It was Live 8 when I realized it.
Somehow Ser Bob Geldof had talked Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Richard Wright and Nick Mason into to playing together for the first time in over two decades — shaking off or at least ignoring the humongous well of bad feelings that had accumulated in all of that time. It kinda felt like a miracle watching them. So after the requisite pair of songs from The Dark Side of The Moon, backup guitarist Tim Renwick starts playing the tinny guitar from the opening of “Wish You Were Here” — the conceit on the album being that someone is listening to “Have a Cigar” on the radio, wants to hear something else and while scanning the dial, lands upon “Wish You Were Here” (tough luck Pink Floyd Haters) — and Roger Waters addresses the crowd, because even he is caught up in the weirdness.
It’s pretty short, of course, but he talks about how much emotion playing with the other guys is raising inside of him, and dedicates “Wish You Were Here” to “Everyone who’s not here. Particularly, of course, for Syd.” Of course.
Then Gilmour does his sad acoustic guitar intro and and starts singing the opening verse, the entire stadium singing along with him, as well as probably most of the millions watching at home. I know I was. Which is when it struck me: somehow Pink Floyd have written a song that is an eternal folk-rock classic; a song which will be forever sung by buskers on the streets and entire stadiums. And make sense in both contexts.
So, so you think you can tell
Heaven from hell
Blue skies from pain
Can you tell a green field
From a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?
Thematically Wish You Were Here opens and closes with a song specifically about Syd — “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” (which I’m only mentioning to link to my epic post about it) — and in between, two songs about the record industry that Waters felt contributed heavily to Syd’s fate, and of course this song, about Syd, yes, but also far far more universal than any of the other songs on Wish You Were Here, because who can’t relate to missing a loved one who faded away instead of burned out?
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?
Even though “Wish You Were Here” is a Roger Waters song all the way down, David Gilmour is the one who puts it across. Whether he’s harmonizing with his guitar solo after the verses or with himself during the final verse, Gilmour is doing a ton of heavy lifting, both musically and emotionally. And man, does it pay off.
Back in my teens, it took me a bit to realize just how great “Wish You Were Here” well and truly was: unlike the rest of the songs on the album, it’s sad and understated, no attempt to make a massive anthem or skewer a whole industry or anything else. Just a dude talking about how much he misses someone who isn’t ever gonna come back. But what I think finally won me over, was that final verse: so simple, so direct, so beautiful.
How I wish, how I wish you were here
We’re just two lost souls
Swimming in a fish bowl
Year after year
Running over the same old ground
What have we found?
The same old fears
Wish you were here
It’s no great stretch to call that final verse of “Wish You Were Here” my favorite Roger Waters lyric. It’s both completely universal and totally specific, and utterly bereft of the anger, cynicism and self-pity that had already shown up in his lyrics, and when bookended by Gilmour’s vocal/guitar solo on either side of it, the most down-to-earth post-Syd Pink Floyd ever sounded.
“Wish You Were Here”
“Wish You Were Here” at Live 8, 2005
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