Are Pink Floyd books worth reading?
The world doesn't need Yet Another Biography
What defines a fan of Pink Floyd? Liking the music, or liking all of it? Collecting every RoIO, every release (however infrequent they may be), and reading every book? Even a cursory glance of the bookshelves of the chain bookstores will show that Pink Floyd are one of the bands who have, unwittingly, inspired millions of words written in biographies and critical analysis.
Sometimes, when I'm bored and am lucky enough to get a lunch hour, I go to the bookstores and dig deep into the music biography section. Every Floyd book you could imagine is there, and probably some you couldn't. Syd Barrett, a man whose public life and recording career lasted no more than five or six years, has probably had more books written about him than Madonna. The other Floyds, meanwhile, have also been subject to a flurry of often-recycled variations on a theme of nothingness to pad out the shelves.
I only own two Floyd Books: Inside Out and Mind Over Matter. Since one is written by the band's long-established visual artist Storm Thorgenson, and the other by the band's drummer, I regard them as pretty much essential works. You don't get much closer to the source than a member of the band.
The world doesn't need another Pink Floyd book. Though the upcoming paperback edition of Nick's book will almost definitely contain an economically dry chapter about the recent Live8 reunion performance, there really isn't much more to be said about the Floyd in print. Despite our wishes, the band are almost definitely defunct, and Live 8 offered a finality that no other show ever has. There may be no more history to be written, only--as has been the case for over a decade--revisions of recent history.
In fact, barring A Saucerful of Secrets, I don't think I've read an essential Floyd book aside from Storm and Nick's contributions. I don't need or want another Italian lyric book with a CD of Top Gear Sessions, or a 5" sized floppy paperback of rehashed quotes about old albums. I don't think the world is crying out for another well-meaning but unexceptional recounting of how Syd lost it before going to live with his mum. There's only so many times you can tell the same old story before it becomes stale: and we're probably nine paperbacks past that mark.
I don't think the world needs another selection of quotes from People Who Used To Know Syd, all sensitively handled and delicately describing about a man who was Too Sensitive For This World when in fact (let's just face it) he is a Fried Out Drug Casualty whose reputation has been blown out of all proportion because his former bandmates made some amazing records.
After that, we could get a booklet made of glossy pics and a selection of random old magazine quotes, sloppily assembled into some form of order to present Pink Floyd In Their Own Words. Or the memoirs of a former roadie who once worked for them in Montreal when they all looked at each other funny backstage, grunted, and went back to their paper cups of beer. Or a critical analysis of old records written by someone whose listened to the records a lot, and has made some wild extrapolation of a guitar solo to equate to the crumbling ashes of a potent working relationship between estranged friends. Despite the best intentions of the author, it becomes just another ignorant commentary. How can one really ascertain the truth by reading old quotes? How can one seek the truth without seeking to interview those involved?
I don't need to read Yet Another Biography to understand the band. They are only ordinary men, placed in an extraordinary position, and that, and the quality of the music, is what made them interesting to me. What the Floyd community could benefit from is an actual critical biography and analysis of the band, one that enhances the experience of the records and explains the central themes, ideals, motifs and meaning of the band and it's work.
That's what I want to read. A Floyd book that makes me want to go back to the old records, and see them in a new light. That makes me look at songs I've known for decades in a new way, and understand the secrets inside them. Only Storm and Nick's books have really come close. There's enough lazy pieces of hackwork to make the trees ashamed that they died for such lowly causes.
What's that you say? Another Italian book full of spelling mistakes, errors, and old quotes? I think I might go and watch some TV instead.
Each book tells another piece of the story
Before Roger Waters took up his stethoscope and walked away from Pink Floyd, most fans knew very little about the band. In a sense, there might as well have not been a band; Pink Floyd were a phenomenon. Every couple of years, they emerged from the UK with a spectacular new album and even more spectacular show.
Who even knew what these guys looked like? A friend of mine once told me that when he listened to Pink Floyd music, he imagined these wizened, bearded, Roman god-like beings making this fabulous music. He was kind of disappointed the first time I showed him the pictures in the Nicholas Schaffner's book. They looked too "mortal."
With Inside Out, Nick Mason has finally given the world the "inside" story of Pink Floyd. However, that doesn't mean it's the most complete book about Pink Floyd that there is. After all, Storm wrote a book about the album artwork, and that's half of the experience, right? It might seem that between Nick's book and Storm's book, no other books would be necessary for any Pink Floyd fan thirsty for knowledge about their favorite group. I have to disagree.
As many photos as Nick generously included in his text, there are still nowhere near as many photos of the band live as Miles used for the body of A Visual Documentary. With two shows of the Wall tour in my VoIO collection, I still haven't seen the image of Pink inside a cube that leapt off the pages of Miles' book as I thumbed through it for the first time. To be honest, A Visual Documentary is the only place I've ever seen that particular piece of Scarfian imagery.
Bricks In The Wall by Karl Dallas includes not only transcripts of phone interviews with Roger Waters mid-litigation, but also transcripts of conversations with Gilmour around the same time period. These two interviews really give the flavor of what was going on between Gilmour and Waters at this time. In one of the conversations with Gilmour, we even get a glimpse into the process of choosing the title for what became A Momentary Lapse of Reason. This is, in my humble opinion, priceless historical information.
Often, it is the first person account of one involved in an event that is considered the most factual or relevant, but this is not always the case. A first-person account can be distorted by its subjectivity. For example, Nick Mason would be more likely to hold back on some things because he's still friends with both Waters and Gilmour, so he's not going to want to say anything that might paint one or the other in a particularly unflattering light. Dallas, Schaffner, and other authors don't have that worry.
Sometimes, only an objective observer can deliver the most dependable account. An objective reporter has the benefit of not having to be concerned about the accuracy of his recollection of the event--he just reports the information he has gathered. He talks with people who were there, people involved, people who did observe. If he's lucky, he has access to records of the event. The reporter then compiles this information into a shape that gives an account unburdened by subjective connections.
Of course, such objective information is fallible. But so is first-person recollection. Memories tend to take the shape of the way we wish things had been. Or at the very least, how we thought they were... which is often quite different from the way things actually are.
When dealing with a group, there is often more than one story, as well. There is an old story about the blind men who examined an elephant. The one who felt the tail claimed that the elephant was like a rope, the one who felt the legs claimed that it was like a tree, the one who felt the side claimed that it was like a solid wall, the one who felt the trunk claimed it was like a snake and the one who felt the tusk claimed that the elephant was long, skinny, hard, and pointed. They were all right, to a degree, but none had a complete or accurate idea of what an elephant looked like.
Pink Floyd is a bit like that elephant... and there are five guys whose stories would add up to a "complete" story. Unfortunately, one of those five doesn't seem like he's ever going to share recollections. The other four probably wouldn't be able to get their story straight... but that's not a bad thing. Since experience is subjective, there's no way the participants could agree on an objective explanation of any of it.
In the end, I think that Pink Floyd is too big an experience for only one or two books to take on. It's just too epic.