When Good Albums Happen to Bad People: Roger Waters, “Amused to Death”

You probably won’t be surprised when I tell you that this has been the hardest post for me to write since Popdose started. I mean, it’s been a damn month: what’s the holdup? Well, the truth is I discovered it is a lot easier to write about straight-up criminals like the members of Mötley Crüe, or hardcore divas like Diana Ross, than smug, pretentious assholes like today’s subject, Roger Waters. Simply put, it’s rather entertaining to write about individuals in the former categories. To write about Waters, however, is as trying a task as actually listening to his solo work in an attempt to find if any of them are worth talking about in this column. But I was able to find a good one, or a “good” one, depending on one’s ability to stomach conceptual prog joints. First though, a refresher on Herr Waters’ crimes of pomposity.

-Waters became the default main writer in Pink Floyd after Syd Barrett’s descent into mental illness, apparently exacerbated by a horrible LSD experience. And while Waters often spoke about how he wished to find and kill the man who gave Syd bad acid, this level of care did not apply to the addictions of other members of the band. Waters made the unilateral decision to fire founding Floyd member and keyboardist Richard Wright during sessions for The Wall, when he deemed Wright’s addictions too much of a distraction. Then, as an added slap in the face, he hired Wright back as a session musician to complete the album and go on the abbreviated Wall tour. In other words, Wright was not messed up enough that his talents couldn’t be used, but was messed up just enough that Waters wished to symbolically disassociate himself from him. Charming.

-More than just the main lyricist, Waters made himself de facto leader of the Floyd, taking complete creative control of the direction of the group. This culminated in refusing to put any Gilmour’s songs in 1983’s The Final Cut, then leaving the group after its release and declaring them over, with that album as their final, definitive statement, as if the rest of Pink Floyd really wanted to have their last album be a de facto Waters solo album: The record jacket even said “The Final Cut by Roger Waters, performed by Pink Floyd.” Waters then sued the other members of Pink Floyd to stop them from carrying on under that name after he left the group. His defense was that Pink Floyd should not be allowed to continue because he was the creative leader of the band, and additionally there remained only one original member (Nick Mason) who wanted to carry on. In other words, though Gilmour had been the musical centerpiece of the group for two decades, he was still nothing more to Waters than a hired hand to replace Syd Barrett, so f-all what he wanted.

-Perhaps the most irritating thing about Waters, at least as a musician, is that he guided the band over time to an express purpose, and in his mind, logical conclusion, which was….to whine about how unfortunate he was that his father died before he was born. He genuinely acts as if no one else in the history of the world had even grown up without a father, lost a family member in war, or would be shocked to hear that war in not simply a positive experience. As an added note, perhaps it is a bit ironic that his father’s death, and the war which Waters constantly writes about, is World War II, one of the few modern wars that could be said to be morally just. But no matter: Hitler, Third Reich, fascism, etc., etc. All that has been reduced ad absurdum (though with epic rock instrumentation) to how it’s all really shit because one kid got emotionally stunted by his mother because he had no proper father figure.

Ironically, all of this “Woe is me/daddy where are you/living my life is like being persecuted in East Germany” obsession lacks one seemingly important thing: emotion. His entire body of work (at least from The Wall onward) is supposed to be immensely personal, but is constructed in a very cold, impersonal way: splices of interviews, phone calls and TV programs are mixed with lyrics heavily imbibed with metaphoric commentaries–all substituting for anything that would really make the listener feel sympathy or empathy for their creator. Waters is too caught up in his own martyr complex to realize how distant from his subject, and thus full of shit, he sounds. Robert Christgau, whose own pomposity might make him the Roger Waters of rock criticism, actually wrote something I agree with when he said that Wish You Were Here was Waters’ best work, because it had “soul.” In other words, you could believe that he cared about what he was writing. And it’s true: while Waters has spent a great deal of his songwriting since WWYH trying to connect big statements to his personal history, his songs about Syd Barrett pack much more punch, because you actually get the sense in what is written and how it is played that the subject matter — the man — is important to him. Yes, yes, I know, Waters has put up his own “wall,” like in the album of the same name, and that effects both art and action. But remember: that wall fell. Water’s self-serving wall continues to stay up, and it has affected his writing, his relationships with people, and his very tolerability as a human being.

These same problems arise in even the best of his post-Floyd work. But for all of the pomposity, ham-fisted philosophizing, and songs needlessly listed in multiple parts, Waters’ Amused to Death is still a pretty good album. On one track, in fact, Waters shows an actual sense of humor for once in his life: during part of “The Bravery of Bring Out of Range” (download), sportscaster Marv Albert is brought in to narrate a sea battle like it was a Knicks game. And, whatever the political (or perhaps just lyrical) incorrectness of talking about a Chinese lover’s “almond eyes” and “yellow thighs,” “Watching TV” (download) is a lovely song, featuring nice, uncredited harmonies from Don Henley. One sad fact though, is that perhaps the best performer on the album isn’t Waters, but featured lead guitarist Jeff Beck. Beck’s crisp and bluesy guitar playing throughout the album helps elevate the majority of the songs above the turgidity that at times threatens to sink much of Waters work. In doing so, Beck actually exposes an additional irony of how integral the guitar sound (and thus Gilmour) was in Pink Floyd, something that Waters seemingly never got through his thick freaking skull.

Well, that’s all I can stomach saying about the man. Join me next time (and hopefully next week), when I talk about a version of Waters from this side of the pond, someone that will make you say: “Are you sure he’s Canadian?”

Matthew Bolin on twitter
Matthew Bolin
Matthew Bolin discovered popular music could be a good thing at age 13. During a field trip to the local college library, he found Rolling Stone's "100 Best Albums, 1967-1987" issue, and a great and glorious world far beyond the lands of Lionel Richie and Huey Lewis opened up. In the years since, Rolling Stone has gone downhill, but Matthew has moved up in the world, and will eventually claim his title as "America's Librarian" sometime before 2020. Book it.
  • CarbonaNotGlue

    You mean the old rockabilly guitar player!?