David Gilmour and Polly Samson Take LA by Musical and Literary Storm
With Gilmour playing his first American shows in a decade, seen here at the Hollywood Bowl, there was a rare opportunity for the couple to appear together to discuss their collaborations.
It’s a rare rock star that has a spouse with professional creative skills of their own, much less the ability to help write songs together, but David Gilmour does. Gilmour occupies lofty heights in rock 'n' roll’s pantheon of all time greats. The Pink Floyd guitarist is a true Jedi Master of the six-string, using that sonic lightsaber of sorts to help create some of the most influential music of all time. He even looks a bit like the aging Obi-Wan Kenobi these days at age 70, whereas he looked a bit like the younger Ewan McGregor version in the '70s.
Coincidence? Not for those who subscribe to the Jedi religion and also worship at the electric sky church of rock 'n' roll.
Gilmour has affected countless musicians and millions of music fans with his prodigious lead guitar skills, heartfelt vocals and songwriting that impacts the pop culture landscape like few others have. Gilmour’s wife Polly Samson, meanwhile, has staked out her own career as a novelist, while also penning some of the lyrics for her husband’s songs on Pink Floyd albums The Division Bell and The Endless River, as well as his solo albums On an Island and 2015’s Rattle That Lock. Her latest novel, The Kindness, was published in 2015, while her 2010 short story collection Perfect Lives is just now being published in the United States in 2016.
With Gilmour playing his first American shows in a decade, there was a rare opportunity for the couple to make an appearance together at downtown Los Angeles’ The Last Bookstore to discuss their collaborations on the eve of Gilmour’s Hollywood Bowl show on 24 March. The pleasingly old school bookstore was packed, ostensibly with Pink Floyd fans, although Samson was the star on this night. She first appeared by herself to talk about some of her writing methods before Gilmour joined her to help field questions on their songwriting collaborations.
“I always want to write about the past and present simultaneously because I think that’s a key to life,” Samson said of her penchant for shifting point of view between past and present. She also discussed her use of Method writing, similar to the Hollywood technique of Method acting wherein the writer or actor impersonates a character in their own mind to better get inside that character’s state of mind. Samson said she likes to get away from her computer screen and take Method style walkabouts. “I walk as that character and it’s an amazing process… and then by the time I make it back to the computer, the writing flows”, Samson explained.
Samson’s books may not be for everyone, as their tone leans toward a classical literature style that could be a bit dry for some modern pop culture consumers. However, the short stories of Perfect Lives do contain some of the Floydian flavor of British existential realism conjured in classic songs like “Time” from Dark Side of the Moon. Floyd bassist Roger Waters wrote those lyrics, but Samson is a Brit as well, and has clearly developed a similar comradery with Gilmour, her husband since 1994 when they wedded during the Division Bell tour.
Gilmour soon joined Samson on the bookstore couch as the conversation turned to their songwriting, which Samson said was “Rather similar to writing a short story but shorter.” She noted that she has to be “aware of seeing the world not through my eyes, but through David’s eyes,” and added that “empathy is maybe the most important skill for a writer to possess,” speaking to both books and songs.
Samson noted she was originally wary that their musical collaboration could lead to charges of Yoko Ono-type creative interference, but that she now embraces the partnership. Gilmour said Samson is “better at hunting for the right words” and that he generally likes to come up with music first, then let her work on the stuff that she likes.
“That’s kind of the great moment when you marry the two together,” Gilmour said, elucidating the feeling of songwriters everywhere, “just like someone has waved a wand.” Samson said Gilmour sometimes scats melodies over music and she works from that as a roadmap, noting that he “sometimes sounds like he’s speaking in tongues.”
The couple also talked about “A Boat Lies Waiting”, a song from Rattle That Lock that wound up becoming dedicated to late Pink Floyd keyboardist Rick Wright. Gilmour said he wrote the music on piano and then Samson spoke of how they worked on the lyrics while sitting at the beach. They’d both been hit hard by Wright’s passing and the homage emerged more in the lyrics.
The talk concluded with the subject of art as a family activity, with Samson saying that “for us, it’s a part of our daily lives”. The couple also fielded some questions from the audience, with the topic predictably turning more to Pink Floyd music. One fan from Mexico pleaded for some Mexican shows, with Gilmour responding that he can’t be everywhere as he’s just not that interested in being on tour anymore. It’s an understandable sentiment for a musician who has spent decades on the road and earned the right to do things his own way.
David Gilmour at the Hollywood Bowl
American Pink Floyd fans were therefore understandably abuzz about having the chance to see Gilmour back in action on a short North American run that would hit just four cities -- Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto and New York. Fans traveled from around the west coast for the tour opener at the Hollywood Bowl, coming from Phoenix, San Francisco and probably many other distant points. Samson’s books were also for sale in addition to Gilmour merch.
The classic venue set in the Hollywood hills would prove a special place to witness the show, with Gilmour teaming with former Pink Floyd lighting director Marc Brickman to arrange a visual spectacle that was tailor made for the Bowl’s unique architecture. This became apparent early on as the visuals appeared not just on the screen behind the band but also extended to the arced shell that engulfs the stage, creating an immersive multi-dimensional effect on the senses.
Gilmour’s classic Fender rang bright and true from the start on the title track from the new album. Fans who were unsure of how much Pink Floyd they might get were pleasantly surprised as Gilmour delivered the ultra-classic “Wish You Were Here” just three songs into the show, and the set list would ultimately prove to be about two-thirds Floyd. David Crosby made a special guest appearance to assist on vocals for “A Boat Lies Waiting” and “The Blue” and would return in the second set for more “big fun” as he later described the appearance on Twitter.
The first set was highlighted by the performance of “Money”, with the Floydian psychedelic visuals kicking up a notch and Gilmour delivering a sizzling fuzzy guitar solo that sparked the night. Gilmour kept the momentum going with the classic jazzy psychedelia of “Us and Them”, which sounded simply gorgeous under the Hollywood stars. A Rock 'n' roll master class was in session as Gilmour delivered another spectacular solo that maximized the song’s sonic grandeur.
The new “In Any Tongue” shifted gears in a more melancholy direction with the song about the futility of war, showing how much Gilmour and Pink Floyd bassist Waters still have in common. They represent one of rock’s most famous estrangements, yet don’t seem so far apart musically or in their humanitarian sentiments, what with Waters having cranked up the anti-war message of The Wall on his tours behind the album from 2010-2013. “High Hopes”, a tune from The Division Bell co-written with Samson, closed the set with another blast of Floydian sonic grandeur as Gilmour began the the reflective song on acoustic guitar and built to a crescendo with a searing pedal steel guitar solo.
Gilmour went straight into the psychedelic stratosphere to open the second set by using Floyd’s spacey “Astronomy Domine” as a launch pad into “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. The ode to original Pink Floyd guitarist Syd Barrett serves as rock’s ultimate cautionary tale against going too far with the LSD experience that helped catalyze the socio-cultural revolution of the ‘60s. The tune took on an extra poignancy for anyone who may have recently watched VH1’s documentary on the making of the Wish You Were album, with the tale of Gilmour and Waters both breaking down in tears after Barrett showed up during the sessions, out of his mind and looking like a bizarre troll straight out of Middle Earth. Yet the entire album stands as a masterful tribute to one of rock’s most notable lost souls.
“Fat Old Sun” from 1971’s Atom Heart Mother was a surprise highlight, with Gilmour delivering some of his sweetest licks in a melodic jam over a big groove that saw the band gelling on the Floyd deep cut. Gilmour and company also went deep on the Division Bell song, “Coming Back to Life”. Credited solely to Gilmour, the song is said to have been written for Samson and features an uplifting vibe that clearly has significant meaning for him. It paired beautifully with “Fat Old Sun” as both songs featured some of Gilmour’s best lead guitar forays of the night.
The highlights kept flowing as David Crosby returned to help the band on the title track of Gilmour’s 2006 solo album On an Island. Like “Fat Old Sun”, the song opened in an ambient fashion but built in compelling fashion. This jam took on a bluesy psychedelic quality somewhat reminiscent of “Wooden Ships”, the ‘60s classic co-written by Crosby. Gilmour introduced “The Girl in the Yellow Dress” as featuring Samson’s lyrics and the torchy number added a jazzy interlude to the set. The new “Today” picked the energy back up, a song with a big bass line and Floydian vibe that also features lyrics from Samson.
“If this should be my last day on Earth, I’ll sing along”, Gilmour sang in what seems like something of a personal anthem. The high energy song found him in fine form once again, ripping off hot licks with his signature tone on a jam that recalled his work on Floyd classics like “Have a Cigar” and “Young Lust”. Gilmour switched gears with “Sorrow” from 1987’s Momentary Lapse of Reason, going for a bluesy psychedelia that built into another crowd-pleasing jam. This set the stage for the climactic portion of the show, something Gilmour helped write the rock 'n' roll book on.
As the band launched into the kinetic “Run Like Hell”, one of the greatest lighting displays in rock history took place as the Hollywood Bowl was turned into a sensorium that made the venue feel like a spaceship lifting off and soaring into warp drive. The song has always been performed with an epic light show, but this was at a higher level with the pulsing lights tailored to the Bowl’s unique architecture to create a psychedelic vortex of sorts that took the audience on one hell of a ride which concluded with a climactic fireworks display, to boot.
An encore trifecta of “Time”, “Breathe” and “Comfortably Numb” continued the sonic journey into classic Pink Floyd territory with a crowd-pleasing segment that left the audience utterly elated. “Time” is not just a great song, but has become one of pop culture’s most significant touchstones for multiple generations of youth who ever spent time kicking around their hometown frittering the hours in an offhand way while waiting for someone or something to show them the way. The classic psychedelia of “Breathe” likewise recalls those same nights looking for existential meaning while pondering the universal mysteries of the cosmos and an earthbound pathway to an uncertain future.
Ever the showman, Gilmour brought Crosby out a third time to deliver Waters’ vocal part on “Comfortably Numb”, adding an extra classic rock flavor that gave the show yet another special moment to tingle the senses along with a spectacular laser show. Gilmour went for broke on the outro solo, wrapping the show in grand fashion.
When it was all over, there was no doubt Los Angeles had just seen one of its best shows of the decade. Gilmour’s performance also demonstrated a pathway for how rock 'n' rollers can age gracefully yet still deliver the goods, thanks to the rejuvenating power of the music. Hail hail rock ‘n’ roll.