Tuesday, July 03, 2007

And if the band you're in starts playing different tunes ...


The Reddess and I went to see Roger Waters at Summerfest last night. It was, in large part, a fairly good show. Waters has managed to surround himself with a band that can sound remarkably like the old Pink Floyd and there were few more creative groups in the early to mid seventies. Dark Side of the Moon, which constituted the second half of Waters' set last night, has an ethereal audacity and subtlety which seems almost as fresh today. (You can't really recapture the druggy sense of awe. At least I can't.)

But this is a (mostly) political blog and I want to comment on Waters politics which were front and center through a good part of the show. Most of this was accomplished by not very subtle video backdrops such as one suggesting an equivalence between the Berlin Wall and the wall being built in Israel.

The one new song that he did was a screed against US and UK foreign policy called Leaving Beirut, supposedly the recounting of the kindness shown to Waters in 1961 by a Lebanese couple. The video backdrop was a cartoon rendition of the story which was appropriate given the "depth" of the lyrics - the burden of which seemed to be to say that the war in Iraq is wrong because some people who might have been Arabs were nice to Roger when he was 17.

You can't really deconstruct something as infantile as that. When Waters wondered, in song, "whatever happened to the cauldron called Lebanon" (he obviously doesn't write lyrics like he used to), I wanted to throw out - as just one thing - "malevolent Islam." But. as the Reddess pointed out, a rock concert does not grant equal time. (I did shout that Roger try reading - a manifestation of either the law professor or Episcopalian in me and not exactly the sharpest smack down.)

This raises the question of what you do when a performer starts spouting politics that make your skin crawl. Conservatives who like rock music face this all the time. Some people left. A few were pleased and cheered. Most channeled the Stones. It's only rock and roll and they like it. (The Reddess invoked the Fairness Doctrine and was rather clear about her feelings. She scared the bejesus out of the guy next to us. Welcome to my world.)

The "it's just entertainment" tack may be the wisest although, ironically, it allows you to patronize the artist by discounting the art. But that's sort of what Waters did anyway. Pink Floyd's best work had lyrical nuance. The video backdrops (and floating pig) that Waters used last night had more in common with Leni Riefenstahl than T. S. Elliott. They were, as Dave Tianen wrote in this morning's Journal Sentinel,an "interesting illustration of the power of art to disengage critical thought ...." Thousands of people danced to sentiments that, in the light of day, they would allow are uncommonly simple.

That is, at a certain level, a testament to the artist's power but it also neuters him. It happens only because the audience refuses to fully engage the music (or, more accurately, the artists' interpretation of it).

But what else are you supposed to do when music is being turned into agit-prop? The larger offenses that Waters committed were not the insults lodged at George W.Bush (who he compared to Joseph Stalin)or religion (all of which, he thinks divide, as if the religious right were driving truck bombs into San Francisco bath houses). It was that he turned his own music into a crude poster.

Of course, I know this isn't a surprise. Waters dislikes authority and hates war. Always has. We know this. But, however talented he may be at evoking these sentiments, he, like many musicians, doesn't understand the particulars. By getting too topical, he stepped on his own show.

20 comments:

JesusIsJustAlrightWithMe said...

"...or religion (all of which, he thinks divide, as if the religious right were driving truck bombs into San Francisco bath houses)."

Did he say they all divide or did he say they all bomb? Or do you draw the line of what constitutes "division" at blowing stuff up?

"It was that he turned his own music into a crude poster."

I can relate to this somewhat. I'm a big baseball fan and lots of parks have been playing this horrible song lately called "God Bless America." I can think of few things more divisive. Woodie Guthrie hated that song so much he came up with the perfect response--"this land is your land, this land is my land..." The politcs of "God Bless America" take politics in a far worse direction than Pink Floyd. It lets politics sour patriotism, and worse yet, it lets politics sour baseball.

It would be nice if we could keep all this garbage politics out of the things we love, like acid rock, baseball and America.

Rick Esenberg said...

I'll assume that you go to baseball games where they sing "God Bless America." I generally hear the "Star Spangled Banner." I imagine that your point would be the same.

Your reaction belongs to you and I would not dream of disputing your claim to it. But most of us don't regard public expressions of a generalized patriotism as controversial or disquieting so I guess you'll just have to suffer.

And, of course, Roger Waters has the right to truss up his music in anyway that he wishes. But I think I'm free to say that I think he shouldn't.

Mike Plaisted said...

Rick, do you also go to Springsteen shows expecting him to skip "No Surrender", for Neil Young to not play "Let's Impeach the President"; would you expect no "What's So Funny About) Peace Love and Understanding" at an Elvis Costello show or the Bush-biographical "Fortunate Son" at a John Forgerty concert? Do you go see George Carlin not expecting to get hit over the head wiht his mostly right-on opinions?

I always thought Pink Floyd was a little too stoner for me (not that I...oh, never mind) but, from what I heard, they had a lot to say lyrically about society and its discontents. A lot of '60s and '70s acts had a lot to say through their music and otherwise and -- guess what -- they were right then and they're right now.

You can't separate the music from the world view that created it. If Waters is a bit more explicit in concert, not allowing those who treated his music as some sort of dorm room Muzak to escape the messages -- more power to him. I wouldn't go to a Toby Keith concert expecting him not to be a psuedo-patriotic jerk -- wait, I just wouldn't go to a Toby Keith concert.

Sorry, you don't get to have the music without the message. At least he has one, as opposed to the current vapid generation of lightweights. Revel in it, Rick. Discuss it. Maybe it means you don't like the music anymore -- that's fine, too. But you can't take the message away from the artist. After all, it's his.

Mike Plaisted said...

Oh, and, by the way, I'm with the other guy. "God Bless America" is a miserable piece of music that is imposed on baseball fans during the seventh-inning stretch on Sundays, instead of take me out to the ballgame, brought to us by baseball politicians sucking up to god-know-who. But I stand and suck it up and dig the rest of the game. I mean, it's not like I'm stuck at a Toby Keith concert or something.

illusory tenant said...

He, like many musicians, doesn't understand the particulars.

Huh. What did you expect, footnotes?

I join Plaisted insofar as this remarkable claim applies better to the jingoistic buffoons in the C&W business (who don't understand music either).

jp said...

Is there a you tube of you and reddess at the show?

Cornroaster said...

"But. as the Reddess pointed out, a rock concert does not grant equal time."
However, if the new reimposition of the Fairness Doctrine goes through, will we see the left asking that equal time be given at rock concerts? After all, the concert is given at a publicly owned facility. What is the difference from the airwaves? Somehow, I doubt they will impose the same "fairness" doctrine that they insist be applied to conservative talk radio. After all, that's different???

Rick Esenberg said...

Three points. Most people were taking the music without the message. As Tianen points out, most of the middle-aged and affluent people at that concert don't rally believe, as one bit of graffiti had it, that the only war is class war. If their little darlings came home and claimed that they didn't need no education, they'd tell them to get their butts upstairs and study to be another brick in that wall. They're just shaking their tushes to lyrics that they could care less about. At least I do the guy the honor of taking him seriously.

Second point. It's one thing to use music to evoke a general sentiment or to call up an emotion. It's less easy to musically attach that sentiment or emotion to particulars. You run the risk of making yourself foolish and, I think, Waters did that. If someone thinks that George W. Bush is remotely comparable to Stalin then he either doesn't understand either Bush or Stalin or is, and I do not exaggerate, an idiot. No set of footnotes could ever make that case.

This is, I think, one of the reasons that the best art provides space to the listener to figure out just what it means.

Third point. I do expect that Springsteen will have what he calls his "public service announcement" at some point. In any event, it's not what I expect that I am concerned about as much as what is entertaining and edifying.

illusory tenant said...

Speaking of the JS review, this part caught my eye -

Probably not too many middle-age Pink Floyd fans would endorse Waters' view of public education as an instrument of oppression ...

- and I immediately wondered whether any of the authors of Marquette's Zelman v. Simmons-Harris amicus brief were in attendance.

Anonymous said...

Let's face it, fellas: ya goes to a concert, it's gonna be anti-establishment. You gots to take the singer and the song as a peckege, and if you caint do it, stay home and watch old Bob Hope movies.

JesusIsJustAlrightWithMe said...

"I'll assume that you go to baseball games where they sing "God Bless America." I generally hear the 'Star Spangled Banner.'"

Many (maybe all) stadiums are now playing "God Bless America" during the 7th inning stretch on sundays. They still play the national anthem before the game.

"I imagine that your point would be the same."

Well, not really. I love the "Star Spangled Banner." It's not patriotism that bugs me. It's the idea that it makes any kind of sense to link patriotism and religion. I realize the "Star Spangled Banner" mentions god and heaven and some shit like that too. But not until the 4th stanza which is rarely sung. And either way, it's not really about god or religion. "God Bless America" is a nonsensical prayer that basically says some Americans are less American than others based on something really really stupid. And now they're using it to say some baseball fans are less whatever than others. I get a lot of dirty looks when I don't stand for that shitty song. But I think Woodie Guthrie would be proud of me.

"Your reaction belongs to you and I would not dream of disputing your claim to it. But most of us don't regard public expressions of a generalized patriotism as controversial or disquieting so I guess you'll just have to suffer."

Most of us don't regard liberal politics at a Pink Floyd concert controversial or disqieting either. That's par for the course man.

"And, of course, Roger Waters has the right to truss up his music in anyway that he wishes. But I think I'm free to say that I think he shouldn't."

As am I.

Jason said...

Rick,

I also attended the Waters show, and I generally agree with your original comments. I found the political commentary that Waters advocated too elementary and over the top to be taken seriously. His comments also lost any remaining shred of credibility when he attempted to parallel George W. Bush, Karl Rove (I think) and Ronald Reagan with Pinochet and Stalin, but failed to include Bill Clinton. Clinton had no problem with military intervention in Iraq, Bosnia and Somalia, so why didn't Waters have Bill in his crosshairs? I think the answer is pretty clear.

On a positive note, I was reminded how wonderful it is that we live in a country where a person can aggressively criticize politians, and others can boo or walk out in response, without fear of government reprisal. Also, "Time" and "Money" sounded kickin' rad.

John McAdams said...

Do we now have the answer to the classic question "Which one is Pink?"

Jason said...

As a longtime Pink Floyd fan, I can tell you with certainty that Pink is the alter-ego of Roger Waters.

Sad Nomad said...

I saw Waters four times on this tour, and have seen him ten times in all. There were more people this time around who were not really familiar with the artist they were going to see, drawn in by the complete performance of Dark Side, no doubt. Certainly no one who has given the solo albums -- or The Final Cut and Animals -- a listen would be surprised by the political content of Roger's shows. Personally, I don't pay those ticket prices to see performers whose catalogue I don't know.
I'm all for everybody having an opinion and voicing it, but not DURING the show. It is a free country, and part of that freedom that comes with a very costly ticket is my freedom to hear the show I came to and not what somebody next to me thinks.
And when that Equal Time conservative rock band forms and starts filling stadiums, I won't be there booing them when people who love 'em are trying to hear...

Rick Esenberg said...

Weel, Sad, I seem to recall listening to Animals on the day it came out on the floor of an apartment on Frederick here3 in Milwaukee. At least that's where I think I was.

I would agree with you if the people who were booing (and I was not one of them) disrupted the show. But they were simply voicing their assessment of what they heard at the same time everyone else does. The cost of your ticket does not mean that the guy sitting next to you (who also paid for his ticket) has to like the show as much as you do.

As I said, I was not taken aback by Waters' politics but that he would step on good music by expressing them with such unvarnished idiocy. I will say again, if you think that George W. Bush is in any way comparable to Joe Stalin, you are either staggeringly uninformed or an idiot. That is not debatable. (Of course, I use the universal you here. I have no idea whether you think that.)

Sad Nomad said...

When I was growing up in Wisconsin, I would often tell people to shut up in a movie theater. Sometimes they'd respond with, "I paid for my ticket" and I'd say, "You didn't pay for mine."
I don't really do that anymore, because outside of Wisconsin, somebody might just shoot you.
I still tell loud and continuous talkers that I didn't pay to listen to them at rock shows, however, because concerts cost a lot more than a movie, and I can't see the show again sometime.
You're right, the guy next to me doesn't have to like the show, but as Oliver Hardy always said, "If you must make a noise, make it quietly."

Mark B. said...

I went to his show last night in Boston. It just made no sense to me (for Roger) to have Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bin Laden, Saddaam, and Stalin all lumped into the same category.

(Roger's lyrics) It all makes perfect sense, expressed in dollars and cents, pounds, shillings, and pence.

I agreed. As I pointed to my 35 dollar t-shirt, shitting in my 132 dollar seat.

Capitalist (Pink Floyd) Pig !!!

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