The notion of artist as provocateur has sparked considerable heat lately, what with Kathy Griffin’s incendiary representation of President Trump and the Public Theater in New York’s allusion to Trump in its new production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”
The reaction to public, governmental and corporate outcry over of such controversial depictions from Roger Waters, long one of rock music’s most outspoken voices?
Bring it on.
“Every human being,” he says, “has a responsibility to throw their hat into the ring and to use as much of the energy as they have to, hopefully, advance the human race as a race, in ways that promote the general happiness of all, rather than the great wealth of the very few.”
That concept is in the spotlight with his latest tour, Us + Them, which tackles the extreme polarization of discourse in this nation and around the world, a situation he still firmly believes can be overcome by one thing.
“Love,” Waters says simply, shortly after shooting a video for one of the songs from his new album, “Is This the Life We Really Want?” at the home recording studio of his friend and Los Angeles musician Johnathan Wilson.
“We’ve done 11 gigs so far, we’re just in the beginning of it, but we have succeeded to this point that at the end of the show, there is a palpable feeling of an attachment to love and to these ideas. It’s in the room, and you can feel it,” he says. The tour will stop Thursday, July 13 at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami.
But for anyone remotely familiar with Waters’ body of work, as a solo artist and as one of the guiding forces of English art-rock band Pink Floyd, it won’t come as a surprise that the path to his climactic invocation of love isn’t all rainbows and unicorns.
“There are [usually] a few disgusted people who say, ‘How dare you criticize our president?’ " Waters says, "because there is a whack at Trump in a couple of the songs."
Indeed, Waters takes direct shots not only at Trump, but more broadly at the rich and powerful. It’s a characteristically grand-scale production, physically, musically and conceptually, bathing listeners in Waters’ atmospheric, often foreboding themes.
On the new album, he delves into the frustration and despair manifesting around the world in seemingly increasing incidents of violence. Yet he strives to hold on to a shred of hope with the idea that an underlying common thread of humanity will supersede political, social and economic differences that are often at the heart of conflicts.
The new album’s opening track, “Déjà Vu,” is one of four new songs he’s folding into his stage production. That song, Waters says, was “the catalyst, the one that motivated me to actually go and do it” — “it” being his first solo album in 25 years.
In that song, the self-described agnostic imagines how the world might be different if he were pulling the strings.
“If I had been God, with my staff and my rod / If I had been given the nod / I believe I could have done a better job,” he sings. For all its apparent hubris, the song is not without a sense of humor: “If I had been God, I would have rearranged the veins in the face / To make them more resistant to alcohol / And less prone to aging.”
At 73, Waters is among rock’s senior statesmen, his status reinforced by his presence last fall at the summit meeting of heavyweights for the Desert Trip festival in Indio, where he performed along with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, the Who and Neil Young.
On the day of this interview, Waters was wearing a black T-shirt, well-broken-in denim jeans and, in the aftermath of the video shoot, no shoes. His shoulder-length hair is becoming more salt than pepper, but he looks trim and fit for the rigors of the physically demanding show.
Waters’ current and recent sets, as usual, featured an appearance by the notorious flying pig. At Desert Trip, it was emblazoned with a vulgar epithet directed at then-candidate Trump. The helium porcine — with messages on this tour once again taking aim at the president — has been a staple of his concerts for four decades since it first floated out among fans during Pink Floyd’s original “Animals” trek.
Waters lets the chief executive off comparatively easily in one new song in which he couples “Every time a young girl’s life is casually spent” with “Every time a nincompoop becomes the president.” Discussing the song, he quickly notes that “nincompoop” is derived from the Latin phrase “non compos mentis,” meaning “not of sound mind.”
The difference, in his mind, between his Desert Trip show and Us + Them?
“This one’s more political,” he says with a straight face from his chair at the mixing board in the ground floor of Wilson’s studio.
Waters regularly targets corporate greed, political chicanery, eroding civil liberties, warmongering and other hot-button topics, and he doesn’t shy from taking a stand, even when it has put his career on the line, as has been the case with his support of Palestinian rights in ongoing tensions between Israel and Palestine.
That stance reportedly cost him $4 million in tour underwriting from American Express, according to the New York Post. To Waters, it’s an issue of equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis.
“It’s the same as the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and the people who were on the side of that movement were on the right side of history,” he says.
Waters has lobbied other musicians to boycott Israel to pressure the government to change its stance toward Palestinians — in keeping with Palestinian-backed BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) Movement — but many of the artists he’s singled out have ignored his efforts and performed as scheduled.
“I am in no way an anti-Semite, which is obvious,” he says.
Waters has been branded anti-Semitic, a tactic he likens to larger campaigns that utilize propaganda techniques to advance various political agendas.
“There were three books I insisted that my own children read growing up: “One was ‘’84’ [referring to George Orwell’s ‘1984’]. One was [Aldous Huxley’s] ‘Brave New World.’ And the other was ‘The Time Machine’ — H.G. Wells, which was also very prescient. The Eloi are living their happy lives, or so they think, but then they discover they are food for the Morlocks, these underground creatures who prey on them.”
He draws a parallel to those he calls modern-day “robber barons,” personified by “the art of the deal” philosophy espoused by Trump.
“The problem is there is a group of people who believe Donald Trump to be a benevolent dictator who can protect them and protect the Chinese and the Mexicans and make everything right again,” Waters says. “But he doesn’t care about them. He clearly cares about nothing but Donald Trump.”
For all the dark forces that Waters rails against on “Is This the Life We Really Want?” he nevertheless considers it “a labor of love. That’s exactly what it is, a labor of love.”
“The world of greed and commerce and pragmatism has rather passed us all by, in a depressing way,” he says. “I believe in the transcendental power of love. Here we are in a kind of hippie enclave, and I don’t mind sounding a bit hippie: I think it’s something we need a bit more of.”
Roger Waters will perform 8 p.m. Thursday, July 13, at AmericanAirlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Blvd., in Miami. Tickets cost $51-$750. Call 305-786-777-1000 or go to AAArena.com.
An earlier edition of this post stated that Roger Waters supports Palestinians’ rights but incorrectly referred to tensions between Israel and Palestine. It should have referenced tensions between the Israeli government and Palestinians.