Roger Waters plays on themes of loss, love, war

July 4, 2017

Vera Lynn turned 100 in March, nearly four decades after Roger Waters asked in a song that bears her given name, “Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn?”

Lynn became an iconic cultural presence in Britain in 1939 with her song “We’ll Meet Again,” a hopeful salve of sorts for a country devastated by war.

“Vera!” Waters sang with Pink Floyd in 1979. “Vera! What has become of you? Does anybody else in here feel the way I do?”

The lyric is an acknowledgement of a country’s collective cultural memory but also a cry for understanding from someone in self-imposed exile from that culture. If art is working with positive and negative space - creating sound where there wasn’t sound or chipping away at a rock until it becomes sculpture - Waters’ life work could be viewed as a man using music to fill a father-size hole in his life.

As Wilfred Owen’s poetry captured the horrors of World War I, Waters’ music is about the aftermath: the long-rage debt of war. Eric Fletcher Waters was killed at the Battle of Anzio, in Italy, in 1944 when Waters was 5 months old.

Fiction-writing professors tell their charges to “write what you hate.” So Waters has responded to that void by writing of bullies and tyrants and the greedy. Some contingent of fans who remember Pink Floyd as a soundtrack for getting high in the ’70s will bristle at the political visuals at his Toyota Center show this week. But those listeners changed more than Waters has. The music he will play - ranging from Floyd’s 1971 album “Meddle” to Waters’ new “Is This the Life We Really Want?” - is the leaves and branches that spring from thematic roots of loss and love and how they relate to war. Which is a long way of saying those bothered by inflammatory visuals involving the American president will be in for a conflicted night. Waters may have written “Big man, pig man, ha-ha charade you are,” in the mid-’70s, but he’s reapplied it to a new target in 2017.

For years, I’ve treated Waters’ post-Floyd albums like stories of governmental strife in some far away country: with acknowledgement and marginal interest. But “Is This the Life We Really Want?” stuck with me, not because of its pointed commentary about Donald Trump, but for the way it connects back to Waters’ peak decade making music with Floyd. Waters has always gravitated toward self-contained narratives. The subtitle of “The Final Cut” was “A requiem for the post-war dream by Roger Waters, performed by Pink Floyd.” And think back to “The Wall”: The last song, “Outside the Wall,” ends with the line, “Isn’t this where …” and the first song, “In the Flesh,” opens with the line ”… we came in?” The album by design was an unbreakable cycle.

Waters’ new songs fit a larger narrative of his current concert presentation, an interior travelogue: First, a declaration about making the most of one’s time from “Dark Side of the Moon”; then feelings of regret and longing from “Wish You Were Here”; outrage and anger in the new songs; a dulled complacency and feeling of disconnection with “The Wall”; recognition of the divisions devised by society’s predatory pigs and dogs from “Animals” and “Dark Side”; and then the deconstruction of the wall, starting with “Vera.”

The narrative of “The Wall” followed the creation of a deranged rock star from a toxic primordial soup of youth that included an absent father and overbearing authority figures. Fear created that character, who in turn became a megalomaniac. That “The Final Cut” - an album I think is undervalued by the Floyd faithful - with its pompous subtitle would be his next album is telling. Pink Floyd had ceased to be a collaborative band. David Gilmour’s guitar on “The Final Cut” was recognizable, but he sounded flat compared to his ’70s work, standing outside a wall keeping him from his band. Waters appeared to become one of the bullies he despised.

That, effectively, was the end of Floyd as people knew it. And maybe that’s as it should have been. Creation of dystopic visions is never a long game. Try to sell one vision too many or one vision too long and you become Chicken Little. George Orwell died at 46. Philip K. Dick died at 53. Waters is 73. And he seems to recognize that if you wait long enough, the dystopia you envisioned won’t arrive, but some essence of it may.

“The Wall” concerned itself with personal walls, but the great thing about such a simple metaphor is it can be widely applicable and impervious to time. Walls are sturdy. When Waters played his “The Wall” concerts here, he had kids on stage in “Fear Builds Walls” T-shirts. That was 2010, and the visual now feels prescient given the events of the past year, when talk of walls became more than metaphorical.

And as the walls became more real, Waters has become more combative. “You’re nearly a laugh, but you’re really a cry,” he sang on “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” 40 years ago. The commentary on “Is This the Life We Really Want?” is neither laugh nor cry.

Waters’ worldview - more specifically the outspoken way he has presented it - has put him in conflict with other cultural figures, including recent spats with radio host Howard Stern and members of Radiohead, which was disinclined to abide by his call for boycotting Israel. “Can Jews enjoy the new Roger Waters album?” is just one headline addressing the complicated situation in which Waters is aligned with the pro-Palestine Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

He could just let “Is This the Life We Really Want?” speak for him. The album is angry and hopeful, befitting a musician whose whisper/wail voice often conveys the thin line between fragile peace and dervishlike anxiety. For the combativeness of its early songs, it retains a defiant hopefulness at the end. “Bring me my final cigarette,” he sings. “It would be better by far to die in her arms than to linger in a lifetime of regret.”

I assume he’s singing about love. Which despite the firing-squad imagery lends the album a more optimistic tone than the cyclical despair of “The Wall.”

It’s like he’s calling to Vera again. “Does anybody else in here feel the way I do?” Sure. Also, Vera made it to 100. There’s a metaphor for hope in that, too.