Shine On You Crazy Diamond. By Pink Floyd, my unquestionable, unequivocal favorite band, a band that didn’t just make music, but high art in the form of compositional sonic landscapes. The song is a 26 minute, 11 second masterpiece cut into two tracks, the first track and the last track on Wish You Were Here, separated with three other songs in between. It is the finest album I’ve ever heard. And Shine On is the definite best “track.” It says so very much, musically and lyrically. On a superficial level it is about the band’s original lead singer, guitarist and songwriter, Syd Barrett, who eventually burnt out his mind by doing massive doses of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) on a daily basis for as many as two years. “Come on you raver,” Roger Waters sings, “you seer of visions, come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, and shine!” It morphs into a contemplation on the downfall of the artistic individual in general, about the dangers inherent in pushing your psyche to the brink in an effort perhaps to produce something brilliant, and perhaps simply to escape reality–which actually may be an important component of the solipsism inherent in most creative endeavors.
The song is exquisite. It is vivid , wistful, intense, ever-changing, staggeringly beautiful, and packs an intense emotional wallop. It is sui generis–Latin for utterly without equal. Nothing else like it in the world.
My brother David, too, was sui generis. Meet him once and you’d remember it forever. He was the life of the party, even without an actual party. He’d walk into a room and light the place up so much you practically had to shield your eyes. He had the most beautiful, joyous smile. His sense of humor was legendary; I remember one night he and my brother Brandon and I were camping (in our dad’s massive undeveloped back yard in Riverside) and David had us laughing our heads off for hours–telling jokes, doing impressions, relating personal stories. Laughing so loud and hard, in fact, that our dad trekked a couple hundred yards out to the tent to tell us to shut up. We of course thought he was a monster or vicious killer, so David pulled out his long curved knife and Brandon and I shot at dad with our BB guns.
And David had that rare form of humor than transcended age differences. Driving to Arizona when I was about 8, he was telling a story about being solicited by a prostitute when he was stationed in Saigon with the Marines in the early ‘90s; it was hilarious to me, it was hilarious to 14-year-old Brandon, and it was hilarious to our dad. I think David had a profound impact on the development of my own sense of humor, which has always been one of my best qualities: my ability to see the humor in every situation, no matter how grim or personally traumatic (you’ll see what I mean if I ever get my prison memoir Rebel Hell published). It lends a certain bearableness to living in this fucked-up, cruel, tragic world. Once you comprehend that your own life is all a farce, you’re a step ahead. And this helps me not just in my writing, but with interpersonal relationships and life in general.
David was a badass, too. In the best possible way. He was a snowboarder, covered in tattoos–a full sleeve on one arm, both pecs, the legs (his one-time roommate was a tattoo artist, so he got a bunch done for really cheap or maybe free). David and his friends would leap off the Mission Bay Bridge in San Diego, which is about a 50-foot jump, in the middle of the night. He totally SHONE ON like someone nearly crazed with indefatigable joie de vivre. Truly lived life like he meant it. Like it mattered.
The last time I saw him was 9 years ago this month–maybe even this week. Two of my best friends at the time, Marcus and Travis (for some reason twins freaked David out a little), were on a summer-long surfing trip. I joined them for a few days in Carlsbad, a coastal town about halfway between my L.A.-area hometown and San Diego, where David lived at the time. I decided to pay him a visit. I hadn’t seen him in a couple years; this was not long after I got my own car and was allowed to travel solo.
When I arrived at his apartment he whipped up some homemade chili and corn bread and we walked to the corner store for beer. I was 18 and caught in that desperate pre-21, alcohol-enjoying-stage where we’d go to great lengths to procure booze: one friend would shoplift it for us; other times we’d hang out with “Uncle Joe,” a 40-something Indian immigrant with an asphyxiating stench who’d take our cash to the liquor store in exchange for an hour or two of company and a 99-cent tall can of 211 Steel Reserve.
Over dinner, David told me a story about something that happened his senior year of high school.
It was some 9 years prior; he and two friends decided to skip school for the day. They awoke before dawn and drove up to a lookout point in the nearby San Jacinto Mountains. They shared a fifth of Jim Beam as the sun rose and painted the valley and foothills in brilliant purples and then oranges and then lit it up all the way. Only when David was good and drunk did he realize:
“Oh, shit! I have a fuckin test today!” One that he absolutely could not miss.
His friends laughed. “Screw it, man, that ain’ happ’nin.” Eventually he convinced them to drop him off school. Took the test, still blasted– apparently he could hold his liquor. There’s nothing worse than a man who gets drunk and starts acting idiotic and violent (one of the many reasons I despise alcohol). When David walked to the teacher’s desk and dropped the test face-down, the teacher stared at him sidelong. After a year with David in his class, the teacher knew my brother. Knew his devil-may-care attitude, which emanated from his pores like whiskey. “David, have you been drinking?”
“Nah, course not.” He began walking out of the classroom.
“I think you need to go see Principal Couts.”
David chuckled. “Fine by me. I’ll go visit Couts.” Walking out, he flicked a salute and, wearing that infamous grin, called over his shoulder, “Have a good one!”
“Let me smell your breath,” Principal Couts said in his office.
David sat on the other side of the desk. He raised an eyebrow. “Why do you wanna smell my breath? That’s weird.”
“David, let me smell your breath.”
David sighed. Fuck it, right? He inhaled deeply, from the bottom of his lungs, leaned forward, and unleashed a big fat WHOOOOOOSH of whiskey breath right into the principal’s face. Then he sat back and shrugged.
That was David.
Oh, and the test? The one he took drunk off his ass without studying for? He aced that bitch!
On October 3, 2003, I got a call from my dad on the way to a classic rock festival. “David killed himself last night.”
I was stunned, to say the least. To the point where it didn’t seem real, and stayed that way until the funeral a week later, when I saw his dead body in the casket, and I saw my father crying for the first time in my life. My mom actually wrote and recorded a gorgeous song about him, about knowing him as a child when she was married to our dad (David and I had different mothers), and then losing touch with him when my mom and dad got divorced, called “I Never Said Goodbye.” I’d love for you to take a listen.
Fuck, it still doesn’t seem real. Sometimes I see someone that looks like him, and I think, Holy shit, maybe he didn’t kill himself!! Or I’ll wake up from a dream in which he appeared, and in that half-asleep state of wavering-reality, and think, He’s not dead–David would NEVER kill himself! Then the rational mind takes over and my heart is broken anew.
He was one of my favorite people in the world. I’ll never get over it–the loss will never stop hurting. None of us know why he did it. I wish I knew. But I try not to dwell on the sorrow; I try to focus on how amazing a life he had considering it ended at just 27 (my age now). On how many lives he touched while he was here. The vast majority of humans live for many decades longer than David did and still don’t live as much as he did. I wish I could believe that one day we will meet again, in some afterlife, but I know it’s not going to happen. It’s a fairy-tale hope. But you know what? That’s okay. That’s life, and that’s death. He has returned to the Earth and left behind a beautiful legacy. I knew him until I was 18, and I count myself pretty fucking lucky for it. Totally worth the sorrow I’ve experienced as a result of his death. This may seem macabre, but I truly believe it’s far more tragic to live a long pointless life than it is to live a short but intense, meaningful, profoundly influential life, like he did.
And so I return to the beginning: my tattoo. Shine On You Crazy Diamond is a tribute to him as well. To the amazing, inspiring way he lived. And, perhaps most important of all, it is a reminder to me: LIVE LIKE YOU MEAN IT. LIKE IT FUCKING MATTERS. Because it does. It really does. And who knows how much longer we have?
It is a reminder to be ME, crazy fuck-you wild me, to shine on, to speak my mind and write what I want and live how I want, no matter what the world thinks.
Today would have been David’s 36th birthday. This is my tribute to him. My love letter. My thank-you note. Happy birthday brother.
And remember–SHINE ON, YOU CRAZY DIAMOND!!!