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Point Your Pointers: My (Too-Brief) Review of “A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett”

Submitted by on November 21, 2012 – 1:48 am5 Comments

I’ve been wanting to read the biography of the man I last see before I go to sleep every night, so when I started working at a library, Rob Chapman’s well-researched book was basically at the top of the list of things I really, really wanted (slightly behind this).  You see, I admire Syd Barrett greatly, if you weren’t aware during the troll invasion of Tumblr’s ‘soft grunge’ tag. I find I have much in common with him: we both enjoy the usage of fairy tale imagery, we’re not afraid to use classic literature for inspiration (his choices are Grahame and Joyce, mine are Sedgwick and Fitzgerald), and we both have a penchant to call things Gerald without knowing why. While reading this biography, I figured it would separate the boring truth from the legend that is Syd. What I didn’t expect, though, was the discovery of having more in common with him than I could ever guess. Syd was a guy who wielded the art of withdrawing in order to protest something or someone, even if it was himself, even if it was subconsciously. He had no idea why he was so willing to sabotage his pop music career or forgo his social pertinence. The only difference between him and I in that respect is that he waited a long time, near the end of his life, in fact, to try to work through what happened. He tragically knew his mind was in the realm outside of what is still considered the norm even today. He longed for settling down and having children, but this book suggests he was well aware it could never happen for him. But even that isn’t the saddest part of this book.

I was impressed with the cultural background and how the movement was ripe for Syd and The Pink Floyd to make its entrance. It certainly explains why the band caught on so quickly after experimental music had been a thing in England for a couple of years by then. The Pink Floyd were experimental pop, the one band that was deemed new and edgy despite having predecessors (see: every new pop starlet or group every five years or so). Combined with introvertedness and being stifled creatively (he had written most of the first album’s songs months, years even, before getting signed, and most of the mixing was out of his control), it becomes less apparent that Syd went crazy from the fabled dissolution of LSD and schizophrenia and more that he was a goddamned troll. I’m glad Chapman takes the effort of interviewing fucking everyone (besides Waters, Gilmour, and Mason of course) to clarify this. Syd wasn’t the type to be shown off in photographs and on tours and pandered to a bunch of equivalents to today’s faux-hipsters. The height of his acid use was when the band first formed and it didn’t make him crazy for over a year and a half? Chapman calls bollocks. He chronologises every concert, interview, recording, stated event, etc., in order to show that Syd picked and chose when to act out or rebel. Not that it was a bad thing, it just wasn’t where the rest of his bandmates wanted to go. In their eyes, he was “fucking up” their chance at fame (198). I find it hilarious that Syd was protesting the very things Roger Waters would go on to eulogize in their hit “Have a Cigar”, a bit in “Animals” and at some points in “The Wall”, but I digress, what twenty year old with a bit of luck and talent wouldn’t want fame? Besides Syd, of course.

My favorite bits of the book were the analysis of Syd’s terribly short catalog of songs. The references used for most of the songs in ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ were works I had never heard of, but certainly seem like they would be worth checking out. Sometimes the analysis was comical (“It’s just a cat, Syd, there really is nothing to explain”, about “Lucifer Sam”), but the lyrical analysis of the songs written for Pink Floyd’s second album “A Saucerful of Secrets” is my favorite. I might be biased, because “Vegetable Man” and “Jugband Blues” are like, my two favorite songs ever, but Chapman really drives home that this is Syd’s best body of work because he was in tormented artist mode. Along with “Scream Thy Last Scream“, it takes one listen to realize that you’re supposed to feel incredibly uncomfortable because Syd wanted you to be. No wonder the band only approved “Jugband Blues” for the album. And it is disheartening to watch his solo work reflect that he stopped giving a fuck.

It’s the confirmed stories that get me though. A broken engagement! Richard Wright and David Gilmour’s despair at kicking him out of the band and helping him try to keep recording! The bouts of bitter alienation of friends! Trashing his mom’s house and essentially kicking her out! But nothing, nothing compares to his later years. Clearly, his actions forced a lot of people to not want to be around him any more. At least they respected that. As obnoxiously as he did it, Syd indicated he wanted to be left alone. He lived the life of a secluded artist, painting and being content with close friends and family. Basically, it was a near-return to normalcy. He wanted to live as anyone did, in their home, working (I consider his painting working), and living day-to-day.

He didn’t get that.

According to the most important person in his life, his sister Rosemary, he lived for thirty-something years with people snooping and photographing his property, brash press knocking constantly on his door, random strangers filming him running errands, tabloids speculating stupid, crazy-person stories to sell papers, etc. Even if you assume he was okay that Pink Floyd became one of the biggest bands in the world without him (and using him to serve as this guiding, mad persona throughout their body of work), and you figure, as Chapman explains, he loses the ability to communicate as he once did by not socializing much, but he’s resigned to and okay with it, that gives no reason for people to stalk him and hound him. Even pre-Tumblr fangirls would stop by hoping to date him, even as he turned sixty and died shortly after.

It also pains me that there’s no denying his death was a direct result of self-neglect. Had he taken care of his stomach issues earlier he might not have gotten cancer. Had he gotten diagnosed sooner, he wouldn’t have died from it. Is Chapman suggesting, in some sad way, that someone beloved by millions for decades after his musical creations was stuck in a life of such self-loathing that he had himself convinced that he deserved all that would come to him? He lived the same life he did for thirty-plus years after his diagnosis. It scares me to think what was on his mind in that final month. Did he find what he was looking for in this lifetime?

I think the answer lies in one of his notebooks, which was sold after his death. He was taking notes on different psychological issues (as I mentioned earlier, working through what happened, almost self-diagnosing). The last addition in the notes is the thought “all manic depressives therefore recover”. While I wonder if he considered himself recovered, it’s selfish to want to know. It’s selfish try to gather photographs to slander him, it’s selfish to ogle at him now six years after his death (I get it, he was handsome, but he’s not ‘your’ Syd sweetie bunny pie). He was an artist and now we have the ability to know mostly every insidious detail of his life (which doesn’t include climbing walls during a thunderstorm or other things the tabloids and former friends ‘recounted’), so the mere existence of this book, after reading it, indicates that we should do something crazy. Let’s respect him for the brief, important body of work he let behind and allow such work to inspire future work, but let him rest in peace.

As far as the actual book, Chapman loved Syd more than the casual, or even rabid fan. He puts as much effort as possible into humanizing him and constructing a glimpse into the life of a man not many people will ever understand and he acknowledges his mistakes and hardships for what they are. But I admire his ability to be down-to-earth about such a heavy story as well. So therefore, I cannot recommend this enough.

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5 Comments »

  • Suzinne B. says:

    If you enjoyed “A Very Irregular Head,” you need to check out “Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe.” Infinitely better and the definitive work on Syd Barrett.

    “A Very Irregular Head” is good, but Syd and his milieu do not come alive like they do in “Dark Globe. Trust me.

    However, you got stuff wrong or maybe just misunderstood:

    Syd did know why he cut his career short. Combination of a loss of confidence and unwillingness to play the game.

    You write: “He lived the life of a secluded artist, painting and being content with close friends and family.” Nope. Syd did not hang with any friends, and the only people he was comfortable with were his mother and sister, Rosemary. Actually Rosemary explained that Roger saw everyone as a potential menace. That’s PSTD brought on by acid related trauma.

    Lastly, Syd did not kick his mother out of the house. She left to move in with Rosemary because his violent rages scared her, and she feared for her safety.

    Just wanted to set the record straight.

    • DezWallen says:

      I thank you for the recommendation of ‘Dark Globe’ and the clarification of certain facts, because admittedly, I did find fault with how Chapman spent 9/10 chapters discussing 1946-1975 and one on 1975-2006, so I’m sure I misunderstood some things in between the midst of those years feeling rushed (in my opinion) and my trying to finish it as quickly as possible so I didn’t have to renew the inter-library loan again. =] But yes, I’ll definitely check out the other book and try to write a review somewhere in between working two jobs, hahaha.

    • arnold layne says:

      I don’t think just because you read a different book on the subject you can authoritively say anything about his life.

      Recently i spoke to someone who had a friend he used visit living on the same terrace as Syd,while his friend said he would often stay at home for long periods he also said he would spend periods in mates’ houses,junky types in squats,whether Syd was a junky he didn’t know but its probably not something his family would want to make known.

      My friend telling me would have been more into the burgeoning rave scene at the time and didn’t even know syd’s history back then but said he was pleasant and would say hello and didn’t see much wrong with him other than he simply preferred the company of and related better to people who were outside the norms of society.(guessing this was all around the late 80′s/early 90′s)

      Recounting what a friend of a friend told me isn’t going to make me much of a source but i have no reason to disbelieve him.

      • DezWallen says:

        That could very well be true and that could very well be a case of mistaken identity. ;) Although, as many people as were interviewed, I imagine, for all the biographical works on Syd, there’s surely people who simply never were approached or didn’t feel like contributing to this massive hunt for every detail of Syd’s life. So you never know.

      • Suzinne B. says:

        No, of course, I cannot say anything authoritatively (yeah, that’s the word). I wasn’t there. I’m just sharing my educated opinion. Take it for what’s it’s worth or don’t.

        Ok if you want to believe Syd/Roger was hanging w/ various blokes or chicks doing drugs or just chillin’. Yeah, Syd did “some hanging” before he moved home with Mum, but once he tread that backward path he closed the door on most of society. But you’re right, there’s always been a lot that Rosemary has chosen not to share with the world.

        I know it’s hard to wrap any of our heads around the enormous pain Roger Barrett lived with for so many years. After all, what did he ever do to deserve such punishment?

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