Mourning And Resurrection(s) In Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”

Editor’s Note: This article was submitted by guest author Fr. Jacques-Jude Lepine.

‘Come on You Target’: The Founding Expulsion

The story and music of Pink Floyd irresistibly calls for an anthropological reading, starting with the very founding of the British progressive rock band. At the beginning was the expulsion of a musical genius, Syd Barrett (1946 – 2006), destroyed by drugs and mental illness. Those were the sixties; the pictures of the times show a lightly built androgynous character with a cryptic expression, wearing the popular hippie attire of his day. Barrett was one of the most creative composers and guitarists of his era. Under his leadership, Pink Floyd was also the first band to use sound effects and animated light shows in order to immerse their audience in an overwhelming sensorial experience. In the language of the sixties, their shows were comparable to a psychedelic “trip,” something that the band would keep expanding and refining over four decades. Sadly, however, and in spite of his immense talent, barely three years after the band’s beginnings, Barrett had to be fired because of his personal problems.

Eight years later, in 1975, Pink Floyd paid tribute to their founder in a monumental suite, Shine On You Crazy Diamond, shown here in its classic 1994 live performance. In this nine-part composition dispersed throughout the concept album “Wish You Were Here,” Barrett is described in the lyrics as an outcast endowed with supernatural gifts. He is at once the ultimate victim and the artist, a new avatar of the poete maudit who, after his descent into madness, is called to rise and shine in a mythological world, like a ¨crazy diamond¨:

Shine on you crazy diamond!
Come on you target for faraway laughter,
Come on you stranger, you legend, you martyr, and shine!
Come on you raver, you seer of visions,
Come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, and shine!

In these lines, the victim of a destruction that is simultaneously self-inflicted, pathological and collective (Barrett was expelled by his own band) is turned into a series of legendary and mythical entities. These historical circumstances and their lyrical treatment are not without resemblance with the founding violence at the origins of social and religious forms, as developed about the surrogate victim in René Girard’s mimetic theory. There are obvious differences, of course, between the callous dumping of the difficult member of a rock band in the twentieth century and the bloody collective victimages that Girard posits at the origins of human societies and their sacrificial religions.  However, the fact is that Pink Floyd had to expulse Barrett in order to rise to fame, and that the band commemorated the subject of this expulsion in a song which lends him several mythical features that have been applied to defied victims by violent crowds in founding myths. In his biography of the band, Nick Mason alludes to the group’s contradictory feelings towards Barrett, ranging from frustration and anger to powerlessness and empathy, and describes how getting rid of Barret was the beginning of the band’s ascension to international and then global fame, their salvation. Had he remained present among them, Barrett would have brought about the demise of the band, whereas, by being dumped while leaving his seminal artistic legacy to the group, he saved Pink Floyd (Mason, 97-105). This legacy is comparable to a supernatural entity’s gift of culture to its people (in some cultures, music, musical instruments, and other artistic manifestations are a gift from the gods). Being simultaneously destructive and salvific—through his expulsion—the character of Barrett shows the ambivalence typical of ancient divinities and legendary figures such as the Pied Piper, whom, among others, the song is alluding to. One could say that, in SOYCD, Pink Floyd is writing their own history as a founding myth: A band with its unique artistic identity was born out of the demise of a quasi-divine being. The song makes no reference to the actual act of expulsion by the band, just as the original collective victimage tends to be erased in a founding myth. We will see later that SOYCD, however, contains a significant, meaningful difference with respect to this pattern common to mythological genesis.

The Music: Mourning the Crazy Diamond

The music of SOYCD has religious undertones. It starts with one long organ chord in a minor tone, without any use of the percussion common to rock music. Like in a church, the organ invites the listener to a quiet time of recollection, which is expressed in the first line, “Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun…”. Then, while the organ keeps on the same chord, a short, melancholic guitar solo ends up in silence followed by four echoing, crystalline notes built around a dissonance which, one could say, evokes Barrett’s solitude and mental brokenness. These four haunting notes have become known in pop culture as Syd’s Theme. Their accelerated repetition serves as an introduction to a second and longer part, which involves all instruments and percussion and is dominated by a guitar solo. This bluesy solo was composed and is played by Pink Floyd’s lead guitarist and Barrett’s replacement, David Gilmour. It is considered one of the masterpieces of rock history. After this solo, the song returns to a traditional structure; it consists of the lines of the lead singer, who is also Gilmour, alternating with a refrain composed of a sudden, powerful burst by the chorus and all the instruments delivering the main line: “Shine on You…”  This alternation of a lone, echoing  voice followed by  a triumphant orchestral moment not only conveys the impression of Barrett’s tragic solitude and alienation, but also suggests how his own voice was ultimately suppressed  by that of the group. This powerful instant of celebration simultaneously obliterates the object of its tribute. As such, it is not surprising that, in the last part of the song, after a final, loud refrain, this voice is not heard anymore. It has been replaced by the notes of a saxophone slowly fading away in rapid dissonances sounding like deformed echoes of Syd’s Theme. A voice implies a person, a specific identity. In comparison, the sound of an instrument, regardless of the virtuosity of the musician, is by nature anonymous. By the end of the song, Barrett has disappeared, leaving behind only a musical trace of himself. The whole progression of the song, therefore, again has something in common with the sequence of the victimary mechanism at the heart of mimetic anthropology. After being singled out and isolated, the victim is overwhelmed by the collective violence, which will result in his demise and his metamorphosis into a sacred being in the community’s memory. Just as elegant mythologies and beautifully carved tombstones erase the reality of the original victim, the melody of the saxophone has replaced the human voice. The last part of the suite acknowledges his disappearance: “Nobody knows where you are, how near or how far.”

The Light Show: Shine On a New Diamond

In the live performances of SOYCD, Barrett’s sacred transformation features a typical Floydian dimension, namely, a spectacular light show. On the one hand, Pink Floyd never displayed the staginess common to rock stars. In their public performances, they played their instruments in an almost hieratic manner, devoid of any histrionic behavior or sartorial flamboyance.  On the other hand, the band did have a trademark cornucopian use of visual effects, especially laser beams; bright, fast-changing colored lights; smoke; and videos thematically linked to the songs.

The stage as a whole is dominated by a dual arch modeled after the Hollywood Bowl amphitheater. Like a rainbow, it rises from one end of the stage to the other and keeps changing colors and patterns throughout the show. Inside this arch, at its focal point, a large circular screen, surrounded by swiveling lights capable of instantaneously changing colors and directions, hovers over the musicians. The half ellipse together with the circular screen resembles a giant eye watching the public. At times, the screen is filled with a picture of an iris, perfecting this impression. Combined, these elements compose a perfectly symmetrical stage which tends to reconstruct the space into a religious sanctuary where an epiphany is being either awaited by, or unveiled to, a literally enthusiastic – that is, possessed by the theos, or divinity, entranced – public, following the progression of the show.

The light show designed for SOYCD starts with something like a planetarium setting, or an outer space dimension. It is first dominated by a dark blue background, from which blinding white spots suddenly flash directly towards the public each time the song’s main line is delivered: “Shine on You Crazy Diamond.” Meanwhile, the circular screen shows the story of a young boy crossing through a series of gardens and palace halls where he ages ever more at each new location. In these places, he is welcomed to a garden party by a mix of hippies and conservatively dressed adults, and finally drowns into a pool where, after falling through another dimension, he reappears as a miserable janitor sweeping the dried up bottom of the same pool. The dreamlike quality of the scenes (especially the drowning morphing into an endless fall) reinforces the mystical atmosphere created by the music and the lyrics: Thus goes the Icarian saga of Barrett, the gifted child who grew up too fast only to meet an early demise: “You reached for the secret too soon… You were caught in a crossfire of childhood and stardom, blown on the steel breeze.”

If the music and its visual materializations are the media for the collective experience, what is at the very core of this experience? While the story being sung and shown revolves around Barrett, the unfortunate musician is no mythical phoenix. He won’t rise again. When he is invited to do so for a last time, “…And we’ll bask in the shadow of yesterday’s triumph,” only the one singing this invitation is now basking in the acclamations of the audience. It is evidently Gilmour, whose triumph has now replaced Barrett’s. Immensely talented himself, and arguably even more creative, Gilmour, as the lead singer and guitarist, is at the center of a choreography of countless spotlights while Barrett’s images eventually fade from the screen. Visually, Gilmour has become the shining diamond of the performance. As always, ever since the origins of societies, a moment of mourning has served as the prelude to a moment of collective, ecstatic unanimity which is here sealed in, and by, the musical and visual magnificence of the performance. By the end of SOYCD, what the public has witnessed is a process, almost a ritual, of mourning and resurrection by substitution.

Beyond the Show: Shining through the Diamond

Even though SOYCD draws its lyrics from mythological materials and its public performance has a certain ritual character, I would like to suggest that, unlike other pop culture manifestations, it is not simply a case of neopaganism à la Nietzsche. If this were the case, the lyrics would allude to the fact that Barrett had become a threat to the group. In other words, just as in mythology, the victim would be somehow painted as guilty. Here, however, this is not the case. The lyrics show no resentment against Barrett. This has tremendous anthropological signification. The remembrance of their own victim as an immensely precious and now essentially innocent being shows that a band with no religious message, theme or affiliation partakes in what Girard has shown to be the most important impact of the Gospels on our culture: Our being confronted with an unavoidable truth, the recognition of our victims as innocent, as our scapegoats, something that mythology never does since the belief in their guilt is necessary to the birth of myth. Even though it holds some mythological flavor, Barrett’s transfiguration in SOYCD is mainly about stating the sacredness of an innocent victim. SOYCD can therefore be viewed as more than a desire for a purely aesthetic, metaphoric and substitutive resurrection. The important part in Gilmour’s triumph with its resurrectional overtones is not the person of the musician; rather, it is the process of the whole performance that culminates in this radiant moment. Maybe, then, this multicolored radiance and its calls to manifest itself are like a blurred picture of another light, and the inchoative calls for another resurrection, that of the pure innocent victim of the Gospels, whose acceptance of human violence on the Cross was called madness by Saint Paul. Just as the many facets of a diamond refract the same white light in different colors, SOYCD may then be appreciated as a beautiful, if fragmentary, reflection of the light of the Resurrected One.

Image: Screenshot from Youtube: “Pink Floyd – Shine On You Crazy Diamond HD (Live Pulse 1994) [Best Sound],” by Cruel.



Fr. Jacques-Jude Lepine is a librarian, college teacher, and Orthodox priest.

Editor’s Note: Would you like to submit an article for consideration to The Raven Foundation? Find out how in the guidelines of our new section, “Your Voice.” Articles published do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the staff at the Raven Foundation, but are selected primarily because of the way they enhance the conversation around mimetic theory.


0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *