Wish You Were Here: A Conversation With Your Former-Self

The namesake of Pink Floyd’s ninth studio album, “Wish You Were Here” is one of five songs on the English rock band’s concept album released in September, 1975. Wish You Were Here was the first album released by Pink Floyd following lead guitarist Syd Barrett’s departure as a result of mental health and drug abuse problems. In response to Barrett’s leave, band-members and songwriters Roger Waters and David Gilmour dedicated their next album to him, with heartfelt slow-burns such as “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” reminiscing over the camaraderie that was lost amidst Barrett’s absence. While the song “Wish You Were Here” may have been written an ode to Syd Barrett, over the years the lyrics have merited a more universal interpretation of it as a documentation of the loss of innocence and the changing outlook on the world as one ages.

So, so 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?

In the first stanza of the song, the speaker ponders on one’s ability to distinguish between juxtaposing ideas, such as heaven and hell or blue skies and pain. The juxtaposing words have positive and and negative connotations; heaven, blue skies, green fields, and smiles are all associated with happiness and hopefulness, whereas hell, pain, cold steel rails, and veils are more representative of uncertainty, punishment, and disappointment. The speaker employs these juxtaposing ideas in order to show that to some people, these ideas are not so back and white. Especially as children, many have naive outlooks on the world, blurring the lines between things that are considered good and bad. Even into adulthood some people choose to remain ignorant in difficult situations, rather than have their hopeful outlook on the world shattered. It would seem that the speaker is addressing their past self through reflection and reconsideration of what they had once falsely thought to be “heaven” or “blue skies”.

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 leading role in a cage?

In the second stanza, the speaker shifts from asking questions about distinguishing between emotions to pondering over the loss of innocence over time. Continuing the theme of juxtaposing ideas, the speaker compares soothing, warm thoughts with cold, uncomfortable ones. The loss of innocence is often associated with a changing, increasingly negative outlook on the world. The line “Your heroes for ghosts” is an example of the loss of innocence through the idealization of things as children which transitions to pragmatism and acceptance of reality when one gets older. Heroes, in this case, are symbolic of the glorified and magnificent world seen by children, whereas the ghosts are symbolic of these dreams crushed by reality. Change is also an effect of the loss of innocence. To have to trade “cold comfort for change” is often a result of growing older, since as age increases the weight of responsibility does as well. To continue the theme of loss of innocence, the line “A walk-on part in the war/ For a leading role in a cage” represents the shift from the glamorized idea of hardship as a young person to the suffocating reality of it as an older person. Through this stanza, the speaker expresses the loss of innocence as a result of trading realism for romanticism. 

How I wish, how I wish you were here
We’re just two lost souls
Swimming in a fish bowl
Year after year
Running over the same old ground
What have we found?
The same old fears
Wish you were here

In the final stanza of the song, the speaker reveals their gradual understanding of the ways of the world. While the speaker used to view the word as gloriously full of opportunity, they have reached a point in which they’ve found that life is merely tedious, confining, and repetitive. By using metaphors comparing the speaker and the audience to lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, the speaker connotes the idea that human beings are trapped by the degrading nature of life. Despite changing and aging, the speaker finds them-self confined to the same situation as they had before. In the final line, “Wish you were here” the speaker expresses their desire for their past self to return so that they can regain a little bit of the innocence that they have lost.

In effect, “Wish You Were Here” takes the listener not only on a journey into the speaker’s loss of innocence, but also forces the listener to reflect over their own outlook on life. This song dispels any romantic idea of life, causing the listener to reconsider their own heroes, blue skies, and cold comfort.

One thought on “Wish You Were Here: A Conversation With Your Former-Self

  1. HANK S

    Your analysis helped me synthesize my understanding of the final verse with the rest of the song. Your interpretation of the song as a sort love letter to a past version of someone, before they’ve been drained and hardened by reality, has deepened the meaning of the song for me.

    Like

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