Off to that Great Gig in the Sky
Pink Floyd's Rick Wright, 1943-2008

We lost Rick Wright this week.

For those of you who don’t know, I’m a keyboard player. I started at a really young age, teaching myself – my grandmother was a concert pianist, and I inherited at least my appreciation for music from her, if not any real measure of skill or talent. I learned by listening, and by finding keyboard parts to emulate. I learned all the Journey songs. I learned Europe’s “The Final Countdown.” I even learned “Right Here Waiting,” by Richard Marx.

But these were just songs to me. I had no idea who wrote or played the parts I liked, and even as a young pup, I could sense that keyboards were considered a second-class instrument. I think it’s safe to say the first keyboard player I really knew by name, the first one I wanted to be, was Rick Wright. And although my path to Pink Floyd fandom wasn’t a typical one, I like to think I caught up pretty quickly.

I was 13 years old when A Momentary Lapse of Reason came out. You’ll have to forgive me for thinking it was one of the best albums ever – at that time, I had no other Floyd records to compare it to. I also simply didn’t know the history. Momentary Lapse was almost David Gilmour’s third solo album, and it was assembled by Gilmour and a bunch of session musicians. Wright did play on it, but only sporadically, despite being listed in the credits as the primary keyboard guy.

My 13-year-old self didn’t care about any of that, though. He was blown away by the sound – here was a rock band, with a singular guitar player, but the foundation of the whole thing was the keyboard. The album opened with a shimmering synth instrumental, included songs that featured little but keys and voice for long stretches, and used synthesizer voices not as dance-club gloss, but as a serious building block of something massive.

Of course, I soon went back and heard everything else Floyd, and I don’t need to tell you how good it all is. If you haven’t at least heard The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall, you owe it to yourself to hunt down copies right now. Floyd has a reputation for making tripped-out drug soundtracks, but when they were on their game, they made music that enveloped you in a mood, music that took you somewhere else without needing drugs or anything else.

Take Wish You Were Here as an example. Released in 1975, Wish is a conceptual piece about former Floyd singer Syd Barrett, and about the band’s feelings on the music industry following the worldwide success of The Dark Side of the Moon. In 45 minutes, this thing takes you from sweeping and grand, to creepy and sinister, to sweet and nostalgic, and then back to huge and epic. And the twin cornerstones of the whole thing are Gilmour’s guitar and Wright’s keyboards.

There are so many Rick Wright highlights across Floyd’s unique and daunting catalog, but the one you’ll probably hear the most about in pieces like this one is “The Great Gig in the Sky.” This song is amazing – it’s mostly just Wright’s piano and Clare Torry’s soaring, wordless vocal, but it’s transporting. Grand as this song is, my favorite Rick Wright moment on Dark Side comes just a few songs later – “Any Colour You Like” is little more than an instrumental segue between the gorgeous “Us and Them” and the record’s finale, but just listen to the warm, wonderful playing on this thing.

Wright died this week at age 65, after a struggle with cancer. If you’re in a mood to remember just how good he was, you have an interesting opportunity – his final full performance will be released Tuesday. David Gilmour’s Live in Gdansk documents the final show of his On an Island tour, and like that album, the tour featured Wright on keys. All of Island is performed, but the set also includes some real gems from some near-forgotten Floyd records: “Fat Old Sun” from Atom Heart Mother, for example, and “Echoes” from Meddle.

It wasn’t intentional, but Live in Gdansk seems like it will serve as a fitting testament to Rick Wright, the second founding member of Floyd to pass on (after Syd Barrett in 2006). Floyd albums are always going to have a special place in my heart, and Rick Wright influenced my growth as a musician and music lover tremendously. He’ll be missed. Enjoy that great gig in the sky, Rick, and thanks, from keyboard players everywhere.

* * * * *

I’ve bought a ton of music in the past two weeks, but I haven’t found a whole lot of time to listen to it, unfortunately. And we’re in the middle of the Hurricane Ike of release periods – I’m getting a minimum of four new albums every week until November. Next week I’ll have heard a bunch of them, and I’ll give you my thoughts. But this week, here’s a look at what’s ahead:

September 30 is massive. I’m probably most anticipating and dreading Way to Normal, the new Ben Folds album – nothing I’ve heard has knocked me out, and in fact much of it has turned me off completely. It sounds like frat-boy shenanigans, like he could have written some great songs, but decided to play his PS2 instead, and just made shit up in the studio. I don’t have high hopes. I’m much more confident about Ani Difranco’s Red Letter Year, which sounds like a full band effort again after years of minimalist experimentation.

But wait, there’s more! Neal Morse will release another prog-tastic record, called Lifeline. Todd Rundgren makes his twice-a-decade return with something called Arena, which promises to be a more guitar-heavy excursion. Tom Morello dusts off his Nightwatchman persona again for some more protest folk on The Hidden City, and The Jesus and Mary Chain finally get that four-CD set of b-sides and rarities together. (They’ve given it the delicious title The Power of Negative Thinking.)

The early weeks of October will bring new things from Oasis (Dig Out Your Soul), Ray LaMontagne (Gossip in the Grain), and Deerhoof (Offend Maggie), but you all know the one I’m most excited about. It’s Perfect Symmetry, the third album from Keane, and while the first single (and leadoff track, “Spiralling”) kicks it ‘80s style, the other songs I’ve heard are much more Keane-sounding. Especially the album closer, “Love is the End.” I really like that one. So we’ll see what they came up with.

Here’s just a straight list of the other acts with new records in the first three weeks of October: Of Montreal, Rachel Yamagata, Secret Machines, Revolting Cocks, Sixpence None the Richer, Snow Patrol, Chris Cornell (Produced by fucking Timbaland. Seriously.), the Dears, Hank Williams III, AC/DC (sold exclusively at Wal-Mart, as if that weren’t a sign of the apocalypse), and …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead.

The last week, though, has some big ones. October 28 will see the release of 4:13 Dream, the new Cure album – originally planned as a double, this is technically part one, and contains all the upbeat tracks. The downbeat ones are scheduled for release next year, but I’ll believe that when I see it. Queen and Paul Rodgers piss on Freddie Mercury’s grave with The Cosmos Rocks, and because I am a sucker completist, I will buy it. Starflyer 59 will release Dial M, and Ryan Adams and the Cardinals return with the just-announced Cardinology.

Oh, and somewhere in there, Marillion’s Happiness is the Road will hit my mailbox. I’m loving it more with each listen. The two discs will be released individually to U.S. stores on October 20. If you can only buy just one, get Essence, the first volume.

November brings a ton of stuff as well, including the new Travis (Ode to J. Smith), a new Shiny Toy Guns (Season of Poison), another Tracy Chapman disc (Our Bright Future), Scott Weiland’s second solo album (Happy), and, for some reason, the third Killers album (Day and Age). Autumn will also hopefully bring us Michael Roe’s new solo album, the Lost Dogs’ Route 66 project, and that long-awaited collaboration between Roe and Michael Pritzl.

The farthest outpost on my musical map of the year right now is 808s and Heartbreaks, the fourth Kanye West album, scheduled (for the moment) to drop on December 16. But if the last two months of 2008 fill in the way October has, we could be in for an expensive fall.

Okay, I’m out for the week – going to try to listen to a few CDs in preparation for next week, when I should be able to review Lindsey Buckingham, Amanda Palmer and Jenny Lewis, at least. Thanks for your patience.

See you in line Tuesday morning.