Roger Waters and me - a complicated relationship
In order to experience a communal musical event with 20,000 or 30,000 other people, you just might have to bump elbows with people who don't think like you.
Roger and me. It's complicated.
I'm a 40-year fan of Pink Floyd, one of the lucky ones who got to see the iconic band play The Wall in 1980 at the Nassau County Coliseum in one of the few live shows that launched the double album. And when Roger Waters split with guitarist David Gilmour and other members of the English quartet, the latter taking the band name with them, I remained loyal to Waters, supporting his solo projects and watching him tour in various incarnations.
In the early years, my affinity for his music was just that. Sure, I read the liner notes, but the message of the music was secondary to me. Later in life it became an issue. Like when two days after the fifth anniversary of 9/11, I sat in the front row at Madison Square Garden seeing Waters perform Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety. Watching just three miles from what was still known as Ground Zero, I was in no mood for his antagonism toward the U.S. war on terror, and certainly not ready to see an inflatable pig float over the crowd with the words Habeas Corpus Matters painted on the side.
Still, I never stopped loving the music, and I started paying closer attention to the message. Sometimes I agreed, often not.
Five years post 9/11, I wasn't bothered by the idea of presumed terrorists sitting in Guantanamo Bay without having been charged with a crime. But now it's a decade later. At the end of the Obama administration, 41 men were still held at Gitmo out of the 779 people imprisoned there since 2001. Of the 41, 31 were being held without charges. That's not right. We're better than the status quo.
In April, Waters was interviewed in front of an audience of a few hundred in Midtown Manhattan by Jon Pareles of the New York Times concerning his new album, Is This the Life We Really Want?, and his new tour, dubbed "Us + Them." Waters made clear that both the album and tour will have political overtones.
"Unfortunately, we're all forced to think about current events because we feel the impact of current events," he said. "We could go on about your nincompoop president all night. It might be somewhat redundant; he's doing a good job on his own without any of us interfering in his condemnation of himself."
That comment was followed by the screening of footage from Waters' 2016 performance in Zocalo Square, Mexico City. The words he sang from the 1977 track called "Pigs (Three Different Ones)" will sound prescient to some ("Big man, pig man, ha ha charade you are") and to others offensive, especially when played while unattractive images of President Trump are shown on jumbo screens. The combination of the two will make Waters' concert tour the most political of the summer season.
I wondered whether he feared a backlash in the current politicized climate, and so when it came time for audience questions, I rose to my feet. Waters had announced that his tour would open in Kansas City, and I asked, "What level of concern do you have that the political message of the songs on the new album might not play in the red states?"
"You know, just because it's a red state, and it's apparently very conservative, Kansas City, doesn't mean that there isn't a viable resistance to this administration in that city," he said. "I don't know what the percentage of the vote in Kansas City was that was pro-Trump and what was anti, but say it was 70/30, which is a huge amount for any place. Thirty percent of all the people who live in Kansas City is more than enough people to fill a basketball arena. And so, you know, it's possible that most of the audience will be content with whatever political message there may be.
"But also I know that I'm playing a bunch of Pink Floyd songs as well. So all of that attachment, that nostalgic and musical attachment, to the work that I've done in the past any way makes people happy when they hear it. It's part of the reason why I'm doing it. … And also they fit with the new material, because essentially they're all about the same thing — well, Us and Them the tour is called. Us and Them from Dark Side of the Moon, you know, 'with, without, and who'll deny that's what the fighting is all about.' You can't get any more contemporary than that. And also, you know, so people attach to the meter of it and the melody and also what it is that I'm saying in the song, which is I'm saying we need to get over this BS and recognize that we're all in this together. And we better start working together cohesively or we're all f—ed."
Well, the tour opened as planned at the Sprint Center on May 26, and in the Kansas City Star newspaper, Joel Francis confirmed that this tour leans heavily on Pink Floyd's music with an emphasis on Waters' far-left-of-center politics:
"The video for 'Pigs (Three Different Ones)' was a devastating piece of anti-Donald Trump propaganda. Borrowing from the lyrics, the word charade splashed across the screens as unflattering illustrations of the commander-in-chief cycled in and out. During the long guitar solos, an inflatable sow wearing the phrase 'piggy bank of war' flew over the crowd."
So how did it play? According to Francis, a "very few" people headed for the exits, including one who raised a middle finger toward the stage, but they were "easily outnumbered by fans raising their beers, singing along, and reveling in the moment."
Post-show, Waters thanked the "amazing" crowd on his Facebook page, where one responded: "Maybe the crowd was amazing but you sucked." Another wrote, "You were disgusting and you are oh so proud, aren't you? Anti-God, anti-Trump. Satanic, it was. Disgusting!"
Sometimes listening to great music means listening to someone whose message makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps the stadium rock-and-roll show remains the last place where we cannot retreat into our safe echo chambers with like-minded people. To experience a communal musical event with 20,000 or 30,000 other people, you just might have to bump elbows with people who don't think like you. And that's not a bad thing.
Waters will play the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia for two nights in August. I bought my tickets months ago, on the day they went on sale.
Michael Smerconish can be heard 9 a.m. to noon on SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124. He hosts Smerconish at 9 a.m. Saturdays on CNN.