I lowered the needle to the record slowly, reverently. In the basement of my childhood house, where speakers sat high up on the walls to paint the room with sound, I still strained to hear. I nudged up the volume as the music began quietly, so quietly. Shooting stars streaked past, light years away, and then a slow hum grew and grew. A stately melody emerged, apparently played on wine glasses, though for all the world it sounds like a synth to me. And thus I set sail for the first time on the musical odyssey that is “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” It wasn’t at all what I was expecting…

I got into Pink Floyd thanks to a girl named Vicki, who I knew from theater. Vicki played the piano beautifully, and during breaks in rehearsals and such, she would sometimes wander over to the grand piano and start playing and singing. One day she played “Nobody Home” from The Wall, and I was captivated. I asked her whose song it was, and was astonished when she said Pink Floyd. All I knew about Pink Floyd was that the name showed up hand-penned on jean jackets, locker walls, and notebooks, alongside Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Kiss, and other such scary bands. (Keep in mind I was 15.) How could something so beautiful and sad belong to one of those groups?

Vicki loaned me her copy of The Wall, and I borrowed Dark Side Of The Moon from the public library. I immediately loved them both, and my cassette copies went into heavy rotation wherever I could take them. Then one more Floyd factor entered the picture. Back in the day (the 80’s, that is), planetarium laser shows were a thing. Night-time on a weekend, you’d head to the planetarium attached to our Museum of Natural History, settle into a comfy leaned-back seat, and then darkness would descend, followed by amazing-sounding music. The laser patterns drawn onto the dome were lots of fun, but for me the main attraction was hearing music over such an excellent sound system.

Wish You Were Here album cover

The granddaddy of all the laser shows was, of course, Laser Floyd, and the first time I saw it, they opened the show with a Pink Floyd song I didn’t know, called “Welcome To The Machine.” It goes without saying that this is the perfect song to open such a show, and as with the others, I loved it instantly. As soon as I could, I sought out its album, which turned out to be Wish You Were Here. And that’s how I found myself in the basement, both enraptured and confused by what I was hearing.

The Pink Floyd I’d known up to that time was freaky and psychedelic, sure, but it was very song-oriented. The Wall‘s longest song is 6:23, and that’s “Comfortably Numb”, which is epic and powerful but still very much a verse-chorus-verse affair. Dark Side‘s longest tracks are “Time”, “Money”, and “Us And Them”, all radio staples because they’re such solid songs despite their length. So what I was not expecting from my new Pink Floyd album was a thirteen-and-a-half minute opening track that’s 80% instrumental.

“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” takes a completely different tack musically from the other Floyd stuff I’d heard, and for that matter from most other rock music. It’s an instrumental suite, divided up into distinct parts — both split across the two sides of the record, and highlighted internally by the subtitles “(Parts I-V)” and “(Parts VI-IX)”. Altogether, it’s 31 minutes long, out of the record’s total 44 minute length. There are parts with words, in both sections, but I’d venture to say they probably take up maybe, maybe 4 minutes total.

I’m not great with pure instrumental music. I’m a language guy, and music without lyrics I find tough to focus on and even harder to write about. Now, I’ve listened to “Shine On” often enough that I can more or less sing along with the whole thing, lyrics or no, but when I think about the song without hearing it, what I’m thinking about are the lyrics. And it turns out, there’s a story behind those lyrics.

“Shine On”, and in fact pretty much the whole of Wish You Were Here, was written for Syd Barrett, an original member of Pink Floyd and one of those sad cases of 1960s psychedelic burnout, like Peter Green and Brian Wilson. The song sets a wistful tone for the album, longing for the return of a visionary victim who was “caught in the crossfire of childhood and stardom.”

The long “Shine On” suites bookend three other songs on the album, each of which has its piece of the story to tell. “Welcome To The Machine” is about that transfer out of childhood into the “machine” of adulthood under capitalism. It characterizes pre-adulthood as a time of both preparation and distraction. “We told you what to dream,” it says, and it turns out that dream is of what Pink Floyd became — rock stars at the height of consumption, wealth, and power. For the rest of us, that dream is what keeps us placated enough to fulfill our roles in the machine.

As we grind through the days, we like to imagine that those rock stars have escaped, but “Have A Cigar” is here to tell us that their world is just as phony and venal as ours. The narrator is a promoter, or maybe a record executive, who makes it clear that the aim of the music business isn’t to create art, move people, or change the world, but just to “ride the gravy train.” This guy is the essence of “the machine”, so disconnected from the humans he’s dealing with that he cluelessly asks, “Oh by the way, which one’s Pink?”

Both of these themes get taken up later in The Wall, with the institutionalization of school serving as the machine in “Another Brick In The Wall, Part 2”, and the relentless star machinery of “Have A Cigar” pushing Pink into totalitarian fantasy from “Comfortably Numb” into “The Show Must Go On” and “In The Flesh.” In short, the world is no place for a sensitive boy, even one who manages to live the rock star dream.

I used to think it was Roger Waters who was that boy, and I still think that’s true to an extent, but understanding Wish You Were Here shows me that even more than Waters, the one truly stuck behind that wall was Barrett. Alan Parker’s movie references this when Pink shaves his head, then his eyebrows and every hair on his body. That’s just what Syd Barrett looked like the last time any member of Pink Floyd saw him. He had in fact wandered into the studio where the band was recording “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” so spookily removed from his old self that it was 45 minutes before anyone recognized him.

For me, the most moving song on the album, the one that sums it all up, is the title track. It’s all about the confusion of adulthood, the ambiguity between heaven and hell, smiles and veils, as shown in “Welcome” and “Cigar.” In the questions it asks, there are no easy answers:

Did they get you to trade
Your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?

“Did they get you to” makes it sound like the subject was conned, but some of these sound like pretty good trades, don’t they? Wouldn’t you trade hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? Waters offsets industrial and pastoral images, winding up for the final punch: “Did you exchange / A walk-on part in the war / For a lead role in a cage?”

That’s a menu with no good choices, which is exactly the point. Those words spoke to me when I first heard the album in my parents’ basement, and they still speak to me now. And now, as then, I still don’t know which is the better choice. The difference for me now is that the choice is made.