Saturday, July 29, 2006

Roger Keith Barrett: 1946-2006

Roger Keith Barrett, also known as Syd Barrett, the founder of the band Pink Floyd died recently.

Syd Barrett left the band before I was even born -- he barely lasted through Pink Floyd's debut album in the late sixties. A few years ago I had assumed, as many people did, that Barrett was actually already dead, that he had been dead since the sixties. And then I read rock critic Nick Kent's book The Dark Stuff and discovered through his article "The Cracked Ballad of Syd Barrett" (based on an article Kent wrote for New Music Express in 1974) that I was confusing him with Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. I think Jones died in a swimming pool.

I also discovered that, like the case of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, everything I liked about the band had to do with its charismatic but mentally unstable genius founder, and everything I hated had to do with -- well, the whole rest of the band.

So I learned that Barrett wasn't in fact dead, and that he'd actually put out a few solo albums. His first, "The Madcap Laughs," is brilliant. The second to the last song, "If It's In You," sums up Barrett's music for me. It's short (less than two minutes), too short -- like his musical career, and it begins with him wailing "Yes I'm thi-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-inking of this, yes I am." Only each "i" is a different note, all over the scale. It's weird. At first it sounds terribly off key, like some awful amateur yodeller, but if you keep listening, you start thinking maybe he's on to something. "The Madcap Laughs" is a spare album, and poor Barrett needed two of Pink Floyd mates to help him make it. It came out in 1972 and his music career was done by 1975.

Another song on that album, "Late Night," was a favorite of mine when it was covered by the 4AD project This Mortal Coil for the third and final album, "Blood" (1991), which I discovered a few years after its release. A woman, Caroline Crawley sang it beautifully, and I thought it was her song until someone pointed out the writing credit: S. Barrett.

Here, in honor of Mr. Barrett, I have transcribed the beginning of Nick Kent's superb article "The Cracked Ballad of Syd Barrett." It describes an infamous scene from one of the band's early shows:
The rest of the group were actually all three standing on the stage, ready to begin, when Barrett finally awoke from his numb narcissistic reverie in front of the dressing-toom mirror. First he roused himself to action by emptying a bottle of strong tranquilizers known as 'Mandrax' of its contents and breaking the pills into tiny fragments on a nearby table. He then produced a large bottle of Brylcream, an extremely greasy form of British hair gel, and emptied the whole jar on to the pills. Next, taking the main residue of this gunk in both hands, he lifted it aloft, dumping the whole filthy mess on top of his head, letting it slowly seep on to his scalp and duly down his neck. Then he turned, picked up his white Telecaster with the groovy mirrored discs reflecting out, and stepped uncertainly towards the stage.

A quarter of an hour later, as the tom-toms were thumping their way into trance-time, the bass began booking out low ominous frequencies and the organ arched off into a tentative solo full of spicy Eastern cliches. But anyone could tell that Syd, once the leader, was no longer inhabiting the same planet as the other three. Sometimes he'd twang a few desultory notes, sometimes he'd run his slide up and down the strings, but everything sounded so random and fragmented now that nothing he did really connected with the overall sound. Meanwhile the lighting had grown hot enough for Barrett's acid-casualty hair remedy to start running amok in several grotesque oily streams down his neck and forehead while the residue of the broken pills was being deposited all over his face. It was then that everyone could see how desperately things were going wrong, for he looked like some grotesque waxwork of himself on fire, a blurred effigy of melting flesh and brain tissue coming apart in front of his peers, his fans, and his followers.
Nick Kent wrote an obituary for the Guardian here. If you hadn't heard, Barrett's "meltdown" and career collapse has been blamed on his legendary LSD habit. Also interesting to note, is that Barrett named the band, as Kent writes, "taken from a blues album he owned involving two obscure musicians known as Pink Anderson and Floyd Council." Here's novelist Rick Moody on Barrett, also from the Guardian, and better still, David Bowie on Barrett in New Music Express -- he says Barrett was one of the first guys he'd ever heard singing pop with a British accent.

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