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Pink Floyd’s Toxic Waters

As a 16-year-old Israeli, I loved The Wall. At Yankee Stadium last week, I saw its moral failure.

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Roger Waters during “The Wall Live” world tour. (Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty Images)

I grew up in a small town just outside of Tel Aviv, and because there wasn’t a lot to do I joined the scouts. Unlike its American counterpart, the Israeli scouts are a co-ed organization dedicated mainly to getting together and talking about values and being good citizens and helpful members of the community and patriotic Zionists. When you turn 16, you and your friends are awarded the highest honor in the scouts’ ceremonially inclined universe: You get to plan the Memorial Day commemoration.

It’s a major event. People come from all over town to honor fallen sons and brothers and friends. And, year after year, they expect more or less the same thing: a few poems, a few classic Israeli sad songs about dying prematurely, maybe a somber speech or two. But then it was my group’s turn to put on the show. We were a year away from joining the army ourselves and couldn’t help but think that all the dead we commemorated had been, a year or two before their demise, doing the same thing we were now doing: planning a Memorial Day tribute to those who had died before them. We decided to be antiwar. And because we were 16, and this was the early 1990s, we turned to The Wall.

Is there a more perfect soundtrack to accompany the fits and starts of an adolescent’s political awareness than Pink Floyd’s rock opera? The chords are strong, the lyrics clear and simple. Army Radio, the nation’s most popular station, chose “Another Brick in the Wall” as the Song of the Decade. We scribbled the album’s logo, a crudely drawn wall, on every notebook and urinal wall. And so, for our ceremony, we decided to play “Goodbye Blue Sky,” one of the most powerful tracks on the album.

People came in, like they always do, expecting to hear renditions of Shlomo Artzi or Shalom Hanoch. Instead, they got this: “Did you see the frightened ones? /Did you hear the falling bombs? /Did you ever wonder why we had to run for shelter /When the promise of a brave new world /Unfurled beneath a clear blue sky?” It was a big scandal, but we felt vindicated. We had taken a stand. We were political. We did what Roger Waters told us to do and questioned authority.

Then we grew up. We served in the army. We lost friends. Before too long, there was an actual wall in Israel, and the actual Roger Waters became one of its most ardent critics. Being a lefty, I sympathized with much of what Waters had to say about Israel and the Palestinians. I loved it when he visited the West Bank in 2006 and took the time to graffiti “tear down this wall” on the wall. But listening to The Wall again as an adult, I began to think that the album was far from the rousing rock classic I remembered from my childhood. When Roger Waters brought the live version of the extravaganza to New York last weekend, I decided to check it out. I wanted to see if this discomfort I’ve been feeling for years now was justified, or if The Wall truly was the masterpiece 16-year-old me loved so ardently. I didn’t need to wait more than 15 minutes into the show to get my answer: The Wall is morally and politically corrupt and artistically limp.

***

To understand just how dismal it is, imagine filing in to Yankee Stadium, taking your seat, and trying to ignore the fact that you’ve come to see a rock concert that’s all about sticking it to the man, and yet right above your head there’s an enormous billboard for Fox News that features a single word: “Power.” Imagine that you’re thirsty—it’s 90 degrees outside—but the only two beverages available where you sit are a cup of Bud Light for $9.50 or a bottle of Skinny Mini Margarita, $12. Then imagine a public-service announcement telling you that the massive wall you see on stage—it goes on for yards and is made from modular white plastic panels, like the world’s largest IKEA bookcase—will serve as a giant screen throughout the concert, and that if you want to take photos with your iPhone you should toggle off your flash because it interferes with the projection.

Still in the mood to rock? Imagine Waters coming out on stage, and—we’ll say nothing unkind about his age (he’s 68)—prancing over to a mannequin that holds his leather jacket and his shades. He sings “In the Flesh,” which is the finest song in the show, and you notice that his voice, which was never great or even adequate but always managed to scratch its way into making whatever point it was trying to make, is in such disrepair that it forces Waters to swallow his words and mangle his diction and makes you wonder if he’d changed lyrics you know by heart. But soon you’re distracted: There’s a cardboard German Stuka bomber zooming on a wire right above your head, crashing into the wall, and catching fire.

Such moments of pleasure or distraction don’t last long. The second song, “The Thin Ice,” is accompanied by images and names of victims of violence and war projected onto each of the wall’s bricks—starting with Waters’ own father, who died in Italy during World War II. By the time the song ends, the stage is flooded with hundreds of images of dead men, women, and children. You recall that tickets were $150 and wish you hadn’t scoffed at the nice lady selling Skinny Mini Margaritas.

And then, the moment you’ve been waiting for: the classic-rock anthem that is “Another Brick in the Wall.” A gigantic puppet of a monstrous teacher—based on Gerald Scrafe’s animation from the 1982 movie version—is unleashed on stage, with a mouth that resembles a rectum and two glowing-red LCD eyes. One imagines Waters carefully considering the spectacle and finding it lacking, because a minute into the proceedings 15 children come running onto the stage, wearing black t-shirts that read “Fear Builds Walls.” They wag their fingers at the teacher puppet and dance happily. Checking my Twitter account, I noticed that Donald Trump Jr., sitting a few rows away, had tweeted the song’s most famous lyrics: “We don’t need no education.” It’s an axiom the Trumps have proven true.

And then comes the moment that turned the whole thing from a bombastic exercise in bad taste to a beacon of moral turpitude. The song ends, and the wall is taken over by an animated subway train. Suddenly, the excellent surround sound system booms with seven gunshots, and the screen is filled with the portrait of a young man. Waters introduces him as Jean Charles de Menezes; this portion of the show, he says, is dedicated to him. De Menezes, Waters explains, was a young Brazilian engineer who was on vacation in England in 2005 when the British police attacked him in a tube station, shooting him seven times in the head. No one, Waters howls, was ever held accountable for his death, despite repeated attempts by his parents to pursue justice. Waters urges us to remember de Menezes, together with “all other victims of state terror all over the world.” If we give our police too much power, the rock star thunders, “it’s a very steep and slippery slope to tyranny. On a happier note, what about those kids?”

Everyone applauded the kids, but I was still thinking about de Menezes. Because facts matter, here’s a brief description of what happened to him: He was not an engineer but an electrician, not on vacation but overstaying his visa and eager to find work in London. When the police approached him that day in the tube, he was jittery. Why was he jittery? Because he had no papers. Why had the police approached him? Because two weeks before de Menezes was killed, terrorists had detonated three bombs on subway trains and one on a bus, killing 52 people and wounding more than 700 more, and because the day before de Menezes was killed, another four bombs were set off and the bombers were believed to reside in the same housing project as the unlucky Brazilian. Against protocol and human decency, the police opened fire almost immediately, killing de Menezes. Several days later, Scotland Yard announced its investigation. It also said that it would break with usual procedure in cases of fatalities resulting from police shootings and refuse to hand over its report to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, citing national security. Regardless, the IPCC, working with lawyers representing the de Menezes family, started its own investigation. Awhile later, ITV ran a story with leaked details from the IPCC’s investigation, casting the police in an unflattering light. Several suits ensued, and all found the evidence inconclusive and no reason to take further action against any of the officers or their superiors. The de Menezes family appealed to the High Court and lost.

None of it mattered to the dude sitting in front of me. “Fucking pigs!” he muttered as Waters concluded his story. “I’m telling you, fucking police just fuck up whoever they want. It’s no fucking democracy, it’s a fucking joke.” I was tempted to tap him on the shoulder and tell him about the terrorism that put the case into context and about how, contrary to Waters’ claims, the de Menezes case is actually a prime example of how, in a democracy, everyone is held accountable—in this case by two separate police commissions, alert news media, and a host of judicial circuits. But Waters had already moved on to the next song, and it was too loud to attempt serious conversation.

Now, I suspect, is the point in which many of you may press forth some version of the following argument: Lighten up. It’s a rock show. He’s an entertainer. You can’t take it too seriously. At least his heart is in the right place, no?

No.

When you’re Roger Waters, a former member of an iconic rock band, Pink Floyd, whose show plays sold-out houses each night and has grossed $350 million to date, what you say matters. You’re perfectly welcome to choose to say political things. But if you choose to say political things, you should remember that talking about abuses of power and tyranny and police brutality isn’t the same as shouting “Hello, New York!” If you choose to talk about de Menezes, you have to get your facts straight. If you don’t, you are just as much of a corrosive asshole as those journalists and politicians and clergymen who lie to sell their narrow agendas. You’re not an alternative to corrupt institutions; you are one.

I hoped that the de Menezes incident would be a temporary lapse of judgment. It wasn’t. Waters played “Run Like Hell” against the backdrop of Wikileaks’ “Collateral Murder” video, which shows the killing of two unarmed Iraqi reporters by an American Apache helicopter crew that mistook them for combatants. An on-screen text displayed the names of the assault’s victims and assured them that they are remembered. Again, no context was provided; if you need some, just ask a furious Stephen Colbert.

By the time the intermission—yep, intermission, like in a play or an opera—came around, I was ready for a respite. But the wall was slowly covered by the faces and stories of victims of violence, and I, miserable wretch, had to read them all. Some  were American soldiers who had died in World War II and Vietnam and Iraq. Others were Iraqis killed by Americans, Iranians killed by Iraqis, Jews killed by Nazis, and Nazis killed by the Soviets. A handful were political leaders who were assassinated—Gandhi, Salvador Allende, Olaf Palme. And two were Rachel Corrie, the American activist killed by the IDF when she tried to stop a bulldozer from razing a Palestinian home, and Bassem Abu Rahmah, a Palestinian who was killed when an IDF soldier shot him in the head with a teargas canister. Here’s the text that accompanied Abu Rahmah’s snapshot: “On Friday, April 18, 2009, after noon’s prayers, while at the front of the demonstration against the building of the Israeli apartheid wall, Israeli occupation soldiers shot a gas canister directly at Bassem’s head and he was killed on the spot. Bassem is one of many faceless and nameless Palestinian Arab victims of the Israeli apartheid and occupation machine.”

I’ve written about Abu Rahmeh in this magazine, and I can confidently report that he was not killed by Israeli occupation soldiers or because he demonstrated against the building of the Israeli “apartheid wall.” He was killed by soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, who shot him in clear violation of their army’s own engagement protocol. He was not protesting an apartheid wall—which makes it seem like a symbol of an abstract evil—but the very real wall that had torn his village, Bili’in, in two, a construction built on purloined Palestinian property that Israel’s own Supreme Court repeatedly and unequivocally denounced as illegal. So, while I join Roger Waters in his oft-stated view that the occupation is a moral travesty, an economic catastrophe, and a human-rights disaster, and while I applaud his decision to join those who are committed to bringing the occupation to an end, what I saw when I looked at his wall on Friday was something that I also deplore.

It is tempting even for liberals like myself to ask why Palme and Allende were featured on the wall but not Yitzhak Rabin, a leader slain for his commitment to peace, or why commemorate Abu Rahmeh but not a single victim of Hamas or Hezbollah. For a moment, I was ashamed of myself for thinking like that, for succumbing to the sort of tribal onanism I so despise, which is really just a step away from your uncle forwarding you that email about how many Nobel Prize winners were Jews. But then I realized that what I was feeling was actually a symptom of a much larger unease: Not only were there no Israelis on the wall, but there were no Cambodians, Zimbabweans, Sudanese, Syrians, Nigerians, Somalis, Mexicans, or Saudis. It’s a big world out there, and yet Waters seems to see very little of it that isn’t in some way the exclusive, incontrovertible, and unpardonable fault of the United States or Israel. Sure, we have Holocaust victims and GIs for good measure, but really there can be little doubt that whatever Waters has that approaches an ideology is some Diet Chomsky conviction that the West is corrupt and that Capitalism is evil and that that’s that. And because everything in The Wall has to be delivered in grandiose symbolic fashion, Waters released a large tusked boar balloon into the crowd, emblazoned with religious symbols and the logos of major American corporations. You know, because they’re all bad and all they want is your money—unlike large arena rock shows that clear an average of $2 million a night.

Artistically, Waters didn’t fare much better. In song after song, he brought out Robbie Wyckoff, a talented young vocalist who had recorded with Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, and the animated Disney show Phineas and Ferb, to help Waters finish his own songs. Some of the bits Wyckoff sang were those originally sung by David Gilmour, Waters’ former Pink Floyd bandmate. Other parts were just bits that Waters no longer felt comfortable attempting. Of course, every concert tour, as well as every recording, depends heavily on session musicians, hired contractors who come in and do the grunt work. But seeing the help la-la-la while Waters pranced on stage and clapped his hands was an insult to the entire notion of making art.

And then it occurred to me: Roger Waters isn’t interested in making art. I don’t even think he is interested in making money. He is interested in being Roger Waters. The Wall may be the spectacle to end all spectacles, but—beyond the flying pigs and exploding planes and the HDTV walls—it’s oddly and incredibly personal. It’s not just that it begins with a photo of Waters’ late father; it’s that you listen and realize that every note in this incoherent medley of themes and ideas is played by a raging id with an electric guitar. “Mother’s gonna keep you right here under her wing /She wont let you fly, but she might let you sing;” “Daddy, what else did you leave for me?;” “When I was a child I had a fever /My hands felt just like two balloons /Now I’ve got that feeling once again /I can’t explain you would not understand /This is not how I am /I have become comfortably numb.” Close your eyes, forget that you’re in Yankee stadium with tens of thousands of strangers, and it may very well be just Roger talking to his therapist.

And Waters blew up his intimacies, hoping that if the songs got big enough, and if they were accompanied by pyrotechnics, no one would notice that he’s really being vulnerable and singing about himself. And so, he came up with a cover story: Rather than just sing his stuff, he’ll present it as part of a rock opera about a rock star named Pink who goes mad with power—but it never quite works. Compare it to the Who’s Tommy, the era’s other grandiose rock opera about losing fathers in the war and going on to become deranged idols, and you’ll see how serpentine and opaque The Wall is in comparison. You can’t be a rock star obsessed with power and spectacle, stage a show about a rock star obsessed with power and spectacle, and expect people to see it as a blistering critique of rock stars obsessed with power and spectacle. To paraphrase Popeye, you are what you are, and Roger Waters, all good intentions aside, is Pink, a rock star lost in the infinite regress of an arena rock show, who travels the world with a wall 35 feet high and 240 feet wide, with 66 production assistants commuting in six buses, and 21 trucks hauling 112 tons of equipment—and not one bit of soul.

***

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julis123 says:

Where are the good intentions? He protests against a barrier (95% of it is not a wall) that has helped to save thousands of Israeli lives. This isn’t a theoretical argument. The barrier helps keep my children safe from being blown up while eating piazza or riding a bus. I don’t call that good intentions. And I consider anyone who would help people to harm my family to be an enemy.

    Remember Liel does not live in Israel and has lost touch with our “reality”. It also appears that he is embarrassed to be identified or relate to being a Jew/Israeli. We once again witness the need to feel “universalism” without understanding that one needs to first have a “particular” identity in which to relate. In his words he feels “tribalism” is somehow old-school and not worthy of self-respect. When one feels comfortable with who one is then you are able to transcend the particular. Until then you are a prisoner of your own making.

The best thing about adolescence is that, soon or later, it ends. I loved Pink Floyd too. Thanks for the article; now I don’t need to see the show.

Excellent perspective irrespective of one’s political position. The contradictions in the themes presented and the performance fundamentals are important to keep in mind. How can he criticize big corporations and capitalism, when the show itself is a marketing phenomena. And cherry picking the examples is how any demagogue influences society with half truths devoid of context. Not to mention the crowd getting what it wants to hear…America and capitalism are to blame for all thats wrong in the world. Confirmation bias. Its really the omnipotent state versus the individual that causes the violence. War is the health of the state.

Nigel Kat says:

The Waters/Floyd “Wall” has always been the sad, personal ‘raging id’ of which Liebowitz writes so well. Back in 1980, having been persuaded to go to see the show at Earls Court, I felt the same distaste. The tunes were good and the sound was the best of its kind at the time (in an awful, postwar concrete barn of a venue) but Waters clearly hated the band and disliked the spectacle of ‘concert’ in which he and they were to perform.

His lyrics blamed everybody else for his interior glumness. Parents, teachers, ‘the State,’ all authority figures of adolescent and ill-educated victimhood paraded across the stage in the form of Scarfe’s dummies and various projections back then too. (I enjoyed the flying pig, though, a refugee or possibly a salvage item from their earlier ‘Animals’ show.) Some of the words were about how hard life was for Waters, the
multi-millionaire, to play music in public so often for those who wanted to hear it and see him. Poor diddums.

Save for a number or two at the beginning, the entire “Wall” show was a demonstration of his utter self-immersion at the expense of the public, people who liked his and
their music enough to pay good money to see them. If he hated us and the band didn’t care, save possibly for technical proficiency and delivering a spectacle, how did that make us feel? This wasn’t just disdain, he and they were pissing on us all, metaphorically speaking, as his road crew physically walled them off. Now we couldn’t even see who was playing – was it a machine? Or the fabled dummy Floyd? Ha-bloody-ha. No applause for that one. Not a particularly deep or clever metaphor and certainly not great art.

Trouble was, and is, that the tunes are so catchy and the production so good that the mocked audience was singing along and most were duly impressed. Sounds like not much has changed there either.

Popular musicians, like other artists, often make art from personal unhappiness. To take Leonard Cohen and Pete Townshend as two examples, contemporaries of Waters and wildly divergent figures. Nonetheless, both stir the soul. As your columnist points out, Waters’ flashy, shallow show betrays his music and lyrics as a lesser art. Or just a giant rock star wank.

A very close friend of mine toured with RW and said he spewed anti-Semitic crap often; not anti-Israel, mind you, anti-Jewish. I’m reminded of someone’s great line: Not all anti-Zionists are anti-Semites, but all anti-Semites are anti-Zionists.

berger says:

I think Tablet’s subtitle should be “Of course the Occupation is awful but…”

herbcaen says:

The reason Waters opposes Israel’s barrier is because it saves Jewish lives. Depriving terrorists of their rights to kill Jews is a grave offense. This is why I dont listen to either Wagner or Pink Floyd. Their music is imbued with anti-semitism-it is impossible to separate

Jeffrey Landaw says:

Heloisa Pait is dead right, and so is Julis 123. Kat’s post reminded me of a quote I got, I forget where, from someone called Traa, a bassist for a rock group called P.O.D.: “I can’t relate to any artist who lives in a $4 million house and sings about being depressed.”

I had the same experience as you a few days ago. I listened to the Wall for the first time in years but couldn’t get past a few songs. I understood why so many people hate it. Its really dismal bombastic music and not that good.
As a 15 year old Israeli in the Seventies the first rock concert I ever saw was the Wall in Earls Court (London) and it was the most amazing show I have ever seen.
In the early Eighties the show was revived (I had moved to London) and became a favorite with English Neo-Nazis because of its Fascist imagery. It was said the Floyd didn’t even play in most of the show. They just popped on at the end.
The opinions Waters expresses are standard Eighties British undergraduate left stuff which I suppose he has never got beyond. They are not original or intelligent. They are frequently – as you note – morally bankrupt and absurd.

monkeygrudge says:

That’s all terribly sad, but the album was recorded in the late 70s, and that’s the context in which I listen to it. There is one example I can think of, from The Pros and Cons…which describes a nightmare: “There were Arabs with knives at the foot of the bed.” That gave me pause, and was a definite indicator of his failing lyrical prowess. I liked K.A.O.S. well enough because I was an idiot. What God Wants is mostly crap. He was best when part of a group.

What fried my bananas was announced he was touring The Wall again, and there would be no opening act, no new music, and no encores; adding to that the whole registration program required to buy tickets online, where I eventually found tickets ranged from $300 to $1400. I agree Roger is in love with being and playing Roger, who has now become a sad, shriveled caricature of his former self, while his ego strokes itself into senility.

Floyd still rocks, but Roger has become as useful as a detached dick.

Uzi T says:

Well written, but I think we need to make a separation between the music and the artist and his behavior. You don’t have to like RW to enjoy this album. The moral failure is not with the music(which is beautiful), but with the person and the system that corrupted him and us.

The ideals related to rebellion, anti-war and freedom, and society were all bought and turned into a meaningless product. We should be mad at this manipulation of our beliefs and of art, but RW cannot be blamed for the broken hopes and moral failure of a whole generation.

Liel Leibovitz should not be wasting her considerable talents on such a minor figure.

    sasa says:

    Liel is a man, man.

    One wonders if you’d make the same comment had you known he was male or do you just save your wisdom for the ladies.

Ted Mittelstaedt says:

One of the mistakes that people often make with music like “The Wall” is not understanding that this is “studio music”, not “performance music”
A performance piece is something like “The Sun will Come out” (from Annie) or any piece from Phantom of the Opera – it is a piece that only sounds good when sung live. That’s why people continue to pay for tickets to Phantom – because the CDs of the performances pretty much suck.
But songs like everything in the album “The Wall” or “Dark Side of the Moon” are carefully timed and put together pieces that simply do not exist as discrete songs. NONE of the tunes from The Wall were EVER performed in a single take in the studio, what you hear on the album has undergone an enormous amount of sound processing. It isn’t possible to duplicate them in live performances, and it is a mistake to assume the live performances of them are anything other than pale shadows of what came out of the studio.
For a more modern version of this listen to anything from Marshall Mathers. Those are also studio songs, not performance songs.
Anyone going to a Pink Floyd concert is going to be sorely disappointed. I learned that years ago when I went and heard them in the Seattle Kingdome. I should have taken a baggie of hash with me and toked out during the concert like so many other people were doing, but I was dumb, and went expecting to hear what was on the albums.
As for the politics of the situation, the world is filled with incidents of people who were wrongly killed. This should not be a contest on which side has the largest body count in a dispute. Perhaps as Liel Leibovitz says, there are mitigating circumstances that make it understandable that British police officers wrongly killed someone. However, that does not change the fact that the officers have (apparently) suffered nothing, and a man is dead. As for Abu Rahmeh, so OK the account is wrong – but, once more, a man is dead, and what punishment have the people who shot him suffered? They aren’t dead, they are alive and their families still have them. If Liel wants to get mad at Waters for politicizing the issue, fine. Where is his sympathy for the families of the dead and their pleas for justice?
I think what should be an axiom here is that if a police officer or a soldier wrongly kills someone, they should at minimum never be allowed to hold a gun or any other kind of weapon the rest of their lives, period. That would be the absolute bare minimum. It is a shame that people have to inject all of the politics into this, as the politics obscure the fundamental fact that a soldier or officer trusted with a weapon breaks that trust with a wrongful death, and once broken, it can never be healed. Permanent removal of their right to hold a weapon, and the consequences that follow from that, should be the bare minimmum, and we should be angry if that has not happened.

tcohen1267 says:

Great post. I have never seen eye to eye with Waters’ politics, just the music and spectacle. Roger sat on the sidelines while his ex-bandmates made gazillions and put on incredible and dazzling stadium shows. I cannot and will not fault Roger for getting in on the act (and as for Tommy, the Who did sell that masterpiece to Broadway). Waters’ hypocracy is a bit infantile, just as his psyche seems to be. But there are serious problems in our world, whether pointed out by an obvious hypocrite, a racist or a serious campaigner for change. Sometimes we are forced to endure some discomfort to reap the rewards…and The Wall, in all of its glory, is something to behold.

Elliott says:

I was struck by the contrast in two positions the author takes in the article.

First, when referring to the de Menezes case in London, the author writes: “None of it mattered to the dude sitting in front of me. “Fucking pigs!” he muttered as Waters concluded his story. “I’m telling you, fucking police just fuck up whoever they want. It’s no fucking democracy, it’s a fucking joke.” I was tempted to tap him on the shoulder and tell him about the terrorism that put the case into context…”

Second, when he refers to the situation in the West Bank in Israel, he states: “I join Roger Waters in his oft-stated view that the occupation is a moral travesty, an economic catastrophe, and a human-rights disaster…”

In this case, I am the one who is now “tempted to tap him on the shoulder and tell him about the terrorism that put the case into context…”

geedavey says:

Why do bullies pick on smaller kids? Because it’s safe. Why do ideologues pick on the United States and Israel? Because we have free speech and are democracies, and it’s safe. Pick on Iran a little too much, and you’re likely to end up hanging in a hotel room, an apparent “suicide”.

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Pink Floyd’s Toxic Waters

As a 16-year-old Israeli, I loved The Wall. At Yankee Stadium last week, I saw its moral failure.