Rock legend Roger Waters speaks to us about music, the role of artists in today’s society and his activism for justice around the world, including in Palestine.
A conversation with Roger Waters
Phone interview recorded on 4th December 2013
By Frank Barat
Frank Barat: When did you make the decision to make the « Wall tour » (that ended in Paris in September 2013) so political ? And why did you dedicate the final concert to Jean-Charles De Menezes ?
Roger Waters: The first show was October 14th 2010. We started working on content of show with Sean Evans in 2009. I had already decided to make it much broader politically than it had been in 1979/80. It could not be just about this whinny little guy who didn’t like his teachers. It had to be more universal. That’s why ‘fallen loved ones’ came into it (the shows are showing pictures of people that died during wars) trying to universalise the sense of grief and loss that we all feel towards family members killed in conflict. Whatever the wars or the circumstances, they (in the non western world), feel has much lost as we do. Wars become an important symbol because of that separation between ‘us and them,’ which is fundamental to all conflicts. Regarding Jean-Charles, we used to do Brick II with three solos at the end and I decided that three solos was too much, it was boring me. So sitting in a hotel room, one night, I was thinking about what I could do instead of that. Somebody had recently sent me a photograph of Jean-Charles De Menezes to go on the wall. So he was in my mind and I thought that I should sing his story. I wrote that song, taught it to the band, and that’s what we did.
FB: A lot of artist would say that mixing arts and politics is wrong. That their goal is only to entertain. What would you say to those people?
RW: Well it’s funny you should say that because I just finished yesterday the text of a new piece which will be a new album of mine. It’s about a grandfather in Northern Ireland going on a quest with his grandchild to find the answer to the question: “Why are they killing the children?”, because the child is really worried about it. Right at the very end of it, I decided to add something more. In the song, the child tells his grandpa: “Is that it?” and the grandpa replies “No, we cannot leave on that note, give me another note”. A new song starts and the grandpa makes a speech. He says: “We live on a tiny dot in a middle of a lot of fucking nothing. Now, if you’re not interested in any of this, if you’re one of those “Roger I love Pink Floyd but I hate your fucking politics”, if you believe artists should be mute, emasculated, nodding dogs dangling aimlessly over the dashboard of life, you might be well advised to fuck off to the bar now, because, time keeps slipping away.” That’s my answer to your question.
FB: When will album be out?
RW: I’ve got no idea. I’m working away furiously on lots of old projects. I’m going to give a first listen to this to Sean Evans. He’s coming to my house tomorrow to listen to it. I’ve made a demo which is one hour and six minutes long. It’s pretty heavy I confess, but there is also some humor in it, I hope, but it’s extremely radical and it poses very important questions. Look, if I’m the only one doing it, I am entirely content. I mean, I’m not, I wish there were more people writing about politics and our real situation. Even from what could be considered extreme points of view. It’s very important that Goya did what he did, same for Picasso and Guernica and all those anti-war novels that came out during and after the Vietnam war.
FB: You’re talking about yourself being one of the only one, in your position, taking radical political positions. When it comes to Palestine, you are very open about your support for a cultural boycott of Israel. People opposing this tactic say that culture should not be boycotted. What would you answer to that?
RW: I would say that I understand their opinion. Everybody should have one. But I can’t agree with them, I think that they are entirely wrong. The situation in Israel/ Palestine, with the occupation, the ethnic cleansing and the systematic racist apartheid Israeli regime is un acceptable. So for an artist to go and play in a country that occupies other people’s land and oppresses them the way Israel does, is plain wrong. They should say no. I would not have played for the Vichy government in occupied France in the Second World War, I would not have played in Berlin either during this time. Many people did, back in the day. There were many people that pretended that the oppression of the Jews was not going on. From 1933 until 1946. So this is not a new scenario. Except that this time it’s the Palestinian People being murdered. It’s the duty of every thinking human being to ask: “What can I do?”. Anybody who looks at the situation will see that if you choose not to take up arms to fight your oppressor, the non violent route, and the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (B.D.S) movement, which started in Palestine with 100% support from Palestinian civil society in 2004-2005, a movement that has now been joined by many people around the world, the global civil society, is a legitimate form of resistance to this brutal and oppressive regime. I have nearly finished Max Blumenthal’s book “Goliath: Life and Loathing in greater Israel”. It’s a chilling read. It’s extremely well written in my view. He is a very good journalist and takes great pains to make sure that what he writes is correct. He also gives a voice to the other side. The voice, for instance, of the right wing rabbinate, which is so bizarre and hard to hear that you can hardly believe that it’s real. They believe some very weird stuff you know, they believe that everybody that is not a Jew is only on earth to serve them and they believe that the Indigenous people of the region that they kicked off the land in 1948 and have continued to kick off the land ever since are sub-human. The parallels with what went on in the 30’s in Germany are so crushingly obvious that it doesn’t surprise me that the movement that both you and I are involved in is growing every day. The Russell Tribunal on Palestine was trying to shed light on this when we met, I only took part in two sessions, you took part in many more. It is an extremely obvious and fundamental problem of human rights which every thinking human being should apply himself to.
FB: The scary thing is that the extreme Rabbinate you were talking about with the extreme right wing views about the Palestinians and the non-Jews are having a more and more prominent place in terms of the Israeli society, regime and power structure and that is very scary.I wanted to follow up on the Cultural Boycott and about the fact that you are one of the only ones who take such a stand. You could, as many others do, I guess enjoy the benefits of your success and lead a quiet, at least politically, non-controversial life. Why do you do it but more importantly why do you think not more people are doing it? Why a lot of artists who often take position against wars, why don’t they touch Palestine?
RW: Well, where I live, in the USA, I think, A: they are frightened and B: I think the propaganda machine that starts in Israeli schools and that continues through all the Netanyahu’s bluster is poured all over the United States, not just Fox but also CNN and in fact in all the mainstream media. It’s like a huge bucket of crap that they are pouring into the mouth of a gullible public in my view, when they say “we are afraid of Iran, it is going to get nuclear weapons…”. It’s a diversionary tactic. The lie that they have told for the last 20 years is “Oh, we want to make peace”, you know and they talk about Clinton and Arafat and Barak being in Camp David and that they came very close to agreeing, and the story that they sold was “Oh Arafat fucked it all up”. Well, no, he did not. This is not the story. The fact of the matter is no Israeli government has been serious about creating a Palestinian state since 1948. They’ve always had the Ben Gurion agenda of kicking all the Arabs out of the country and becoming greater Israel. They tell a lie as part of their propaganda machinery whilst doing the other thing but they have been doing it so obviously in the last 10 years . For instance, even after when Obama went to Cairo and made that speech about Arabs and the Israelis, everybody was like “Oh, this is a step in a new direction at least”. But as soon as he visited Israel, they said. “Oh by the way, we are building another 1200 settlements”. Exactly the same when Kerry went last year saying, “Oh I am going to try to get the sides together and talk peace”. Netanhayu said “Fuck you. We are going to build another 1500 settlements and we a going to build them in E1, this is our plan.” This is so transparent that you’d have to have an IQ above room temperature not to understand what is going on. It is just dopey.
You know I read some piece the other day where it said “apparently only the Secretary State of the United States, believes that these current peace talks are real, no one else in the world does”.
It is a very complicated situation which is why you and I and all the other people in the world who care about their brothers and sisters and not just about the people of our own faith, our own colour, our own race or our own whatever, have to stand in solidarity shoulder to shoulder. This has been a very hard sell particularly where I live in the United States of America. The Jewish lobby is extraordinary powerful here and particularly in the industry that I work in, the music industry and in rock’n roll as they say. I promise you, naming no names, I’ve spoken to people who are terrified that if they stand shoulder to shoulder with me they are going to get fucked. They have said to me “aren’t you worried for your life?” and I go “No, I’m not”. A few years ago, I was touring and 9/11 happened in the middle of the tour and 2 or 3 people in my band who happened to be United States citizens wouldn’t come on the next leg of the tour. I said “ why not? Don’t you like the music anymore?” and they replied “no, we love the music but we are Americans and it’s too dangerous for us to travel abroad, they are trying to kill us” and I thought “Wow!”.
FB: Yes, the brainwashing works!
RW: Obviously it does, that is why I am happy to be doing this interview with you because it is super important that we make as much noise as possible. I’m so glad that this right wing newspaper in Israel, Yedioth Ahronoth, printed my interview with Alon Hadar. At least they printed it. Although they changed the context and made it sound different that what is actually was but at least they printed something. You know, I would expect to be completely suppressed and ignored.
You know that Shuki Weiss( preeminent Israeli promotor) was offering me a hundred thousand people at hundred dollars a ticket a few months ago to come and play in Tel Aviv! “Hang on, that’s 10 million dollars”, how could they offer it to me?! And I thought Shuki are you fucking deaf or just dumb?! I am part of the BDS movement, I’m not going anywhere in Israel, for any money, all I would be doing would be legitimizing the policies of the government.
I have a confession to make to you. I did actually write to Cindy Lauper a couple of weeks ago. I did not make the letter public but I wrote her a letter because I know her a bit, she worked with me on the Wall in Berlin which is why I found it super difficult to understand that she is doing a gig in Tel Aviv on January the 4th. apparently, quite extraordinary, reprehensible in my view, but I don’t know her personal story and people have to make up their own mind about these things. One can’t get to personal about it.
FB: For sure but you can help them, I guess by what you are doing, by writing to them. You can open their eyes because that’s what they need I think.
RW: Yes but if their eyes were going to be opened they would need to either visit the Holy land, visit the West Bank or Gaza or even visit Israel or any single checkpoint anywhere and see what it’s like. All they would need to do is visiting or, read, read a book! Check out the history. Read Max Blumenthal’s book. Then say “Oh I know what I am going to do, I am going to play a gig in Tel Aviv”. That would be a good plan! (sarcastic tone).