Here We Go, Here We Go, Here We Go
On the corner of Old Town Square in downtown Prague stands a young woman, fashioning lengths of silver wire into brooches in the names of loved ones - "Mom", "Suzie", "Darren". Since mid-morning she has done a brisk trade in "Pink Floyd". Down a side street, the Bailo fashion emporium has daubed a version of The Division Bell's minatory cover art on its front window and is using the injunction "Think Pink" to shift a consignment of cerise underwear.
In Wenceslas Square, two-six-foot-tall plaster mock-ups of the LP's elongated faces advertise the sale of iffy programs and bootleg T-shirts. The Czech capital, which until the Velvet Revolution of 1989 was a stranger to Western rock shows, is fairly quivering with anticipation. Tonight the Floyd play the vast Strahov Stadium. All tickets were sold months ago.
David Gilmour walks purposefully through all the Floydian paraphernalia, hoping no one will recognize him as the author of this commercial carnival. "Yeah, a few people do, but I walk swiftly on. If you see a group of people walking towards you, you stop and look in a shop window or duck your head.
You have these automatic responses if you want to walk around anonymously, which not everyone in my position does. I know that if I had a slightly different attitude, I'd look different. I'd start strutting . . ."
Perish the thought. The paradox of the diffident rock star, the incognito guitar hero, the surreptitious million-decibel front man, reaches its apotheosis in Gilmour. Though it is almost entirely through his energetic bullying that old muckers, Nick Mason and Rick Wright got together in his Thame-side houseboat in the Spring of 1993 to put together The Division Bell, and though he has masterminded the biggest traveling roadshow in the world on a six-month, £150 million- grossing planetary tour taking in 110 venues in America and Europe, he remains scrupulously diffident about the claims of the world on himself and his band. No television plugs, no press conferences, no interviews, until a seven-month nagging campaign by Q finally grinds down their resistance. Even the local local sponsorship of Volkswagen causes Gilmour mild heartburn.
The band are at an interesting point in their history. Twenty-seven years after they introduced the underground pop fraternity to lengthy, spaced-out improvisations, frazzled discords, maverick bleeps and waily-woo psychodramas, they are arguably the biggest mainstream rock phenomenon in the world. The Division Bell has been at the top of the bestseller charts on both sides of the Atlantic all summer.
Their current tour has broken attendance records in half a dozen European cities. Their London concerts 14 nights at Earls Court, yet another record - were instant sell-outs. But at the heart of all this grandiosity is a simple gamble - that three veteran musicians - old associates but hardly friends could reconstitute themselves from the ashes of umpteen epic rows and wilderness years, and conquer the globe.
3:00 P.M. Meeting them one by one, you're struck by their differences. One of their entourage told the Daily Mirror earlier this year, "Dave is the quiet one, Nick is the quiet one and Rick is the quiet one," but it's not as simple as that.
Nick Mason is rumpled, sleepy-looking and terribly polite. There's an admirable directness about him, however. Interrupted in the hotel suite for the fifth time by a ringing telephone, he lies on his back like a car mechanic, squirms under the dresser, follows the phone wire to its jack-plug and yanks it out of the wall; "Learned this in the KGB." he says in muffled tones.
Rick Wright is a ferrety, furtive and rather melancholy man, like an ex-champion jockey down on his luck. The main feature of his gaunt physiognomy is the unearthly length of his soft, dark eyelashes - when he blinks, it's as if two tropical moths have briefly settled on his cheeks.
David Gilmour, once as handsome as Adonis, has settled, at 48, for the look of a malevolent giant cherub, his close cropped head like a ham basketball, his smile wide but dangerously thin. His delivery has a studied relentlessness that could be mistaken, by the unsympathetic, for raging pomposity; but a curious behavioral tic of constantly fingering bits of his face, suggests he is somewhat uncomfortable talking about himself.
They had spent the previous evening with Vaclav Havel, the Czech Premier.
"Usual rock star thing," says Mason. "Drift into town, have dinner with the president . . ."
"He was great," says Gilmour. "He showed us his office and round the palace, and we had some food at a waterside restaurant. It was very sweet. He's a big rock'n'roll fan. Half his staff seem to be rock critics."
They started the tour, it seems, with the best of intentions, determined to check the scenic bits, the museums and art galleries.
"You set yourself these little objectives," says Gilmour, "but after a few months on the road you tend to just sit in your hotel room, suffering from tour overload."
Prague is their eighty-second show - they've done 59 in America, 22 in Europe, to four and a half million people. Do they retain any sense of their audiences or do the crowds just become a vast, amorphous blur?
"The main difference is that in America they have seating and in Europe they don't," says Mason. "When they're sitting down, it's easier to relate to them. The first 20 rows or so are visible they tend to be either people who've paid a lot of money, or the most crazed of the fans. I've got to recognize the really weird ones, who get there at six o'clock, grab their place at the front, take all the drugs and then, just as we start playing, they keel over . . ."
"Lisbon was amusing," muses Rick Wright. "It was our first European gig and right from the start they had their hands over their heads, clapping time to the music, including moments when there is no time. It's very hard to keep going when you've got 80,000 people clapping to the wrong rhythm."
And so the Floyd leviathan has now reached Prague. In two days time, it will be Strasbourg, then in Lyon. Soon after meeting the band, you wonder about the nature of the beast. Is it a traveling circus? A mobile army?
"I don't feel like a field marshal," says Gilmour, who actually resembles a stiff-lipped squadron leader. "We have several little generals wandering around who've taken on that role."
"What's remarkable,"says Mason, "is the amount of time you spend talking about the people you're touring with, rather than about, say, politics, art, cars, music or whatever. Your frame of reference becomes tiny. It's very like being back at school."
Ah yes. Enter Polly Samson, aka Mrs. David Gilmour (they married at the end of July). At the court of King Dave, Polly is a disgruntled Queen in a hotbed of Machiavellian intrigue.
"Lots of us think we're the power behind the throne," confides a lady tour-member, "but Polly's the power on the throne, so she gets all the flak." Polly Samson is, it could be argued, both the whole point of the tour and its most implacable enemy.
She is generally credited with stemming the flow of temptations in the direction of her beloved, but she is hardly a party-pooper. A hyper-adrenalised, quarter- Chinese early-thirtysomething, she made her name in publishing. Also a serial heartbreaker, she became embroiled with one of her writerly charges, whale- fancier Heathcote Williams; he left her with a son, Charlie, now four. It's Charlie's voice that can be heard at the end of The Division Bell, failing to respond to the charm of the band's manager, Steve O'Rourke (this is, apparently, the band's amusing response to O'Rourke's persistent demands that he be allowed to contribute a few notes to the album).
Ms. Samson was encouraged to start writing lyrics while on holiday with her guitarist husband. "I started writing things and looking to her for an opinion," recalls Gilmour, "and gradually, as a writer herself and an intelligent person, she started putting her oar in and I encouraged her."
The songwriting team of Gilmour/Samson turns up on seven of the current album's 11 tracks, and their relationship infuses the whole enterprise with a passionate glow that's rare for the earnestly unsmiling face the Floyd has generally turned to the world. Though it purports to deal with non-communication, The Division Bell is actually the most heartwarming of song-cycles: 80 percent of the songs are about new beginnings, sunlight, spring in-the-soul optimism:
"Turn and face the light"; "the years and all the sadness fell away from me"; "I woke to the sound of drums"; "the morning sun streamed in"; "I'm creeping back to life"; "her love rains down on me"; "I knew the moment had arrived/For killing the past and coming back to life".
By the time you get to the last track, entitled High Hopes, you half expect it to be a cover version of the old Bing Crosby hit about ants trying to move rubber-tree plants.
"I hadn't thought about it from that perspective," says Gilmour. "It's about all these things, the good and the bad. Maybe it's the combination that puts the point across."
Nowhere more so than in Poles Apart, a song of remembrance about a former colleague who has lost "that light in your eyes", and who is therefore ....Syd Barrett?
"Who knows?" asks Gilmour, irritatingly. "I like to let the lyrics speak for themselves."
"It's about Syd in the first verse and Roger in the the second," Polly later briskly states.
But the music rides along on a gorgeous upward cadence and ends with a veritable gavotte of frisky rhythm. It does not take a genius to infer that, freed from Roger Water's malign influence, Gilmour and company are celebrating the liberty to indulge as they please, rather than to try and prove anything.
Water's shadow is a constant topic in their conversation: his legacy, his role as a coordinating force, his skill as a writer. But alongside the tributes come some querulous memories, some silken put downs. Rick Wright, whom Waters effectively fired from the band during the making of The Wall, claims,
"We never really got on from the beginning, even in architecture school, though we respected each other - and I respect him still. But he used to have a go at me, and I used to have a go at him. One example: I think I was the first of the band to buy a country house. At the time, Roger was an armchair socialist. He told me, 'You've really sold out - you've become such a capitalist; you're doing what every other rock star does'.... I said, 'Roger, we did it for the kids and you'll be doing the same thing in a few years.' It took him, I think, a year and a half to buy his own country seat. I said Roger, 'You're a hypocrite.' And he said, 'Oh I didn't want it, my wife wanted it'"
"What we miss of Roger," continues Gilmour, "is his drive, his focus, his lyrical brilliance, oh many things. But I don't think any of us would say that music was one of the main ones. He was great as a conceptualist and lyricist, as a pusher. But he's not a great musician, our Rog, God bless him. He just isn't..."
But do they get on, these three portly musketeers, this business-like troika, these throwbacks to the '60s playground? They talk about each other in oddly dispassionate, guardedly civil tones: "I'd like to be a mate of David's," says Wright, "but he's a hard person to get to know, and I am too. We're not buddies who'll sit in a pub and have a laugh and a chat; we're not that close. We're very professional on stage."
Was there ever a time when the band behaved like other rock bands? Horseplay, underpants, hotel-trashing?
"Oh yes, of course. In the summer of '68, there were groupies everywhere - they'd come and look after you like a personal maid, do your washing, sleep with you and leave with a dose of the clap." "Horseplay? Thousands of incidents. I remember one night, we gave our sound engineer a lot of sleeping pills and put him on a mattress in the lift, and every time the guests in the hotel called it, they'd find him sleeping there and hastily choose another one...And the time Dave drove a motor bike into a restaurant and out again, in a very straight bit of America, and most of the diners pretended it wasn't happening." [Wright]
The Strahov Stadium, the biggest in Europe. When full, it can accommodate 200,000 seated football enthusiasts. Now that the voluptuous steel womb of the Floyd stage is squatting on it, half the seats have become redundant; but the milling throng on the sandy pitch brings the attendance number up to 120,000. Across this massive arena, the PA is playing Doctor John classics to the uncomprehending multitude. Over in the Volkswagen sponsors VIP tent, there is no sign of confusion as well-heeled, day-tripping Germans liberate flutes of Freixnet fizz from the free bar. The lucky ones clutch raffle tickets for a one-off Volkswagen Golf "Pink Floyd".
Weird scenes in the band tent: the place is overrun with senior citizens. David Gilmour's parents are here, and Nick Mason's and Polly Samson's. The ladies are camped in immovable gossip-session on the black leather sofa which is the only sign of elegance in this prefabricated shack.
"It's by no means what we're used to in hospitality terms," says Rick Wright sadly. "Not the usual backstage atmosphere."
He indicates a cubicle marked "Sanctuary" "That's strictly for the band only, if you have to go into deep conclave about something just before the show. Or, of course, if you just want to be alone."
Mrs. Gilmour Senior is a curly-haired, sweet faced and chatty rock fan of 72. A one-time actress and Cambridge lecturer, she confides "I introduced David to Bob Dylan, y'know."
You mean, you stood there at some cocktail party and said,'Dave, come and meet Mr. Dylan. Mr Dylan, have you met my son, the guitarist'?
"No, no," says Dave benignly. "She just sent me his first LP from New York when I was at school in Cambridge."
Did he suffer dreadfully from the absence of his mother and father, who worked in America? "Not at all," says Gilmour. "I can't remember having any objection to being parked on some other people. I could sneak out of my room and go to pubs and do God knows what. It was great." Mrs. Gilmour veers off at a tangent about her early love for Hendrix.
"Showtime", as the band tent's agenda calls it, is 30 minutes away. The atmosphere tightens. Security men turn away any would-be tent-crashers. Mobile phones are urgently pressed to ears. The senior citizens and record company bigwigs are advised that the route to their VIP seats is jeopardized by the swell of the crowd. An emergency-issue ambulance inches its way across the arena's teeming throng, heading for the mixing desk. A rumour surfaces, that it is merely President Havel in search of a decent vantage-point. Outside the sky is terminally threatening, liquefied Kafka.
"Come on," says David Gilmour. We cross the gummy sand to the sawn-off aircraft hangar of the stage. Crazed by the tantalizing electronic bleeps from the PA that announce the Floyd's imminent arrival, the crowd is alternately cheering and mutinously impatient. Overhead in the rank sky, a helicopter hovers, its headlights dipping down like the eyes of the inflatable warthogs that will later clamber over the tower of speakers during One of These Days. Heartbeats accelerating....
How nervous is Dave Gilmour?
"Oh, I'm not nervous," he says cheerily, "not consciously, anyway."
Backstage, or rather under-stage, the inner sanctum is a trench-like hell, 40 feet long but only about five feet wide. There's no room for fluster or fidget. But the trench image is wrong: this is more like being in a submarine, more precisely the doomed one in Das Boot. Gilmour's guitars -14 at a rapid count - are arranged against the wall like a gun-rack.
If you clamber on to the stage, the audience, 120,000-strong, rises before you. Only it's not "a sea of faces" at all. No sea ever looked so variegated, so full of individual expressions - it's like the audience turned to you at a wedding speech multiplied by a million, smiling in anticipation but likely to turn on you in unstoppable force, should you fail to amuse. A sight to chill the blood.
Nick Mason appears: "Bit of an emergency, I'm afraid Tim Renwick's been taken ill. You're on second guitar tonight. We're on in three minutes."
Sensory meltdown. Opening with Wright's spreading organ cloud and Gilmour's languorous, yearning, four-note riff that introduces Shine On You Crazy Diamond, moving through huge tracts of The Division Bell, to a selection, in the second half, of rousingly reinvented greatest hits - Money, Another Brick In The Wall, Wish You Were Here - the biggest musical spectacle Czechoslovakia has ever seen has fulfilled its promise.
Everywhere, saturnine faces have turned to ecstasy, despite the rain which has fallen relentlessly, like some percussive torture, from the first note. The senior citizens, initially seated to one side of the audience in plastic chairs, have gone back to sip champagne in the dry bliss of the Band Tent. But the audience has managed to shrug off the elements with Slavic stoicism. The lasers, the front-of-stage explosions, the wobbling giant warthogs and, most especially, the huge circular video screen has the Prague groovers yelling and slam-dancing in the sandy sludge of the arena.
As Gilmour sings the rhapsodic litany that climaxes High Hopes ("The grass was greener/The light was brighter/The taste was sweeter"), a voice in my ear whispers, "The rain was soaking." It is Polly Samson, who has every right to muck about with the lyrics since she wrote the song. She has, she confides, been more than usually hacked off of late ("I've seen the concert a hundred times. I love the songs. I just can't stand the lifestyle") because, last night, she was introduced to Vaclav Havel as a kind of also-ran. She and Dave are, for the moment, not on speakers. How could she resist him, after having Coming Back To Life, Gilmour's self-composed love note to her ("Because the things you say and the things you do surround me"), belted out in front of scores of thousands every night? "Well the things I say and do will not surround him tonight," she says severely.
On stage, Gilmour has moved on to Us And Them. For all the vaunted anonymity of the band's corporate image, this is very much The Gilmour Show. A controlled passion in his voice, echo-chambered to Paradise, has the audience reaching for the Czech equivalent of their Zippos. Doesn't she think he was, um, rather spectacular at these moments?
"Yes, of course," she says, "but I'm not going to let him know that. "The next one," Ms. Samson confides, "he does this hilarious falsetto. So sweet."
One suspects their daggers-drawn spat is only temporary.
The band have decamped en masse to the Intercontinental Hotel, for a party. A mile away, at the Palace Hotel, Gilmour is winding down after the gig in characteristically aloof splendor. The only others in his pink suite are Polly, paradoxically nursing a mug of Horlicks on a chair, and her brother Joe, who acts at Gilmour's personal assistant and factotum.
"It went very well, I think," says Gilmour, lying on the fuschia duvet like a Kismet pasha. "In the top five-to-10 per cent".
I remark that I'd never seen him playing pedal steel guitar before, sitting on stage with the apocalypse crashing and zooming around his head, as unconcerned as a dowager with a knitting machine. "That's what it all comes down to, all this, doesn't it?" he asks rhetorically. "One old person - one young person - sitting playing a guitar."
The talk turns to the various bitchings and disagreements among the court hierarchy. Why did he think there was such a toxic atmosphere?
"It's that stage of the lots of petty resentments reverberating around this small chamber, this goldfish bowl we're in, and they keep bouncing back at you. It's like a work environment in which nobody is ever allowed to leave the room for six months. Too many late nights, too many drinks." Does he, Polly asks, fancy going to the party? After all, tomorrow is a day off.
"I have absolutely no desire to go partying," he replies. "I'm a little past the stage of worrying whether I'm seen turning up at parties." But eventually, wearily, the master agrees to hit the streets.
The party at the Intercontinental is a little thinned out. Rick Wright has gone to bed, but the rump of the band is made of sterner stuff. The backing babes - Durga, Sam and Claudia are the center of attention. Sam Brown (daughter of Joe), who knocked the Czechs into a loop by her arm-pumping wail in The Great Gig In The Sky, reveals that her mother used to sing for the Floyd in the '60s.
It's not the only baroque family connection: Guy Pratt, the absurdly youthful bassist, turns out to be the son of the chap who played Randall in Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased), the '70s TV series, and now goes out with Rick Wright's daughter, Gala.
A passing hack asks Ronnie, the production maestro, what he thinks Gilmour meant by "this dangerous but irresistible pastime" in the song Coming Back To Life ("Oh it's sex, obviously," Gilmour grudgingly tells me, "sex and procreation") and is torn off a strip by the band's publicist, Jane Sen: "You're asking a production man about lyrics?" Gilmour raises an eyebrow. Yup, it's that time of the tour.
So tell us, David: what is it that Pink Floyd have been up to for the last three decades?
"All I've ever tried to do is play music that I like listening to. Some of it now, like Atom Heart Mother, strikes me as absolute crap, but I no longer want or have to play stuff I don't enjoy. I don't know..." his fingers twitch round his nose once more, betokening a final desire to disappear, "All we've been trying to do is make music that will move people. Simple as that."
A final word with Nick Mason, the sort of decent chap towards whom one gravitates at such moments. Tell me, Nick, rock stars often say they keep on doing this for fun. What kind of fun is all this?
"Fun is the wrong word," he replies. "What you're dealing with are performers, people with a pathological need to show off. The chances of actually growing out of it are, I now see, remote. If it hasn't gone by the time you're 50, I wouldn't hold your breath."