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Rocking My Life Away: Pink Floyd

November 28, 2001 12:00 AM ET

Hipsters have never had any use for Pink Floyd. Remember, it was John Lydon's "I Hate Pink Floyd" T-shirt that got him discovered, and helped launch the punk-rock insurgency of the Seventies. For many people, that T-shirt seemed to say it all. Pink Floyd were the essence of faceless corporate rockers -- bloated, smug, pretentious, self-satisfied and irrelevant.

I must confess, however, that I've always liked Pink Floyd, and I was heartened when the band's new two-disc collection, Echoes: The Best of Pink Floyd, entered the Billboard Top 200 chart at Number Two after its first week of release. People were still responding to the band, it seemed, thirty-four years after the 1967 release of Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the group's still-extraordinary first album. Of course, this new success was hardly a surprise. Pink Floyd's catalogue sells close to a million copies a year, and, needless to say, Dark Side of the Moon, which came out in 1973, still reaches generation after generation of young people, a musical rite of passage that anyone who cares about rock & roll must go through.

I'm certainly not naïve enough not to believe that for many of the band's fans, Pink Floyd is a kind of sonic wallpaper, a suitably soothing background to mindless hours spent "comfortably numb," as the song title from The Wall so memorably puts it, floating under the influence of one drug or another. I'm also not so puritanical not to think that isn't a worthy function, at least once in a while.

But as so many of Pink Floyd's songs do, "Comfortably Numb" also addresses an issue that never loses its significance in anyone's life. It is a song about avoiding complacency, about how that "fleeting glimpse" you saw out of the corner of your eye as a child -- a lovely image, really, that flash of life's promise -- can fade as you get older, and deadening routine can smother the continuing renewal of experience. It is a fate that must be avoided, or life becomes a kind of death-in-life, the "quiet desperation" that Roger Waters, borrowing the concept and phrase from Henry David Thoreau, so often writes about.

There is also the band's sensitive handling of Syd Barrett, the principal architect of Pink Floyd's psychedelic musical journeys, whose sad, acid-fueled descent into madness and obscurity in 1968, paved the way for Waters' emergence as the group's visionary. With perfect irony, the very hipsters who disdain Pink Floyd, worship Barrett, but their regard for him is really a very cynical form of condescension. His illness, not his talent, is his badge of authenticity in their foolish eyes. It's an attitude that denies -- or, worse, romanticizes -- the pain in his life.

By way of contrast, Barrett haunts the music Pink Floyd made after his departure in a variety of appropriate guises -- muse, standard-bearer, cautionary tale, symbol of shattered hopes and, most movingly, lost friend. His music and the music he inspired in the band after he left frame the new collection in a way that is both generous and admirable. Echoes, indeed.

Finally, Echoes is smartly arranged, not in chronological order, but to trace the passage of time -- another of Pink Floyd's great themes. Without being ham-fisted about it, the set demonstrates how the struggles of childhood and youth -- the search for a meaningful life, in short -- never really resolve, but are re-encountered and newly understood at every age. Meanings slip away and are rediscovered, but the journey never ends until death -- and, maybe, not even then. The boundless, creative ability of the imagination to find and renew purpose is also the implied theme of Barrett's brilliant space jam, "Astronomy Domine."

As I listened to Echoes, I recalled an interview I did with Waters about Dark Side of the Moon in 1987. When I asked if he could sum up what the album was about in his view, he paused for a moment, and then quietly said, "Humanity." Though it has often been mistaken to be a kind of easy escapism, Pink Floyd's music also seems to me to be about humanity, about how the very societal structures that people build to engage each other somehow get corrupted and become, again in a great, irreducible Waters phrase, The Wall. But, despite its darkness, Pink Floyd's music has always seemed to me to be filled with points of connection, ways of comprehending and transcending the barriers between people. Ways of loving, really.

That the band's various members over the years -- Barrett, Waters, David Gilmour, Richard Wright and Nick Mason -- have never been able to achieve that awareness among themselves is another great irony, one that itself could be worthy of a Pink Floyd concept album. Waters has not spoken with Gilmour, Wright and Mason for sixteen years. And Gilmour recently said that there may never again be a new Pink Floyd project.

No matter. All of those band members should be proud of what they've achieved. And if they fail to heed the lessons they themselves have taught, those lessons are no less worthy for that. And they are still echoing.

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