LP Review: Roger Waters, ‘Is This The Life We Really Want?’

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“Who gives a fuck, it’s never really over…” – Roger Waters, “When We Were Young”

Much like when I reviewed David Gilmour’s last solo album, I found myself reflecting on Pink Floyd. How couldn’t I? In the 70s when I first started collecting records, one of the first albums I ever bought was ‘Dark Side of the Moon.’ It was, and still is, required listening. Along with Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd ruled the 70s. They were the greatest, coolest rock bands around. Sure the Stones were very productive in the 70s, but that rock n roll decade was owned by Zeppelin and Floyd. In the waning days of the 70s, Zeppelin fell apart but Floyd soared to greater heights with ‘The Wall.’ By the early 80s both were seemingly gone. One of the joys of being a music obsessive is reading the liner notes of LPs. This comes in handy when bands break up because you’re able to follow those key contributors to the bands you love into their solo careers. I must admit, the guys in Floyd have been tough to follow.

In 1983, Pink Floyd released what was on the surface supposed to be their last LP, ‘The Final Cut.’ It was a sequel of sorts to Roger Waters’ magnum opus, ‘The Wall,’ another of the first LPs I was to ever buy. The album sleeve for ‘The Final Cut’ read “A Requiem For The Post War Dream, by Roger Waters, Performed by Pink Floyd,” which sort of tipped me off that this was more of a solo Waters’ LP than a real full-fledged Pink Floyd record. Waters fired founding keyboardist Richard Wright prior to recording the LP which was another clue. ‘The Final Cut’ was another “song cycle” with a theme but it came across like a bit of a patchwork of ideas to me. The song “Not Now John” was clearly an angry reaction to the crew who made the movie of ‘The Wall” and the superb “Two Suns In the Sunset” while incredibly moving, didn’t fit the theme. I will admit, ‘The Final Cut’ seemed to be the album when Waters was finally able to express his overriding themes with the greatest clarity. Musically, however, ‘The Final Cut’ sounded different than usual Floyd albums. Waters was so obsessed with telling the story he’d crafted lyrically he stripped the musicality from the record. His dictatorial control of the band neutered the rest of the band, even David Gilmour. So while I liked certain tracks on ‘The Final Cut’ (especially ‘The Gunner’s Dream”) and even appreciate the construct of the story, I felt like it was an opportunity missed.

By 1984, Waters had left Pink Floyd, assuming that once he took his brilliance down the road, that would be the end of Pink Floyd (little did he know). He released his first “proper” solo album, ‘The Pros And Cons Of Hitchhiking,’ an album based on a man’s dream cycle. He was so dedicated to the construct of the song cycle, each song is even time stamped. The man dreams of his midlife crisis and all the fears and worries that it brings. Again, I loved the construct but Waters neglected the music side of the equation. It’s akin to what Springsteen did after disbanding the E Street Band, he focused too much on lyrics and neglected melody. Even the presence of none other than Eric Clapton on lead guitar couldn’t save ‘Pros and Cons’ for me. My college roommate at the time brought it home, Drew was always the first guy to have a new LP, but it left me stone cold. Well, I liked the nude chick on the album cover, but I was barely 20, I was allowed a little leeway in that department. I haven’t heard it in years, and frankly I still don’t think I’m missing anything.

In 1984, Waters’ released his second LP, ‘Radio K.A.O.S.’ which I listened to again for the first time in a long while this weekend. I really liked this album despite the fact the back story Waters’ concocted for the music was preposterous. He’s got Jim Ladd, famous LA disc jockey talking between songs, which I could have done without. “Radio Waves,” the hopeful “The Tide Is Turning” and the amazing “Who Needs Information” are all great songs. I will admit, all these years later, the production is very much “of it’s time.” But I still enjoy this album even if Roger doesn’t.

In 1987 Waters released what was to be his final solo album for 25 years, ‘Amused To Death.’ It was another song cycle tied to a theme, this time, basically mankind was going daft watching television, ignoring the real problems of the world. It was many of the same themes he’s been covering since ‘Dark Side,’ anti-war, anti-greed, and anti-media. I didn’t really warm to the album and ended putting it away for, well, twenty-five years. I also listened to it this weekend and was surprised at how well it’s held up. There is some searing guitar on that album by Jeff Beck. At least Roger seems to have realized he had big guitar shoes to fill by splitting with Gilmour.

After ‘Amused To Death’ Waters went silent. Well, that’s over-stating it a bit. He toured almost constantly. He put on several different tours centered around ‘The Wall.’ I’m proud to admit that I was in Berlin when he did ‘The Wall’ at The Berlin Wall in 90, one of my concert highlights. I saw him on the tour that produced his live LP, ‘In The Flesh’ and it was a great show. He had three guitarists with him to replicate Gilmour’s sound but I think I’ve pounded that point enough by now. It’s clear that those two were yin/yang. He also produced an opera, because, let’s face it, everything he’s done is basically rock opera, why not go full on “the fat lady in the Viking helmet is singing.” For whatever reason, perhaps it was the bile he felt toward the rest of the guys in Pink Floyd for carrying on without him, he stopped doing new music for a quarter of a decade.

I was stunned months ago when I heard that Waters was in the studio putting together a new album. I figured this would be another album I’d end up blowing off. But then I heard the first single, reviewed earlier on B&V, “Smell The Roses,” and I realized, wait a minute, we might have something here. I liked “Smell the Roses” immediately and said so. My dearest friend Doug said to me over beers at a ClassicAlbumSunday, “Hey, I read your Waters review. I didn’t love the song. It was ok, but it sounded like Pink Floyd.” Well, isn’t that the point?!? For perhaps the first time in his solo career Waters actually put great lyrics together with great music. There was even a melodic guitar solo in the middle…

I had expected ‘Is This The Life We Really Want’ to be an angry screed full of rage. There is anger here, especially in songs like “Picture This” where he says “picture a President without fucking brains,” which is clearly aimed at Trump. “Bird In a Gale” also musters some good ol’ Roger Waters anger. But to me the overwhelming emotion I get from this album is… despair. Not, I’m giving up despair, just a resigned sadness. It’s as if the narrator can’t believe, this far along in life, he’s having to address these same problems again. The song, “Deja Vu” is one of the most beautiful melodies Waters has written. In the song he imagines, “if I had been God” and all the things he’d have done differently. It’s a brilliant song set to a lovely acoustic guitar.

All the usual Waters’ themes are here: anti-fascism, anti-war, anti-greed, anti-hate but this time he fleshed out the music to match the epic nature of his themes. The music here is more lush and more, for lack of a better word, grand than anything he’s done in his solo work. This is the most Pink Floyd sounding solo album Waters has ever recorded and that’s a good thing. I hear shades of ‘Animals’ and ‘The Wall’ on this album. He’s finally embracing his past musically and the results are great. How much of this can be attributed to producer Nigel Godrich is hard to gauge. I’ve always thought Nigel was a dip-shit, based on his treatment of Paul McCartney during the recording of the ‘Chaos & Creation’ sessions, but perhaps I’ve judged him harshly.

Other standout tracks here are the melancholy “The Last Refugee,” and “Broken Bones” where Roger wonders, “who gives a shit, anyway?” On the title track, after listing a litany of crimes that still occur in society, he describe the current U.S. President as a nincompoop, a term I haven’t heard since my grandparents passed. The song “Broken Bones” laments that after WWII we lost the opportunity to move mankind forward, but we went for the greedy answer. We opted for unbridled capitalism at the expense of liberty… “we cannot turn back the clock… but we can say fuck you to your bullshit and lies.” Heavy stuff. I haven’t heard this much cussing outside of hip hop records in a long time but it’s fitting. The sometimes coarse language helps deliver the message more forcefully. And, well, I like cuss words.

It seems that with the dark times we face in the world, be it climate change, corrupt politicians, poverty, hunger, and greed that we have finally caught up to Roger Waters’ dark vision of humanity. This album feels, to use the cliche, “ripped from the headlines.” That can make this a very tough listen for some fans, especially of a certain political stripe. If you want music to distract you from our current situation in the world, this is not the album for you. This is not an album you’d put on a party. But then, Pink Floyd wasn’t really the type of music you’d put on a party… it was music to get high to. “Headphones music” as we used to say.

With all those caveats in place, I do recommend this album. I think it’s the best, most fully realized, musical album Roger Waters has done since, well really, ‘The Wall.’ There’s no overt story you have to read the liner notes to figure out, which is probably a good thing. This is like a brutally honest newscast, set to music. And despite the despair I hear, underneath it all remains a stubborn hope that maybe, eventually, we’ll get it fucking right. Because Roger is right, “it’s never really over…”

Enjoy!

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Concert Review: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Kansas City, 6/2/2017

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*image from the Kansas City Star

It was a bit of a rough May… First we lost Chris Cornell and then we lost Gregg Allman. I was beginning to feel that numb sense of despair I’d felt for much of 2016. But then I remembered on Friday, June 2nd, I had tickets to see Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers on their 40th Anniversary tour. And as a bonus, former James Gang/Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh was slated to open. While I love Tom Petty, and concerts in general, I was having a bit of trouble getting up for this show. It’s just that I’ve seen Petty so many times, I was fearful it would the same old set, the same old show. As usual, I was wrong…

As Petty is reflecting on his 40th anniversary, I couldn’t help but think back to my history with Tom. I can still remember my first Petty show. I had been a huge fan of his since their debut album came out when I was in junior high school, but I didn’t get to see him live until I was in college on the Pack Up The Plantation tour in support of the flawed but still enjoyable album, ‘Southern Accents.’ That show was ok, but the Heartbreakers were augmented with a horn section and back up singers. Sadly they also chose to hang a giant Confederate flag behind them, a choice Petty now regrets.

It wasn’t until I saw them on the ‘Let Me Up, I’ve Had Enough’ tour that I got the real, genuine rockin’ Tom Petty experience. That album was very Stonesy, for lack of a better word, and the show was more full on rocking. Sure, I’d seen them behind Bob Dylan, but they were better on their own. It was at the ‘Let Me Up…’ show in Boston that I realized what great musicians these guys are. Stan Lynch was still manning the drum kit and he was a monster. It was Mike Campbell’s guitar that really caught my attention. The man should be on the list of every “Greatest Guitarists” everywhere. I can’t say enough about Benmont Tench’s abilities on keyboards. He sits on a stool surrounded by every type of keyboard imaginable and seemingly plays all of them at the same time… it’s like the guy has 4 arms.

After that experience, I made a point to see Petty on every tour. I remember my buddy Stormin and I drinking with a group of friends of ours who were going down to old Kemper Arena in Kansas City to see Petty on the ‘Full Moon Fever’ tour. Stormin and I were broke and I was unemployed. Neither of us had bought tickets. Our friends talked us into going down to scalp, something I rarely do. Some guy walked up to us and asked us what we thought his tickets were worth. They were 5th row on the floor. “Uh, face value?” He just smiled and said, “Give me $20 each and we’ll call it even.” We ended up with better seats than our friends. That was such a great show for me, when you’re that close it changes the experience. I can remember, looking up to a darkened entry way, behind the stage, and a couple I could only see in silhouette were dancing to the music… it was like they were the perfect stage decoration. I envied them their joy.

It was my old friend Stormin who called to alert me that Petty was on tour for his 40th Anniversary. I hesitated a bit, only because at our last Petty show my wife, the Rock Chick said, “He plays the same 10 songs every time we see him… I may be done with Petty.” But knowing this was his 40th anniversary show, and likely the Heartbreakers last big tour, I did some research. Petty claimed they were going to mix up the setlist. I was in. I can only say, thank God for my over 30 year friendship with Stormin, because I would have hated to miss this beautiful Anniversary celebration.

Petty strolled out on the stage last night in a purple jacket. He’s so charismatic and lets face it, purple is just a regal color. I knew this was going to be a different night when they opened with the first song from their first album, “Rockin’ Around With You.” It’s got a Bo Diddley beat and was just a nice burst of rock to start the show. He followed up with a blistering version of “Last Dance With Mary Jane” which ended in a guitar dual between Petty and Mike Campbell… You just know Campbell is going to win all of those. He put on a guitar clinic all night. Everyone really needs to see this show just to hear Campbell play.

While Petty did mix up the setlist last night, what does it say about his catalog that when he plays a song like “You Got Lucky” which was a big hit, that it’s his change of pace material he rarely plays. That would be a must-play for any other artist. Last night was the first time I’d ever heard it live, and it was fantastic. I was thrilled he played some of his newer material… he really accessed all of his catalog and the newer song “Forgotten Man” is more relevant today than it was a few years ago. Playing these unfamiliar tracks put new life into “Won’t Back Down” and even “Free Fallin'” that Petty always plays.

The thing that really electrified last night’s performance was the enthusiasm of the crowd. They sang along on almost every song. I hadn’t seen a crowd that jacked up since the Stones a couple of years ago. The place was full and everybody was in full voice. I even caught the Rock Chick singing along loudly. It was just that kind of night. Petty announced the obscure soundtrack tune “Walls” as a song that had been requested… by him it turns out and the crowd even sang along for that one.

The middle of the set turns acoustic as he turns his focus on a subset of songs from his brilliant ‘Wildflowers’ LP. “It’s Good To Be King” was the usual extended jam. Then he went into “Crawling Back To You,” which has the great quote, “most things I worry about don’t happen anyway,” which could be my theme song. The acoustic strummer, “Wildflowers,” was simply transcendent. He kept things rolling with the rarely played “Yer So Bad” from ‘Full Moon Fever.” Wow!

Petty and the Heartbreakers brought it back up for “Should Have Known Better” which verged on punk rock last night. It was killer. After that, he even played “Refugee” which is a tune I’ve only heard him do once, maybe. The encore was one of my all time favorite songs “You Wreck Me” followed by “American Girl” which would have felt obligatory had the Heartbreakers not brought so much energy to it. When the lights came up, I was ecstatic. Even the Rock Chick turned to me and said, “That was a great, great show.”

I must also mention, the opening act, Joe Walsh. Joe is such a consummate showman. The things he did to his guitar could be classified as abuse. It was fantastic. “The Bomber” was a guitar workout like I haven’t seen in a while. The middle section of “The Bomber” where Joe sounds like he’s playing classical music on electric guitar was even better live. As my friend drummer Blake would say, he’s a very tasty guitarist. People take these amazing guitarists for granted… nobody can play like Joe (and later Mike Campbell) did. Cherish these guitarists people, they’re a dying breed. When Joe said, “I know there are a lot of millennials here, and most of these songs were done before you were born. Let me just say, welcome! This next song, however, is going to make your parents really happy…” and then launched into “Funk 49,” I almost wept with joy. In the words of my friend Stormin who saw the show two nights earlier at Red Rocks, “Joe Walsh is crushing it right now.” And, I’d be remiss, if I didn’t mention the beautiful gesture of Joe dedicating his cover of “Take It To the Limit” to his “brother and bandmate,” Glenn Frey. Class move, Joe, class move!

Last night was a celebration of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers 40 years as a rock band. But it was more than that, it was a celebration of rock and roll and live music. It was a celebration of the communal aspects of concerts. Different people from all over coming together in unison to drink a little, sing a little and enjoy a whole lot of great music. The temptation to skip seeing that favorite band can sometimes be strong. Many times you think “I’ll catch them next time…” I’m telling you people, get out and see live music… there will come a time when these bands will disappear and you’ll wish you had…

Simply put, a magnificent show last night. Kudos to the crowd! And of course, Happy Anniversary Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

P.S. Joe Walsh for President!