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’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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