It was a cold little sound. I imagined it as an android’s rendition of a stone skipping across a pond, or perhaps sinking beneath the surface. It was a testament to the enduring power of craft that I could even hear it at all, tinny and slight beneath the hiss of my cheap Walkman headphones, whispering from a home-dubbed cassette recorded from an LP copy I bought in the sixth grade as soon as a record store opened up in our town. Despite the less-than-high- fidelity format, not to mention the competing noise of the road rumbling beneath me and the air rushing in through the car’s open windows, that cold little sound rang out between my ears as a kind of signal, an “Open Sesame” into a world that seemed as foreign to me in its means as it was familiar in its sentiments. It happens about ten seconds into the first track of Pink Floyd’s 1975 album Wish You Were Here, the fade-in to an otherworldly and plaintive song suite entitled “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.”
Wish You Were Here was the first Pink Floyd album following 1973’s spectacularly successful The Dark Side of the Moon. Thirty years after both WYWH and I first saw the light of day, I realize that Wish You Were Here was, in effect, my first real art experience, and not just because I had ceaselessly traced the lines of the robotic handshake sticker slapped on the shrink-wrap that covered the sleeve (a sticker I carefully saved and which still bears the grooves left by my juvenile pencil). The album offered itself up to me as an important new kind of thing. It was an object that I could relate to in a way that I couldn’t with so many other objects (and people) that surrounded me. It produced an experience that seemed intensely personal but was also essentially alien, an experience that enveloped me in myself but that also transcended whoever I could be at any given moment. It seemed to be about me (after all it did come out the year that I was born), made for me even, but was created by people that I had never met and who would, in all likelihood, never have even the slightest idea that I existed at all. It presented me with an embryonic model of what I would at some point, in a future much unlike the flying cars and glass-domed moon cities that I envisioned the 21st Century to be, dedicate my life to making. The LP’s shiny, grooved black surface was both a mirror reflecting what I could perceive within and around me, as well as a sort of window, looking out into a universe filled with threat and possibility.
In the wake of Dark Side of the Moon, the four members of Pink Floyd found themselves at a loss. Tensions were rising among them and the intended follow-up, an album made entirely from sounds culled from ordinary household objects, was (thankfully) scrapped. Out of this ennui, the group began to make a record that reflected their situation, giving voice to feelings of being alienated from one another and from their work, growing distrust of the music industry and the recurring pangs of the loss of original founder and main songwriter Syd Barrett to mental illness. The majority of the record consists of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a nine-part song suite split into two long sections. “Shine On” is a eulogy of sorts for Barrett, a childhood friend of bassist and songwriter Roger Waters, while the acoustic title track seems addressed to the band themselves, with Waters jokingly commenting in interviews that perhaps they should have called the record “Wish We Were Here.”
I had no way of knowing, sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car en route to my grandparents’ house with a glum expression on my face and headphones over my ears, what the creators of the record I was listening to would have wanted me to think about. I played it endlessly, weekend after weekend, staring out at the scenery we sped past while analogous images flickered through my mind, narrated by the voices and the noises that I knew by heart. “Welcome to the Machine” always seemed appropriate for the junkyard that lay just outside the turn down the road to Granny’s house. The place sat on the shore of a man-made lake with a bullshit Indian name meaning “the healing waters,” according my born-again grandmother, and a bullshit squaw-and-brave story to go with it. Sometimes there was a creepy middle-aged man that squinted at us from his little security hut. (“Come in here dear boy, Have a cigar, You’re gonna go far…” crooned guest vocalist Roy Harper on “Have A Cigar.”) In the spring, the redbud and dogwood blossoms would shimmer through the leafless woods, syncopated with the smoky chrome and glass textures of Rick Wright’s synthesizers on the closing half of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” When the end of “Have a Cigar” got sucked into crackling mono to become the acoustic ballad of “Wish You Were Here,” I imagined that I was receiving it directly from the air, that my teeth were acting as antennae, like a man I had read about in a weird facts trivia book.
Though I only learned of it recently, the original packaging concept for “Wish You Were Here” was to be a completely anonymous, black outer wrapper beneath which was to be the now famous sleeve featuring a man in a business suit shaking hands with his burning counterpart. The record company wasn’t too keen on this idea, so the robotic handshake sticker I had copied religiously was affixed to the black wrapper. Even without an awareness of the original, funereal packaging, the elegiac, almost pleading tone of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” was palpable to me immediately. The song laments the wasted potential of a mind snuffed out by madness; it is a work born of loss. It is this song, and the record as a whole, that brought me to the vital, if unpleasant, realization of a truth central to what I think an artist does: to make something is to have lost something.
“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” left me with two contrasting examples of artists. There was, on the one hand, the fragile visionary—brilliant but doomed Barrett, who died recently of pancreatic cancer—and, on the other hand, the tenacious observer— Roger Waters—a resigned and melancholic survivor. Wish You Were Here was the work of the latter, though its genesis as well as its subject was centered, in part, on the loss of the former. It is a work of mourning, a carefully and seamlessly constructed environment that replaced the liberating but dangerous effervescence of ecstatic genius with tempered and methodical reflection. That this could give way all too easily to cynicism and bitterness was already apparent in the tracks “Welcome to the Machine” and “Have A Cigar” and would gain momentum unchecked in the increasingly bleak Pink Floyd albums to follow.
Madness wasn’t really an exotic concept for me at the time, nor, unfortunately, was mourning. While I had never heard of Syd Barrett when I first began listening to Pink Floyd, I quickly found out as much as I could about him and his legendary disintegration. Madness seemed pervasive in my life; I was the child of social workers who were both employed at the local state hospital. Many Sundays we would go to Mass at the chapel there (my parents were friends of the priest) and I would spend the celebration of the Eucharist fascinated and terrified by the patients in the pews surrounding us. Amongst the sea of lunatic faces, I would imagine there to be a Syd Barrett, a crazy diamond lodged into the dross. The thought that genius could be so close at hand was a thrilling escape from the disappointment and alienation I felt all too keenly, but it was also an uncomfortably close-to-home example of what it could mean to have escaped the mundane.
While the music of “Wish You Were Here” provided a model of what it was like to be a person who made things (“artist” as such wasn’t really in my vocabulary at the time), it was the sleeve of the album that would provide the model of how it was that such a work could be read. The cover was created by a firm called Hipgnosis, whose younger partner, Peter Christopherson, was later to influence me with his own musical projects as much as Pink Floyd had earlier. Though it took me a long time to “get” the sleeve—each of the photographic vignettes represented one of the four elements—I was immediately impressed by the way things within the pictures emerged from the white margin. Fire, the cover image of the flaming businessman shaking hands with his normal counterpart had a singed edge. Earth, the invisible man holding out a clear vinyl record in the desert (clear vinyl! If only my copy of the album was clear vinyl, I thought), had sand pouring out through a tear in the border of the image, as if that border held the desert back. The splash-less diver on the inner sleeve had a jet of water bursting forth beneath the printed lyrics, and the picture for Air, a floating red veil in a field, was bordered by two trippy, wavering edges that differed just slightly from the others. Then there was the robotic handshake that seemed the key to the whole business. I traced it incessantly. It seemed to contain all of the emotional information that I could intuit from the other images and which bled through into the music in some ineffable way. The sleeve was a model of an artwork whose exoteric content (the music, lyrics) was tangible, but whose esoteric content lay beyond, to be inferred, existing out of time, emanating from a borrowed power.
My experience with Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here would prove to be the blueprint for nearly all of my most profound art experiences. It was an experience that was essentially private and introspective, completely devoid of the lighters held aloft and crowd communion that I had thought part and parcel of the consumption of what was, in the end, rock n’ roll. My isolated, insular and intimate connection with this bit of popular cultural was a very non-rockin’ rock n’ roll affair. The record provided me with an encounter with myself in the guise of someone else’s expression. By a process both narcissistic and transcendent, listening to it in the way that I did allowed me to embrace what I already knew and felt while simultaneously engaging me on a level that was beyond the sum of my (admittedly meager) experiences. This record was, in essence, an initiation. It brought me not only to new categories of subjective experience, but also (unbeknownst to me at the time) to the possibility that I could exchange my role as a person who thought about stuff that other people made for one in which I could make things that other people might think about.
Tom Allen is a painter who lives with his cat, Grendl, in Pasadena, and shows at Richard Telles Fine Art, Los Angeles, and Galerie Michael Janssen, Cologne.