Thursday, November 5, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett


There is perhaps no other figure in rock music so shrouded in mystery and legend than Roger "Syd" Barrett, one of the founding members of Pink Floyd. With his distinctive looks and quirky, one-of-a-kind songwriting and guitar playing, Syd was the creative guiding force that launched Pink Floyd out of the underground London art and music scene and onto the charts. However, just when it seemed that Syd and Pink Floyd were poised for a successful career, he lost the plot and succumbed to mental illness barely one year and one album in, spending the next four decades as a remote figure of interest, mystery, and in many unseemly cases, obsession until his death in 2006. Author Rob Chapman aims to lay bare all of the myths, half-truths, and flat-out inaccuracies of Syd's life and sad demise while giving a greater appreciation of his creative gifts in his comprehensive biography A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett.



***special thanks to Sean at Da Capo Press for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

Pink Floyd was one of the biggest and most commercially and critically successful bands of all time, releasing their greatest works throughout the 1970s. However, their origins in the mid-1960s show a much different band that could have gone in a far different direction had that short-lived configuration stayed together longer than it did; this was down to one man, Syd Barrett. A Very Irregular Head is the story of Syd's long, sad, and confusing life, from his idyllic childhood in Cambridge, his years as a popular and talented student and artist, and his stint in Pink Floyd, to his sudden decline and collapse, the public deterioration of his mental health, and his final decades in seclusion when he became a reluctant and unwitting icon. Starting with detailed background on young Roger Barrett's birth and childhood in Cambridge, Chapman uses the extensive research he's done and the numerous interviews he's conducted with Syd's siblings (especially sister Rosemary, who was Syd's caretaker for the final 25 years of his life), friends, teachers, and colleagues in order to paint the picture of a boy who was very popular. With his striking good looks, cultivated manner (being the product of a comfortable middle-class upbringing), and eccentric but charming personality, Syd (a nickname he picked up during his teenage years) by all accounts was a normal, well-adjusted young man. The death of his equally eccentric father when he was sixteen affected him as it would anyone, but it wouldn't be until years later that the true impact of this loss was seen by those around him. A talented artist, Syd followed in the tradition of so many other of his rock music peers in 1960s England and attended art school, in his case Camberwall in London. A very interesting revelation made by his close friends and families when discussing those years was their surprise that he ever made a foray into music. While he had a great love of music and played passable guitar, everyone around him was stunned by his talents as an artist and claimed that, in agreement with them, Syd considered himself first and foremost an artist who played in music and not the other way around. By 1965 he'd met up again in London with old friend Waters and two of Waters' classmates at architecture school, Nick Mason and Rick Wright. Forming a band and initially playing R&B and pop covers of the day, after several name changes Syd gave them the name with which they would eventually find eternal fame: Pink Floyd. During this same time, they began to play gigs in and around the London underground scene as Syd developed his highly idiosyncratic guitar technique and songwriting talent. (Let me note here that I will not be giving a potted Pink Floyd history in this review, nor does the book do this...it's been done before and isn't relevant seeing as Syd was in the band for less than three years). Eventually attracting management eager to guide them in recording some demo tapes, they were signed to EMI in 1966 and proceeded to release two seminal psychedelic singles ("Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play") and their epochal debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. However, with fame came an increased workload of promotion and touring and Syd was ill-equipped to handle this. Fairly early on the cracks began to appear and by the end of 1967 his behavior had become so erratic, unpredictable, and potentially career-damaging that the drastic measure of bringing in another of his childhood Cambridge friends, David Gilmour, made the band a five-piece until the end of January 1968 when Syd was jettisoned in a frankly cowardly manner (something the four remaining members of the band have acknowledged in subsequent years). What the book makes clear in a way I had never thought of before is that the decision was driven more by a rather ruthless desire to save their burgeoning young careers than an altruistic attempt to help Syd, although it should be noted that they did try to help him. Unfortunately, you can only help people who want to be helped and Syd, whether knowingly or as a victim of his illness, did not want to be helped.



After his expulsion from Pink Floyd, it still seemed as though Syd had a promising solo career in front of him. With his unique songwriting gifts and the anything-goes musical climate of the late 1960s, Syd could have been a more eccentric and electric/eclectic version of Ray Davies or Bob Dylan with his observational songs. Instead, he sank deeper into mental illness, exasperating numerous producers (including David Gilmour, Roger Waters, and Rick Wright, all three of whom helped to produce Syd's two solo albums) such that the tortured and torturous sessions for the albums The Madcap Laughs and Barrett would be the last music he would ever make. A few more aborted attempts at recording and performing new music (including a VERY short-lived band, Stars) resulted in nothing of substance; Syd was by this point almost impossibly difficult to work with. A final collapse led to one of the most famous myths about him that turned out to be true: he walked back to his mother's house in Cambridge and, barring a few stints living in London hotels throughout the 1970s, remained there for the rest of his life. There was the famous occasion an overweight and cleanshaven (including head and eyebrows) Syd showed up unannounced and unrecognized at a 1975 Pink Floyd recording session, as well as an encounter with a journalist friend who didn't recognize him when attempting to visit him at the hotel he was living at, but otherwise he never saw anyone from the old Cambridge scene ever again apart from his first love, Libby Gausden. Syd (reverting back to his true name of Roger and discarding any vestiges of his past life as a rock star) lived the remainder of his days in a mundane but relatively peaceful existence in Cambridge, disturbed only by his declining mental health and the obsessive door-stepping and stalking by "fans" that, frankly, was disgusting, cruel, and intrusive. His ill health (both physically and mentally) eventually claimed his life in 2006, but did nothing to dispel the interest in his life and career and, if anything, actually heightened it.



Chapman's book is more than just a telling of Syd's life and career; it's also a scholarly look into the influences that affected his work and the its attributes. As both an artist and musician, Syd left behind a very small but unique and rich body of work and Chapman sifts through it with an almost overzealous attention to detail in his analysis. In fact, oftentimes it seems he goes a bit overboard reading too much into some of Syd's more nonsense/throwaway lyrics. There are also several passages dedicated to miniature history lessons on many of the writers and artists who influenced Barrett, so much so that the book begins to feel like an esoteric biography on these figures before Chapman reels himself back to Syd's story. While these sections don't ruin the book, they do make it a slog in places and almost (notice that I said almost) make it feel as though they were included in order to pad the pagecount. I'll admit to being initially surprised that a book about someone who made only three albums in his entire career and then disappeared weighed in at over 400 pages. However, the book does excel at painting a rich and detailed portrait of the Cambridge arts scene of the 1960s, as well as the underground London scene of 1964-1967, drawing on new interviews with nearly all of the central figures who give a vivid picture of those heady times. The only figures who were not involved in these discussions were the four members of Pink Floyd, who though they were quoted extensively, did not contribute directly to Chapman's research. Chapman also uses many parts of the book to play Mythbuster for the various "Syd Stories" that have popped up over the decades, using a combination of dogged research and logical empirical thinking to determine that for every story like Syd walking back to Cambridge or physically abusing one of his girlfriends in a drug-induced stupor (both true) there are many that are false (Syd being locked in a cupboard during a bad acid trip or crushing Mandrax and Bryllcream in his hair onstage, among others). These are valuable pieces of truth to finally have, although I do think the author's bias shows a bit as he tries to dispel myths about Syd's hopelessness in the studio post-Pink Floyd when a thorough listen to the same albums he uses as proof shows that while Syd wasn't completely incapacitated, he also was clearly not in complete control of his faculties. Finally, there are many theories discussed as to the mental illness(es) Barrett suffered from and whether they were caused by LSD (not fully) or were exacerbated and irreversibly triggered by it (more plausible, in my opinion). Had Syd been born in 1976 instead of 1946, societal attitudes and the mental health profession would have been much better equipped for understanding and treating him successfully, but unfortunately in the 1960s there was a stigma attached to mental illness as well as a warped romance of madness, neither of which did Syd any favors at all.



A Very Irregular Head is the story of just that: Syd Barrett's strange, sad life and the aura around his decline. But it's also the story of a young man who, even if he hadn't been sick, was most likely not equipped to deal with the sudden pressures of stardom, fame, and the 1960s music industry. It also brings up the poignant question of whether Syd's life could have or would have been different had he stuck to art and become one of the famous young 1960s artists he appeared destined to be. While there's the danger that the pressures of the art world could have been equally as damaging, it can't be denied that the music industry was (and still is) far more unforgiving than the art world. However, had that alternate history happened it's more than likely that Pink Floyd as we know them would not exist. Since I've not read any other books on Syd Barrett, I can't say for sure whether this book is definitive (although I think it would be safe to assume it is based on the depth of the author's research), but Rob Chapman's book is a dense, information-packed, and scholarly look at a true creative genius who burned brightly for a short burst before tragically and slowly flaming out over a lifetime. It's absolutely a must-read read for any Barrett and Pink Floyd fan.
 
MY RATING: 8/10



4 comments:

  1. They probably have better treatments, medication and therapy for schizophrenics these days but whether or not he would have sought that out or complied with any of it is another story. Most don't. I have a cousin that has schizophrenia and his life is a mess--he just roams the street and looks like a street person. His communication skills are bad as well--mostly rambles about incoherent stuff. He was once bright though and went to Baylor to become a lawyer and I believe graduated from there with a four year degree. Rumor has it that someone tainted his drink with LSD, but I think that's a silly notion. Not every schizophrenic is an LSD causality, not everyone that has done LSD is totally bonkers, and schizophrenia generally manifest itself around this age too. The rumor persist though I think because people want to believe it or it's a cause and effect, rather thinking it's biological. But whatever.

    The sad thing about it is that there is less the government wishes to do with these people than more or less let them live (and die) on the street, maybe pay them a stipend for their problem thru some bureaucratic red tape program like Medicaid, and that's it. Granted many of them don't think they have a problem, and would probably prefer that.

    I can't blame the band for abandoning him really. That might appear callous, but what could you do for him unless you wanted to financially take care of him and provide for him like a young adolescent? Just starting out they would not have had that kind of dough, no less the time and effort. The decision really was either take care of him or quit the band. At least some of his albums sales hopefully paid for some of his care.

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    1. Your point is a good one, and one mentioned often with Syd...he didn't WANT the treatment. Roger Waters and David Gilmour had set him up with one of the best therapists in London of the late 1960s and Syd refused to go. It's an old saying, but it's true...you can only help those who want to be helped. Sorry to hear about your cousin, it sounds similar to what Syd had. Are you or your family able to help him in any ways that he'll accept?

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  2. My cousin at least still has an older sister that is still living that takes care of some of his needs like housing (living in a dump) and food (meals on wheels), and a few needs. Believe me, he'd be much better off institutionalized somewhere. She has her own problems with employment, etc. But at least she does care for him on some level otherwise he would be walking the streets. You would not believe the bureaucratic red tape, paperwork, involved with something like that. Plus it's always being reviewed, so you have to mess with it on a semi-regular basis--like schizophrenia is going away or gets back to normal (granted the person could die).

    As far as me, I've given him clothing, and can bring him food, when I can track him down. He appreciates cokes and sweets, but that's about it for me, unless I just give him money. The dynamics of it is I don't want to stick my neck out too far with that as his sister would want you to handle the whole affair if you would, and I'm (sad to say) not willing to do that. Also sadly something should have been done with him forty years ago while his parents were still living, although he was totally unwilling to be dealt with, so it would have been a horrible ordeal. But he was taken down to Rusk, which is where they have a big mental hospital for people. He hated it, hated taking his meds, fairly hateful and violent about it, so they took him out. They should not have. Sometimes as parents you really have to do the worse things to help the ones you love.

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    1. Wow, that's an incredibly sad story. Thanks for sharing. You're right, in cases like this, institutionalization would be the most humane and beneficial thing, but as is usual, government gets in the way and makes things more difficult than they should be. At this point, as you said, what more could be done?

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