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.
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?
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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