“Wish You Were Here” Means More Than You Think
Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” is a legendary song. It’s also deeper than most people think. The song inspires a sense of longing for someone, be they dead or far away. But there’s a piece that tugs on us even if we don’t have someone that we miss. Let’s dig into what makes this song legendary.
This is just my opinion. You’re free to interpret the song your own way.
First: Syd Barrett
No interpretation of this song is complete without its inspiration: Pink Floyd’s estranged bandmate Syd Barrett. He was ousted from the group in 1968 as drug abuse drove him from sanity. In fact, the whole album is about him.
It’s important to note that Syd Barrett was still alive during the creation of the album. In fact, Syd Barrett crashed one of Pink Floyd’s recording sessions. His haggard appearance had rendered him unrecognizable, and caused Roger Waters to break down into tears.
It’s important because it tells us that “Wish You Were Here” isn’t about death or distance. Instead, it’s a song about perception and change. It tells us that we are all outsiders from each other’s subjective, internal world.
I will argue that the song goes further than a lament: it’s a tragedy.
The Subjective Human Experience
The first stanza is about Syd’s detachment from reality and know-it-all ego:
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?
But it goes deeper: it also confronts the listener. It asks: can you really tell wrong from right? Note that the writer isn’t claiming to be capable of something we aren’t. The questions are rhetorical and the implication this:
We can’t make objective judgements about much of the world.
It should be easy to tell a green field from a cold steel rail, right? Sure, but not if we see the comparison as a symbol. Telling a green field from a cold steel rail is obvious but as the next stanza will tell us, the world at large isn’t so clear.
Perception is subjective. Where you might see a green field, I might see a cold steel rail.
The writer is frustrated at someone, but also at a world that looks like a Rorschach painting.
Change In A Gray World
The next stanza elaborates on subjectivity by giving us more ambiguous comparisons, in the form of trading one thing for another:
And did they get you to trade
Your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
And did you exchange
A walk on part in the war
For a leading role in a cage?
Some of these trades seem to be bad things for good things. Others, vice versa. Each line contrasts one thing and another thing, but each isn’t necessarily better or worse than the other. It’s subjective.
This stanza talks about change. In the case of Syd Barrett, he took drugs to escape reality and changed as a result. He made a conscious decision to trade one thing for another. We all make trades in our lives. Those trades may be ambiguous.
In the case of Syd, we are lead to believe the writer finds his drug use to be a negative, given the mood of the song
The final stanza not only cements our isolation from one another, but ends on a touching note of shared experience:
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
The writer is observing that we are lost and isolated, engaged in a never-ending game. He is wishing that someone could experience what he is experiencing. “Here” is a mental place instead of a physical place.
The writer is saying: I wish you were experiencing what I’m experiencing. I wish you could see things the way I see them. I wish you were with me, but you’re somewhere I don’t understand.
The image of a wish is also important: wanting something and wishing for it are two different things. We wish for the unlikely or impossible. For example, one doesn’t want a lost relative to be alive: one wishes for it.
What is a tragedy? To me, a tragedy is a situation where protagonists do nothing wrong, yet the worst happens to them. Thus, I believe it applies here.
The world subjective through no fault of our own. The fact is tragic because we have just enough shared experiences to connect, but only at a superficial level. The writer is expressing that the human experience is isolating through an allegory of Syd Barrett’s mental deterioration.
Here is the kicker: do you see the world in the same way as the writer?
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