My Favorite Artist, Syd Barrett

When it comes to the realm of music, my two biggest heroes are Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett. Both men created (or were working towards creating) two of the greatest albums in psychedelic rock. Then they each created two entirely unorthodox records which many see as indicative of mental illness. Besides their brilliant music, Brian and Syd are perhaps best known to the general public for their struggles with mental illness and eccentric behavior. I’m going to focus on Syd for now; I’ll tackle Brian Wilson and SMiLE another day.

I thought it was appropriate to introduce the two together, not just for their similarities but also because I never would have discovered Syd if not for Brian. I was more of a soft rock and classic rock fan in High School (with disco as my guilty pleasure.) Pet Sounds was my favorite album at the time, until I discovered its mythical canceled follow-up, SMiLE. That collection of music opened the door for me into a whole new genre as well as the countercultural scene surrounding it. Henceforth, it was all about psychedelic rock going into college, and reading several biographies about the biggest figures in the scene. It wasn’t too long before I heard about Syd Barrett.

In my sophomore year of college, I was enthralled by Syd’s music. I read two biographies about him, A Very Irregular Head by Rob Chapman and Crazy Diamond by Mike Watkinson and Pete Anderson. Why two? Because I just couldn’t learn enough about the guy. I found Syd to be uniquely talented in the visual as well as musical arts, strikingly handsome and mysterious. Everything I read (or saw–I watched a few documentaries too 😛 ) portrayed him as such a sweet guy before his tragic breakdown. He was creative, romantic and by all accounts the life of the party. The kind of guy anyone would want to be around and emulate. Unfortunately that didn’t last.

However, despite the sad turn his life took, I find a certain fractured greatness in Syd’s later years as well. He still partook in drawing, but for the love of the craft alone (he burned his canvases after finishing.) He took up gardening, similar to the Roman Emperor Diocletian after retiring from public life. There was one anecdote in Irregular Head which struck me as particularly sweet. Syd was gardening and some neighborhood kids were playing pretend:

(This story was relayed by the young neighborhood girl years later.)

Once when I was about seven, I was engaged in a heated argument with my best friend and her visiting cousins over whether an imaginary horse from the game of make believe we were playing would be able to fly from my house to my best friend’s house. She argued that it was daft because horses don’t fly at all.

So finally, exasperated and angry, I trudged the whole group down the street to the Barrett’s where Rog was gardening at the side of the house. I reckoned he’d be the one to ask because he never got short with us children, like all our parents would do when we asked nonsense questions. I didn’t even ask if he was busy. I just marched into the garden and poked him in the back. He took his gloves off and looked at me. I remember him as always having an expression of very mild annoyance mixed with fond, caring indulgence. And I burst out with the dilemma we were having and asked him something like ‘It’s true that the make-believe horse can fly from here to Cherry Hinton, isn’t it, Rog?’

He was very patient, and took the time to explain that not only was I right that the imaginary horse could definitely fly to Cherry Hinton, but that in make believe, absolutely anything you can think of is completely real and possible. He smiled at us all and then shooed us away so he could get back to his gardening.

In short, Syd was just…cool. Not in the fake, trying-too-hard manner that most rockstars go for either. Cool in the genuine sense, as in a really laid back person who didn’t have to prove himself or put other people down. Syd just had a flair for embracing his inner child which I find adorable. “Bike” is like a little kid’s idea of what courting a woman would entail, “Gnome” is like a child’s bedtime fairy tale, “Flaming” is a game of tag. What makes Syd special is that he set all these whimsical scenarios to stylized rock and roll.

The Other Crown Jewel of Psychedelic Rock

Piper at the Gates of Dawn is the quintessential psychedelic album, and I’ve heard more than enough to make that assertion. I bestow that honor not just for its quality, but its variety as well. No other single album so thoroughly encapsulates everything the genre was about. It’s got the freeform freakout jam sessions with “Astronomy Domine.” It’s got the whimsical dreamscapes with “Flaming.” It’s got the reinterpreted children’s stories with “Matilda Mother.” There’s eastern mysticism with “Chapter 24” and making the mundane fascinating with “The Scarecrow“. This album takes you from the far reaches of outer space to a Tolkien-esque gnome frolicking in the flowers without skipping a beat. All that, as well as the most quirky endearing romantic courtship of all time with “Bike.” The production is like the perfect blend between that Forever Changes aesthetic with the classic instrumentation and that electric, out of this world quality of the United States of America. If ever there was one album I’d recommend to someone who wanted to know the conventions of psych rock, it’d be this hands down.

The only flaw with Piper for me is that the middle drags a bit. After a mesmerizing string of four tracks, “Pow R Toc H” is a noticeable recession in quality. It’s not a bad track, but I’ve always found it to be a weak spot. Then you get the noticeably out of place “Take Thy Stethoscope and Walk” which never should have been included on the album in the first place. It’s an undeniably inferior song and as the only one not written by Syd it has a completely different attitude. If you subbed them out with “Candy and a Currant Bun” and “See Emily Play” as the Side 1 closer, the album would be perfect in my opinion.

Other Pink Floyd Material

While not part of the album, the rest of the Barrett-era Pink Floyd tracks are excellent and don’t get the respect they truly deserve in my opinion. “Arnold Layne” isn’t my cup of tea, but it must have been so unreal to see a song about such an unusual topic as raiding women’s clothes lines back then. It’s a rare case for me where the B-side (“Candy and a Currant Bun”) is far superior, and an underrated rocker in its own right. I consider “See Emily Play” as to England what “White Rabbit” was to America in 1967. That is to say, a compact, groundbreaking single which toed the line between being mind-blowing yet still accessible for a wide audience. These two were the tracks that served to introduce new people into more avant-garde psychedelic rock. “Apples and Oranges” is probably Syd’s weakest song for Pink Floyd, and another case where the B-side (“Paint Box” written by Richard Wright) is better. The unreleased stuff, “Scream Thy Last Scream” / “Vegetable Man” are fantastic and should have been released at the time. They would have made a great double-A single.

The only other Pink Floyd album where Syd material appears is A Saucerful of Secrets, and as far as I’m concerned it’s a weak collection that tries to regain the magic of Piper but comes up short. It’s clear the others can’t carry on in the direction Syd was taking them without Syd himself. Yet, at this point they didn’t know what else to do, so they tried aping the master at his own game and failed. (In my personal opinion they wouldn’t find their voice again until Dark Side of the Moon.) Syd’s lone contribution, “Jugband Blues” is the highlight for me, along with the unfairly maligned “See-Saw” (also by Wright.) I’ve heard Jugband interpreted as Syd throwing shade at his bandmates for not appreciating his contributions and casting him aside, (“And I’m wondering who could be writing this song.”) I could see that, but I think it might also be interpreted as depersonalization. The final two lines, “What exactly is a dream, and what exactly is a joke?” are the only song lyrics I’ve ever considered getting a tattoo of. There’s a lot of ways to interpret them: perhaps either an attempt at philosophy, asking the big questions before bowing out as bandleader, or else just losing perspective of things with his breakdown. Either way, I find it a profound quote and outside the norm for a musician whose previous works focused more on childish whimsy. Syd had a lot of room to grow if he had stayed with Floyd.

As far as the band’s tribute song, “Shine on You crazy Diamond” I think it’s a great standalone track and arguably Floyd’s best. However, I share the opinion of Rob Chapman that it wasn’t a fitting tribute for Syd personally. It’s everything Syd was not: bombastic, indulgent, drawn out and grandiose. Syd, at least in terms of his released material, was none of those things. Personally, I find the way Roger Waters mined his friend’s tragedy for material with The Wall to be in bad taste as well. (That’s just my take though, no offense to anyone who likes that album.) I have no doubt they all cared for Syd in their own way, especially David Gilmour who by all accounts made sure the royalties always got to the Barrett family. And in a way, it’s a good thing that the band’s later stuff (even when dedicated to Syd) didn’t match his style. They’d found their own muse and followed it to a lot of well-deserved success. I’d prefer that to them constantly trying to recapture lightning in a bottle, which is what Saucerful feels like to me.

The Solo Albums

Syd’s solo stuff is very spotty, but still full of great tracks, as well as interesting ideas which might have blossomed had he not been so far gone. At times, like with the James Joyce tribute, it feels like Syd is maturing as an artist. It’s not about putting childish imagination to layered psych music, so much as putting adult prose to tastefully underscored accompaniment. Unfortunately, they also suffer from spotty production. I don’t buy into the theory that Gilmour purposefully sabotaged Syd to snuff out Floyd’s competition, but I think his approach of “showing the creative process” was misguided. In any case, it would be interesting to see how some of these tracks would fare with Piper-style remixes, or perhaps something akin to Pet Sounds‘ arrangements. Speaking of Brian Wilson again, I see Madcap Laughs and Barrett as very similar to Smiley Smile and Love You by him, as well as Oar by Moby Grape’s own Skip Spence. All three men were famous acid casualties and all five albums are considered expressions of their deteriorated state.

There’s undeniably a special aesthetic that you get with Syd even if the music isn’t exactly your cup of tea. For example, I love Madcap‘s title as well as its cover with his painted floor and naked girlfriend. It’s very Dylan-esque and thought-provoking. The second album’s title is less interesting, but I do think the cover (drawn by Syd) is cool and it ties into the theme of animals that permeates most of the record. A trade-off of the less refined production is that these records have a warm, intimate atmosphere that puts you at ease. It’s like you’re right there in Syd’s flat listening to him play for you. While I believe the “mistakes left in” approach in a few tracks was a bewildering choice, and several songs I feel could benefit from a denser arrangement, I’ll take what I can get.

My favorite solo Syd tracks are “Dominoes,” “Here I Go,” “Baby Lemonade,” “Gigolo Aunt” and “Octopus.” As I understand it, the idea of reversing the guitar tracks in “Dominoes” was Syd’s idea and nobody else expected it to work as well as it did. They inexplicably make me think of time dragging by slowly, like being a kid on a rainy day and having to play board games inside. HIG is a more grounded yet equally endearing romantic courtship in the vein of “Bike.” The last three could have been great Floyd rockers but as is are still full of energy and charm. “Octopus” in particular embodies that same Barrett signature of childhood whimsy, singing about theme park rides.

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