Wish You Were Here
The music runs in two directions. The music always ought to run in two directions. All things should run in two directions. The two directions in this case are, perhaps, discontent and compassion. Or the two directions are thick and thin. Or the two directions are waste and bounty. Or the two directions are the profligate and the miserly. Or the two directions are yearning and recoiling. Or the two directions are Here I Lie or Never You Mind. Or the two directions are one direction, or no direction at all but a shutting down of directionality, and an obsession with absence, with attempting to fill the void of absence, an unfulfilled presence, a disengagement from absence that is both disconsolate and outraged at once, and the interpretation of the directions, or the absence of direction, is more interesting than the direction themselves, which is what happens when enough room is left in the music, in the sonic spectrum, and in its visual analogue (the design that attempts to refract the music), so as to encourage and to make possible the layers of interpretation, rather than closing them out.
The first sound on the record, apparently, is made (in part) by fingers running around the rim of crystal wine glasses, and one is tempted to use the word goblet, so as to employ it, and it’s easy from this vantage point to see the opening section, the section in which fingers are playing wine glasses, as the work of a living and breathing keyboard player, Richard Wright, now dead, so this slow, incremental opening, which starts with wine glasses and synthesizers, and some other stuff tinkling way back in the mix, vibraphone, e.g., is a celebration of his living, and a eulogy for his passing, just as the entire composition, first and last, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” is about another former band member now deceased, Syd Barrett, original composer for the ensemble known as Pink Floyd, and because the song, first and last, is about Syd Barrett, the direction, the trajectory of the record is in the direction of regret, because, after all Syd Barrett was released from the band because of unreliability, because of excessive whimsy, because of an inability to be professional, because of vision, because of writer’s block, because of a lack of furniture, because of ill treatment of girlfriends, because of revision in the matter of free expression, because of sartorial eccentricity, because of tonsorial eccentricity, because of dark clouds massing on his horizon, because of lateness, because of earliness, because of operating outside of time, because of social awkwardness, because of a refusal to be social, because of weight gain, because of the future, because of the past, because of astronomy, because of youth, because of beauty; Syd ran in two directions, or maybe in several directions, and thus the album is a depiction of Syd, and not a depiction of Syd, and a depiction of regret and then rage, and these directions themselves splinter into a number of sub-menus, and one of the subsequent forking paths is very liquid, and is best expressed by evocative blues guitar solos as practiced by the replacement guitar player, who certainly has more technique, and a more beautiful voice, but who could not turn a lyric the way Syd Barrett could turn a lyric, which is why some of the best lines on Wish You Were Here are the lines that are swiped from Barrett’s own albums; but in fact it is not “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” that is the miracle on the album, if that is the right word, miracle, nor is the miracle the carping, mean-spirited, and wholly reasonable songs about the music business, especially “Have a Cigar,” which is musically lovely, and kind of funky, and is lyrically adolescent, or “Welcome to the Machine,” whose ominousness is sort of pre-Industrial (if we take industrial to be a musical sub-genre); no, these are not miracles, though there is good playing on them, nor is the miracle the beautiful understated snare sound of Nick Mason, which is what made Pink Floyd, Pink Floyd, nor is it the tempi—there is a Pink Floyd tempi, a kind of frozen, Cannabis-drenched plodding, one that no one else has ever quite perfected in the same way—in fact, the miracle of Wish You Were Here is the song “Wish You Were Here,” which was apparently composed rather late in the day, and which involved taking a microphone out to the guitar player’s car and spinning the radio dial at random, and recording the various snippets of white noise that ensued, including a bit Tchaikovsky, and of course everybody knows how to play the opening chords of this song, every guitar player knows those chords, and it’s almost forty years later, and still people are playing those chords, but that is not the miracle, the miracle is the sentiment, and the sentiment is longing, and all the tricks are vanished in the mesmerism of longing, the ensemble is become just a rock and roll ensemble, during this plangent opening, acoustic guitars, acoustic pianos, and some lovely soloing, and the lyrics are all about the two directions, the oppositions, the ways that a person can go, when the ways a person can go are not necessarily the acceptable ones, predetermined ones, but are in fact off in directions that are more challenging to those around us, in which the easy acceptable ways are given up for ways that confer loneliness upon the individual sufferer, and while it is not the case that the replacement lyricist can convey that loneliness the way Syd Barrett could convey it (see The Madcap Laughs for further evidence), the confluence of sluggish tempo, a country/Gospel musical idiom, and regret over mental illness and the way in which we are forced to act with (and upon) the mentally ill, do make for a ominous and compelling song, and the members of the band must have known, and that is why the record was named for the composition; they must have known that the words to “Wish You Were Here” constituted something like a lyrical universal.
Upon completion of the recording, which by many accounts was not without its difficulties, a designer was selected to make manifest the marriage of oppositions that is Wish You Were Here, and this is the designer who also worked on its predecessor, The Dark Side of the Moon, also about mental illness, at least in its gloomiest passages (“There’s no dark side of the moon, really, matter of fact it’s all dark”), and the designer was none other than Storm Thorgerson, of the design team called Hipgnosis, which team at the time was at the forefront of a certain Magritte-influenced popular surrealism that was sweeping through the world of British music (see, for example, the Hipgnosis jackets for The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, by Genesis, or Presence, by Led Zeppelin, among many others). For the rank and file consumer, perhaps less informed about high art, Thorgerson’s designs had a tremendous impact, and it was exactly the impact that one associates with the high art form of surrealism, at least in its “realistic” incarnations as practiced by Dalí and Magritte. In the time before digital manipulation of photographs, these Hipgnosis images had to be constructed through laborious means, and in the now famous flaming handshake image that adorns Wish You Were Here, which you could only reach by tearing off some black, opaque shrink wrap, the how was it done aspect of the photograph constitutes a great portion of its uncanniness. There are two men (depicted), two corporate types, let’s say, and they are standing on a vacant lot (a Hollywood back lot), and they are shaking hands, and there is no one else around, and the sky is a robust blue, and one of the men is on fire. Perhaps, given the back lot setting, it would not be a total surprise if it were just a single man on fire, and in that case the image would suggest certain Buddhist monks protesting the war in Vietnam or perhaps stunt passages from a myriad of Hollywood films, nor would the image be arresting if the two corporate types were merely shaking hands in some empty modern space, because we expect corporate types to have access to empty modern spaces; no, the image leaps off of the dust jacket (or at least it did when it was the jacket of a long-playing record, as opposed to a compact disc) because of the conjunction of handshake and flaming man. The faux raccord, or false conjunction. The routine and the calamitous.
As one reads up on the image, one recognizes that there was no particular trickery involved in the image. It is as it would appear to be—a photograph of man shaking the hand of a man on fire, and at one point, when the shutter made its agreeable clicking noise, there really was a certain man on fire, and then the fire was extinguished, and this image really was imprinted on a piece of silver iodide film, and carried back to the dark room to be printed by Thorgerson or his associates. Now, there are interpretations that suggest that this image has something to do with the less graceful or music biz-related compositions on the album called Wish You Were Here, as in Pink Floyd got burned on its contract, or some such, but this interpretation to me seems wholly unsatisfactory, even moronic, because if the image had an impact, and it certainly had an impact, it was because at one point someone really was touching someone else in the image, and one of these persons was on fire, and if the image had an impact, then it had a significance, and the significance I am after could not have had anything to do with a simple reiteration of corporate malfeasance, because after all what did the recording entity known as Pink Floyd have to complain about? They had just made one of the highest-grossing albums ever made. The Dark Side of the Moon. It still is among the highest-grossing albums ever made. This can’t have hurt all that much.
The flaming handshake, therefore, must signify something much more enduring, and the something more profound must connect, somehow, to the theme of unfulfilled presence (which I believe is Thorgerson’s description, in fact, of what he heard on the recording called Wish You Were Here), in which the mechanics of self and other are such that the subject of the sentence, the first or third person, is eliminated from the sentence by which the album is known; that is, the album is not called I Wish You Were Here, although it says as much in the lyrics, nor is it called We Wish You Were Here, in which the sentiment of the replacement lyricist is generalized so as to be the sentiment of the band entire, and thus the longing, the unfulfilled presence, results in a nullification of self, as conveyed in the image, in a suppression of union, and that is indicated in the consumption of the object of desire in flame, or that is implicit therein, a recognition that this is the state of consciousness, this is the essence of consciousness, in which the object of desire, in this case another man, is consumed in flame, and it is routine, and this is significant, that it is another man, meaning that there are no carnal love songs on Wish You Were Here, and in fact there are very few carnal love songs in the entirety of the Pink Floyd oeuvre, going all the way back to the days of Syd Barrett, unless, for example, you were to accept that “See Emily Play” is a sort of a love song, because if it’s another man consumed in flame, then the relationship between the protagonists in the image (Roger Waters and Syd Barrett, in one interpretation) might be described as representing simple longing for intrapsychic contact, a recognition of one’s own identity registering in the other, a comraderie, a bonhomie, a friendship, before finding that this can no longer be, that the contradictions and paradoxes of consciousness prevent this contact. Or, perhaps, it’s not about a particular set of protagonists at all, perhaps it’s about the relationship between artist and audience; perhaps, in part, it is the artist recognizing a loss of contact with the essence of the audience, which was no longer possible for the band at the time of Wish You Were Here, now that their shows were of a such enormity that they couldn’t perform easily in spaces where you could see beyond the first row; or perhaps the relationship is not between a healthy, fully functioning protagonist (the corporate type on the left), and a damaged one; perhaps it’s about a recognition that the protagonist in flames is the self, is the perceiving consciousness; perhaps the image is about a recognition that this is who the artist is, the artist is the person consumed in flames, and we don’t mean consigned to flames, we mean consumed in flames, which means in a state of self-inflicted torment, unable to rise up out of the internal contradictions that make art happen, and especially unable to rise up out of the internal contradictions so as to have human relationships, or to successfully conduct human relationships, without feeling as though one is somehow socially doomed, which is another way of saying in flames, in which case the result, as it is again and again in the Pink Floyd, is that one is lonely, one was born lonely and one trudges through life in loneliness, one dies in appalling loneliness, whether or not one’s friends and loved ones are arranged around the bed. Or, and perhaps this is the most successful interpretation of the two men in the flaming handshake image on the cover of Wish You Were Here, they are one and the same man. It doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Their outfits are similar, and though apparently the flaming guy was wearing some kind of flame retardant hood, you can’t really see it, because of the flames. If they are one and the same man, then the flaming handshake depicts a union between opposite poles, between dualities, between divergent directions, between misalignments, a mysterium coniunctionis of internal contradictions, and this man in question could be, well, a nearly universal depiction of man, and thus not only the replacement lyricist, nor the original band leader (Syd Barrett), nor some character who stands in for the band, nor some character who stands in for the audience, nor some character (as on the back of the album, where we get the faceless invisible guy striding through the desert) who stands in for the record business, the flaming handshake, in its unfulfilled presence, and its union of opposites, of misalignments, is a generalized depiction of the situation as is, for the human sufferers, of whom there are as many as there are humans, and it’s true that Storm Thorgerson managed the uncanny on a great many occasions. In fact, the Gnostic part of the Hispgnosis brand seems to suggest that Thorgerson, at least for a while, had secret knowledge, knew something he wasn’t telling us, knew how to point in its direction, and the flaming handshake was one such instant; he was a Gnostic the way that Magritte and Dali and Andre Breton were Gnostics, in that they were willing to take the images prompted by the unconsciousness and to totally trust these images, but it seems inadequate, in this case, simply to write off the flaming handshake as some pseudo-Gnostic surrealist image, especially if one considers the end of the album known as Wish You Were Here, in which the dead keyboardist Richard Wright again leads the band through the ninth part of the composition called “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” another deeply melancholic transmogrified piece of Gospel, with some rather ominous washes of synthesizer buzzing around in the background, his death now being essential to the contemporary experience of the piece. The stillness of the piece, as at the beginning, when it is wine glasses that are being played, is what’s essential here, after all the spasmodic caterwauling of the Roger Waters compositions elsewhere. For the moment, there is the piano, and the major and minor, and the plunging melody in the left hand, and not a singer to be found anywhere, until it all resolves into a major chord, some organ, and some synthesizer, and so the flaming handshake suggests this music, must suggest it, the sense that it’s okay to resolve into a major chord, and into a kind of meditative peacefulness, even if all is calamity, even if all is regret, even if all is loss. Loss, loss, loss, loss, loss, loss, loss, loss, loss.