This is Not a Drill – The Roger Waters Interview

Published in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz:

The pre-show announcement in Roger Water's latest tour is rather unconventional. After the regular, please "turn off your cell phones", comes a slightly more provocative announcement "if you’re one of those ‘I love Pink Floyd, but I can’t stand Roger’s politics’ people, you might do well to fuck off to the bar right now". This sets the tone since the show's main theme is a mix of current affairs, political science and global politics and Waters is anything but mainstream in these aspects. In fact, many would say he's a hard core radical.
This, combined with the fact that Waters is one his generation's biggest rock stars and he attracts tens of thousands of people to his concerts, makes his tour an important cultural phenomenon which provokes many reactions and heated debates. Waters granted "Haaretz" an interview during this controversial tour and I spoke to him at his hotel, a couple of days prior to his Stockholm show, after he completed the American part of the tour and 14 of its 40 European dates.

So as not to start the conversation with the confrontational opener, we talk first about the music, rather than the politics. This is after all a rock concert, not an election campaign. Waters, who will be 80 in September has an enormous body of work to choose from when he goes on the road. He realizes, of course, that it wouldn't be right to go on stage without playing any of the classics he created together with Pink Floyd, the band he co-founded in 1965 with by Syd Barrett, Nick Mason and Rick Wright and left in the mid-eighties. And indeed, the show includes the whole second part of The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd's 1973 album as well as material from Wish You Were Here (1975), Animals (1977), The Wall (1979) and The Final Cut (1983). "If I followed only my heart and not my head, I'd probably do what I used to do with Pink Floyd", Waters says, "I led Pink Floyd for many years, and when I did, at least during the last few years, when we toured, we only played the current record and the last record. If I would do that now I would have played only my latest solo albums and I might have also added Us and Them (from The Dark Side of the Moon), which is a genuine co-write with Rick Wright (Pink Floyd's keyboard player)".

Waters points out that he has just finished re-recording the whole of The Dark Side of the Moon which was released exactly fifty years ago. The new version will be released this July. Waters believes it's still extremely relevant and that's why so much of it is on his current show. "Nothing I've done recently is more political than Us and Them", he says and quotes the lyrics, "with, without, and who'll deny that's what the fighting's all about". "It's a truism and part of the reason I re-made the album", he explains, "people haven't noticed in the last fifty years what it's actually about". Waters adds that he enjoys playing this part of the show as much as the newer songs, because it's very visual. "There's an enormous LED crucifix hanging over the stage", he explains, "and the images that we show, particularly during Us and Them move people very deeply because it's so anti-war".

So, as it is, are you pleased with the set list you're playing on the tour even though it includes more than just your current and previous albums?

"Yes, I'm content with the way the set lives, it's full of new things and old things, and in consequence sometimes people are a bit puzzled". Waters mentions, as an example, a new song called The Bar which he says is "extremely important philosophically and emotionally, because it's my plea for conversation and communication between us human beings, in support of, and in defense of humanity, and how we need to learn to cooperate with one another, rather than killing one another".

When it comes to the visual side, don't you feel that the sophisticated video work, the images on the enormous screens and the setup of flying pigs and flying sheep is all a bit grandiose and makes your connection with the audience less intimate?

Waters doesn't approve of the word grandiose. "It either is, or it is not good theatre", he says, "I've spent the last sixty years trying to create theatre which is appropriate for rock'n'roll in arenas and outdoor venues and to play for anything from 15 to 100 thousand people. You can't do intimate theatre, much as I adore intimate theater and sometimes regret that I haven't been able to work in small theaters". Waters adds that there are plans "in the pipeline" to do one or two smaller shows of the new version of The Dark Side of the Moon as well as a theatrical version of The Wall in an intimate space. With these projects and others, it doesn't seem at all as if he's ready to retire.

The Show is called This is Not a Drill – The First Farwell Tour, it also includes biographical texts explaining various parts of you career. Is this your attempt to start wrapping things up, is this you shaping the narrative one last time?

"No, whenever I do a tour, I have to decide what it's going to look like, what the story's going to be, what the narrative is, what it is I hope to achieve and how much of the old Pink Floyd stuff I need to do in order to satisfy the hunger. One thing that's really good is the age demographic of the people who are coming to the shows. Many of them are 20-year-olds. That's fantastic and that doesn’t happen with many of the old bands. Obviously when I put out adds saying "his first final farewell tour" it's a joke. Because so many of the others do farewell tour after farewell tour for years and years".

Speaking of other bands, you said in an interview a few years ago that you don't listen much to music and you're not very interested in what's going on in the so-called music industry. Since your show is part of this industry, aren't you interested in what else is going around?

"What else is going around? You tell me, if you are interested. I'm really not interested. Life is too short". Waters explains that no artist has time for that. "You get on with your work", he says, "Michelangelo didn’t say 'well, I think I'll get on a donkey, go round Italy and see what the others are doing. He said – 'I want that bit of Carrara marble, now let's see how I can get it down the hill without killing a hundred people'". At this point Waters quotes his 1972 song, Free Four, "Life is a short warm moment, and death is a long cold rest, You get your chance to try, In the twinkling of an eye, Eighty years with luck or even less, So all aboard for the American tour, And maybe you'll make it to the top, But mind how you go, And I can tell you 'cos I know
You may find it hard to get off. But you are the angel of death, And I am the dead man's son, He was buried like a mole in a fox-hole, And everyone's still on the run

These are important sentences in the Waters universe. He was born in South East England in 1943 and has lived in the United States for twenty years ("because of the weather more than anything else. It never stops raining in England"). His father, Eric Fletcher Waters, who was a schoolteacher and a member of the communist party, was killed in the WW2 in the battle of Anzio in Italy when Waters was just five months old. His grandfather, George Henry Waters, was also a war casualty. He died while fighting in France during WW1. Considering this, it's not much of a surprise that the cruelty and meaninglessness of war have always been an important part of Waters' work and in the current show these themes are more apparent than ever. It is in this context one should see the opener asking those who don't approve with Waters' politics to "fuck off to the bar", it's just his way of saying he's not forgetting and he has no interested in toning it down.

Roger Waters on the cover of Haaretz' weekend culture magazine, photo: Kate Izor

Apart from being a unique opener, there's also a serious issue here. If someone comes to your show because he or she loves your music, but that someone happens to also be a supporter of Trump, Bolsonaro, Boris Johnson or Netanyahu, do you really not want them there?

"I don't give a fuck if they're there or not. I'm not proselytizing. You know, you're writing this for Haaretz and people are always trying to persuade me to go to Israel, do gigs in Tel-Aviv and talk to people, proselytize and try to get them to change their policies and work from within. And I say, fuck off, there's a picket line here and I'm not crossing it because I believe in human rights. Those people, people who voted for Trump, they would get up and leave when I played tracks from Animals (Pink Floyd's 1977 album based on George Orwell's Animal Farm). I couldn't care less. Leave! I don't want you to come. This isn't an attempt to affect you because you're lost. The people who I'm trying to encourage are the young people who want to resist the dreadful destruction of our home planet by the ruling class. I'm interested in communicating with them. I don't care about people who vote for Netanyahu or Trump or Bolsonaro".

Here's another way of putting it. It seems like from decade to decade your work becomes more specific and less abstract and universal. If, in the 70s you dealt with the way we see the humanity in others, and existential and abstract concepts like time, death alienation and loneliness and later with general political ideas like dystopian societies and fascism, since the 80s, you're writing about specific events like the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq and you clearly mark your villains like Thatcher and Trump and your heroes like Juliane Assange. This isn’t something everyone can sympathize with.

"I couldn’t agree more. I think it's a function of age. We all live within the context of our personal histories. Those of us who can actually read, and there are fewer and fewer of us, we read history and take notice of what happened in the past, but as our lives unfold, we recognize the folly of repeating the same mistakes over and over again, and the engine which drives those mistakes, is by an large greed. Greed for money or power. And so, yes, I'm less concerned about becoming irrelevant because I'm writing about specific things or specific periods of time. The context of the passage of time is very important, maybe because I'm 79 years old, the idea of rejoining the great oneness of everything as ashes and dust, possibly as a memory but maybe not even that, becomes closer and also behooves us more and more to grapple with the big questions, which is required of all art which means anything".

Speaking of great works of art which you quote in your show – George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm and Aldus Huxley's Brave New World, you refer to the dystopian future they talk about and to the real-life leaders who are making their visions into a reality, mostly American presidents – the pictures of all presidents from Reagan to Biden are on the screens in you show presented as war criminals. I wonder if Chines president Xi, Russia's Putin and Belarus's Lukashenko are not on the screen because you think that they are not war criminals, or is there some other reason?

"My history is full of those American presidents; they have been denominating geo-political events since the Second World War when I was born. The 'evil empire' since WW2 is the USA and it continues to be. And right now, the US with Joe Biden at the helm is driving us towards World War 3 as fast as it can. And there seems to be two potential drivers – one is profit, the value of the war industries has gone up vastly since the Ukraine war started. The other is what's considered to be their manifested destiny – to rule the world. So, they decide who is and who isn’t democratic. What makes anybody think the US is a democracy is absolutely beggar's belief, because it is not, and anybody with an IQ above room temperature knows it's not. It's driven by money and power and the people have no say in the matter".

Waters also mentions he knows he's making an extreme statement, but since he lives in America, and does not live in Russia or speak Russian, some issues he can't really comment on. He doesn't trust the American media, he quotes presidents Eisenhower's warnings against the so-called "military-industrial complex" and, in his show, the screens are full of examples and images which make clear where he thinks the real problem lies – victims of state violence against civilians, victims of the so-called "war on terror", victims of drone attacks, American foreign policies in South America and domestic policies against native Americans.

In a CNN interview you reacted to a question about Chinese violence towards their own people by saying it was "bollocks, absolute nonsense". Do you not believe, for example, the news about the atrocities being committed in Xinjiang against ethnic minorities or do you just think it's not your place to comment about that? To me, what's happening there is the closest thing to 1984 in the real world.

"Depends what story you read. I do not believe the western narrative about the Uyghurs. I don't believe it. I don't believe there are millions and millions of people locked up in concentration camps being slowly murdered and tortured to death and that the women are being raped by the Chinese government. I don't believe it. Is there a problem in that part of China? Possibly. Probably. Are the Muslim's all being re-educated in camps? Almost certainly not. Are some of them? Quite possibly, if they're members of ISIS for instance. If I was in China and spoke Chinese I could answer these questions, I cannot relay on the western mainstream media to tell me what's going on there and I don't believe them any more than I believe this Russiagate nonsense and any of this phobia against other countries going on all day every day, drumming up a third world war. In my show I say "you can't rule the world. Nobody can. The world is there to be respected, nurtured, loved protected and shared. That's the text I wrote, you can call it corny, I don't give a fuck, but this is the problem with the whole geo-political situation, the US wants to rule China, they want to rule Russia, they want to rule the world, they declared it, it's in all their political manifestos and it's destroying the world".

According to Waters the war in Ukraine is a result of the same American policies. Even though he denounced the Russian invasion, he doesn't see the war as the fault of the Russians alone. He also strongly condemns continued military support to Ukraine. "It's them (the US) advancing NATO further and further east since the end of the cold war", he says, "are they going to beat Russia? Not without a nuclear war they won't. So, why are they doing it? Well, it's because they've got morons like (American National Security Advisor) Jake Sullivan and (Secretary of State) Antony Blinken chattering in the ear of a really really old bloke with Alzheimers who doesn’t understand any of it and never will" (incidentally, President Biden is less than a year older than Waters).

Last September Waters wrote a couple of letters to Olena Zelenska, Ukrainian president Zelenskyy's wife, in order to try to get her to convince her husband that it's time for a compromise with the Russians. When she replied on Twitter and wrote that he was writing to the wrong president, Waters wrote to President Putin too. Putin is yet to answer. Although Waters made clear that he's horrified by the invasion's results, he claims that a different Ukrainian policy in the Donbas and less American intervention would have led to a peaceful solution. This attitude led to strong reactions in the west and it seems Waters is once again paying a price for his politics.

Just after the Zelenska letter was published, the Polish city of Krakow cancelled Waters' shows in the city. The reason was that the city, which owns the arena, would not tolerate it being used by an artist spreading ideas objectionable to most people in Poland, referring to Waters' stance on the war in Ukraine. "I wrote a letter to the councilor who orchestrated all that", Waters says, "but they didn’t take any notice of it". The gig was indeed cancelled and that was not the only Ukraine related controversy Waters was involved in. A few months earlier, Waters' ex bandmates from Pink Floyd, guitarist David Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason, recorded a song called "Hey, Hey, Rise up!", supporting Ukraine and featuring vocals in Ukrainian by the Ukrainian musician Andriy Khlyvnyuk. Waters talked about the song in an interview to Berliner Zeitung a couple of months ago. "I have seen the video and I am not surprised", he said, "but I find it really, really sad. It’s so alien to me, this action is so lacking in humanity. It encourages the continuation of the war. Pink Floyd is a name I used to be associated with. That was a huge time in my life, a very big deal. To associate that name now with something like this. Proxy war makes me sad. I mean, they haven’t made the point of demanding, “Stop the war, stop the slaughter, bring our leaders together to talk!” It’s just this content-less waving of the blue and yellow flag. I wrote in one of my letters to the Ukrainian teenager Alina: I will not raise a flag in this conflict, not a Ukrainian flag, not a Russian flag, not a US flag".

This was probably the background for one of the most extreme public comments against Waters made by Polly Samson, a novelist, lyricist and journalist who is married to Gilmour and has written the lyrics to many of his songs. "Sadly, you are antisemitic to your rotten core", Samson wrote, "also a Putin apologist and a lying, thieving, hypocritical, tax-avoiding, lip-synching, misogynistic, sick-with-envy, megalomaniac. Enough of your nonsense".

Would you care to comment on what Samson wrote?

"No", Waters smiles, "I think I'll rise above that. Thank you for the offer".

But Samson isn't the only one opposing Waters. His latest tour is being threatened from another direction. One that Waters has encountered before. In Germany, he's being accused of antisemitism and therefore some cities have tried to cancel his shows. Waters claims the people behind this are "the Israeli lobby and people who believe that I'm an antisemite because they've read all the lies and believe this ridiculous story".  As always, he denies the allegations. "I'm not an antisemite, never have been and never will be", he says, "I have nothing against Jews, I criticize the Israeli government and I'm part of the BDS movement. So, they're trying to cancel me in Frankfurt and in Munich and in Cologne. Munich has now backed off, Cologne seems to be backing off". This means the shows there are supposed to take place and so is the performance in Frankfurt at the end of the month, due to a court ruling forbidding the authorities to cancel it. "In Frankfurt I've taken out an injunction reminding them it's illegal even though the council and state own the venue", Waters explains, "in their attack on me they were trotting out stories about Kristallnacht, sort of accusing me of somehow being responsible for the deaths of 3,000 Jews who were rounded up by their Frankfurt police and sent off to be killed" (the venue Waters was supposed to play was the place where 3,000 Jewish men were arrested after Kristallnacht and from where they were sent to concentration camps).

According to Waters this is far from the first time he is being attacked on this background. "When I finished The Wall movie (2014), we had a world premiere in Canada at Toronto International Film Festival", he recalls, "that night a representative from Netflix came to see my management and said 'I adore the movie, we want it, let's make a deal tomorrow', he could not have been more effusive. The next morning there's a phone call saying 'we're not sure it's quite right for Netflix'. That's just a board meeting with the Israeli lobby raising its voice saying 'you cannot have anything to do with this man, Waters, he's an antisemite, anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist, we are going to crush him. And they've tried. Trust me. I have the bruises. But they have failed".

There are many stories regarding the accusations claiming Waters is an antisemite and they've all been told in length. The flying pig which appeared in his concerts with a star of David symbol on it (along many other symbols including a cross and a crescent), the events surrounding the replacement of Waters' show in Tel-Aviv with a show in Neve Shalom in 2006 and comparisons Waters made between Israel and Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa. Essentially, however, it seems like the main long-lasting reason he attracts this particular criticism is his support of the BDS movement.

You are a supporter of the BDS movement and many wonder about the way the BDS campaign is focused only on Israel. Considering everything you say about the US, for example, why are you still playing concerts in America? Isn't it time to start boycotting the US?

"Should one turn one's back on any problem anywhere simply because you can't solve all the problems everywhere? My view is – no. And my view is that it was correct to join the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, even though we may never know what effect that had on the downfall of that supremacist white racist regime. In my view, what really did it was when we stopped playing rugby and cricket with south Africa, that's what tipped it over the edge. They couldn't bare it".

And you think the BDS will have the same effect on the occupation?

"I'm certain it will. We're coming close to it now. You can see what happened with Indonesia which refused to host the U20 world cup because they wouldn't entertain an Israeli team. The point was made. The power is shifting. It's about the Human Rights Declaration of Paris, 1948 – you cannot cherry pick. You're either in or you're out. You either believe in human rights or you don't. and most governments don't. so, you say, why don't I boycott America. Because I can't! I can't boycott America and the UK and France and Germany. Well, I could, I could go and live on a fucking island and do nothing for the rest of my life. But I think because Israel is so extreme and it gets more and more extreme as the minutes go by, we may win this and get human rights for the people of Palestine".

When you say human rights for Palestinians, It's not clear if you're talking about 1948 or 1967. If the problem is the occupation of the West Bank, it could theoretically be solved by a two-state solution. But if the problem is not only the occupation of 1967, does your success mean the disappearance of the Jewish state? What exactly is your solution?

The solution is a state that is democratic and that every citizen and every person who lives within the territory has equal civil, political and religious rights. If that means the end of the Jewish state, so be it. It would be like having a Christian state. If America would become a Christian only state, I would say, you can't do that. I would say – get rid of America because you cannot have a Christian supremacist state where only Christians have rights. That's anti-human, anti-democratic and against everything I believe in. so is the Jewish state of Israel, because people who are not Jewish do not have rights. There's no getting round it. Maybe it's the nomenclature that is the problem, because (the Jewish state) is expressed in the behavior of these disgusting thugs, the settlers, like the ones from Hawara. Doesn't that make your blood boil? We've all met these kinds of people. They don't have to be Jewish. Their religion is irrelevant. It's the attachment to the religion that they think gives them the permission to be a fascist.

So, no two-state solution then?

Please! Go back to the 67 borders, get the settlers out, allow the Palestinians a separate and sovereign state, and you can do it tomorrow. It's not rocket science. But we've all known, right from the beginning that there was never ever going to be any possibility for any of that. A lot of people believed in all the shenanigans of pretending that. They never had any intention of there being a Palestinian state because they've read their bible, they want Jorden and the whole fucking lot and they want it to be a Jewish supremacist apartheid state. Well, you can't have it because the rest of global civil society will not stand for it. And the people who've looked after you for all these years, the US, are discovering that they can't support it either, and the Jewish community in North America are changing their stance faster than you can imagine, because many of them are really wonderful humane people who follow their religion, who've read the Talmud and who actually aspire to a lot of the great things that are in it.

What about the hundreds of thousands of people within Israel who are against the government and demonstrating these last months?

What are they demonstrating about?

Democracy and freedom.

Well, no they're not. You mean democracy and freedom for them, in their little supremacist Jewish bubble. That's not democracy and freedom.

Well, even if the Israeli peace movement is small, aren't you worried about the BDS making its attempts for dialogue even harder, there have been claims that the BDS shuts down initiatives for dialogue by informing on them to Hamas.

"So, it's Hamas' fault again. What a surprise! But that's bullshit". Waters denies the theory of the BDS being an obstacle for peace and he's very clear about his support for the BDS movement. He speaks of the "picket line" that his Palestinian brothers and sisters asked him not to break, he speaks of the Balfour declaration that says that the National Jewish home does not "infringe in any way on the religious or civil rights of any of the indigenous people" and he insists that the only democratic solution is one of equal rights to all between the river and the sea. In his show there are images of the Israeli West Bank barrier, of Palestinian victims and a slogan that couldn't be clearer "you can't have occupation and human rights".

What if a one state solution doesn't mean a democratic country in reality, but instead it's the beginning of ethnic cleansing? Whether it will be Jews killing Arabs or Arabs killing Jews, decades of hatred on both sides, including the Palestinian leadership, may lead to a bloodbath, rather than peace and harmony.

"I'm trying to work out if this is a question or not", Waters says, "this is the story they're being fed all their lives, but you can't say 'we do not want equal human rights because it might turn into a blood bath', that is the new Hitler. 'If I control everything, then we'll live in an ordered society'. If you really believe in freedom and democracy, you have to tear up all the papers that Ben Gurion wrote all those years ago and you have to say 'we got this completely wrong. This is not what we want. We do not want a supremacist apartheid state. We want to live in a lovely country where we can live safely, but where everybody else can live safely too. It's no good for the burden of being the oppressor just to be switched from the Germans to us. We don't want to be the oppressors. We want everybody to be free. That's what we want if we're going to have a homeland'".

In a way, the first sentence of Waters' new show, the one sending those who are not fans of his politics to the bar, is a reasonable warning. Waters' opinions are far from mainstream politics and some of them may seem offensive to many. The last part of the show, however, is somewhat different. Waters has a drink with the musicians he shares the stage with, talks about his wife (his fifth) as a rock he leans on and about his older brother, John, who died last year. He then goes back to the new song, "The Bar", which is about his family, about memory and empathy. The song's accompanied by an old black and white family picture which appears on the screen. There are four people on it – his mother, his father, his brother and himself, just a couple of months old. He's now the only one on that picture who is still alive. After a song describing a nuclear holocaust and the end of life on earth, this is a surprising private, non-political moment which is both touching and honest. Waters would probably disagree and claim that everything is political, but perhaps the words he uses to describe the loss of his old friend and bandmate, Syd Barret, explain the uniqueness and importance of the human experience, the fragility of life and the importance of human connection at this moment at the end of the show. "When you lose someone you love", he says, "it does serve to remind you. This is not a drill".


David Stavrou דיויד סטברו

עיתונאי ישראלי המתגורר בשוודיה Stockholm based Israeli journalist

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