Syd Barrett: Piper, poet, painter
By Jeff Miers
News Pop Music Critic
Earlier this month, Capitol/EMI released "An Introduction to Syd Barrett," a gorgeously rendered collection of songs representing the finest of the Pink Floyd founder's musical achievements.
That the songs included here are all culled from a roughly four-year period now 40 years in the past -- and that the "An Introduction" in the title might suggest a primer in the writings of a young, contemporary artist -- are ironies befitting a project bearing Barrett's name. His is one of the most unusual stories to have emerged from what might loosely be referred to as "the rock era."
Renowned British music journalist Rob Chapman -- who writes for the likes of Mojo, Uncut, the Times, the Guardian and the Independent on Sunday -- will see the release of his biography "A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett" (Da Capo, $28) just as EMI's "An Introduction" disc is unveiled. His book is not the first to explore the life of the myth-enshrouded Barrett -- there have been three previous, of varying quality -- but it is the first to see publication since Barrett's death in 2006. More significantly, it is the first to have been written with the full cooperation of Barrett's family and closest friends.
One might reasonably wonder what all the fuss is about. Barrett, after all, retired from the music business almost immediately upon splitting with Pink Floyd in 1968. He recorded only two solo albums, and by the early '70s, had pretty much settled into the recluse's life he'd live until the end.
Most of his reputation as an eccentric genius has been built upon a single album, Floyd's 1967 debut "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn." The rest of the legend revolves around his reputed status as rock's greatest acid casualty -- the very personification of Swinging '60s London, a man who is said to have ingested enough LSD to have driven himself barking mad, a state from which he never emerged.
And yet, Barrett's appeal has only grown, concurrent with the size and scope of the myth. Here in Buffalo, local musicians of varying ages gather yearly at Mohawk Place to pay tribute to Barrett and his music, and our city is far from alone in this capacity.
One of the challenges facing Chapman as he prepared the excellent "A Very Irregular Head" involved piercing through the veil of myth surrounding Barrett's life and work. It is a conflation of half-truths and slightly altered facts that, the author believes, have done a great disservice to Barrett the artist.
Here, Chapman speaks with The News regarding the endurance of that myth, the resilient charms of "Piper at the Gates of Dawn," and a few possible reasons for the continued resonance of the man's life, work and death in the popular consciousness.
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Throughout the book, you point to the fact that part of Syd's genius can be located in his ability to "restrict his emotional and verbal palette and (submit) to the dictates of form." How did this tendency to make much from little manifest itself in his music, particularly during the "Piper" period?
I'm glad you picked up on this, because it is key to his musical development, in the early days at least. It is a technique he undoubtedly absorbed during his fine art apprenticeship - hence the palette analogy -- and it is one that resonates throughout the wider development of pop music, particularly whenever art school students are involved.
One sound is as valid as another. It's the ideas that are important. During the period -- summer '66 to early '67 -- where he was writing the songs that would appear on "Piper," Syd's lyric writing was very economical. Simple but never simplistic, and seemingly effortless too, but in fact it takes a lot of effort, and craftsmanship, to appear that effortless.
The book does a wonderful job of capturing that particular Cambridge group of post-Beat/pre-hippie intellectuals, all of whom ended up doing remarkable things with their lives, to greater and lesser degrees. What was it about Cambridge that manifested itself in the doings of this group of friends? How do you think it may have framed their thought and the creation of their art?
Early on in proceedings, before I had even started writing in fact, I tried playing devil's advocate with the whole Cambridge thing, and tried arguing that, well you know, what happened in Cambridge could have happened -- indeed was happening -- in any reasonably hip town that had a clique of hip, happening people.
But I soon discovered that what was going on here was utterly unique to Cambridge. Liverpool had its Beat poets and its beat groups. Edinburgh had its folk scene. Other cities had their lively R&B scene. But Cambridge had this unique confluence of affluent middle-class kids, who more often than not, had parents that were even more radicalized and politicized than they were. They were the sons and daughters of "ban the bomb-marching" intellectual parents, and they were themselves becoming radical and free-thinking in a fairly comfortable environment.
Among the more hipster-approved musical subcultures -- punk, alternative music, Brit-pop and so forth -- Syd is revered as a god, while everything the Floyd did after "Piper" is commonly held to be bloated and self-indulgent. Is it truly reasonable to assert that "Piper" dwarfed all that came after it?
No, I don't think it is reasonable at all. Although my allegiances quite clearly lie with Syd, I'm a big fan of the music the Floyd made in the period immediately after he left. I make it clear in the book that despite the messy circumstances of his leaving and the accrued guilt felt by the band, they were obviously rejuvenated by Syd's departure.
The spacey direction their music took in 1968-69 has been massively influential on everyone from Tangerine Dream to the Orb. Go on to YouTube sometime and search for "Pink Floyd:Moonhead." There is roughly five minutes of music that the Floyd provided for BBC's coverage of the first moon landing. The radio sessions they did around the same time for the BBC are also inspired. Why the Floyd have never officially released any of that stuff, I don't know. It's fantastic.
Honoring Barrett in Buffalo
Dave Gutierrez, guitarist with Irving Klaws, was not surprised to discover that Syd Barrett had a sizable, devout following in our region, comprised of musicians on the Buffalo indie rock scene, and nonperforming fans alike. On Jan. 6, Gutierrez will present the 8th annual Barrett birthday tribute at Mohawk Place. By this point, the show is one of the longest-running Barrett tributes in the country. Here, Gutierrez discusses the continued popularity of the birthday bashes, and the strange fascination Barrett's music continues to hold for so many.
Why does Syd Barrett matter to you, and why does he continue to matter to so many people?
"I am still in awe of Syd's work. I've always been drawn to what many people would consider the odd or weird, be it in movies, people or music. Growing up in the vinyl era, it was a bit harder to discover underground music than it is today. ... Syd was otherworldly in such a unique way.
Why does Syd's legend continue to grow?
"I think it's because no matter how many times you hear his work, it still seems alive and fresh. Sure, some of it is somewhat dated, but much of it isn't. How do you classify 'Interstellar Overdrive' or 'Octopus'? It's his genius that is so seductive. It's like a painting that, every time you see it, you see something you hadn't noticed before, even though it's hanging in your living room.
"Also, clearly the legends surrounding his LSD abuse and mental illness breed a sick interest that -- while I understand it, and perhaps was seduced by it at a young age -- I find a bit distasteful now.