Category: Wish You Were Here


cue Empire Theme from Star Wars...

cue Empire Theme from Star Wars

When I was about 13, my sister and I were watching TV and saw a news story about some up and coming boy band (I don’t remember their name). They were riding the crest of the Backstreet Boys/*NSYNC success, and were just one of the hordes of imitators. My sister was a big New Kids On the Block fan in their day. And because I wanted to be just like my big sister when I was 9, I was too, but that was more about my fawning admiration for her than any attachment to the band.

Anyway, this story had cameras follow them through a typical day in the life of their band: voice lessons, dance rehearsals, and since they didn’t have actual press appearances yet (‘cause nobody knew who they were), they practiced them – honest to God. Part of their preparation as a musical group was sitting in a row at a covered table with a microphone in front of each of them, fielding imaginary questions about their favorite color, whether they have a girlfriend or some useless crap like that.

I took offense to this; it violated some high-minded idea I had about “tainting the purity of music” or something. But while I took offense to the fake press conference, my sister took offense to my offense. She saw my disgust, and in an equally disgusted voice said, “What, you think Pearl Jam or Smashing Pumpkins don’t do that same thing? You think they don’t need to learn how to talk to the press? Get off your high horse!”

Nobody knows how to push my buttons better than my sister. Maybe she does it because she knows I’ll always love her and be there for her, no matter what.

Some people (and record executives only barely meet the definition of “people,” in my opinion) work their hardest to suck all the art, joy and transcendence out of music and turn it into a business. They view it not as an art form but as something they can use to make money. It may as well be manufacturing washing machines or cooking meth for all they care. They don’t see the art in it, and even if they do, they don’t care. Whether or not it’s good art has no bearing on whether or not it’s good business.

That was the right side of my brain talking. Now I’ll let the left side have its say.

It is a business, of course. A musician can produce 20 Hallelujah Choruses a day, and it’s all meaningless if no one hears it. That’s where the business kicks in. The record industry, aside from all the other things it does, gets music heard. When you go to the iTunes Music Store, there’s actual money changing hands. This isn’t a bad thing, in and of itself – commerce is one of the things that makes the world go ‘round. Two of the bedrock American principles, for good or ill, are these:

1)      Find something you love to do, and then find someone willing to pay you to do it.

and

2)      If you’re good at something, never do it for free.

How do you balance that? There has to be some happy medium between artistic freedom and financial success. Some bands have found it; R.E.M. is a good example. From the very start of negotiations with Warner Bros., they made it very clear that they wanted to have complete artistic control and they never wanted to be in debt. But for nearly every other band out there, it’s almost exclusively a matter of record executives taking advantage of them to line their own pockets.

In 1975, Pink Floyd was really struggling to find that balance. Perhaps in those days, it was worse than it is now. With the advent of the internet and the readiness of information, music has an easier time getting into the public’s hands, sometimes without record companies’ involvement at all. But before the days of Facebook and Bandcamp and SoundCloud, it was cigar-smoking fatcats and empty suits.

“Have a Cigar,” the first song after the vinyl flip of Wish You Were Here, is a biting examination of one money-grubbing dirtball as he drools over Pink Floyd’s musical potential and the money to be had from that. Its lyrics are a second-person account of this empty suit flattering, exaggerating and outright lying. And in doing so, he reveals his selfish motivations.

Here’s a piece of the lyrics:

Well, I’ve always had a deep respect and I mean that most sincerely

The band is just fantastic / That is really what I think / Oh, by the way… Which one’s Pink?

He has a “deep respect” and thinks they’re “just fantastic” and the douchebag doesn’t even know Pink Floyd is the group’s name and not the lead singer’s. I bet he had visions of a t-shirt that had “Pink” up front and the other members in the shadowy background.

The lead vocal on “Have a Cigar” is performed by Roy Harper, a legendary folk musician who just happened to be in the studio at the time. Both Roger Waters and David Gilmour recorded versions of the song singing lead, but neither of them were happy with the results. In swoops Roy Harper with just the right tone and character to his voice to play the part of a smarmy A&R man. His take wowed Waters and Gilmour; it was meant to be, I think.

“Welcome to the Machine” decries the slavering dogs of the music industry as well, but comes at it from a different angle. It’s still a second-person account from the antagonist (in this case “the machine,” being the soulless mechanizers of an entire art form, or society in general). But it starts with a young and green musician dreaming of rock and roll stardom. It ends with the chatter and clinking of glasses of a high-class party.

“Welcome to the Machine” is one of those iconic Floyd songs, creepy and unsettling. It has the rich, human tones of a strummed acoustic guitar, as well as cold and mechanistic synthesizer rhythms. And both “Machine” and “Cigar” have shifting time signatures that keep you on your toes, something that’s become a bit of a Pink Floyd trademark.

Wish You Were Here is my favorite Pink Floyd record because it communicates an extremely important message: never let the demands other people place on you make you forget who you are.

Next: the Fascist Regime!

Syd Barrett

Syd Barrett

On June 5th 1975, the members of Pink Floyd were happily churning away at Abbey Road Studios in London, recording parts for “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” the central piece for their next album. On this particular day, though, they had a visitor. He showed up unannounced. He had no hair, no beard, no eyebrows, had a dead look on his face, and mystified everyone in the sessions as to why he was there. Even though they didn’t recognize him at first, they knew him – it was none other than Syd Barrett himself.

He looked completely different than the guy they all knew years before. He had put on weight, for one thing, and he was dressed differently, but the biggest thing was his lack of hair. Roger Waters in particular must have this burned into his memory; in his fullest exploration of madness and its effects, The Wall, the main character Pink shaves off all the hair on his body, signifying the completion of his descent into insanity.

Syd’s behavior that day was predictably unpredictable. At one point, he stood in the studio control booth brushing his teeth. The timing of this visit is particularly interesting, since Pink Floyd was recording “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a song Waters had penned specifically about Barrett. When Waters asked him what he thought of the song, Barrett just said “sounds a bit old.” Waters had so much to say about Syd, his personality, his psychoses, and madness in general. He wrote two albums about it (Dark Side and The Wall), as well as a grand 26-minute magna carta specifically about him, and all Syd could find to say was “sounds a bit old.”

Syd at Abbey Road, June 5th 1975

Syd at Abbey Road, June 5th 1975

If you want my opinion, Syd didn’t really understand that the song was about him. I’m guessing there wasn’t a lot at that time Syd did understand. For some geniuses like Syd, the rest of the world is speaking a foreign language. It’s not just in the words they say – it’s in their actions, their mindset, their perceptions, the entirety of how they interact with the world.

Some have speculated that Syd was schizophrenic – a rather easy and unsatisfying answer. Some say he had some sort of autism spectrum disorder, like Asperger’s. Others point to his copious use of mind-altering drugs in his younger years. But whatever the diagnosis of what the hell was wrong with him, what remains is that Syd Barrett was both blessed and cursed, and both by nature and by circumstance. Syd was born into a particular arrangement of events, or the stars aligned, or God stretched out his holy hand, or whatever – Syd was different; he was blessed (or cursed, depending on your perspective) with a kind of understanding that is granted to extremely few people. He also did a lot of LSD, another contributing factor. But however it came to pass, his story ends in a sputtering incoherency, one that we can only understand through the flagrantly inadequate lens of “well, he’s just crazy.”

But Roger Waters knew better. He knew what very few people knew about Syd – that there’s a little piece of Syd inside all of us.

Pink Floyd with Syd, pre-David Gilmore

Pink Floyd with Syd, pre-David Gilmour

“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is really a collection of a bunch of different musical ideas Pink Floyd had hatched over the course of two years. Originally, it was supposed to be a side-long composition, much like “Echoes” from Meddle and “Atom Heart Mother” from the album of the same name. The lyrics serve as the backbone of the entire song, but they only appear in 2 of the 9 sections. In the lyrics, it’s Roger talking directly to Syd directly, calling him all manner of things, like stranger, legend, martyr, painter, piper, prisoner, boy child, winner and loser. He details in poetic terms Syd’s history with the band, and reveals that he, more than anyone else, understood what Syd was going through. He also understood that Syd had to go through it completely alone; the other members of Pink Floyd would not follow.

Next: But if that salt has lost its flavor, it ain’t got much in its favor…

Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here - 9/12/1975

Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here – 9/12/1975

Two years after their brilliant explosion of success, Pink Floyd made the best song of their career. Not a lot of people agree with me, and with good reason. The title track from their 1975 question mark album Wish You Were Here really doesn’t make a whole lot of waves. Most albums worth their salt have a track like “Wish You Were Here”; it’s a breath inward, a break in the action that usually comes before one final push. Led Zep’s “Going to California”; Black Sabbath’s “Solitude”; R.E.M. with “Hairshirt” and “Country Feedback”; even the Beatles with “Yesterday.” And as to Pink Floyd’s best song, most people would point to “Another Brick In the Wall Pt. 2,” “Time,” See Emily Play,” “Comfortably Numb” or “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” as their greatest defining single. But “Wish You Were Here,” in my mind, surpasses them all.

There’s more than one reason, too. First is that it contains some of the BEST lyrics EVER penned, and certainly the greatest turn of phrase of the entire ‘70s. The whole song is great, but this is the best:

Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?

Second, the song’s grasp far exceeds its reach, which is opposite of how most songs come out. It’s little more than a lazily strummed acoustic guitar, a drunken piano, and light and airy drums. The final coda has a bluesy guitar solo on top of it that makes the song float away. But the ecstasy the song possesses while it’s playing and the impact it leaves have a size and scope that simply defies logic.

Third and most importantly, “Wish You Were Here” succinctly and beautifully captures the essence and message of the album which lends it its name. Wish You Were Here is about the alienation and emptiness felt by someone who has been given all this world has to offer. The Dark Side of the Moon brought Pink Floyd success on every level. Money, girls, drugs, and hordes of adoring fans – all the things you presumably get into the music business for, aside from actual music – all of this had come Pink Floyd’s way. They had definitely paid their dues; Dark Side was their 8th studio outing, and they had been together for over 10 years by the time that things started settling back down in 1974. They had scaled the heights of rock and roll stardom – now what?

“Wish You Were Here” is in second person, addressing someone directly in the present tense. What passes for a chorus in this little-engine-that-could goes like this:

How I wish you were here / We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year / Running over the same old ground / Have we found the same old fears? / Wish you were here

Who is the “you” in this song? Who is the lyricist addressing? Some say it’s Syd Barrett; that’s because Syd is the focus of the song “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a 26+ minute opus split into two halves which open and close the album (and the reason most people buy the album anyway). Some say the “you” is musical purity, the elemental material of music unencumbered by corporate greed and financial motivation. That’s what the other two songs on Wish You Were Here are about: “Welcome to the Machine” is a disturbing exploration of how innocent rock and roll dreams are corrupted by money, and “Have a Cigar” paints a clear portrait of a greedy record executive (more on both of those later).

But I think the “You” in “Wish You Were Here” is Pink Floyd itself. Their 9th album finds them completely empty, wondering how they got to this crazy place and desperately wanting to return to a simpler time. In the process of getting bigger, more popular and more successful, they lost who they were. And with Wish You Were Here, they are finally asking the question, “Who are we?” It’s their most existential album yet; Søren Kirkegaard would be proud.

And the title track has all the existential wanderings of the entire album rolled into a naked singularity. Pink Floyd’s desire to strip away all the complications and fallacies the music business imposes on them is reflected in the musical simplicity of the track. It’s not a complicated song – more often than not, a good piece of art is defined by what the artist takes away instead of by what he adds. But since I make my existence on words, the thing I remember the most is the poetic method Pink Floyd uses to work out its angst. The lyrics are simply stunning, and leave me dumbstruck. “Wish You Were Here” is a true poem, right up there with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “She Walks In Beauty.” The mark: it leaves me with nothing to say, because I can find no words better than the ones it uses.

Next: Syd Barrett, the crazy diamond.