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November 12, 2010

I’ve found another nugget of my writing from circa 2004; this one’s about Pink Floyd’s 1971 album Meddle. I listened to that CD constantly while my family was on a vacation in Britain, Ireland and the Isle of Man (places of ancestral origin for me). With the accompanying rain and wind, not to mention reflections on unconscious memories from prior to my birth, it seemed an appropriate soundtrack to underscore that atmosphere. That experience produced a deeper understanding and appreciation of the music in me, and consequently this semi-narrative piece flowed out of my brain and onto the keyboard.

It flickers back and forth between articulating what happens in each song sonically and what I imagine those sounds may signify. Certainly this is not the kind of thing I’ve seen other people do with this specific musical work, although other Pink Floyd records seem to inspire it all the time. Most critics writing on the band’s output (and even the band themselves) place this LP and particularly “Echoes” at the start of a continuum that runs through Dark Side of the Moon and their other classic material from the 1970s. So, I thought it was time to give Meddle some of the attention it deserved.

Nobody really thinks of it as a concept album, but there are some common threads between the songs on Meddle… and it’s not just about the first and last songs, either. There’s some kind of “movie” that I see in front of my mind’s eye whenever I hear this album, and this is a sort of rambling, meandering attempt to describe it. Humour me for a few minutes. Anyway, here goes nothing…

ONE OF THESE DAYS. Infinite quiet. Gradually, we start to hear an eerie, hollow kind of wind noise. It’s definitely inhuman, and cold, death-cold. Then Dave Gilmour’s fingers slide along the frets of a bass guitar: a human intruder on the barren landscape, a single note on the right side of the stereo image, echoed and repeated. A short blast of Hammond organ issues from the fingers of Richard Wright. Gilmour’s bass starts hammering out a rhythm, joined by a duller-toned but just as enthusiastic Roger Waters. Further stabs of organ grow more and more intense. Blindingly quick-fire reverse cymbals scrape by the listener, getting louder and louder. Piercing rock guitar wails, then POUNDING tom-toms frantically beat, not even in time but at something unconnected to the square rhythm. The slide guitar howls away, joined by its double in a sharp, pained squeal.

Then everything drops out. Gilmour’s bass, squeezed and compressed into near-oblivion, executes a dry, bare solo, while the rest of the band make weird nightmare noises and Nicholas Berkeley Mason, swollen with tape speed to gargantuan size, delivers an ultimatum: “One of these days, I’m going to cut you into little pieces!!!” Pink Floyd explodes… and keeps exploding, for two minutes. Then it’s gone, leaving only the wind.

A PILLOW OF WINDS – If the last song conjured up images of axe-murder on a polar landscape, this one produces feather beds in a warm, foggy island paradise at midnight. Layer upon layer of acoustic and electric guitars blanket the listener with relaxed, drowsy atmosphere, replacing the memory of a nightmare with luxuriant, deep sleep beside the one you love. Then more dreams come, this time of verdant, hazy landscapes melting into each other. “As darkness falls and waves roll by, the seasons change: the wind is warm… green fields, a cold rain is falling in a golden dawn.” The troubled sleeper awakes at sunrise, and is at peace with the world.

FEARLESS – It looks so cheesy on paper: defiance of oppression; goals met in spite of adversity; camaraderie; the triumph of the underdog, and the jubilation of his devoted fans. But it’s all said with such lyrical economy and a perpetually-moving yet expressive riff in G major. “And as I rise above the tree-line and the clouds, I look down and hear the sound of the things you said today.” Piano chords lead into a false fadeout, replaced by a marvelous field recording of football chanters (“Li-ver-pool! Li-ver-POOL!”). It’s a brilliant moment, with personal meanings below the surface and a feeling one can’t visually describe… right around the time of sunset, when adrenaline ramps up the game on the field to another level.

SAN TROPEZ – Sleep again. Our protagonist awakes, dazed, alone and hungover after the previous night’s victory celebrations. Was it another dream? Nope. “We won the double!” the newspaper confirms. He takes to the streets, where scruffy hippies are busking on the sidewalk, aristocrats are comparing Rolls-Royces, and palm trees are swaying in the breeze. It’s a sunny day and a spring creeps into his step. Nothing bad matters because the only thing on his mind is the anticipation of what pleasures the night will bring. “You’re leading me down to the place by the sea, I hear your soft voice calling to me, making a date for later by phone, and if you’re alone I’ll come home”, which is sort of a silly mindset, but sometimes you just feel invincible.

SEAMUS – And sometimes, you’ve just got to sing the blues. Or howl it. Some transgression has occurred in the intervening three seconds of silence between the previous song and this little ditty, and our sleepy-eyed would-be Casanova is out on a porch at sunset with only a hound dog and a harmonica to keep him company. The harp might be his, but the porch and dog most certainly are not. Someone preparing food inside the house wonders why their poor old Afghan hound is braying so mournfully. It turns out that the blues is contagious. “I was in the kitchen, Seamus, that’s the dog, was outside. The sun was setting slowly, and my old hound dog sat right down and cried.”

[It didn’t escape my attention that Tom Stoppard’s film of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead began and ended here.]

ECHOES – Falling asleep again at dusk, our hero drifts into a dream of his past — a distant, ancestral past, when life thrived deep below the primordial waters. All is dark, and completely silent, except for a single clarion call, pinging at a perfect C-sharp. Great birds circle high above the boundary between sea and air. Something inspires life to move forward, rise higher, escape the bounds of the ocean. What is it? That question’s left unanswered.

Flash forward millions of years, and solipsistic loneliness pervades these creatures freed of the water but trapped inside themselves. Yet there’s something just on the edge of definition that binds them all together, a common connection ignored for too long… and for a single moment it appears. “Strangers passing in the street, by chance two separate glances meet. And I am you, and what I see is me.”

But then the moment is gone, and the sea consumes us… dark, murky and impenetrable. We hear screams, emotions that can’t be expressed in words, a fearful storm of sound. Gradually the clouds begin to part and the sun shines through, still “the same in a relative way” for generations of isolated, sleepy wanderers. The sun defines us, inspires us, haunts us, and keeps watch over our every step as one by one, we shuffle off this mortal coil. A chorus of dead voices rises as the music dies, leaving only… infinite silence.

Clearly, this music touched me very deeply. For a long time, I’d been scouring the Internet for information and debate on the topic. Before that trip overseas, I’d watched a fortuitous late-night TV appearance of Pink Floyd’s “Live at Pompeii” performance film (which features half of the Meddle songs), and that absolutely changed my life. It drove me into further keenness, an almost pilgrim-like journey into discovering the origins of those sounds.

Equipped with a Sony Discman, ever-present headphones and a selection of recordings amassed with whatever my teenage coffers could reasonably allow me to purchase, I began this journey. I started growing out my straight, dark blond hair (in imitation of Gilmour’s glory days with a black Stratocaster slung over his shoulder). I studied and studied. To this day, I still am in awe of that music.

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