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.
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