don’t have dull days. My dance card is so full that the minute I sit down, I find that something else is demanding that I get up and dance, so I spend very little time sitting at the side of the room. I have stuff to do all the time. I go, ‘Oh sh*t, I’ve got to do that, I’ve got to do that, I’ve got to do that.” The demands that I make upon myself, and also that I find made upon me because of the predicament of others, are great, so I never have a dull moment.
It’s been a couple of decades since you wrote these legendary lyrics, but what do you think? Are we all just “Bricks in the Wall?”
No, of course we’re not. We are all … You are trying to drag me, kicking and screaming, into metaphysical conversations here! Haha. If we had two or three weeks and we were sitting on a beach somewhere with a glass of Tsipouro and the sun was going down, you would find it hard to find a companion who was more ready to drift into those arenas, but it may be that the format of this quick-fire radio station question and answer thing is not the right forum for that depth of conversation.
So many of your lyrics were metaphysical like that … even something like “Pigs on the Wing.”
‘Pigs on the Wing’ is a very, very simple song about how we, all of us, are subject to the threat of the malign powers that hover above us. They’re the powers that be, if you like. … The fundamental message is we can’t get through this alone. That’s why there’s lines in that song about ‘every dog needs somewhere he can bury his bone,’ they’re all lines about how we need other human beings. Human beings are social animals. We’re all social animals. That is why politics is important. We need to band together to organize ourselves in order to defend ourselves against the attack of pigs that might sh*t on us from a great height. And yes, I’m talking about Dick Cheney or whoever you like.
So, “If you didn’t care what happened to me, and I didn’t care what happened to you, we would zigzag our way through the boredom and pain, occasionally glancing up through the rain, wondering which of the buggers to blame, and watching for Pigs on the Wing.” It’s pretty basic, obvious stuff, but the strength of that little tiny song comes from “if you didn’t care” and “if I didn’t care.” If we didn’t care for each other, then we might just as well be dead.
It’s almost the key to so many of your songs, boiled down into such a simple idea right there.
All of my songs are about the same thing. They always have been. They all stem from that couplet in “Echoes,” which was quite shortly after Syd (Barrett) went crazy, we were cast into a sea of doubt because nobody wrote in the band. … We were either gonna have to go back to getting a proper job or somebody was gonna have to figure out how to write songs, because pop groups can’t survive — as Joe Walsh would have told you last week — you can’t survive without a songwriter.
So in “Echoes,” there’s that verse that goes: “Two strangers passing in the street, by chance two passing glances meet, and I am you, and what I see is me.” So even in those very early days, that was 1970 I think, my brain, whatever the bit is in my brain that cares about people or empathizes, understood intuitively that although we may be strangers, we are the same person essentially. So there is no “us and them,” so to put it very simply, the walls that appear to divide us are constructs and they’re constructed by others for nefarious means, and our job as human beings is to tear those walls down and to engage with one another in a loving and supportive and empathetic way. And that’s all I’ve written about ever since. I’m a bit of a one-trick pony. I admit it.
Hey, if that’s your one trick, we’re all eternally grateful. … Before you go, could you settle one thing once and for all? This business about whether ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ syncs with ‘Oz?’
It certainly has nothing to do with any intention on anyone’s part. It may be that that coincidence exists. I have no idea. I’ve never checked it out. I’m sort of not interested in it. The only bit of that story I like is that story about that cop in Louisiana following the bus down some lonesome road and thinking it’s rather erratic and stopping it, a motorcycle cop opening the door and immediately becoming inebriated with the huge clouds of marijuana smoke that were coming out.
The story is that he fought his way to the back of the bus, and there in a private room at the back of the bus was Willie Nelson sitting, listening to the ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and playing ‘The Wizard of Oz’ off a DVD or a VHS! It’s almost certain that this story is completely apocryphal, but I love it nevertheless. Willie Nelson is a bit of a hero of mine, so I love the idea that that might have happened.
Listen to the full interview below. WARNING: Interview contains some explicit language.