Marcel Proust's advice that people never meet their heroes lest they be disappointed fits to a T the Pink Floyd co-founder and erstwhile recluse Roger Waters. While I never actually thought of Waters as a hero, I was one of millions of teenagers in the 1970s who loved Pink Floyd. And I have always believed that the man who wrote most of Dark Side of the Moon (1973), Wish You Were Here (1975), Animals (1977) and The Wall (1979) is one of the great composers of the 20th century. Unfortunately, Waters has spent the better part of the last 20 years forcing us all to meet him, and oh what a disappointment it has been.
The members of Pink Floyd, like their music, were shrouded in an aura of mystery back then in the pre-social media days, and they seldom gave interviews. But over the last two decades, Waters has shattered that aura, in the process revealing himself as a pseudo-intellectual antisemite, and more recently, an apologist for Vladimir Putin and the Chinese Communist Party. He has inscribed an indelible asterisk to his legacy, like Ezra Pound, the American poet who forever destroyed his reputation by joining the Italian fascists and becoming Mussolini's favorite Jew-hating poet and regime propagandist.
For using his massive platform and considerable talents to broadcast antisemitism and artfully facilitate authoritarianism, Waters has become the Leni Riefenstahl (Hitler's favorite propaganda director) of rock and roll.
The (d)evolution of Roger Waters
Like most rock musicians of his generation, Waters was always a man of the left. He was only 5 months old when his father, Second Lieutenant Eric Fletcher Waters of the British Royal Fusiliers, was killed at the Battle of Anzio in 1944. But aside from an allusive and nondescript pacifism, politics were largely absent from Pink Floyd's early psychedelic albums like Ummagumma (1969) and Meddle (1971). As Waters became the dominant force in the band and its music evolved into narrative "concept" albums, the politics were either personal or generically anti-corporate—"Welcome to the Machine" and "Have a Cigar," for instance. Even Waters' rock opera masterpiece The Wall is only cryptically political in its opposition to war and portrayal of authoritarian cruelty. Waters' slide into partisan protest music didn't begin in earnest until Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in May 1979.
Waters's first work of the Thatcher era, The Final Cut (1983), would be his last with Pink Floyd. By then, he had reduced his band mates to little more than hired musicians (Richard Wright had quit the band over conflicts with Waters). When the LP was released the back cover read, "The Final Cut by Roger Waters, performed by Pink Floyd." Disdain for his new bête noir is evident from the very first song's lament, "Maggie, what have you done to England?" One song, "The Fletcher Memorial Home," imagines a retirement community where old-world leaders ("overgrown infants...incurable tyrants and kings") could be kept safely away from the public and ultimately killed as "the final solution begins." The inmates of this fictional home are mostly figures from the right ("Reagan and Haig, Mr. Begin and friend, Mrs. Thatcher and Paisley...the ghost of McCarthy, and the memories of Nixon"), though he also includes "Mr. Brezhnev and party."
In 1985, Waters quit Pink Floyd and tried to prevent his former band mates from using the name. He lost, released a couple poorly received solo records, and Pink Floyd went on without him with David Gilmour at the helm.
After the fall of the Soviet Union and reunification of East and West Germany, Waters put on a massive show at the Berlin Wall. Then he all but disappeared for a decade, stopped touring and released only one record, Amused to Death (1992). When he re-emerged in 2005, it was evident that he had taken a hard turn to the left and became an ardent critic of Israel.
Roger Waters, anti-Zionist
In 2005, Waters joined Pink Floyd for the Live 8 Concert, released an opera (Ça Ira), and began touring again as a solo act, playing mostly Pink Floyd music. In 2006 he moved a Tel Aviv concert to Neve Shalom, the site of an "oasis" community founded to showcase Palestinian-Israeli coexistence. He also posed for photographers while spray-painting lyrics from The Wall onto the wall Israel built to prevent suicide bombers from entering the country—a wall that ended the second intifada. Years later, Waters began telling interviewers that when he spoke about peace in between songs at the concert, the Israelis in the audience scowled at him and booed.
This is false according to David Seidenberg, who writes, "Since at least 2017, Waters has been repeating this lie. He told it to an interviewer from the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany's largest dailies. He told it to Liberation News, a socialist newspaper. He told it at a Vancouver event in October 2017 to promote Canada's participation in BDS." In Seidenberg's audio of the event, cheers grow louder after Waters says, "I believe that we, the rest of the world, need this generation of Israelis to tear down the walls and to make peace with their neighbors."
Whatever the cause, Waters's plunge from budding Israel critic to full-blown Israel hater was well underway when he began touring again. He claimed that when he visited Israel in 2007, he saw "primal disdain in the eyes of those 18-year-old Israeli border guards." Soon he was identifying with "the occupied people" and speaking the language of the new BDS movement.
In 2011 Waters made it official, announcing that he had joined the BDS movement, and in 2012 he addressed the United Nations, pronouncing Israel guilty of war crimes. In 2013, the formerly reclusive musician sat for dozens of television and print interviews, enthusiastically and confidently comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany.
For his frequent holocaust inversion rhetoric, the ADL, which defended him early on, concluded in 2013 that, in fact, "Roger Waters is an antisemite." Former ADL National Director Abe Foxman noted that with Waters, "It started with anti-Israel invective, and has now morphed into conspiratorial antisemitism."
Roger the bully
On his 2013 concert tour, Waters unveiled a familiar Pink Floyd stage prop—a giant Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade-worthy balloon of a pig. It was an emblem from the Animals album, except that it was now emblazoned with the Star of David. Waters defended his use of Jewish symbols, claiming that he didn't intend to offend: "I worry about it every day. It's a huge concern to me that I would be considered to be a bully."
And yet, for someone who worries about being seen as a bully, Waters sure does a lot of overt bullying. He bullied Stevie Wonder and New Zealand pop singer Lorde into canceling performances in Israel and tried unsuccessfully to bully Madonna into backing out of Eurovision 2019 in Tel Aviv, admonishing her in an op-ed in The Guardian that playing in Israel serves, "to normalize the occupation, the apartheid, the ethnic cleansing, the incarceration of children, the slaughter of unarmed protesters...all that bad stuff."
Waters also hectored artists who resisted his bullying and played in Israel, including Alan Parsons, Pink Floyd's engineer for Dark Side of the Moon, Thom York of Radiohead, Nick Cave, Cyndi Lauper, Lana Del Ray and others. He bullied Jon Bon Jovi in an open letter, concluding with a poem that begins:
You stand shoulder to shoulder
With the settler who burned the baby
With the bulldozer driver who crushed Rachel Corrie.
The combination of bullying and mounting charges of antisemitism have made Waters a liability. In 2017, all five state television and radio affiliates of Germany's national ARD network refused to broadcast his 2018 concerts in Berlin and Cologne. In 2020, Major League Baseball refused to sell him air time to advertise his tour. His former band mates have even barred him from using the Pink Floyd website. And now a deal to sell the Pink Floyd catalogue for $500 million has fallen through because, according to Variety, Waters' behavior has given "at least one potential buyer cold feet and seems likely to lead others to rethink their positions." He reaps the harvest he has sown.
The age of Woke has not been good to Waters. It wasn't that long ago that he spoke about the 9/11 attacks with some clarity, as he did at a concert in Brooklyn on September 11, 2017, when he said, "This is a very sad anniversary for a lot of people in this town and we feel for the families of all the innocent people who were killed that day 16 years ago. And also for the first responders who died since from the diseases they got from working."
Maybe it was COVID, or maybe he caught a particularly toxic strain of the woke, but in 2020, his shocking decline progressed alarmingly.
For the Palestinian "Nakba Day" celebration on May 22, 2020, Waters sang a version of "We Shall Overcome" with the lyrics, "We'll take back the land...from the Jordan river to the sea."
Days later, after George Floyd's death, he outdid that performance by going on Hamas's Shebab News Agency television to accuse the IDF of teaching "America's militarized police forces" a technique they invented to "kill people by kneeling on their necks and cutting off the blood supply to the carotid artery to the brain." He also pronounced the late philanthropist Sheldon Adelson "a crazy, crazy, crazy guy" and a "right wing fascist racist bigot who...believes that only Jews—only Jewish people—are completely human." The bizarre interview ends with Waters telling his Hamas host that, "Zionism is an ugly stain, and it needs to be gently removed by us."
On September 11, 2021, he rewrote history again, explaining on Russia's RT television that after 9/11 he had hoped that Americans would seize the "opportunity to look at themselves and ask why this has happened," but that hope was dashed when instead, "they started the global war on terror which has almost destroyed the world."
Roger the authoritarian
Waters' former band mates have commented on his authoritarian tendencies. David Gilmour told Rolling Stone magazine that Waters quit Pink Floyd because he "was tired of being in a pop group. He is very used to being the sole power behind his career." He added, "The thought of him coming into something that has any form of democracy to it, he just wouldn't be good at that."
When an interviewer told Nick Mason that Waters claimed he quit Pink Floyd because it was a toxic environment where he was harassed by Gilmour and Wright, Mason responded incredulously. "I'm slightly flabbergasted by [that quote]," he said, adding, "I think that's a slightly over emotional way of putting that there was some sort of division in the band.... But, I don't think they were mean to him, particularly. It's hard to imagine being mean to Roger!" He added sardonically, "Stalin was bullied."
Waters's flirtation with dictators began in 2018 when he attacked the so-called White Helmets (the Syrian first responders who aided civilian victims of Bashar al-Assad's chemical attacks), echoing both Russian and Syrian propaganda. But he was just getting warmed up. It was the August 8, 2022, interview on CNN with Michael Smerconish where he came out as a Putin and Xi apologist. In the jaw-dropping interview, he called President Joe Biden "a war criminal" but dismissed accusations of human rights abuses by China as "bollocks."
Waters blamed the U.S. for failing to "encourage Zelensky to negotiate, obviating the need for this horrific, horrendous war," a theme he returned to in September in an open letter to Volodymyr Zelelsky's wife Olena.
This apparent fondness for Russia is part standard, leftist anti-Americanism and part bad education. What else could explain his outburst to Smerconish that by the time the U.S. "got into World War II...the Russians had already won the bloody war?" Historical ignorance and hyperbole are hallmarks of the world according to Roger Waters, as in his 2013 interview with BDS founder Omar Barghouti, where he said he was "not sure that there are any much harsher regimes around the world than" Israel.
Likewise, when it comes to China, Waters sees no evil. When Smerconish pointed out that China is one of the world's worst human rights abusers, Waters shot back, "Who have the Chinese invaded and slaughtered?" He sneered that his critics need to "read a bit more" and growled like a good CCP apparatchik, "Taiwan is part of China."
Whereas Waters once seemed to despise equally all authority figures, he now takes sides. He accuses Israel of committing genocide against Palestinians but has nothing to say about the actual genocide of the Uyghurs at the hands of the CCP. Were he to remake "The Fletcher Memorial Home" today, one suspects that only Israelis and Americans would be included among the "colonial wasters of life and limb."
Since his debut as a celebrity authoritarian, Waters has not held back. On the Joe Rogan podcast, he praised Hamas as the "democratically elected government of Gaza," downplayed its missile attacks against Israel as "ineffectual" and accused Israel of wanting to "kill them (Palestinians) all."
An Oct. 4 interview with Rolling Stone shows just how far-gone Waters is:
- On evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine: "lies, lies, lies."
- On the media portrayal of "Russia and China a[s] evil": "We [the U.S.] are the most evil of all by a factor of at least 10 times."
- On Jews living in Israel: "These people are not from there."
What to do about Roger Waters
Many people dismiss Waters as an empty-headed ideologue, not worth engaging. This is a mistake, and his influence should not be underestimated. The BDS movement considers him its biggest star—a claim not without merit—and the vile Mondoweiss website, where he is a contributor, worships him.
The government of Poland seems to understand what Waters has become, prompting the cancelation of his 2023 concerts in Warsaw and Krakow. Concerts scheduled for Germany in May have Hugh Fitzgerald making comparisons to the 1930s: "Frankfurt has had quite enough antisemitism in its past. It doesn't need another dose of the poison, which Roger Waters so much enjoys spewing all over whatever stage he happens to be on."
It's a wonder that people even show up for his shows. Politics have so thoroughly overshadowed music that his 2022 tour, "This Is Not a Drill," is really a multi-media festival of Israel hatred punctuated by music. But before the music even begins he berates his audience with a brief video warning them, "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."
To uninformed Pink Floyd fans, Roger Waters's selectively curated, slick presentation of half-truths, lies, images and music makes for a seductive performance and a combination very reminiscent of Leni Riefenstahl's work almost a century ago. Ben-Dror Yemini calls it "intellectual terrorism." Liat Collins believes that "hatred of Israel has literally driven Roger Waters insane."
Once the world recognizes the sickness of Waters's propaganda and once free people stop showing up for his concerts, his influence will dwindle and, one of these days, his world tours will be limited to shows in Russia, China and Gaza.
A.J. Caschetta is a Ginsberg-Milstein fellow at the Middle East Forum and a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.