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Guest DJ: The Politics And Passions Of Roger Waters

Carl Court
Getty Images

Note: This week we're featuring select episodes from our Guest DJ archives. Roger Waters is currently on the North American leg of his Us + Them tour, performing songs from the Pink Floyd albums The Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals and The Wall. In June Waters also released his first solo rock album in 25 years, called Is This The Life We Really Want?

Back in the summer of 2015, Roger Waters did something that at the time I found surprising: He played the Newport Folk Festival. I couldn't imagine a man who's music felt more distant to folk music than his and the music he did with Pink Floyd. When he got on stage and played John Prine's "Hello In There," a song about aging and why we fight and die in war, it all became clear: These were two men covering the same ground.

So we asked Roger Waters to play DJ, to play music by those he love and talk about what draws him to song. This conversation isn't about his time with Pink Floyd. In fact, over the course of this nearly hour-long interview, he didn't mention the band he left more than 30 years ago even once.

We do talk with him about his upcoming own solo work, including his upcoming tour called "Us And Them." But at the heart of everything, this creative force behind some of the 20th century's most iconic music is politics, money, greed and ultimately hope.

Mention the music of Billie Holiday (who was addicted to heroin) and Waters launches into an assault on what he calls draconian drug laws that vilify addicts instead of treating them. That leads to a discussion of corruption and greed in politics and more knotty issues than we could reasonably keep track of: The U.S. presidential race, the conflict between Israel and Palestine, the state of the music industry, the futility of war, Guantanamo, civil rights and the Black Lives Matter movement, prison reform and how Waters, remarkably, remains hopeful and optimistic in the face of all the despair and suffering he sees plaguing the world.

It's an expansive, sometimes thrilling, sometimes exhausting conversation you can hear with the link above, or read edited highlights and listen to the songs Waters chose below. --Bob Boilen

On how the value of music has been diminished by corporate interests and streaming services:

"Music no longer has any value. It is only around in our lives because it's used to sell soap powder and Volkswagens. It's the advertisers who are actually driving the ship. Music is just a means to the end for them, so that they don't have the passion for Billie Holiday or Sam Cooke or any of the other people that I might choose and who I really care about listening to. Those people under these new rules would never get paid because the idea of all of this: It's all there for everybody to stream all the time. It's based upon the notion that it is valueless and that the people who make the music should not get paid. And they say they do pay them. Yeah, they pay them like point naught naught naught naught naught of one cent for a stream or something. The change that actually goes into the pocket of the artist is miniscule. There's no way that young artists particularly can make a living, which I think is disgusting."

On John Prine's song "Hello In There" and the role of inspiration in the creative process:

"I don't choose what I paint. It's very, very difficult to write a song or to paint a picture. And I think people who do it, whose work we admire, like John Prine — he doesn't one day sit down and think, 'I know, I'm going to write a song about old people and what it must be like to be ignored in old age and the connections between people.' He wrote that song after he spent a summer delivering laundry to old people's homes and he would sit and talk to some of the old folk before. And so it's an expression of some love that he felt in his life and maybe all great work stems from love and from the ability to love."

On the destructive and senseless nature of war, why he named his upcoming tour 'Us And Them' and the need for humanity to come together:

"There's a line in my song 'Us And Them' which goes, 'With, without / and who'll deny that's what the fighting's all about?' That's why my new tour next year is going to be called 'Us And Them.' It's specifically about that line because the answer to the question, 'Who'll deny that's what the fighting is all about?' is this: Almost everyone. Almost everyone will deny that 'with/without' is what the fighting is all about. My contention is that it is. Most people think the fighting is about the fact that we are right and they are wrong. Most people think that war is about ideology. It's about, 'If only they could learn to live the way we do and be democratic. If only they could change. If only they could become better. Everything would be all.' That's not what it's about. It's quite clear to anyone with half a brain that there is no us and them. We are all us. We're all human beings. Our nationalities should be very — should not even be in the first five items of importance in our lives. Nationality is — is a track that we march down unthinkingly and it leads us nowhere."

On the need for young people to disconnect from the digital age and reconnect with each other:

I think there is a hunger now for a path to open up or a space to open up in front of people that's not full of iPhones, but where they can actually be allowed the information to see what the potential for their lives is, and to see that maybe there is space for love rather than commerce in their lives — maybe there's a possibility that we could organize our society so that we helped each other and not just each other in this country, not just to educate our children so we at least get an educated electorate, but to help people in other countries in the world to recognize that this is a very small fragile planet and we will destroy it if we don't start cooperating with one another. And in order for that cooperation to work, the very rich advanced developed countries are going to have to help the less developed countries. Otherwise we are going to remain in a state of conflict until everyone is dead and it will not take very long."

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Robin Hilton is a producer and co-host of the popular NPR Music show All Songs Considered.
In 1988, a determined Bob Boilen started showing up on NPR's doorstep every day, looking for a way to contribute his skills in music and broadcasting to the network. His persistence paid off, and within a few weeks he was hired, on a temporary basis, to work for All Things Considered. Less than a year later, Boilen was directing the show and continued to do so for the next 18 years.