The year 2015-2016 was a big year for me, coming to Edinburgh after working in the Middle East for several years. One of the first things I did was visit the Festival Theatre, where I fell in love with modern dance (I hate dancing, so don’t switch off if you are also not a dancer). Although I intend to continue visiting the Festival, I will also be trying out other venues, for modern dance, drama, ballet and opera.
Trans and queer iconography has certain patterns, and one of these involves the popularity of David Bowie. There are people I admire who love Bowie, and that's all fine, but as a diary entry here, I'd like to reveal how not all these icons are shared between us. Here is my homage to a very different rock and roll star, Roger Waters.
My favourite artist of all time is Roger Waters, the glowering former bassist and singer-songwriter of Pink Floyd. He’s now known, in his 70s, as much for his campaigning for Palestinian rights and the rights of Chileans in the face of the legacy of U.S. imperialism as his discography, and this typifies why I have for some time admired him (and loved his music even longer). For Waters is no Mick Jagger or David Bowie - relaxed capitalists who in the latter case became at least briefly a lover of Nazi aesthetics, and who confided in a mid-1970s interview with the NME, “You’ve got to have an extreme right front come up and sweep everything off its feet and tidy everything up.” Bowie never used his significant platform to speak up for any minority, as far as I’m aware, and I’m left asking myself if it matters. Can style and art be so divorced from morality? Here’s my meditation on why along with the art and the style, the morality matters in my iconography, and why I think Waters means more to me than Bowie.
Let’s start with the art. Waters was the driving force of Pink Floyd, whose intricately produced and technically perfected output ages more impressively with every decade. Waters may lack Bowie’s talent as either musician or singer but he also remains underrated, I personally love his bass playing, while the range of his singing in The Wall and The Final Cut, from poignant to manic, is engrossing. As a lyricist, moreover, Waters is certainly at least the equal of Bowie. Spanning several decades, Waters’ lyrical output covers meditations on madness and death, love and war, capitalism and serenity. Up to the early 1970s, and for song lyrics that meditate on the anxieties of growing old, I don’t think anything surpasses the words of ‘Time’ on the Dark Side of the Moon, for example:
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over, thought I'd something more to say
In an album that’s endured as well as any in the rock genre, the words to the song 'Money' also stick with their succinct summary of the vacuous attraction of extreme wealth (‘New car, caviar, four-star daydream, ‘think I’ll buy me a football team’). Yet spiritually too, Waters is able to channel something memorable and humane, as in the lyrics from 'Echoes': ‘Strangers passing in the street, by chance two separate glances meet, and I am you, and what I see is me.’ In 'Echoes,' there is a sense not only of spiritual connection between strangers but of transformation, as we look out and up from our windows to something unnameably better for ourselves and each other,
You fall upon my waking eyes
Inviting and inciting me to rise
And through the window in the wall
Come streaming in on sunlight wings
A million bright ambassadors of morning
As the 1970s progressed, and while Bowie flirted with fascism (while Jagger, I guess, simply flirted), Waters increasingly wrote about the soullessness and viciousness of capitalism, just as neoliberalism was warming up for its domination of mainstream politics and culture. His lyrics especially on the albums Wish You Were Here and Animals are visceral visions of a morally bankrupt landscape that would, through the rise of the Murdoch media from the late 1970s, form the default narrative for the Anglophone Global North. In 1983, Waters produced his last album with Pink Floyd, The Final Cut, in which he went on the attack against the neocons of Thatcher and Reagan, and monsters of ethnic- or leftist-cleansing like Israel’s Menachem Begin and Argentina’s General Galtieri. I don’t remember Jagger or Bowie speaking out against Britain’s exploitation of the Falklands war against Argentina, but Waters did, devoting a whole album of beautiful lyrics decrying the end of the post-war dream, while calling out the new wave of jingoistic nationalism. And then even after, in his solo album Amused to Death of 1992, he produced a prophetic dreamscape of postmodern 21st-century society with echoes of Jean Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality, in which we are overwhelmed by the image, and too many images. Like the Wachowskis with The Matrix and other cyberpunk visions of futuristic dystopia, Waters uses his idiom in his last great album to imagine a tragic conclusion, in this case to a society in which news becomes indistinguishable from entertainment in a click-bait culture, leading to a humanity that eats itself.
But what about gender, you may ask; what of Bowie’s radical, androgynous beauty? You’ve got me there, but let me try to articulate something connected in some way to gender as style, and gender’s dynamics of power. First of all, I love the 1970s Waters aesthetic of all-black, stalking through the smoke of Pompeii as part of a team in a cosmic adventure (see picture), his then-androgynous shoulder-length locks swaying above those intense broad shoulders and skinny waist. I like the bulging veins in his sinewy, sculpted arms as he leans over a recording-studio desk, lost in the focus of producing new sounds. His body exudes intensity, his all-black look posing a menacing focus when it comes to what matters.
He’s not perfect, I know. Waters is well-known as the man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, as his treatment of his bandmates, whom he disparagingly described as the ‘muffins,’ attest. It’s a tendency I could never replicate, unless I were to avoid looking into mirrors altogether. But our idols need not be perfect, for what they ultimately represent is what matters and perhaps, in the case of Waters, it’s that imperfection that reveals his vulnerability. He’s no Dave Gilmour, his brilliant guitar partner in Pink Floyd’s peak years, so laid back as to seem almost smugly above Waters’ intensity. But without that intensity of Waters, there would also be no Dave Gilmour the rock and roll star.
Waters is now in his seventies as a Prospero figure from a rock n’ roll era itself dying and perhaps deservedly so. Waters as artist rages against not just the dying of the light, but against global injustice, while expressing love for the new generations trying to make a better world for themselves. Like Prospero, he’s not infallible. But on the broader subject of embracing humanity in all its diversity, I see an alignment in my own gendered reinvention, a kind of artistic magic at play with a blurring of boundaries that attracts and engages with the violence of others. In Waters’ film, The Wall, that ultra-form of majoritarian assertion, fascism, is scary, not a thing to be admired, its surfaces fail to hide the ugliness underneath, as Jews, gays, and people of colour are told to run like hell. In Waters’ work, so many of my fears and anxieties as a trans woman in a transphobic society are realized. They merge with the otherworldly ethereal daydreaming of Pink Floyd’s early 70s zenith as a four-piece band, typified by the hypnotic 'Echoes' and 'Set the Control for the Heart of the Sun.' It is the light and shade, the divine mystery interacting with real-world angst of my gender identity and its social consequences, and this is why, as a trans woman writing in a fearful time, I identify with the work and the aesthetics of the angsty, anti-fascist Roger Waters.