Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb: behind the meaning of the lyrics

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This story is part of the book:
Mama Mia Let Me Go!
A journey through the most intriguing lyrics and stories in rock music

Buy it on Amazon

A request breaks the silence.

Is there anybody in there?

In this way, almost as a whisper, Comfortably Numb begins: a wonderful poem about loneliness and the need for meanings.

Comfortably Numb, one of Pink Floyd’s most beloved songs, from The Wall (1979), with its melody and music by David Gilmour and lyrics by Roger Waters, describes a state of loss: the protagonist is someone who is anaesthetised before coming on stage.

I hear you’re feeling down
Well I can ease your pain
Get you on your feet again

Can you show me where it hurts?

In an interview released in the 80s, Waters said that much of the song comes from something that really happened one evening when, in order to allow him to perform in Philadelphia, the doctor gave him a sedative for a severe stomach ache, which had probably caused by nerves. On the stage, his hands were numb and his vision blurred, but none of this derailed the crowd, who continued to dance and sing. And it was out of this that one of the main themes of The Wall came about: the disconnect between the public and the band.

“That was the longest two hours of my life, trying to do a show when you can hardly lift your arm.”

Roger Waters
Pink Floyd - Comfortably numb

There is no pain, you are receding
A distant ships smoke on the horizon

You are only coming through in waves
Your lips move but I can’t hear what you’re sayin’

I can’t hear what you’re saying: there’s that distance again, mentioned in the chorus.

You have taken away my pain, you have anaesthetised me, but you haven’t made me happy. These are lyrics written with the acute awareness of the melancholy that we experience sometimes, late at night. This song has a very clear vision, carved out of pain and the will to survive.

When I was a child I had a fever
My hands felt just like two balloons

Now I got that feeling once again

I can’t explain, you would not understand
This is not how I am
I have become comfortably numb

A lack of communication is a form of pain. Because to be alive, to be human, we need others. We don’t need just to be seen, to be perceived: we need to be listened to.

Just a little pinprick

Can you stand up?
I do believe its working, good
That’ll keep you going for the show

Come on, it’s time to go

Of course, there could be various interpretations of this. In a metaphorical sense, it could mean that the protagonist has been given a ‘fix’ in order that he can adequately address his life, society and relationships, which have become nothing more than a show to him. Society doesn’t care about the effects of drugs, just so long as they serve their purpose.

There’s no pain, but you’re receding. Like a distant ship smoking on the horizon.

As Nicola Randone points out:

“In literature, both the water and the sea symbolise our mind, especially the unexplored depths of the unconscious. […] The complete disorientation of man with respect to his situation makes him feel unable to really express himself and his sensations. That’s why the lyrics say: ‘I can’t explain, you would not understand… This is not how I am’

The main theme is the distance between our minds and the perception of reality because of artificial relief. In other words, we may not suffer, but that does not make us alive; escaping from life and its problems actually deprives us of something. This is the meaning of the song: life is out there; I prefer to face it and let it hurt me, than lose all sense of feeling.

Depression, in Comfortably Numb, is just a grey waiting room, where everything is reminiscent of death. The absence of pain is not happiness. The doctor in the lyrics takes away the pain to get the show going, but it doesn’t work. It only increases the distance, and even the voice on the record sounds more distant.

Our society is based on productivity and success, so reducing our pain or level of humanity to achieve positive results is seen as beneficial. But the risk is that we forget that the world of feelings, pain, searching, time for ourselves – even fatigue – represents our whole lives. And it keeps us in touch with reality.

When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown
The dream is gone

The second guitar solo in Comfortably Numb was ranked the fourth most beautiful solo in the history of rock according to Guitar World magazine. The public, however, had a different take on the matter: In 2006, the British radio station Planet Rock asked listeners to vote for the most beautiful solo of all time. Comfortably Numb was the winner.

This story is part of the book:
Mama Mia Let Me Go!
A journey through the most intriguing lyrics and stories in rock music

Buy it on Amazon


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