#43: Pink Floyd, "The Dark Side of the Moon" (1973)

43 Dark Side of the Moon.jpg

True, the cosmos is full of darkness, practically seems to be made of it—the emptiness between stars, dark matter, black holes. There is also the “dark side” of the moon, but it’s not a thing that is actually dark so much as a cultural idea of darkness. And because the moon is tied to cultural ideas of mental illness and “insanity”—“lunacy,” they say—evoking the moon’s “dark side” carries with it, I guess, some sort of cultural weight along said lines. So, when Pink Floyd named their most beloved, successful, and acclaimed album The Dark Side of the Moon, I can’t imagine that anyone was surprised to learn that the whole thing ended up being about “madness.” How could it not be?

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As if the album’s title weren’t enough, the first voice we hear on Dark Side of the Moon, buried beneath a building heartbeat and ticking clocks, says, “I’ve been mad for fucking years, absolutely years.” The voice belongs to Pink Floyd’s road manager at the time, Chris Adamson. A moment later, even harder to hear as the sound effects intensify and new ones are added, a second voice says, “I’ve always been mad, I know I’ve been mad.” This is the voice of Abbey Road studio doorman Gerry O’Driscoll. Soon, the sound effects build to a fever pitch. A third voice laughs hysterically, and a fourth launches into a blood curdling scream—then it all breaks against the shore of the album’s first song, the most Pink Floyd sounding thing of all Pink Floyd sounding things, “Breathe,” the song that invented the platonic ideal of the Pink Floyd Sound. But before we get to the birth of that platonic ideal of Pink Floyd, the preceding sound collage—“Speak to Me,” it’s called—establishes that the album to which listeners are about to listen, the album that’s soundtracked a billion burning dime bags and moderately paced fucks, is, as the title suggests, all about madness and the fragility of the human psyche.

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The last time I saw you was right after Christmas, 2014. You were drunk and spoke about loneliness. I wasn’t drunk because I was the one driving. I drove you home to your father’s house, where you were staying while in town from London for the holiday. Your father had recently moved out to the suburbs, so it was a bit of a drive. In the car, you were talking about loneliness and love. You said, “There are women who I’ve loved and now they are married and have kids, and where am I? What do I have to show for my life?” And I said, “You have a career, and you have friends and family who love you.” You said, “But what do I have to show for it.” And I didn’t think much of it, not then, anyway, because sadness was nothing new to you—what was different was the way that, for your entire visit to Dayton, you kept circling the same sadness, stuck on repeat. Like you couldn’t break out of a pattern of thought.

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The reason there even is a “dark side of the moon” is because of tidal locking, meaning that the Earth’s tidal forces have slowed the moon’s rotation so that it matches the moon’s orbit just right so that we’re always seeing the same side of the moon. The use of the word dark does not mean that the other side of the moon never knows the sun’s light, only that the other side is never seen by human eyes. More commonly known as the “far side of the moon,” it’s not that side of the moon’s fault that it’s considered by many to be the dark side of the moon. The first time the far side of the moon was seen by human eyes was 1959, when it was photographed by a soviet probe. I should note, though, that prior to that, approximately 18% of the moon’s far side could be seen at times due to libration, or the point from which people are viewing the moon.

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Before we go any further, let’s be clear about one thing: by today’s standards Dark Side of the Moon’s approach to mental illness is bullshit. It’s big and romanticized, the kind of garbage high school kids consider “deep.” It’s not about the types of mental illness we see, daily, in the people we love. It’s not about the type of thing you, my friend, were dealing with before you died.

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But maybe the album should get a pass because it isn’t exactly about madness in broad terms, so much as it’s specifically about two of the things with which Roger Waters, the album’s lyricist, was obsessed throughout the Floyd’s beloved run of ‘70s albums—the descent into madness and resulting absence from the band of founding Floyd member Syd Barrett, and Waters’s own fragile psyche. That is, Dark Side of the Moon seems to have begun as a response to Waters watching Barrett—whose already delicate mental faculties were compromised by his prodigious LSD usage—and then turned into Waters railing against his own fear of losing his mind due to things that cause stress to the wealthy and powerful: the all too quick passage of time (as evidenced on the cleverly named “Time”), paranoia (“On the Run”), mortality (“The Great Gig in the Sky”), pressure to earn money (on, ahem, “Money”), intersubjective conflict (“Us and Them”), and groovy synthesizers(?) (“Any Colour You Like”), ultimately leading to full-blown madness (“Brain Damage”) and some sort of vague absolution and/or healing (“Eclipse”). While we can’t really expect thoughtful, grounded discourse about mental health on a ‘70s corporate rock album, Waters et al’s approach, here, feels overly simplistic and linear, the bland kind of pop psychology that leads to people saying things like “It’s all in your head,” and “Toughen up!” to people who are struggling with real mental illness. It’s as if Waters watched as Syd Barrett lost his mind and said, “That’s interesting, let’s write an album about that,” but never took into account the fact that, according to many folks close to Barrett—members of Floyd included—he showed signs of mental illness long before he started ingesting fucktons of LSD and diving headlong into the road ravaged life of being in a semi-successful psychedelic rock band. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that The Dark Side of the Moon doesn’t account for biology, brain chemistry, or even any kind of trauma—the album is ultimately the equivalent of two guys playing golf and one saying, “Hard week at the office—feel like I’m losing my mind.” Then the other probably saying something back like, “Ditto.” And then, too, “I’m here if you need anything.”

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While many critics look back and see Meddle as the album on which Pink Floyd finally “found” themselves after Barrett’s departure, the biggest change clearly came with the production of Dark Side. Not only was it the true birth of the “Classic Floyd Sound,” but it was also the coming out party for Roger Waters as the band’s thematic mastermind. In the space between Meddle and Dark Side, though, Waters provided a bit of a clue as to where his vision for the band might be heading with a song produced for a little known film called La Vallée. The song in question is a jaunty little cut called “Free Four.” Despite the song’s up tempo bounce, its lyrics are a grim rumination on dying. At the end of the first verse, Waters sings, “You shuffle in the gloom of the sickroom / And talk to yourself as you die.” The second verse begins, “Life is a short, warm moment / And death is a long cold rest.” Indeed, nearly every verse contains at least one mention of death. Meanwhile, Waters reminds us that “The memories of a man in his old age / Are the deeds of a man in his prime.” Not only is Waters fixated on dying, here, but he’s also terrified of living, warning himself and others to live good lives so as to die more purely? Perhaps more interesting, though, is a verse around the song’s midpoint in which Waters overtly dips even further into his bag of obsessions: “You are the angel of death / And I am the dead man's son. / And he was buried like a mole in a fox hole. / And everyone is still on the run.” In a single verse, we find Waters’s obsession with death, more specifically his father’s death at war, and a reference to being “on the run,” a phrase used on Dark Side to represent paranoia. While “Free Four” sounds nothing at all like the “Classic Floyd Sound” that would soon debut, it served as a crucial thematic stepping stone to get Waters from the trippy albatrosses and labyrinths and coral caves of “Echoes” (which, to be fair, does kind of preview the sound that the Floyd would pursue on Dark Side), to the death and taxes and fear that define Dark Side’s thematics.

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But let’s talk about you for a moment, friend, because you loved looking at the night sky, and Pink Floyd’s album is laced with space imagery, mostly related to the moon. In June of the year you died, you visited your mother in Costa Rica and spent your nights looking up at the stars and all the nothing between them. I know with reasonable certainty that the moon you would have seen those nights would have been a waxing crescent, forty-one percent illuminated. I don’t know the exact day that you died in September, but depending on what day it was when whatever happened happened, the moon would have most likely been in waning crescent, at either twenty-nine or thirty-nine percent illumination. Whatever happened that September when you were back in London, whatever you did—I hope you got to see the night sky one last time, to see the stars, and the moon, its crescent when you died, again waning like your own light, more dark, at that point, than light. A waning crescent—I can’t even blame the full moon for your death, for causing whatever happened to happen.

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We all know that the word lunar evolved out of Luna, the name of the Roman goddess of the moon, and the term “lunatic” was originally devised as a way to describe someone as “moon-struck,” again, implying that the moon was somehow tied to mental health. Of course, no research has ever tied the moon to insanity, temporary or otherwise, or even plain old wild behavior, no matter how many people tell us that the eighty percent of our bodies that are water get all stirred up when there’s a full moon, and no matter how many ER doctors or nurses say that the emergency room is crazier around full moons. Perhaps the most compelling theory on how the persisting myth of this connection between the moon and mental health originated comes from a study by Varinder Parmar et al, called “Effects of Full-Moon Definition on Psychiatric Emergency Department Presentations,” in which the authors suggest, “One plausible explanation is that this belief is a cultural artifact, left over from the time before artificial lighting, when the lunar cycle had a real influence on the severity of bipolar and epileptic symptoms . . . it was too dark for people to be active after sunset during the waxing and waning phases of the lunar cycle. The full moon provided an increase in the amount of nighttime illumination and caused a significant sleep disturbance as a result.” So, Pink Floyd made an album about mental illness and used for a central symbol a thing that is barely even tangentially related to mental illness. My impulse, here, is to dismiss the thematic elements of Pink Floyd’s album as irresponsible and lazy—but then, it’s not like they probably knew better in the ‘70s. When The Dark Side of the Moon was being written and recorded, Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk was still new. Treatment for mental health was underdeveloped and not yet much understood. Studies hadn’t yet been done to show the lack of connection between a full moon and “lunacy”/“insanity”/“madness” or plain old erratic behavior. And besides, despite all of its trappings, The Dark Side of the Moon barely seems to have anything to say about mental illness, anyway. With regards to mortality, however—

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That last night that I saw you, I felt like I was seeing a side of you I’d rarely seen before, your own “far” or “dark” side of the moon, spun to shine in the acknowledgement of recognition. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of your sadness and weariness. I’d always known you as impossibly optimistic, upbeat and positive, willing to carry on your shoulders the burdens of anyone else in need—until that last time I saw you. Then, it was as if you’d been freed from the power of the tides and rotated to finally show off your dark side. I don’t think I understood how dark that side felt to you, how unwell you truly felt.

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In many ways, The Dark Side of the Moon is more successful as an album about mortality than it is as an album about madness. Album opener “Breathe” is loaded with lyrics obsessed with mortality. Despite twice proclaiming “Long you live and high you fly,” the song ultimately tells us, “balanced on the biggest wave / you race towards an early grave.” This idea is extended on “Time,” in which David Gilmour sings “The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older, / Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.” Though “The Great Gig in the Sky” includes no lyrics, the song’s title, as well as Clare Tory’s ecstatic and mournful vocal performance, speak to death’s ever-presence. On that same song, the voice of Gerry O’Driscoll can be heard saying “And I am not frightened of dying, any time will do, I don't mind. Why should I be frightened of dying? There's no reason for it, you've gotta go sometime." Though his words speak to an acceptance of death, everything else about the song and the album seem acutely aware and terrified of dying. This idea continues into the screen projection footage employed by the Floyd in early concert performances of the album. The concert opens with a distant light that turns out to be an ambulance. When the ambulance stops, the camera tracks out of the ambulance’s rear doors, down the halls of a hospital to an emergency room. A light over the table begins to spin and is replaced by an extreme close up of a human eye, just as the sound effects opening “Speak to Me” begin to play. In the animation for “Time,” flying clocks dance through the sky. One notable moment finds a clock and pendulum ascend into light. During “The Great Gig in the Sky,” audiences were treated to footage seemingly taken within waves, creating the sense of drowning. And, finally, at the album’s ultimate track, “Eclipse,” the projection footage finds us back in the hospital, tracking down a long hallway lined with doctors. Curiously, we pass right by the psychotherapy wing as we barrel toward a flashing red light at the end of the hall, which starts inscrutable but turns out to be an “Emergency” sign outside of an operating theater. If Dark Side of the Moon is about mental health, it isn’t about madness—but maybe we can say it has a lot to say about anxiety?

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Digging into the “madness” of Pink Floyd’s most beloved album, I can’t help but think of the very real, tangible ways that you were hurting in the months leading up to your death. I know you were lonely. We all know you were lonely. But I don’t think it was just loneliness. It’s never just anything. You were struggling and I’m not sure I ever knew how or why. In the last message you sent me—what was it, a month or two before you were gone?—you told me you were seeing a psychiatrist, that you were working on things, that things were looking up. I assumed, as you were seeing a psychiatrist, that you were on meds. I assumed that something in your brain chemistry made it so you felt alone in ways many of us will never know. I remembered the way, when I’d seen you in December, you seemed stuck in a loop of thought, and how maybe the meds would help you break out of that loop.

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In early 2019, China’s Chang’e-4 lunar probe became the first spacecraft to land on the moon’s far side. Within days, Yuta 2, the probe’s rover, sent back pictures from the moon’s surface, empty and desolate, but not any darker, or any more empty and desolate than the side of the moon we see regularly. In fact, the probe landed just as the sun rose on the far side of the moon, meaning that, because of the length of the lunar day, the far side of the moon would remain illuminated for close to two week’s worth of Earth days. The reason it took so long to send a probe to the far side of the moon is because of the problem of the probe remaining in contact with Earth so that it can send back data. The Chinese solved this problem using a relay satellite called Queqiao. The probe carries a tin of seeds from various plants and some silkworm eggs, and will monitor how the seeds and eggs react to being on the moon. How could anything grow or thrive in such desolate landscape and in the absence of other living things?

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Looking at the pictures that Yuta 2 and Chang’e-4 have sent back from the moon, I can’t help but feel a little claustrophobic. There is no angle at which we will ever see our own planet in these images, only the impossible darkness of space’s expanse. Imagining the infinite beyond the moon’s gravity, and the nothingness everywhere on the moon, I feel my breathing accelerate, and I feel a sense of dread take root in my chest. Maybe it is best we refer to the far side of the moon as its dark side. Maybe, though I can never know what you were feeling, or why you were feeling that way, when I look at these images or listen to Pink Floyd’s album, I can begin to imagine the whatever it was churning inside you before you died.

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The last thing we hear on The Dark Side of the Moon, as the album fades on a heartbeat echoing the one that opened the album, is one last bit from Gerry O’Driscoll, saying “There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact it’s all dark.”

—James Brubaker