Syd Barrett Obituary
Mojo. September 2006
This is the full unedited transcript of the obituary that I wrote for Mojo. I have restored the original ending.
ASKED TO COMMENT recently on Syd Barrett’s songwriting abilities, Dave Gilmour repeated the assertion that he was one of the greats, up there with Lennon & McCartney, Dylan, and Ray Davies. It's an assertion that Gilmour has been repeating since it first appeared in 'The Cracked Ballad of Syd Barrett', Nick Kent's classic 1973 NME portrayal of the man, and has been seconded at various times by both Rick Wright and Roger Waters. And it happens to be true. Most of the obituaries and recollections that were hastily penned in the aftermath of Roger Keith Barrett’s death on July 7th made reference to his tortured genius, his drug psychosis, and his life as a recluse. Few seemed willing to articulate or even acknowledge how supremely gifted Barrett was as a lyricist.
John Lennon, in his surrealist prime is spoken of in the same breath as Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. Syd Barrett belongs in the same company. Take the second verse of 'See Emily Play'. "Soon after dark Emily cries / gazing through trees in sorrow / hardly a sound till tomorrow". The economy of style and the dreamlike evocation are worthy of Lewis Carroll at his finest. Indeed all three short verses of Emily are Carroll-esque in their clarity and precision. You have to be very clever to be able to write that simply. Most rock lyricists over reach when they strive for profundity. They try too hard and end up sounding pompous. Even Roger Waters heartfelt tribute 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' sounds laboured and over-alliterative in a way that Syd never did. It all seemed to come effortlessly to Syd. Even later when he started to unravel and the imagery became more convoluted and impenetrable the evidence of an abundantly gifted wordsmith was still there.
But then Barrett was gifted in all kinds of ways. He was blessed with the looks of a romantic poet, and had life taken a different turn he would have been a shoe-in to play Shelley or Rupert Brooke in a bio-pic, or Titus Groan in Gormenghast. lt has been suggested that, had he lived, the Beatles original bass player Stu Sutcliffe would have gone on to be a great British painter. Who's to say that the same wouldn't have been true of Syd Barrett? From the visual evidence available he was clearly as original an artist as he was a musician, and its surely no coincidence that in his twilight years Barrett returned, like that other great wielder of words, Don Van Vliet to his prime creative impulse, by all accounts painting prolifically in his suburban Cambridge home. One would hope that now it’s no longer a source of anxiety to him some way might be found to exhibit his latterday work.
Syd's lyrics display a liking for internal rhyme, and a mastery of irregular metre. Like Dylan, and precious few others, his lyrics stand up as well in print as when sung. They also reveal an instinctive understanding of colloquial speech. An understanding that Roger Waters perfectly illustrated in the 2002 BBC Omnibus documentary on Barrett when he recited the first verse of 'Bike'. That sublime sense of stress and phrasing is also there in the couplets which conclude each verse of 'Bike'. Most analysis of that song concentrates on the kindergarten whimsy and the hint of madness at the end. Few ever emphasise the cultivated Englishness of "take a couple if you wish / they're on the dish" or "if you think it could look good / then I guess it should."
Like Lennon, in his pomp, Barrett bent language out of shape until it made a new kind of sense. The kind of thinking that can make "no one I think is in my tree" seem like the most normal utterance you ever heard. Those early Floyd songs are full of such usage. The "takes two to know" chorus of 'Arnold Layne'. The "you only have to read the lines of scribbly black and everythings fine" refrain of 'Matilde Mother'. In the opening verse of 'Apples and Oranges', the Floyds third single, Syd's stop-start sense of metre reached new heights of complexity. "Got a flip top pack of cigarettes in my pocket / feeling good at the top / shopping at shops / she's walking / in the sunshine town feeling very cool". Imagine that daubed in runny paint down the side of a Richard Hamilton or Peter Blake pop art canvas.
Syd Barrett was the first pop musician of his generation to sing in an unashamedly artless English accent, a "well spoken whine" as the late Melody Maker journalist Roy Hollingsworth put it. He was also the precursor of that peculiarly fluting pronunciation that became synonymous with English psychedelia.
Although he was indisputably the creative fulcrum of the English underground his star only shone briefly. Given how seminal and central he was there are surprisingly few first hand accounts, and little audio evidence, of the Floyd in their UFO prime. Such little evidence that there is points to a truly awesome sonic experience, and one that isn't adequately represented on the Piper At The Gates Of Dawn LP.
On the Granada TV documentary, Underground, broadcast in March 1967, a tantalisingly brief snippet of an early live version of 'Matilde Mother' can be heard. Recorded live at UFO in January of that year it is radically different to the slick well produced version that eventually appeared on the Floyds debut LP. In its stripped down raw state it sounds like a proto-punk Stooges two years before the Stooges existed, and hints at what an explosive live prospect Barrett-era Floyd must have been. Similarly, the version of 'Interstellar Overdrive' from the same UFO gig, makes the recorded version sound like a condensed demo in comparison. In its pulsating untamed energy you can hear a legacy line that runs through Can, Faust, the JAMC, Spacemen 3, and every noise band that ever existed.
In the absence of primary source material it's no wonder that the myths have flourished. Thanks to the BBC's supremely chumpish insensitivity, every single Top Of The Pops from 1967, bar one solitary Xmas special, has been wiped. So there is no visible evidence of Syd's supposed strop when they did 'See Emily Play' on TOTP where he is alleged to have refused to change into his pop star clothes, stating that "John Lennon doesn't have to do this. Why should I?" The couple of stills that exist from the performance show Nick Mason and his Premier Drum Kit out front, Dave Clark Five style, and Syd in his tight Hendrix perm, centre stage wielding his Telecaster. He is wearing his pop star clothes.
On the rare occasions when there is visual evidence it often runs counter to the myths. Take the one concerning the Floyds October 1967 tour of the USA and Syd's apparent visible mental deterioration while performing 'Apples & Oranges' on the Pat Boone Show and Dick Clark's Bandstand. Syd is supposed to have stood hollow eyed with his arms down by his side, refusing to mime or answer any of his hosts inane questions afterwards. The story was first aired by Roger Waters, who states that he had to bluff his way through the singing when it became apparent that Syd wouldn't, and has been enthusiastically regurgitated as received wisdom by many writers in subsequent years. Thankfully, a recording of the Dick Clark performance is freely circulating on the internet and it makes a mockery of the myth. Contrary to what has been reported, Syd lip-synchs most of the song, including the tongue twisting opening verse. And he certainly makes as much of an effort to pretend he's playing his guitar as Nick Mason does to pretend he's playing the drums. The only time the camera switches to the other members singing is during the chorus. At no point does Syd looked shell shocked and blank eyed. On the contrary there's a hint of a twinkle and a certain wry detachment from the whole affair. He even answers Dick Clark’s questions politely. Oh, and he still looks beautiful. Every inch the romantic poet.
With hindsight Syd's non-cooperation seems wholly admirable. In an era when the Rolling Stones were prepared to water down the lyrics of 'Let’s Spend The Night Together' on the Ed Sullivan Show, Syd's attitude was positively punk rock. Why would he want to go on the Pat Boone Show or Dick Clark's Bandstand and subject himself to the conventions of mainstream entertainment anyway? In this respect Syd's gestures are in the finest tradition of rock and roll recalcitrance, right up there with Jim Morrison bellowing "girl we couldn't get much HIGHER!" after been told not to on The Ed Sullivan Show, and Hendrix stopping midway through 'Hey Joe' on the Lulu Show, muttering a cursory "we're gonna stop playing this rubbish" and launching into an impromptu tribute to Cream.
Footage from a Tomorrows World programme from January 1968, where Syd plays with exquisite sensitivity, similarly refutes the notion that he was 'gone' by this stage. Nick Mason even claims to have home movie footage of Syd happy and tap dancing backstage at Western Super Mare at his penultimate Floyd gig.
It’s interesting to hypothesise how Pink Floyd would have developed and what they might have sounded like if Syd had stayed. What if Roger Waters 1968 summit meeting with Syd had been successful? What if the band had managed to convince him to stay on in a Brian Wilson style role, writing and recording but spared the ardour and stress of touring? 'Swan Lee' and 'Lanky' would have sat well on the soundtrack to Zabriskie Point. Atom Heart Mother would have benefitted from the levity of 'Gigolo Aunt'. Imagine a Ron Geesin orchestrated version of 'Opal'. Or Echoes with 'Dominoes' and 'Terrapin' on the second side. But alas it was not to be.
At times during this period Barretts antics resembled those of Bob Dylan just before the motor bike accident. His last session with the Floyd, where he "attempted" to teach the band a new song called 'Have You Got It Yet?' and kept changing the tune, was, as Roger Waters has correctly stated an act of genius pranksterism. Peter Jenner says that he was still relatively together when they made the first tentative recordings for Syd's solo albums. And as Chris Welch astutely noted when he interviewed him for Melody Maker around the time of the release of Madcap. "he was eager to be helpful and I suspect only as confused as he wanted to be." This is not to make light of Syd's plight during this period, merely to suggest that his apparent 'disintigration' was neither as clear cut or rapid as has sometimes been suggested. People who go stone cold crazy are inclined to ossify in their kitchens or stand in the market square jabbering in the pouring rain. They aren't as a rule capable of playing gossamer light slide guitar or turning in sensitive renditions of James Joyce poems, as Syd did on 'Late Night' and 'Golden Hair' respectively.
It is undeniable though that the two solo albums he made in 1969 and 1970 (and the subsequent Opel compilation) reveal a man and a muse in turmoil. The more disturbing moments read like postcards from the precipice (literally so when you hear a line like 'Baby Lemonade's "come around. make it soon. so alone".) The Madcap Laughs and Barrett contain both evidence that the genius was still intact and of the maelstrom to come. The albums constantly see-saws between these two perspectives, sometimes within the same song, sometimes within the same line of a song! The exquisite eye of a painter is evident in lines like "pussy willow that smiles on this leaf" ('Dark Globe') "a broken pier on a wavy sea" ('She Took A Long Cold Look') and "a velvet curtain of grey marked the blanket where sparrows play" ('It Is Obvious'.) The sound of a man submerged in a Mandrax fog comes to the fore on 'If It’s In You', 'Waving My Arms In The Air', 'Rats', and 'Milky Way', among others.
At one point in Lost In The Woods, Julian Palacious's diligently researched book on Barrett, he makes the simple but effective point that the guiding principles of Syd's guitar technique can be broadly summarised as a penchant for ascending and descending runs. He liked going up the scales. He liked coming down the scales. A similarly reductionist observation can be made about the lyrics on those solo albums. They are songs about momentum and stasis. Images of floating, bumping, crawling, creeping, howling, drifting, fumbling, flailing, and screaming abound. These are thrown into sharp relief by the mood of stillness and atrophy that dominates 'Long Gone', 'Late Night', 'Dominoes', and 'Wined and Dined'. The observations of a man lost in ennui and melancholy reflection. Recognisably the same man that artist Duggie Fields shared a flat with in the late 1960's, and who as Fields recalled often lay in bed all day to ward off the prospect of activity. Ultimately Syd's solo albums are testimony to a soul in torment and flux. Their rawness displays the same confessional honesty that Lennon revealed on his first two solo albums, minus the messiah complex.
During this period some of Syd's most cogent observations were to be found in interviews, memorably telling Michael Watts of Melody Maker in March 1971 that the difference between his musical outlook and Pink Floyds was that "their choice of material was always very much to do with what they were thinking as architecture students. Rather unexciting people I would have thought, primarily." A few months later he enigmatically suggested to Mick Rock for Rolling Stone magazine that he was "full of dust and guitars." "The only work I've done the last two years is interviews. I'm very good at it" he said.
My own encounter with the man at this time was brief and bizarre. Attempting to secure an interview with Syd for an early edition of Terrapin Magazine I phoned his Mum in Cambridge. "He's in London doing his music," she said breezily. I phoned the Bryan Morrison Agency who were looking after Syd at the time. They gave me his home number. People did in those days. A voice, unmistakeably Syd's, answered the phone. I asked if it was possible to arrange an interview. "You'll have to talk to X" (name forgotten in the mists of time) he said in a languid detached tone. At this point he put the receiver down on its side and went off, I assumed, to fetch X. I sat and waited, and waited. Occasionally I heard footsteps walking across an echoey room. After about 15 minutes I hung up, figuring that he wasn't about to come back to the phone and had left it off the hook deliberately. Instinct told me that it was probably best not to call back.
I was also one of those 30 or so die-hards who lined the front of the stage and witnessed the now-legendary Stars gig at Cambridge Corn Exchange in 1972, gazing up adoringly at the velvet clad Syd. By then of course we were all worshipping the myth rather the man. An exemplary 'Lucifer Sam' would be followed by a shapeless blues jam. A jaunty 'Gigolo Aunt' would descend into another inconsequential jam. I spoke to him briefly afterwards, telling him it was great to see him on stage again. "Thank you" he said, smiling politely. What I remember close up is those startled eyes.
That night was all about brief glimpses. It's what kept us all there to the bitter end. It's presumably what helped Roger Waters and Dave Gilmour persevere with the solo albums. A similar impulse guided Peter Jenner through Syd's final ill-fated sessions at Abbey Road in August 1974. Occasional glimpses of the old Syd would emerge and then it would all become enmeshed in indecision and untogetherness again. Anyone who thinks there was still anything left in the creative tank by this point should be allowed to hear those last sad sessions. It's a salutary experience to listen to Syd choogling his way through a series of backing tracks, his timing and technique all but shot, and sounding like a hamfisted busker.
The decline had been gradual but by now it was irreversable. As Mick Rock indicated in Mojo 149, there was no sudden enforced withdrawal, no grand gesture, just long periods of frustration and creative ennui punctuated by cataclysmic personal grief. Syd sticking his head through his cellar roof. Syd infamously turning up, shaven headed and portly, at the 'Wish You Were Here' Sessions and no one recognising him. Syd's mother Win having to move out of the family home because his behaviour was scaring her. Syd briefly checking in and out of various institutions for treatment.
In later years it would appear that Syd had found some sort of solace in his painting. It’s only a shame that he couldn't have found a bit more peace and quiet from the so-called fans who harassed and door-stepped him, virtually on a daily basis at his suburban home. Some of the stories that have emerged from these twilight years are truly disturbing. People climbing into his garden to steal his painting equipment. People stalking him in the street and photographing him against his will. Many of these photos were reprinted, presumably without permission, by the supposed 'quality' newspapers when he died.
Roger Keith Barrett is free of all that now. The myths will still flourish of course. Syd never did anything to dispel any of them when he was alive so they aren't about to cease now. But strip away all the bullshit and the crass psycho-analysis and the one tangible thing we are left with is the art. That should be enough.
©Rob Chapman, 2006