EntertainmentMusicCommentary on 'Wish You Were Here' (Pink Floyd, 1975)

Commentary on ‘Wish You Were Here’ (Pink Floyd, 1975)

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The first chords are unmistakable. An acoustic guitar repeats a simple phrase with a catchy riff , and then a second guitar overlays  David Gilmour’s delicate bend. This perfect introduction, which is already part of rock history, is the cover letter for ‘Wish You Were Here’, one of Pink Floyd’s most famous songs, included on the album of the same name, Wish You Were Here  of 1975 and that was a real sales success.

To understand the meaning of this piece, one must know that the album was conceived as a tribute to Syd Barrett, co-founder of the band and former member since drugs incapacitated him. Roger Waters and the rest of the group wanted to remember Barret in what would be their ninth album, published just two years after the mythical The Dark Side of the Moon (1973). It wasn’t easy to beat the famous record from the dark side of the Moon, but Pink Floyd were geniuses.

In Wish You Were Here there are other interesting songs like ‘Welcome to the Machine’, which has a clear message against the music industry, or ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’, a long psychedelic piece that is directly a hymn to Syd’s lost genius Barrett. However, this time we focus only on the song that gives the album its title and that says “I wish you were here”.

After having listened to it several times (in the original version, in this live performance by David Gilmour or in the mythical (and only) meeting of all the members of Pink Floyd, here) we can go on to read the translated lyrics, and let ourselves be carried away by their profound message:

So you think you can tell paradise from hell, the blue sky from pain. Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail? A smile from a veil? Do you think you can tell it apart?

Did they make you trade your heroes for ghosts? Burning ashes for trees? warm air for a cool breeze? The cold comfort for the change? Did you trade a supporting role in the war for a starring role in a cage?

How I wish you were here! We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl, year after year, running on the same old ground. And what have we found? The same old fears… I wish you were here!

The delicacy of the verses is indisputable. Waters’s pen has preferred to focus the message through questions (rhetorical, that is) that seem to directly question the listener himself. And although traditionally the analysis of this song is usually focused from the Waters-Barret relationship, in this case we are going to become the recipient of the message ourselves.

So you think you can tell paradise from hell, the blue sky from pain. Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail? A smile from a veil? Do you think you can tell it apart?

Starting at the beginning, we find a provocative question that challenges us. Do we believe that we can distinguish the two faces of life? Can we differentiate realities that are parallel and opposed? It seems that it returns to the logic of the dark side of the Moon as opposed to the visible side. The dark side would be Hell, pain, the steel rail, the veil… that side of life that many times is not even distinguishable from Paradise, from the blue sky, from a green field, from a smile. The fact of believing that we are capable of understanding reality (which is, after all, what it means to be able to distinguish between good and bad) prevents us from reflecting on reality itself. As we think we understand the world around us, we do not ask anything about it. 

Like a provocative philosopher, like Socrates, Roger Waters throws us questions to make us reflect. Can you tell Heaven from Hell? Haven’t they made you believe that bad is good? Here we could quote Huxley. Can we tell a green field from rusty train tracks? Haven’t they hidden the true reality of the world from us? This first stanza can be understood from that perspective, that of questioning the knowledge of the reality in which we live.

Did they make you trade your heroes for ghosts? Burning ashes for trees? warm air for a cool breeze? The cold comfort for the change? Did you trade a supporting role in the war for a starring role in a cage?

The second part of the song changes the theme. Continue with the form (through questions addressed to the listener), but change the background. It no longer reflects on the nature of the world, but opts for a questionnaire that poses a final dilemma. We would all choose trees over ashes, a refreshing breeze over warm air. Everyone chooses the heroes over the ghosts. But… what would we choose to answer the last question? It is a profound reflection but based on the simple simile “lion’s tail-mouse’s head”. What would we choose? Have a leading role in a cell or play a supporting role in a war? There is reflection for a while when arguing either of the two options, an exercise that Roger Waters leaves for the listener.

One of the questions we are asked is especially interesting. They suggest that it is better, if the comfortable sensation of comfort or change. Without a doubt, comfort is well-being, and change is uncertainty. This doubt can easily be related to the constant strategies that the system implements to avoid real changes. Reflections of a political nature that we have already done in other articles (like this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one or this one).

There is also a mention of a third party, or a series of people who hide behind the letter and we do not see. Who is Waters talking about when he talks about those who made you change your heroes for ghosts? One could see there a touch of pointing to the manipulation of the media, or perhaps to the deceit of politicians (a recurring theme in Waters’ lyrics). It is also possible that, within the framework of ‘Wish You Were Here’ as a message to Syd Barrett, he is talking about the effect of drugs, which distort reality and people themselves. With drugs a hero can become a ghost.

How I wish you were here! We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl, year after year, running on the same old ground. And what have we found? The same old fears… I wish you were here!

The last verse comes after an instrumental section in which the acoustic guitars continue to sing. The cry “How I wish you were here!” it sounds loud when the lyrics come back. The song is ending and it does so with a pessimistic and sad message. In the end, Waters and Barrett (or also all of us listeners) are/are just fish swimming in a fishbowl. Time goes by, the years go by and we are nothing more than fish in a fishbowl. We walk on the same ground, always. We walked without finding anything.

Do we live in a bubble, perhaps? Like Truman in his hometown, or like the men in Plato’s Cave. Is that fish tank the Matrix? It may not be necessary to take the reflection to the extreme of philosophy about the reality of the world, but at least existentialism appears clearly. The meaning of life (“what have we found?”), the human condition (“we are two lost souls”), freedom (“swimming in a fishbowl”), fears, loneliness.

Once analyzed, even if it is very superficial and without going into its depth (something that each listener and reader must do personally), ‘Wish You Were Here’ is revealed as a true work of art. A beautiful song musically and extremely complex and deep in terms of meanings.

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