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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.

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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.

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…”

Anyone who believes that is invited to look up what Arthur J Balfour thought about Jews (Try ‘One Palestine Complete’ by Segev).

Also, when accusing someone of antisemitism these days, verbatim quotes are an absolute must.

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.

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.

I’m sorry, but I have to protect this person’s identity.

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.

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.

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.