Friday, February 08, 2013

"5:06 a.m. (Every Stranger's Eyes)"

To paraphrase "The Sound of Music," how do you solve a problem like Roger Waters?

I realise that there are all sorts of witty, facile responses that may very well come rushing to mind. Bear with me, though, because this comes from someone who has nothing but respect for his work -- all of it -- but who sometimes struggles to make sense of the man.

For a start, you might say, he's staggeringly self-indulgent. Look at "The Wall" or "The Final Cut", you might say. These are more or less autobiographical "statements", you might say. They're just the result of one man's overweening ego and his conviction that he has Something Important to Say, you might scoff.

Or, if you don't hold particularly strong opinions on the man, you might listen to them and say that they are just chamber pieces manqué, lengthy song cycles or even bombastic noodling. They're often lifted above the ordinary by the quality of the musicians he works with. When you think of "Comfortably Numb", do you remember the lyric, or is the first thing that comes to mind that wonderful guitar solo by David Gilmour? When you hear "The Great Gig in the Sky", are you noting that this was a Richard Wright song, not a Roger Waters composition?

I can't argue that he's a great musician, and there are moments when I'm not convinced he's as great a songwriter as many say he is. I have found myself form time to time listening to Pink Floyd (The Roger Waters Years) or even a solo album and rolling my eyes at the sheer pretentiousness or ponderousness of it all.

And yet. And yet.

"A place to stay, enough to eat
Somewhere old heroes shuffle safely down the street
Where you can speak out loud
About your doubts and fears
And what's more no-one ever disappears
You never hear their standard issue kicking in your door.
You can relax on both sides of the tracks
And maniacs don't blow holes in bandsmen by remote control."
(The Gunner's Dream from "The Final Cut".)

or even:
"In truck stops and hamburger joints
In Cadillac limousines
In the company of has-beens
And bent backs
And sleeping forms on pavement steps
In libraries and railway stations
In books and banks
In the pages of history
In suicidal cavalry attacks
I recognize
Myself in every stranger's eyes."
("5:06 a.m. (Every Stranger's Eyes)" from "The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking")

These aren't lyrics, not in the classic "moon-and-June" sense. They're a series of word pictures, like a slideshow of black and white photographs by Sebastiao Salgado. They're carefully-crafted, these list songs. You're meant to see the images in sharp, high resolution relief, and to understand almost instinctively what he's trying to say, what images he wants you to bond with.

They're not comfortable images, either. For a popular songwriter that's probably a kiss of death. This isn't hum-along stuff, and the lyrics aren't something you'll yowl along to while you're on the highway doing 80. But can you think of any Pink Floyd song that you felt comfortable with? "Arnold Layne"? "Have a Cigar"? "Careful With That Axe, Eugene"? We're not talking anything that would ever be sung on X Factor, for sure.

That's both Waters' great gift, and his great loss. Strip away his painful evolution from six-form poet into grumpy-old-man, politely ignore his frothing anger at Thatcherism (he always seemed to me to be angrier at the Falklands war then he was at the industrial hollowing out that went on in Britain in the 1980s. I mean, the Final Cut was basically about the Falklands, but where was his double-album about the miners?) He knows how to conceive and write absorbing lyric-driven songs, about Serious Matters. They're not pop, for sure, but he never was pop. You need to pay a little attention.

And it helps that Waters knows his limitations well enough to ask really talented people to play with him. He does the singing because it's his party, though again, there are better vocalists too. On general though, Waters seems willing to sit back and orchestrate, conceive and produce the end-result. Or rather, he did once he'd quit Pink Floyd and didn't have to argue over creative direction.

Most of us have two or three transcendent moments of Pink Floydery in our collections. It's sad to admit that they're probably not moments when Roger Waters was to the fore, but some of his solo songs, like "The Gunner's Dream and this one are powerful enough to stand in the company of the others, if we're prepared to think and, well, to be lectured a little.

No comments: