Tuesday, July 11, 2006

If You Go, Don't Be Slow

In an interview a few years back, David Bowie remarked that "it doesn't matter who did it first; what matters is who did it second!" This aphorism could have a lot of different applications. It might refer to a purely commercial sense, meaning "The true innovator doesn't reap the commercial rewards of his or her new invention; all the wealth and fame goes to someone else who steals or borrows the innovation and puts it to use in a more accessible form." Or it might be a less cynical comment on the artistic process, suggesting that "Innovations may come about by accident or necessity; the real credit is deserved by those who recognize the innate value of the new thing on its own merits and strive to apply it to their own work. Without them it would be a fluke, not an innovation." Whichever interpretation you prefer doesn't matter; what matters is that Syd Barrett was one of the ones who did it first.

Other people will mention the Floyd's single "See Emily Play" as one of the seminal groundbreaking moments of late-Sixties psychedelia -- and it is everything people say it is -- or talk about how Barrett's mental decline formed the emotional core of later Pink Floyd albums like Dark Side of the Moon and especially Wish You Were Here. Barrett released two solo albums which are treasured by anyone since who's written songs with a guitar in hand...but not widely known to the general public who thinks of Pink Floyd as that band of elderly geezers who did "Comfortably Numb" or "Another Brick In The Wall."

But for me, the name Syd Barrett is synonymous with the impossibly clear and powerful crashing widescreen Cinerama guitar chord that opens "Astronomy Domine" -- the first song on their debut album Piper At The Gates of Dawn. The song was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in April 1967 -- pretty much the same time the Beatles started living there full time. The pleasant British nostalgia of Sgt. Pepper is what caught the world's attention...but that power chord slide from E to Eb was a raw challenge of pure defiance that hasn't been equalled in the punk, or postpunk, or metal of subsequent years. It's a thunderclap that for a little while sounded like it might break the world open.

A lot -- too much -- has been written about Barrett's mental illness and withdrawal from the public eye. Clearly, there were problems which may have been the result of an existing schizophrenic tendancy exacerbated by indulgence in psychedelic drugs. (I wonder how many cases of drug burnout might actually be situations where someone with preexisting mental issues fell into using LSD or the like as an accidental form of self-medication rather than getting the early treatment they needed?) But at the same time, anyone withdrawing from fame and attention is defying what's practically become the modern religion of fame at all costs. Witness the venom and bile spewed at Dave Chappelle for a more recent example. I've seen him condemned with the unspoken subtext of How dare he walk away from the thing we're all supposed to want?

So, yeah, Syd became a bit of a nutter, lost his hair, gained weight -- though when you get right down to it, he didn't look any worse than any of the surviving members of Pink Floyd do -- but I'd like to think that on some level living quietly in Cambridge, painting and gardening, really was the right choice for him and that he was happy in these final years. He was owed that much.


  1. Thanks for this fine post, especially that great evocation of the opening of Astronomy Domine. Amazing how powerful that tune still is, across the years.

  2. Thank you, brendan, and I'm glad of the chance to direct readers to your post mentioning Syd which includes a couple of very worthwhile links...most especially a response posted to the Guardian's Culture Vulture blog by a reader called Lonelysven:

    "Growing up in the late 80s in Cambridge, there was a very noisy mentally unstable man who would rush around the city centre shouting insane rants. He looked like Barrett, was around his age and locals began to believe it was him, as he fitted the 'looney in the attic' profile.

    "A friend of mine thankfully dispelled this rumour because she lived in a house next door to him, in a Cambridge suburb.

    "Although he had no desire to make close friends he was a polite, affable man who could always hold down an intelligent conversation. He was supposed to have had mental problems but he held a stable job as a gardener (I think for one of the University grounds) for most of his later life.

    "He had no desire to dispel the myths surrounding him, but there is very little evidence of his erratic behaviour once he left the music business.

    "His neighbour always suspected he had a very sane desire not to be famous and succeeded most of his life in pulling it off.

    "Now that is legendary."

  3. That sounds pretty much like the description of him I heard from some Cambridge locals when I lived there in the early 90s - quiet, kept to himself, visited the pub sometimes and doesn't care to talk about "that old band he was in". Fair enough.

    Rock mythology aside, it would be great if somebody put together some kind of retrospective of his artwork - he always showed promise there, and it probably meant more to him than the music. Just about the only public thing he did in the last few decades was approve a limited-edition run of some prints. It'd be interesting to see them.


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