The Great Gig in the Sky

Pink Floyd keyboardist and co-founder Richard Wright died Monday at his home. He was 65. Rock stars die all the time, and I never really knew anything about this quiet guy, but news of Wright’s death set me to reflecting quite a bit yesterday on my youth, on the role of pop music in the lives of youth, and on the fate of those whose lives turn them into rock stars.

I hope the title of this post isn’t overly corny – and I’m sure I’m not the only one to whom it will occur to use it. It refers, of course, to the title of what is my favorite song from Pink Floyd’s landmark 1973 album, Dark Side of the Moon – a song Wright wrote, or possibly co-wrote with Roger Waters. Like all Floyd music, it is tortured to a point that approaches despair. And I had to wonder today if Wright ever found an answer to the angst-ridden but cynical cries for justice, peace –and just plain sanity- that comprised so much of the music that defined his professional life. Even while acknowledging that Roger Waters was the primary architect of the eventual Pink Floyd milieu, both musically and lyrically, it would seem impossible to separate any of the members from the whole.

For that matter, it’s hard to picture Wright (and others like him) apart even from the larger community of commodities we call rock stars. For all the glamour and magnetic appeal these characters have to adolescent minds, it’s not a pretty sight when you peel back the thrill. There is no hope in rock culture: it promises a quick fix in some form of indulgence (for the going price, of course), but it cannot offer hope, because it cannot be open to the future; it cannot be open to life. Hence, the prevalence of drugs, fornication, and contempt for roots (i.e. tradition). Rock culture struggles to build its own tradition – a kind of “history” that spans little more than 50 years – but it doesn’t really know how to grow up, have children, bury parents, nurture wisdom. It’s hard to overstate how important deep roots are to true flowering. Yet rock “culture” encourages kids to envision their roots in rebellion, which is the very death of culture.

I was not a particularly big Pink Floyd fan as a teen (I actually listened to them more later on). Although I was, of course, mesmerized by Dark Side of the Moon – as the whole world seemingly was. I liked the two follow-on albums, Wish You Were Here and Animals, I just wasn’t wild about them, like so many were. I also never liked the early work (although Meddle is OK), and I could never understand the appeal of The Wall – an album that, even from my youth, I’ve always thought was the epitome of whining self-indulgence and overbearing melodrama. There are a few good songs, but they are surrounded by much too much drivel. Dark Side, however, was a piece apart. Just the fact that it spent more than 14 years on the Billboard charts is mind-boggling – occupying, as it does, a world of faddish impatience in which yesterday’s must-have style is today’s trendy object of scorn.

My own engagement with Pink Floyd began in a manner quite befitting the spirit of the psychedelic world the band embodied in 1973. Unlike so many events of that period, I remember this one clearly, as I must have understood at some level, even at the time, what a cad I was.

I was 12 or 13 years old when I decided I wanted a copy of this new album, which had already quickly become a signature of the age, and I was by then fully entrenched in the lawless and immoral underbelly of the so-called counterculture – despite my tender age. My bicycle at the time was a black Schwinn I’d inherited from my older brother, which had an aluminum basket on the handlebars for cargo. I rode the bike to the Natick Mall after dark, and stole a copy of the album from one of the stores. I’d left the bike just outside the door. I slid the album under my coat, headed out the door, hopped on the bike, and started pedaling down Speen Street toward home – even pulling the album out of my coat to admire it along the way.

But something happened during the ride, and when I got back home, I realized that I no longer had the album. It must have bounced out of the basket somewhere on Speen Street. I was furious. I had stolen it fair and square, and considered it cosmically unjust that I now had to go back to the store and steal it again, greatly increasing my risk of getting caught.

So I got on the bike again, and pedaled back up Speen Street – carefully retracing my route in the vain hope of finding “my” album. I never did. Instead, I stole a second copy that night – the same way I had stolen the first – but I held this one in my hand the entire way home, and then played it in my black light illuminated bedroom. Believe it or not, I still felt gypped by fate for losing the first copy.

I share this story not to make it sound funny, but because it calls for a certain grieving in my heart, more than the passing of Richard Wright does. The memory – not so much of my actions, as of my unfathomable self-righteousness – stands as a sentinel in my conscience, always ready to mock any attempts to justify myself, while also providing a quiet witness to the danger of being glib or forgetful about the human potential for being blinded to truth by some kind of perverse and self-serving ethics.

I bought that album eventually – some years later – and I played it a couple times yesterday, raising a mental toast to Rick Wright as I listened. Now he really gets to play The Great Gig in the Sky – though what that means to him, I surely cannot say. I can say that he surely drank deeply from a poison cup I know all too well, and that the darkness which streams forth from it is a formidable enemy for any man. The end can come so quickly, and so easily find us hiding from the light, even searching the lonely road for the ill-gotten fruits of our violence and shame.

I hope you embraced the light, Richard, for we all move into the consuming fire in the end. Sorry about the thievery.