Absence In The Modern World

“It would be fantastic if we could do it for something like another Live Aid. But maybe I’m just being terribly sentimental — You know what us old drummers are like.” – Nick Mason

“I really do hope we can do something again.” – Richard Wright

“I don’t think we’d get through the first half an hour of rehearsals. If I’m going to be on stage playing music with people, I want it to be with people that I love.” – Roger Waters

“I think Roger Waters has my phone number. But I’ve no interest in discussing anything with him.” – David Gilmour

 

In 2005, Pink Floyd briefly reunited for a performance at the Live 8 concert. Having sold more than 30 million copies of their album The Dark Side of the Moon alone, their brief appearance was easily the most anticipated act of the show. While it was a miracle for many fans to see them perform again, the real marvel was that they agreed to share a stage in the first place.

Bassist Roger Waters seemed elated to be playing with his old colleagues — They were friends he had known since his school days, and they were the same men he had threatened legal action with twenty years back.

Guitarist David Gilmour, modestly dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, reciprocated smiles with his former bandmates and the audience, including his wife and children. He was on his best behavior, particularly with Waters whom he barely made eye contact with.

Prior to the Live 8 rehearsals, Gilmour and Waters had last spent time together two decades before, to settle a lawsuit. Waters, who had then departed from Pink Floyd claimed that his former bandmates “took my child and sold her into prostitution, and I’ll never forgive them for that.” As he had written a huge bulk of their lyrics, and in his words, “driving the band”, he believed that Pink Floyd’s name was his, and that it should be put to rest following his departure.

As they buried the hatchet on stage, they notably played a staple song, Wish You Were Here. Waters slipped a short speech after the song’s radio coda played, saying, “It’s actually quite emotional, standing up here with these three guys after all these years..We’re doing this for everyone who is not here, particularly of course, for Syd.”

“He was outgoing, charming, wonderful, friendly — You name it. He was a wonderful man,” keyboardist Richard Wright described Syd Barrett. Witty, sharp, and devilishly handsome were also common descriptions of the man. He was the original singer and songwriter for the band, and was their creative center in those early days. On stage and off, he had a particular shine to his personality — His presence demanded attention, and as his friends would describe, he was a person one would point out to if he was seen on the streets. It was hard to take your eyes off someone like Barrett.

Tragically, his heavy use of LSD led to his unraveling. Barrett was descending into insanity, necessitating the band to carry on without him. He wouldn’t show up for gigs, and if he did, they had to strap a guitar around him while he stood immaculately still for long periods of time — His face would be blank, as if the lights were on but nobody was home.

“When he became distracted from reality, you would not want to be in a car with Syd. He’d suddenly lose all concentration, stop driving and just get out,” A friend of Barrett recalled. “One time while driving he just stopped in the middle of the road and started messing around with his shoelaces. Or else he’d get out of the car, just disappear, and leave you to deal with all the irate drivers backed up behind. It was as if he just forgot he was driving.”

David Gilmour, a talented musician who knew Barrett in school, stepped in as his replacement. “He was no one that you would’ve ever really imagined would wind up the way he did wind up,” he said of Barrett.

 

 

Wish You Were Here

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“No one was really looking anyone in the eye. It was all very mechanical.”

Roger Waters

 

Pink Floyd’s 1975 album, Wish You Were Here — “Or Wish You Weren’t Here,” as Roger Waters called it, reliving its wearisome making. After their previous album The Dark Side of the Moon achieved massive commercial success, Pink Floyd had found themselves in a state of disillusionment. Despite the money and international fame, no amount of them could make their personal demons go away. Life was still very much the same for everybody. As drummer Nick Mason put it, “It was still that sense of, ‘Well this hasn’t made us feel enormously different or satisfied’.”

And of course, with that level of success, there was also enormous pressure for them to put out another album. In David Gilmour’s words, “In this post-Dark Side of the Moon period we were all having to assess what we were in this business for, why we were doing it — Whether we were artists or business people. Having achieved that sort of success and money — Had it all that would fulfill anyone’s wildest teenage dreams.”

The inner conflicts that festered in their personal lives had started to manifest in their shows. They seemed disconnected from one another, and from the audience. It was as if they were afraid of success and where it might take them — “Scared of my own shadow,” as Waters admitted. According to a review by journalist Nick Kent, seeing them perform “really did remind me of workmen, wandering on to dig up the road. Like it was a job that had to be done.”

Perhaps in an act of damage control, the band headed back to the studio. But things didn’t seem to get any better at that point. “There were a lot of days where we didn’t do anything,” said Brian Humphries, the band’s engineer. They would arrive late, and they were often more preoccupied with their weekend plans, or playing squash to kill the time. There was an element of frustration, and they didn’t quite know how to deal with it.

Mason reflected, “The reality was we were struggling with making the follow up to Dark Side. And we rushed back into the studio to do that. We put ourselves under ridiculous pressure to make a record from nothing.” In Gilmour’s view, “I’m sure for a very pushing, driving sort of person like Roger it was more frustrating than it was for anyone else. Although it was considerably frustrating for all of us, I suspect.”

On top of all that, the power struggle in the band was nearing its breaking point. Waters once remarked that, “You’ve got to be competitive, aggressive and egocentric — All the things that go make a real star.” Of course, Waters couldn’t be more wrong, as one could be even more successful without any of those traits.

As he got older, Waters did gain a more tempered view on his younger self, noting that “I’m not sure if I was aware of being menacing. Although I think that in my insecurity I probably tried cultivating it. I was so frightened of everything as a young man that I became quite aggressive.”

While Waters was the acknowledged “ideas man” and motivator who “pushed things forward”, his cold and threatening demeanor was difficult for the band to come to terms with. In Mason’s words, working in the band was akin to being in an army unit or a prep school, because “you can oscillate so easily between love and hate.” Wright gave just as sharp of an account, saying, “Being the kind of person he is, Roger would try and rile you, try to make you crack.”

For Waters, it was the others who were the problem. While he certainly had a gift for conceiving concepts and articulate lyrics, he claimed that he was shunned for not having the same talent in composing music. He said, “There was always a great battle between the musicians and the architects. Nick and I were relegated to this inferior position of being the architects who were looked down upon by Rick and Dave who were the musicians.”

Lamenting on the situation, Mason said, “Roger was getting crosser. We were all getting older, there was much more drama between us, people turning up at the studio late.”

Some luck came about when Gilmour played a sequence of four notes on his guitar, which would later form the song Shine on You Crazy Diamond. It sounded ghostly and chilling, and it triggered in Waters feelings of loss for their absent friend, Syd Barrett.

To finally stave off their creative inertia, Waters came up with a plan to make another concept album. This time, it was to be based on the idea of emotional absence — Of people being there, but not really there. For Waters, the feeling of absence lingered in the form of Syd Barrett, who was no longer himself, and of Pink Floyd itself, who had lost their camaraderie in becoming cash cows in the music industry.

The same synergy they experienced in making The Dark Side of the Moon was no longer present, as the rest of the band, particularly Gilmour and Wright didn’t necessarily share the same views as Waters about the “evils of the music industry”. While they engaged in a massive argument about the album’s direction, Waters would conclude that “It was a fight that I won.”

The album cover would become another lasting Pink Floyd image : Two men in business suits shaking hands, one of them on fire.

To Storm Thorgerson, who designed the album cover, “The handshake was a symbol of the whole notion of how you may get hold of somebody, shake them by the hand, and they’re trying to tell you how much they’re really there when they gripped you, but in fact they’re miles away.”

The cover is also commonly interpreted as getting “burned” in a business deal — Illustrating how Pink Floyd was only a cipher in a machine that was the music industry.

 

 

 

The Songs

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“Our music is like an abstract painting. It should suggest something to each person.”

Syd Barrett

 

The album begins and ends with the song Shine On You Crazy Diamond, a tribute to Syd Barrett. It was an important piece, as the band did not want to “write him out of history,” as Mason put it. They wanted the world to remember Barrett, and how important he was to them. Roger Waters said, “I wrote and rewrote and rewrote and rewrote that lyric because I wanted it to be as close as possible to what I felt. There’s a truthful feeling in that piece. That sort of indefinable, inevitable melancholy about the disappearance of Syd. He’s withdrawn so far away that he’s no longer there.”

Complimenting the lyrics, Gilmour remarked, “He was kind of a crazy diamond. And all the things it says about him, and all the brilliant lines are very accurate. ‘You wore out your welcome with random precision’ was certainly a part of him.”

Waters proffered that even though the song was inspired by Barrett, it could also be about anybody who is absent. He said, “(Barrett is) just a symbol for all the extremes of absence some people have to indulge in because it’s the only way they can cope with how sad it is, modern life, to withdraw completely. I found that terribly sad.”

When they were finalizing the song, an unexpected visitor came to the studio. He was an overweight man with no hair and eyebrows, carrying a plastic bag and doing odd things, like brushing his teeth and pacing around the studio. The band spent hours in oblivion, until Waters finally realized who the man was, and asked them, “You don’t know who that guy is, do you? It’s Syd.” Remembering that moment, Gilmour lamented, “How remarkable, how long it was before anyone actually woke up…It was a great loss. Imagining what he would have gone on to do..He could’ve become so great.”

Shocked by Barrett’s physical appearance, the band broke down in tears. It was their first time seeing Barrett in years, and it would be one of their last, as Barrett would seclude into a very private life.

 

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Syd Barrett, Wish You Were Here studio session

 

It was suspected that Barrett’s unraveling was a result of being pressured and burned by the music industry. The band, however, felt partly responsible, as commercialism was a path they chose to take, much to Barrett’s discomfort.

Pink Floyd’s first manager, Peter Jenner said of Barrett, “It all happened so quickly. In just a few months Syd had gone from being a carefree student, living on his grant, having a smoke now and again, to having all these people wanting to be his best friend and relying on him to play the gig, do the interview, write the hit single, bring in the money…Tell them the meaning of life.”

Popularity was an idea he never understood, and it proved to be too much for him to take.

Next in the album is Welcome to the Machine, which begins with the sound of factory machinery. A very angry song, it is clearly about the music industry — It is the now well-known tale of musicians in search for a dream, only to find that the machine, or the music industry, runs on dreams and little else.

Commenting on the song, Waters said, “Success has to be a real need. And the dream is that when you are successful, when you’re a star, you’ll be fine, everything will go wonderfully well. That’s the dream and everybody knows it’s an empty one. The song is about the business situation which I find myself in. One’s encouraged to be absent because one’s not encouraged to pay any attention to reality.”

We then move on to Have a Cigar, which is sung in the perspective of a music executive, welcoming new musicians to the machine, and promising them never-ending success. A line in the song, based on the band’s own experiences, sneers, “Oh by the way, which one’s Pink?” — Exemplifying how the music industry does not truly bother about the band, and only treats them as their cash cows.

The song is sung by folk musician Roy Harper, who offered his help after seeing Waters and Gilmour endlessly fighting about who should be singing. Harper turned out to be the perfect fit, giving the song its needed tone of sarcasm and cynicism.

And then of course, there’s Wish You Were Here, a song that Gilmour and Waters wrote together. According to Waters, the song is about “the sensations that accompany the state of not being there. To work and to be with people whom you know aren’t there any more.” For Waters, however, it could also mean freeing yourself to be able to experience life as it truly is. He noted, “All the songs (I’ve written) are encouraging me — I guess I write them for me — Not to accept ‘a lead role in a cage’, but to go on demanding of myself, that I keep on auditioning for ‘the walk-on part in the war’, because that’s where I want to be.” Nevertheless, he said that the listeners are free to attach their own meaning to the song.

For Gilmour, the song’s meaning is much more emotional. “I can’t sing it without thinking of Syd,” he said. “Because of its resonance and the emotional weight it carries, it is one of our best songs.”

 

 

 

Legacy

The Story of Pink Floyd's Reunion at Live 8

“I’m glad people have copped the sadness. It’s a very sad record.”

Roger Waters

 

The struggle and conflicts that arose during the making of Wish You Were Here eventually led to Roger Waters’s departure from the band in 1985. Despite its mixed reviews, the album debuted at number 1 in the UK and the US. In fact, it sold so well that their record company was unable to keep pace with the demand. As the album aged, it is often praised as one of the best albums of all time, by fans and critics alike.

Even though it was recorded during an especially bitter and tumultuous period, the band cited the album as their favorite. David Gilmour expressed, “To me, it’s about the most complete album in some ways. And we all know how difficult it was to get to that point, and the problems we had.” Sharing the same view, Waters remarked, “It’s full of grief and anger, but it’s also full of love. You’ve got to see beyond the love and anger, to the possibilities of love.”

The biographer Mark Blake wrote, “The record’s subsequent reputation as the serious Pink Floyd fan’s album du jour lies in the fact that it distills the very essence of the band’s sound at the time : that sense of dislocation and of emotions struggling to get out, anchored to music that sounds similarly cold and melancholy.”

As Pink Floyd ended their set at Live 8, Roger Waters called for a group hug. Gesturing towards David Gilmour, he mouthed, “Come on.” Albeit uncomfortably, Gilmour allowed himself to be embraced, and Pink Floyd bowed to the audience.

Bob Ezrin, Pink Floyd’s long time collaborator enthused over the show. “I thought it was stunning, the stuff legends are made of. I was so overjoyed and yeah, I have to admit, I cried,” He said. “Then I became slowly aware that everyone was watching me watch Pink Floyd.”

Insisting that it was a one-time-only event, Gilmour said, “It’s in the past for me. Done it. I don’t have any desire to go back there. It’s great to put some of that bitterness behind us, but that’s as far as it goes.”

The next year, news came that Syd Barrett had died from pancreatic cancer. Two years after that, Richard Wright died, erasing any hopes that Pink Floyd would share a stage again.

Mark Blake mused on their last performance, “For a band notable for their English reserve and inability to communicate with each another outside the music, this outbreak of peace has brought all the humanity and emotion concealed in their songs to the surface. Suddenly it all makes perfect sense.”

It certainly has made perfect sense. While Pink Floyd has inked their final chapter in their long and ambitious storybook, their indelible and unmatched legacy lives on, and will always find its special place in its listeners and in society, for generations to come. Such is the fruit for creating art that is painfully honest and important — It inspires the world to speak up, and to never stop building on the same tradition.

 

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