“I’m seeing Roger Waters tonight,” I almost text my mom.
But of course I don’t.
I look at my draft message. I see the date of her last text, unanswered. I look at her phone number, which has no name attached to it, as usual, and I wonder if it has changed again.
This all occurs while I’m driving. It’s a bad habit, I admit, but I know the highway well. This forgettable stretch of the 101, just north of San Luis Obispo County, sees coastal green change to a barren brown with a horizon that is lifeless and heat that is punishing. There’s nothing to do here but drive on through. The vineyards come next and their grapes swarm the hills, coloring what used to be nothing. This view dominates both sides of the highway for a while. Eventually the grapes fade and the land flattens.
The four hour drive to San Francisco is a movie I’ve been forced to watch my entire life. Or, perhaps, it is more like a record, its grooves deep and patient and used and damaged.
I am being absurdly nostalgic about asphalt, but this is what Pink Floyd does to me. My route will end at the Chase Center for the Bay Area stop of Roger Waters’ 2022 tour THIS IS NOT A DRILL. The tour has been rescheduled from its original 2020 attempt due to COVID-19. Like all Floyd fans, I’ve been waiting two years for this tour, and yet I still don’t feel prepared for it. As I drive, I listen to an unofficial tour playlist I found on Spotify:
- Comfortably Numb
- The Happiest Days of Our Lives
- Another Brick in the Wall, Pt 2
And so on.
THIS IS NOT A DRILL is the beginning of the end for Waters, claiming the tour is his “first farewell,” whatever that means. I have learned never to trust the retirement of musicians, but Waters is 79 years old. One can hope—perhaps after Waters finishes his current touring schedule—that his 80th year of life will soften his hardened, litigious heart and see him reunited with David Gilmore and Co. for one last run as Pink Floyd proper.
But as I drift towards Salinas, east of Eden, where timeless crops grow shallow and endless, I’m not thinking about Waters or Gilmore.
I’m thinking of my mother.
22 years ago, when I was 13, she took me to my first concert. It was Roger Waters.
For the uninitiated, Waters is the primary creative force behind Pink Floyd’s most ambitious albums, The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, and The Wall, including the latter’s eponymous tour and film. He is also the creative force behind their worst album, The Final Cut, but that’s another story for another time.
Post-Pink Floyd, Waters has remained an active songwriter and skilled showman, continuing to produce major arena tours and release solo records at a semi-productive pace. To many these days, however, he is known more for his politics and activism than his music. He is anti-Israeli occupation, which has made him something of a pariah to most of Floyd’s conservative fanbase. He is unabashedly a champion of human rights and is an advocate for ending the use of war drones. The day after my concert in 2022, however, news will spread that he criticized NATO and blames Ukraine for the Russian invasion, confounding the liberal half of his fanbase and complicating his legacy. (He eventually published a more nuanced explanation.)
I walked into the Irvine Meadows Amphitheater on June 24, 2000 with baggy cargo pants and bleached blonde spiky hair. I didn’t know anything about anything. Aimless and foggy, uncomfortable and awkward — like most 13 year olds, I suppose, I was just along for the ride and hoping I wouldn’t get too bored.
That tour was called Roger Waters In the Flesh, a monster of ambition that spanned from 1999 to 2002. It was Waters’ first time back on the road in more than a decade. Nine musicians comprised his backing band, three of which were back-up singers. Looking through the band now, I see a who’s who of hired guns, like Doyle Brahmall II, who’s solo stuff never took off but who has consistently performed at a high level throughout his career, most regularly with Eric Clapton. Other players were briefly in Pink Floyd, like guitarist Snowy White who joined during the Animals era as a backup, or keyboardist Jon Carin, who interestingly enough, co-wrote “Learning to Fly,” Floyd’s late-‘80s hit during the era after Waters left the band.
In 2000, my Floyd knowledge was minimal. I had heard the hits on classic rock radio like “Money,” “Comfortably Numb,” “Wish You Were Here,” and, of course, “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2.” I likely didn’t even know all those songs were from the same artist. Imagine — if you can — walking into a Pink Floyd concert with no preconceived notion of the epic night that lies before you.
Each song was loud and long, labyrinthine, a maze to fall into and fight out of. To say my 13 year-old brain was blown away is an understatement.
I didn’t know classic rock could feel so new and urgent. I didn’t know music and theater could co-exist so extravagantly. I didn’t know a soundscape could engulf you and pin you to your seat. I didn’t know anything.
There was this one point, during a long saxophone solo, when members of the band sat down at a card table and started playing poker. “Are they playing cards?” I asked my mother. She thought so too, but we were unsure because the angle of our seats cut off a clear view to the side of the stage. But after five minutes, it became clear that, yes, the band was indeed playing cards. It’s the type of memory you later question.
Did that really happen?
Why would they play cards during the show?
Did I pick up a contact high from my mother’s joint?
(“I don’t usually do this,” she said, taking another hit before passing the joint back to the stranger next to her, coughing.)
My mother loves the song “Mother,” and when Waters played it, she sang it to me.
It makes for a complicated memory. “Mother” is a song about a toxic mother-son relationship. In the story, the mother and son are close. He needs her. She comforts him. Though the song sounds tender and intimate, the narrator reveals that she controls him and puts her fears into him. She helps him “build the wall.” 22 years later I’ve uncovered how bizarre a moment this really was. My mother, already estranged, who at that point had inflicted years of trauma into me through her drinking, drug use, and mental illness, sang Pink Floyd’s “Mother” to me, and I smiled.
And here I am so many years later still smiling. Life is strange that way.
One other moment from that concert has never left me, and perhaps it is what beckons me to San Francisco in 2022. About halfway through the set, Waters performed “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Pts. 1-8).” To call it an experience would be a disservice. It was transformative. It was moving. It was somehow all five senses. It was 14 minutes long! It was everything live music can and should be. It was enough to bring tears to the cheeks of an emotionally absent 13-year-old Limp Bizkit fan and inspire in him a love for live music so deep that it becomes inescapable.
“It’s about their first singer,” my mom told me. “He went crazy.” And she pantomimed crazy.
I am out of breath as I take my seat at the Chase Center. The closest parking I could find was a mile away, a distance I underestimated in an area of town that could serve as a backdrop to John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, so I jogged. Downtown San Francisco is schizophrenic, its personalities constantly at war. At all times San Francisco is a utopia of technology and progress, limitless wealth, and manufactured beauty, but the dark corners are abandoned and the edges are frayed. It’s not just that the poor were forgotten. It’s that they became obsolete. An update was pushed and the poor were no longer supported. They are there, of course, idly intimidating the wealthy walking to their overpriced concerts featuring singers who preach human rights.
The Chase Center technically opened in late 2019, but because of the pandemic it has barely been touched. Some things actually do smell like money and this is one of those things. $1.4 billion, to be exact. Whatever that money bought wasn’t aesthetics. The walls are all white and the entrance feels like an overgrown bank. Navigating the hallways, which are disorienting, reminds me of tromping through an airport. I admit the Chase Center is an easy target for criticism, having poached the NBA’s Golden State Warriors from their traditional Oakland arena and transplanting them here, putting a face and transparent price tag on gentrification.
However, from my seat I admit the view is great. I’m up high but not in the nosebleeds. Near the top of my seating area, Section 128, there is a food kiosk and bar, a convenience I cherish because it is close and the lines are short. It also helps take the sting out of a $20 can of beer.
I take a moment to assess the stage and set design. It rests in the middle of the arena — in the ring, instead of against a wall like most stages — promising a 360 degree view for fans. Just one problem. There’s a giant three-dimensional cross splitting the stage into quadrants, blocking a clear view to the entire stage. Perhaps it is a T. Either way, the cross is also a giant LED screen. Because of this obstruction, which I will call the LED Cross, I’m only able to see one-fourth of the band — the keyboards.
After a brief automated message from Waters in which he warns his less-political and more-irritable fans that “now would be a good time to fuck off to the bar,” the show begins with a solemn rendition of “Comfortably Numb.” I can’t see much, only the keyboardist, but I’m enjoying the LED Cross. The visual component has always been a touchstone of Waters’ work, and this is no exception. It’s showing original animation: faceless people in broken buildings, a drone view of a devastated city. It adds an unsettling element to an already wistful tune.
When the song ends the LED Cross slowly rises. The band kicks into the second tune, “The Happiest Days of Our Lives.” Now, there’s an excellent view of the entire band. The LED Cross now hovers far above the stage and flashes questions about the government, about power. From the stage’s base, lights explode to the beat and the platform itself glows in deep red. Roger Waters, wearing his classic black t-shirt and jeans, emerges with a guitar and runs to the edge of the platform. He’s beaming and his energy is contagious.
For a moment I think, “I can’t wait to turn 79.”
The LED Cross and stage design is nothing short of a massive achievement in live audio-visual storytelling, the result of another collaboration with Sean Evans, Waters’ ongoing creative director. The two have worked together on the last few mega tours, including Roger Waters’ The Wall and Us + Them. Both tours released concert movies after they concluded, and I suspect the same will happen for THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
I realize I am glad to have not paid for floor seats. The view from my bleacher seat, though further and incomplete, is terrific. The pit might have a better view of the band, but the LED screens might be overwhelming and distracting. You get the idea that there is no perfect seat. Every view is unique, but every angle sacrifices a piece of the action. Maybe that’s the point. You can never really see it all.
There are 10 people in the band this time. Some familiar faces, some new. I enjoy listening to the drummer Joey Waronker, a newer member of the Roger Waters tour band. I later look him up and see he’s played with Beck, R.E.M., Atoms for Peace, among others. He wails on the cymbals at the end of “Another Brick in the Wall (Pt. 2),” infusing it with new life and causing almost every head in the Chase Center to inexplicably start banging. It was wild.
I’m desperately awaiting “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” hoping for another transformative quasi-religious experience, like the one I had over 20 years ago in Irvine as a 13 year old. When the song finally comes, its rendition is shortened and rushed, though probably still six or seven minutes long. “Diamond” no doubt remains a fantastic tune — a must-see live — but there are no tears on my cheeks. The best jokes are only funny once, and live music has similar limitations. We can only be transformed by experience so many times, yet some of us chase the feeling again and again, searching with our arms stretched like a lost child desperate for a mother’s hand.
It’s possible the impact of “Diamond” was overshadowed by “Wish You Were Here,” another song dedicated to Syd Barrett, the first Floyd singer. During the outro of the song, Waters tells a story about when Syd went insane, and how Waters eventually came to make peace with it and also struggle with his own sanity amidst mental breakdowns during the height of Floyd. It was an incredibly transparent and vulnerable moment of the show, told through slow typing font on the LED Cross. Waters concluded the story with a directive to his audience, a thesis for the evening I didn’t expect. For THIS IS NOT A DRILL brings to mind Waters’ anti-government sentiments, or his aim to bring awareness to violent injustices around the globe, or his most recurring theme: exposing the hypocrisies and power imbalance the ruling class has over the individual.
But I was wrong.
In a rather unexpected turn, 40 minutes deep into a two hour set, Waters tells us, “When you lose someone you love, it does serve to remind you. This is not a drill.”
It was a beautiful, unexpected moment from a loud, angry, bitter old man. And suddenly, once again, I think of my mother. “I wish you were here,” I say to no one.
When I get home I order the official concert DVD of In the Flesh. Two days later Amazon ships it to my house, and it arrives like any other package, wholly unaware of itself and the memories and emotions it will unleash. The DVD was filmed on a different night of the tour than the one I saw with my mother, but only two nights after in Portland, Oregon. It is as close to a family home movie as I will ever get. My viewing experience, however, is not emotional nor is it all that meaningful. It does not reignite a mind-bending, tear-induced once-in-a-lifetime concert event. In fact, it does the opposite. It pulls back the curtain on my memories a little too much and lays the evening bare. In the Flesh is a good show with great musicians playing classic tunes.
And maybe that’s all it is.
As it turns out, the band did play poker in the middle of a song, but it was during a synth solo, not a saxophone solo, and on DVD the whole thing looks a little contrived. Not long after that, I turn off the concert film, put the disc back in its case, and hide it in a drawer. I don’t need it, I realize. Even if my memories are wrong, my memories are better.
In those cold bleacher seats, sitting side-by-side like normal families do, my mom and I sang and laughed and cried. We ate dinner. When I close my eyes and focus deeply on the memory, I see her face, illuminated in the radiant yellows and greens from the shifting, dizzying lights of the stage. She was close and she was safe, my mom, proud like the moon and shining like diamonds.
She texts me back. “Did they play Mother?”
“No,” I write. “But it was a good show.”
Welcome back! Yay!
Brilliant story (and writing), Kevin. Though I am closer to the reality of it than other readers, the last two lines filled my eyes with tears.