NEW YORK — Roger Waters, the British rock legend and co-founder of Pink Floyd, brought his “This Is Not A Drill” tour to New York City on August 30 and 31, just days before his 79th birthday. The two-night run’s opener saw a full — but not sold-out — crowd at Madison Square Garden, and began with a warning. “If you’re one of those ‘I love Pink Floyd, but I can’t stand Roger’s politics’ people,” Waters’s pre-recorded voice echoed, “you might do well to fuck off to the bar right now.”
No one could say they weren’t warned.
It’s fair to say most people by now know what they are getting with a Roger Waters ticket. Pink Floyd’s bass player — and, toward the end of his tenure, primary songwriter — is extremely vocal about numerous causes, and has been an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel.
Any attendees unaware of this were surely alerted by the protesters at the entrance to New York City’s foremost concert and sports arena.
“Roger Waters is a Jew hater! Who wants to hear why Roger Waters hates Jews?!!” a woman cried out. Most people in line (a healthy mix of ages, but skewing Boomer, and almost entirely white) ignored her, but one fired back, “He’s not against Jews, he’s against Israel!”
The protester, Michelle Ahdoot, alongside actor Yuval David and others wearing T-shirts that read #EndJewHatred, was eager to tell me that “this is apolitical, nothing to do with politics. We are here because Roger Waters spews hatred and lies.”
(Another group, some with shirts from Yad Yamin, an organization whose Facebook page says it wants to “take the fight to those who intimidate, harass and use violence against Jews and pro-Israel advocates,” also held signs and flags, and were a little more aggressive in their approach.)
When I asked for a specific example of Waters’s Jew-hatred, Ahdoot told me that during the concert his video projection screens show the name of recently killed Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. In her words, she was “horrendously murdered and shot, but it is still inconclusive where that bullet came from. Yet on the backdrop it says, ‘Shireen, crime: Palestinian, committed by the IDF.’ That is a lie. That’s a false narrative with 30,000 people in the audience.”
Some of what Ahdoot said is true. Some of it is not. (MSG’s capacity is just shy of 20,000, but we’ll let that slide.) When Waters performs the song “The Powers that Be” (the night’s sole representative of the 1987 solo album “Radio K.A.O.S.”) there is, on the enormous video screens, an animated sequence featuring violent, stylized police brutality. Intercut are the names of individuals who have died in conflict with armed authority figures, including George Floyd, Eric Garner and Breonna Taylor. On the card reads their name in big letters, then location, crime and punishment.
For these three the location is an American city, the crime listed is “being black” and the punishment is “death.” Also in the mix is Ali Al-Hamda, a Syrian teen who was killed by Turkish police, Rashan Charles, who died while struggling with British police, and Matheus Melo Castro, shot by police in Brazil.
There are other names on the screen, including Ahmaud Arbery, a Black American gunned down in Georgia not by police but by local citizens, and also Shireen Abu Akleh. Nowhere does it say “committed by the IDF,” as per the protester’s claim. Here is a photo from the show in Albany, New York.
Roger Waters (co-founded Pink Floyd) paid tribute to Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh during his concert in New York earlier this week.❤️ pic.twitter.com/brAOQGgD1m
— Amr Fahmy (@iamrfahmy) August 24, 2022
Political content is a constant on the elaborate, state-of-the-art screens that hover about Waters in-the-round stage. (Only when he’s talking nostalgically about his old band, and we see pics of the lads in their prime, is the sloganeering put to rest.) There are other moments that touch upon the Middle East.
Case in point, the song “Deja Vu,” which was known as “Lay Down Jerusalem [If I Had Been God]” prior to it being recorded on his 2017 album “Is This The Life We Really Want?.”
During its performance, a slew of phrases project on the screens — among them, “Fuck Drones,” and “Fuck the Supreme Court.” Then comes one that reads “Fuck Occupation,” and another that reads, “You Can’t Have Occupation And Human Rights.” A graphics trick happens next where the word “Rights” stays on the screen and other words scroll to appear next to them. It begins “Human Rights,” then “Equal Rights,” then “Palestinian Rights,” “Yemeni Rights,” “Indigenous Rights,” “Trans Rights” and others.
The refrain “Lay Down Jerusalem” coincides with these later slides.
The song’s lyrics are vaguely about world peace and brotherhood (and also some kvetching about getting old.) It references the crucifixion as the work of the Romans, which is certainly uncommon for one being accused of Jew-hatred.
The only other reference to Jews (apart from a quote from Franz Kafka on the screen) comes in the song “In The Flesh,” a satirical number from “The Wall” in which Waters dresses as a fascist and screams about wishing he could shoot all minorities. Notably, the “flying pig” made a return for this number. In the past, Waters was criticized by the ADL because it featured a Star of David alongside a hammer-and-sickle, dollar sign and the logo for Royal Dutch Shell. This time there were merely images of war and slogans like “Fuck The Poor.”
— Michael Woods (@Woodsy1069) August 31, 2022
Lastly, during the song “Us and Them,” there is a UNICEF-like video representing the divide between the haves and have-nots. Among the shots of walls and borders, there is the West Bank barrier. However, one would have to know what it looks like to catch it, as it is unlabeled.
There was a lot else in the show: a song dedicated to Native Americans who protested at Standing Rock, a localized land recognition for the Munsee Lenape Indians, a plea to free Julian Assange, and a montage of every US president labeled as war criminals, listing the foreign death toll on their watch. (For Joe Biden, it read “just getting started.”)
For the most part, these political moments got cheers from the audience. However, during one of Waters’s spoken wind-ups, a character straight out of Noo Yawk central casting seated behind me did, I swear, shout, “Enough tawkin’ Roger, sing!!” Which was met with laughter.
Considering that every political movement that’s trended on Twitter over the past few years gets a moment in “This Is Not A Drill,” there was a noticeable absence concerning the situation in Ukraine. Earlier this month, Waters made it clear he was on the side of Russian appeasement in the conflict.
Also unmentioned was the reported $500 million bid by private equity company Blackstone (among others) for the Pink Floyd musical catalog. Somehow in the tirade against the oligarchs and sympathy for indigenous people — not to mention the horrors of capitalism referenced in the tune “Money” — this news item didn’t make the program.
Two other discordant moments: Slides that saluted visionaries who foresaw our current dystopia included writers like George Orwell and Aldous Huxley — but also shouted-out president Dwight D. Eisenhower for his military-industrial complex speech.
Roger Waters likes Ike? I didn’t see that coming.
Also, for someone who is so visibly left-wing (a shot of Dr. Cornell West appears on the screen at one point) the 2017 song “Is This The Life We Want?” has the word “fags” in it. Unlike “In The Flesh,” which is clearly satirical and in quotes (and is also from a less sensitive time), the use here in this modern song is ambiguous and surprising. There are many in the gay community who feel that straight people just should not use that word, and I’m sure Waters knows that.
As I watched the show, I had many thoughts. As a production, as entertainment, it was incredible. I don’t think I’d seen anything that flashy in my life. The sound was immaculate, too, and I was very glad he played the full intro to “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” Given the band’s need to be synced up to the video projections, however, there isn’t much room for improvisation. The other living members of Pink Floyd have a much looser approach to their live shows. I saw David Gilmour at Madison Square Garden in 2016 and Nick Mason at the Beacon Theatre in 2019, and, musically, those were “fresher” affairs.
But I also kept thinking about my conversation with Yuval David, the calm and friendly protester outside the arena.
“You feel Roger Waters is an antisemite?” I asked him.
“We don’t feel he’s an antisemite, we know he’s an antisemite,” he said. “He promotes a false narrative, and it’s very dangerous when someone with such a big reach shares a false narrative of hate.”
David, who does not have an Israeli accent, also related a story about meeting Waters 15 years ago, in which the performer was dismissive against “people like you,” and “put his hands in my face,” in David’s words. I have no way of corroborating this.
So what’s the verdict? It’s clear Waters keeps Israel top of mind. (Just this month he distributed a video of himself sobbing as he watched imagery from the conflict in Gaza.) But America, where Waters lives, gets most of the negative attention during the show.
Calling someone a Jew hater, to me, is a strong accusation. Is Roger Waters at home, seething as he looks up questionable facts about the Rothschild family? Is he underlining his well-read copy of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion?”
Anything is possible, but there isn’t any evidence of that in what I saw at Madison Square Garden. A vague call for “Palestinian Rights” amidst a laundry list of other slogans is not Jew-hatred, in the opinion of this New York-based Zionist.
One of the songs toward the end of the show, “Two Suns in the Sunset,” is about the danger of nuclear war. In introducing it, he spoke with genuine passion about disarmament, and a fear of global destruction.
It’s my belief that Roger Waters is a very wealthy man who has picked up (in the words of “The Wall”) being a “bleeding heart” as something of a hobby. He exists in such a tower of binary thinking that on the topic of Israel there’s no need for nuance. Short of cornering him with truth serum, I can’t know what he actually thinks about Jews, but for the many who believe you can be critical of Israel without having a bias against Jewish people, his show toes that line.
As I exited, with the propulsive disco beat of “Run Like Hell” still in my head, there were two older gentlemen walking down the halted escalators ahead of me.
“He’s still great,” one said. “But the show is way too political,” the other countered. “Even if you agreed with him, it’s just too much, he’s gotta tone it down.”
Then the two men sighed when they realized there were many more floors to go.
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