1. Shine on You Crazy Diamond, Part 1
Taking on a classic such as “Wish You Were Here” is a bit humbling, I must admit. Most people know what the lyrics mean, and I’m sure plenty has been written about them in the past. However, I feel like there are some underlying currents in this album that may or may not be part of Waters’ intentions.
The first track on the album is the first half of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”. As most people know, this song is a tribute to former band member, Syd Barrett. The poor guy was declining mentally at an astonishing rate to the point where he had to leave the band entirely. This departure had an astonishing effect on Waters, though.
One of the first things that jumps out at me about this song (and album) is this feeling of being a lost spirit, or maybe this placid awareness of our own missing motivation. I think Waters was truly missing Barrett, and his feelings of loss were expressed as reminiscence. “Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun/ Shine on you crazy diamond”. He despairs at thinking of his eccentric friend’s demise and degradation. “Now there’s a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky/ Shine on you crazy diamond.”
But there’s a universal idea that runs throughout this album; or, rather, a progression of ideas. “You were caught on the cross fire of childhood and stardom/ blown on the steel breeze.” What has happened to us? Have we lost our minds? We start out as kids; full of energy, ideas, dreams, and passion. But, as we join the adult world, we lose almost all of our vigor and aspirations.
We enter into the machine (I’m getting ahead of myself), and we find that no one wants us to be just like or to relate to us, so we end up devolving into boring. We end up falling into normal. We end up losing everything we once were. Thankfully, this isn’t the end of it, though. This song is in two parts, after all. This is, however, only the starting point of the album’s undercurrent ideas.
2. Welcome to the Machine
“Welcome my son, welcome to the machine/ What did you dream?/ It’s alright we told you what to dream.” Whether we like it or not, we enter the machine. I get that Waters may have meant this masterpiece as a commentary on the music industry, but I feel it has far-reaching implications to our world in general.
Be normal. Socialize. Hit all those benchmarks. Everybody’s doing it. Our modern world wants nothing from us but compromise. Our schools, churches, governments, media, etc. are all part of this great big machine that sucks us into one end, and spits us out the other. Assimilation at its very core, the machine desperately wants to change everyone and everything to normalize and systematize the world. Anything unique or anything new is not acceptable.
“You didn’t like school/ and you know you’re nobody’s fool”. Everywhere I look, I see the machine, especially in the media and public school system. Pumping out “good” citizens that won’t question anything and that won’t ever suspect they’ve been shafted. Everyone must adapt. Everyone must be like everyone else. The individual is a concept from the past now. Dreams? Forget them. The machine knows what’s best. Spiritual experiences? Nope. They don’t exist. All that exists is the physical world. Pleasure is our greatest goal. Meaning is found in this meaningless life alone.
The machine takes our youth, and chugs out “adults” that work quietly, spend liberally, and never think. They never consider the big picture. Creativity and personality are gone for most. Is this really living? Is this really freedom? Are we really human anymore?
3. Have a Cigar
“And did we tell you the name of the game, boy?/ We call it Riding the Gravy Train.” The third track on this classic album is “Have a Cigar”. It is indeed a knock at the greed and business-as-usual attitude of the music industry (which has only gotten worse). However, this song places an important part in my personal interpretation of this album.
We’ve seen the dying dreams of youth. We’ve seen the machine that takes creativity and passion and turns it into a commodity to be utilized by others. Now, then, we meet those at the top of the pyramid. “Sit back”, they say, “and have a cigar”. They pander to you. They tell you what you want to hear. All the while, they see you as nothing more than a product.
The machine is clever. It teaches us about individualism while robbing us of it. It teaches us about creativity and critical thinking while refusing to let us use them. It emphasizes differences while stereotyping us all. It claims a humanistic agenda while simply caring all about money and power. It’s on your side when you do well, but deserts you when the going gets tough.
The machine, however, forgets that you cannot truly rob us of our God-given humanity. You cannot entirely raze our passions and dreams. Our emotions and thoughts will still be there, and the power they so crave will someday be lost. They cannot truly control us. Their pretentious game will end. This cannot last forever.
4. Wish You Were Here
And now we come to one of the most iconic songs in history. The title track for this classic album surely discusses Waters’ feelings for Barrett, but there is so much more here. I remember this song being one of the most puzzling lyrically when I heard it in my youth. “Two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl?” What?
“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 you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?” Somewhere along the way in life we realize our predicament. The machines have stolen our loves and dreams, and convinced us to believe lies about worth and success. We begin to wonder where the years went. All those things we meant to do, all those places we meant to see, all those aspirations we meant to fulfill; what happened to them? We become keenly aware of the void in our chest.
Not only that, but the stark reality of our world takes hold. We begin to realize that in this life we need someone else. We need our family and friends. We need people. They break us away from our imaginary success and from our daily grind that means nothing. We begin to desire real happiness and real work. We don’t want to work for the machine anymore. We crave purpose.
“Two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl.” I know what that means now. It is better to have a friend in your cage than to be all alone. One friend that shares your chains can change everything. Our daily grind together will continue on and on, but we’ll begin to realize our humanity once again when we have each other.
5. Shine on You Crazy Diamond, Part 2
“Come on you miner for truth and delusion/ And shine”. We get to the point where we’ve had enough already. We can’t take living a plastic reality anymore. We get to the point where we begin to recognize the important things in life, and we learn to shine once more. We do it for ourselves. We do it for our families. We do it for our God. We begin to understand.
This classic album has given the layout for many people’s lives. Hopefully, anyways. We start out with wild dreams of success and ambition. Soon enough, though, the machine pulls us in to its unending process. As slaves to the system, we sweat and labor for someone else. Our dreams forgotten, we labor for trinkets and a success that has been imbibed into us as real. Those men with the cigars want us to believe in ourselves, but only for the success of their system, their machine.
As we mature, however, we see past the charades and smokescreens. We see that life is far simpler than we could have imagined, and that people are way more important than any amount of stuff. We begin to shine once more as the system loses its grip on us. The flipside of this is that we may become depressed as they recognize the toxicity of the world around us.
What’s the point then? The human spirit is not so easily defeated as to fall permanently into the schemes of a few greedy men. Honestly, it’s frustrating to see the system still working and chugging away, but it won’t last forever. I think we can see the cracks showing already, as people begin to embrace simpler, healthier, “poorer” lives. Poorer, though, as in not loaded with meaningless junk. The cracks are growing and spreading, and I pray that the machine will soon be nothing more than a lesson learned.