Jul 132002

I was listening to Wish You Were Here for probably the 457th time the other day when I suddenly realized I didn’t understand it. I quote, for late arrivals from Venus:

So, do 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?

I follow so far. But the Floyd continues:

Did they get you to trade
Your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange
A walk-on part in the war
For a lead role in a cage?

Charting this up, we have:

hot ashes
hot air
cold comfort
walk-on part in the war
New Item
cool breeze
lead role in a cage

How come I understood this the first 456 times?

  11 Responses to “Wish You Were Here”

  1. A, legal seu blog, eu sou brasileira, e achei pelo chalking nao sei oq l. eu sei que vc num vai entender nada, mas foi mal, eu nao sei escrever em ingles tambm! bjos!

  2. I’m guessing this is Portuguese. Anybody willing to translate it for me? Do I even want to have it translated?

  3. Sorry, I don’t know to write in english, just portuguese. I’m brazilian, from So Paulo.
    And your blog is very cool
    I know to read in english, so,so.
    But I understand a little.
    sorry denovo.

  4. Well thanks very much. I guess I did want that translated after all.

  5. It was about Viet Nam.

    For instance, "Walk on part in the war"/"Lead role in a cage" referred to either accepting the draft and going into the military, or refusing the draft and going to prison.

  6. I’m not so sure. For one thing Waters is British, and when he writes about war it’s usually WWII, not some American mess.

    One would also expect a certain parallelism among the various exchanged and exchanged-for items that appears to me to be lacking. The first item fits the explanation OK, but one doesn’t get much in the way of trees or cool breezes in jail, and it looks like cold comfort and change ought to be the other way around.

    I nitpick only because Waters is my favorite lyricist and I suspect I’m missing something.

  7. Aaron, I guess what I have to say is, "You had to be there." I was, when it first came out (and was draft-age), and I have no doubt at all he was talking mostly about Viet Nam.

    It’s hardly surprising that cryptic lyrics about current events 25 years ago would seem confusing now to someone who didn’t live through those times.

  8. I’m willing to believe Waters was writing about Viet Nam. But he still lost the thread somewhere between "hot ashes" and "change."

  9. Although this entry is two years old, I feel obliged to comment, since it was the only relevant thing I found when Googling this exact topic. I tried looking into the Vietnam angle, but so far all I’ve discovered is that a lot of people seem to enjoy randomly commenting in people’s weblogs with excerpts from this song. And you know, I STILL don’t get the hot ashes part.

  10. Maybe Waters got confused and accidentally reversed part of the trade-in sequence. He was probably so concerned about finding cheap & easy rhymes that he didn’t notice the incoherence of his lyrics.

    I’m guessing he meant that Britain traded in all its trees & cool breezes for the hot ashes & hot air of the industrial revolution, which did in fact de-forest the UK. All that’s left now is 150 square miles of The New Forest, in Hampshire, spared because it was a royal hunting preserve. Similarly, green field vs. cold steel railroad seems to allude to Ruskin’s failed campaign in the mid-19th century to keep railroads out of the "unspoiled" English countryside. There’s a noticeable tendency in British art-rock (Led Zep, Tull, Gabriel, et al.) to look back longingly at Green Old England, before the Dark Satanic Mills arrived.

  11. As with much of Floyd, the reference is to continuing decay of meaning in life, which is brought about by increasing industrialization. (q.f. "Animals")
    This is thematic, a la "Ghost in the Machine," the spirit of man trapped in an uncaring, unyielding environment. It is the cry of lost innocence and the loss of childhood and simpler, more meaningful, lifestyle. The references do flip-flop in order – I agree it would be far more satisfying if there was direct parallel structure as you tried to outline.

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