For Christmas 1981 or ’82, my sister gave me Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. That New Year’s Day it snowed, and snowed and snowed and snowed, and I remember sitting on the beanbag in her bedroom, listening.
It was easy to imagine–as the heartbeat fade-in that starts the album segued into the swirling steel guitar of “Speak to Me” into the comforting drone of “Breathe” into the synth-and-sound-effect laden “On the Run”–that I was not on a bean bag in my sister’s bedroom in the house I hated but was, in fact, traveling through space, the snowflakes outside the window gliding by against the gray sky like the stars when the Millennium Falcon goes into hyperdrive.
Most of the album was familiar to me. It was in heavy rotation at album-rock station KY102 out of Kansas City, especially the second side, which opens with “Money.” But the one song I had never heard on the radio before was the best–“The Great Gig in the Sky,” featuring Clare Torry’s wordless but amazing vocal performance.
In fact, I now think that most of the best parts of the album, which has sold some 45 million copies since its 1973 release, are wordless. Not one for subtlety, lyricist Roger Waters sort of put it all out there. The themes of Dark Side of the Moon, most cohesively expressed on the first side of the album, are time, death, and futility, all neatly summed up in these lines from “Breathe”:
Run, rabbit run
Dig that hole, forget the sun
And when at last the work is done
Don’t sit down it’s time to start another one
For long you live and high you fly
But only if you ride the tide
And balanced on the biggest wave
You race toward an early grave.
In case you missed it, the next song with lyrics–introduced by a small orchestra of clanging bells (“Time”! Get it?!)–opens:
Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way
Every year is getting shorter, never see to find the time
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone the song is over, thought I’d something more to say
Whether wittingly or not, Dark Side of the Moon laid out the themes that would obsess Waters over the course of the next two studio albums–time, death, futility, and, increasingly, stardom. His lyrics grew darker as the band transformed from perfectionist studio geeks to megastars on the heels of Dark Side‘s success. Had they found themes that gave their lives meaning, or simply a formula for giving disaffected ’70s youth what they wanted?
I often think of Pink Floyd as pioneers of the “Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me” genre, in which musicians find it increasingly difficult to write about much beyond their miserable experience as incredibly successful musicians. From Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty to Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” (and Metallica’s remake of the same), the late ’70s were about decrying your fate as the overpaid, overdoped, and oversexed musician who has to turn it on every night for the fans. This is still a standard trope of rock music.
Pink Floyd perfected and crystallized the genre in their 1979 double album, The Wall. I spent most of the second half of my junior year of high school in my sister’s bedroom after school sleeping while The Wall rolled on endlessly on 8-track tape, over and over and over again, day after day. I now recognize, with hindsight and 30 years of mental health crises behind me, that I must have been clinically depressed at the time–and that The Wall made it worse. Still, at the time I found the album cathartic and complementary to my increasingly dark and cynical worldview.
But again, not an album of subtlety, and if you didn’t get the point of lyrics like:
might like to
go to the show
to feel the warm thrill of confusion
that space-cadet glow
I’ve got some bad news for you sunshine
Pink isn’t well, he stayed back at the hotel
and they sent us along, as a surrogate band
and we’re going to find out where you fans really stand
British director Alan Parker made a big-budget half animated, half filmed movie to drive it home. (As a friend much later told me, “The only good thing about The Wall was Bob Geldoff in the movie.”)
In the end though, it’s the music and the sound effects and the random voice overs that still endear me to Pink Floyd. Listening to Dark Side of the Moon again this afternoon, some 35 years later, I finally realized what others have realized before me–that Clare Torry’s improvised performance on “The Great Gig in the Sky” tells the whole story of the album. Her cries begin in a combination of joy and terror, as at birth; build and become more frenetic as adult responsibilities and banality intrude; soften as old age sets in; and finally die, in a whisper, as will we all.
I guess you don’t need all those words when you’ve nailed the sound.