Just like last time, a Twitter poll determined the album I’d be reading. This may be pretty rough, but I guess that’s the challenge, right? If you’re interested at all, I’m working on a way to be able to nominate albums for the queue. More later. For now, let’s talk about Dark Side of the Moon.
This is probably Pink Floyd’s greatest single thing. It’s probably one of the greatest music albums of all time. PF fans fight sometimes, because, the wisdom goes, there are Dark Side of the Moon fans and The Wall fans. I like both, but I do think Dark Side is a more cohesive unit. It doesn’t really follow a story from beginning to end, but its connection to The Wizard of Oz sort of imposes a narrative on it. I’ve done that by the way (while sober), and the syncing up is sort of eerie. It does not work, I think, to loop the album and finish the movie, though.
Anyway. What is Dark Side about? We’ll be learning that over time, of course, but I would say, before we start, that the album is about the difference between what we can and cannot change. As a result, it’s about the ways we try to change the world around us and the ways we try to avoid changing things. If you’re also familiar with The Wall, this idea will come as no surprise to you. Let’s get started!
1: Speak to Me
I listen to each song on repeat, and this one’s been going for a while now. The only words are bits and pieces of the recordings that the band made of people around the Abbey Road studio. There’s laughter, and one guy admitting he’s mad, and a real ramping up and building up of tension that, since I’m repeating the song, never resolves. It naturally resolves in the following track. This track, though, is all about the heartbeat, one of the most famous sounds from the album. There’s a life here, lived in silence, with only external sounds and a heartbeat to accompany the thoughts that will follow.
8 of Vessels
I’m going to hedge my narrative here and say the tension of the song indicates that the card is “reversed.” Let’s not go into it too much now, but cards can negate their meaning — that is, they can insist on the opposite of their meanings — when “reversed” (upside down) or negatively connected. The Eight of Vessels represents the aspect of Hermes in the realm of the emotions and the intuitive life (8 + element_water). In the card, we see a potter working diligently on yet another vessel. He makes the things that the feelings go into. We are vessels for our feelings. Whoever’s nervous system we’re entering at the beginning of this song is self-contained, shut off, not “present in the moment” (one of the meanings the artist ascribes to this card). This song is all about the tension building up inside until something breaks down, hence all the machine noises overwhelming the heartbeat and the conversation.
2: Breathe (in the Air)
The tension of the previous song builds further, until a repeated scream shocks the listener. Then a gentle drum beat and dreamy guitar line settle the listener down again. The lyrics exhort the listener to stay connected, to stay with the speaker, to remember that life is one’s experiences (“And all your touch and all you see / Is all your life will ever be”).
IX The Hermit
The Hermit indicates a person who is alone, in solitude. It’s not exactly complicated to figure that out from the card, is it? If the song’s speaker doesn’t want to be alone, they must deal with being alone — that’s the implication, at least. The speaker goes on to shout at a rabbit to run and “dig that hole, forget the sun.” The fear is overwhelming and the urge we all feel, at some point, is simply to hide. The Hermit is, or can be, a very healthy card. We need that time away from other people. It allows us to think, to meditate, to consider what we need to retain and what we need to lose. The black bird on the Hermit’s shoulder, in the card above, indicates some stuff in alchemical symbolism that’s basically the process of shedding the useless parts of oneself in a personal transformation. That’s why the Hermit is usually on a height — he is rising up above where he was through this withdrawal and personal transformation.
I can affirm this unpleasant truth: I never wanted to be alone, when I was growing up, when I was a nervous teenager and a worried undergraduate. But those moments alone helped me to refine myself down. Terry Pratchett said, at one point, that human minds are like little clouds, wisps drifting back into the past and forward into the future. Being alone can center us on the present, if we let it. And in this song, we’re told to breathe (in the air).
3: On the Run
The pace picks up again here. You should read how PF made this damn song. It’s about pursuit and flight, running from things. If you run away from your life to be alone, you’re going to fuck something up. Because you’re not meditating or resting, you’re throwing yourself forward into the future. The laughing man talks about the passage of time (see the next song).
Lady of Swords
We had this card last time. There, we saw the card is about poetry and song. That doesn’t seem as apt now. So, the swords are all about the mind and the intellect. The ladies, in this deck, are the first in the court cards. They go lady-knight-queen-king. The ladies, or pages (according to Waite), are often considered beginners, young, and usually unsettled. That’s not always bad, of course. In Ziggy Stardust, that combination allowed Ziggy to create a fascinating stage character that really spoke to people. Here, though, in this neurotic daydream, the Lady of Swords represents the ability to talk oneself into anything. Lots of people change their moods, every day, by listening to music. But what if a person only listened to worrying music? They would be deciding, in a sense, to depress themselves.
Note we’re talking about poetic “mental health,” not the real kind that people can suffer under. Though this album is probably a product of strong emotional states, including depression.
The Lady of Swords is convincing as she sings. She’s that voice that convinces you not to say anything as a stranger shouts at you, or your family ignores your needs yet again. In the context of “On the Run,” the lady points to a tendency to be swayed by stray thoughts.
Here’s a famous one. Don’t play it early in the morning if you have a roommate. Quiet ambient sound is broken by several alarm clocks going off at once. We waste our time, we struggle against it, we try to run (as in the previous song) but nothing works. We can already see that, maybe, the album is suggesting that mindful stillness is the solution. But we’re not there yet. This song is about the “rat race,” the running to and fro — physical and mental — we do to avoid certain things while we throw ourselves at others. “And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.” Eventually we all wonder where time went.
“Far away across the field / the tolling of the iron bell / calls the faithful to their knees / to hear the softly spoken magic spells”
We want a magic spell. We’re all magicians. Our minds control our lives to a degree we usually fail to imagine. Time may pass us by, but it’s only a problem because of the way we think about it. The song drifts through a few topics, and the Magician is the figure who can move between states, between worlds. In this version, the magician is Hermes, and he has all the elements around him while the red and white rose of alchemy grow at his feet. Hermes flies through time, he has no problem running, even if he’s not told to. The zodiac, astrological symbolism depicting the passage of time, spreads across the sky behind him.
Time passes. That’s the deal. We feel like we were supposed to be running, racing the sun, racing time itself. But we’re not supposed to do that. Standing still, between the earth and the sky, allows us to observe time passing around us. We remain the same (in some ways; we certainly still age). The Magician begins to see that we didn’t miss the starting gun so much as we didn’t need to be running at all, not out of fear.
There’s our first section! Four songs isn’t quite halfway, but then again, the album can kind of be broken into “before ‘Time'” and “after ‘Time.'” So that’s OK then. Join us again next time!