Eyes That Can See in the Dark

a music journal

September 16, 2008 (link)

1:54 AM

I'm absolutely gutted about this. When I read the news, I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach. No one in my circle of contacts had heard he was ill, so I guess they were keeping it pretty quiet -- but there are so many of us who would have loved to say goodbye, had we known.

Rick Wright was the member of Pink Floyd I most wanted to meet, and despite his reputation for shyness, I hoped I might, someday -- but all I really would have wanted to say to him was "thank you". Without him, they wouldn't have been who they were; without him, I wouldn't be who I am, certainly as a musician and, perhaps, as a person too.

He really was the soul of the band, its lyrical core -- at least, during the years I loved it most -- and his work, and voice, have always been terribly underrated. His music -- his specific contributions to the Floyd, his conception of musicality and timbre and the shaping of sounds -- these meant so much to me, literally changed my life.

I spent some time one day this past summer working on an analysis of "Remember A Day" for a colleague. After I'd finished, as we discussed what I'd written, I wrote this:

I have so much admiration for [Rick's] songwriting and musicianship -- in particular, he has an uncanny ear for harmony -- and his role in shaping the band's sound has long been underestimated...I often find myself returning to his songs -- "Remember A Day", "Paint Box", "Summer '68", "Great Gig In The Sky" -- and marveling at how fresh and unstereotyped they still sound.

As it turns out, I wrote those words on Rick's 65th birthday. [EDIT: I was incorrect, it was a good two weeks prior. That's what happens when you write late at night without double-checking your facts.] I wish he could have read them, though I suspect that, shy as he was, he probably would have felt uncomfortable at best. But they remain true.

One of my favorite sensations in all of music is the moment when, in the midst of an otherwise traditional progression, you get a "magic chord" -- a harmony that defies expectation or categorization, and yet somehow seems inevitable in retrospect because it works, perfectly, even if you can't quite figure out how. That moment is something that happens over and over again in Rick's compositions. In places where a lesser musician would have picked the "chord of least resistance", Rick would, over and over again, go the extra mile to find something magical -- some unexpected harmony, rich with implications that would, in turn, deepen and enrich the song as a whole.

When I found out this afternoon, the song that came immediately to my mind's ear, insistently and quietly -- obvious cliché though it might be, in this context -- was "Great Gig in the Sky". Not the first half, with its famous cries and wails, but the achingly beautiful second half, full of sadness and resignation. It was explicitly a song written about his fear of death, and it's particularly painful to think of that, now -- to think of how frightened he must have been, near the end.

Memorials are for the living, not the dead, to whom they offer no comfort. But while we live, we can build our own memorials -- as Mozart did, and Bach and Beethoven as well -- and take some small solace from knowing that we have built something beautiful that will outlive us and articulate some small piece of who we were, and how we tried our best to be truthful and brave in the face of that cruel, relentless, annihilating force that, sooner or later, catches all of us and turns all that we love into ash.

Indeed, a good friend of mine once said, wisely, that "all art is memorial". And I can't think of any more fitting memorial for Rick Wright than those five minutes, which -- perhaps more than any other part of that well-worn album -- have lost none of their potency and lyricism, even after all these years.

(And -- another uncanny, if mild coincidence -- when I picked up my iPod again for the first time after reading the news, I found that earlier that afternoon I had left it paused halfway through "Free Four", just after the lines "And life is a short warm moment / And death is a long cold rest". It wasn't an accident, either -- the lines had struck a little too close to home, somehow, and I felt the need to get away from those thoughts for a while, though knowing nothing yet of what had happened.)

R.I.P., Rick. I hope that your last days were free of pain, and of fear, and that you knew something of the extent to which your music had touched and enriched the lives of so many. It certainly touched and enriched mine in incalculable ways, and I'll always be grateful for that.

Current music: Pink Floyd - "Great Gig in the Sky", "Love Scene #4", "Riot Scene", "Love Scene #5"

(Comments for September 16, 2008)


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