Doing the mind guerilla
Rob Chapman, Mojo magazine, May 2001
Three decades ago, the
Floyd's founder 'broke his brain'.
But echoes of the madcap's playful psyche are still ringing down the years.
Wouldn't you miss me? The Best of Syd Barrett.
For newcomers, 22-track taster of the Floyd founder's twilight muse, drawn from The Madcap Laughs, Barrett, and Opel, plus bonus track. For everyone else, 22 tracks you've already got plus the legendary, previously unreleased, Bob Dylans Blues.
First things first. It's great. The long-lost Bob Dylan Blues, I mean. Lampooning the conformity of the folk-protest movement as much as it lampoons its figurehead, and boasting lines like "I make a lot of dough/But I deserve it though", Bob Dylan Blues is a more overtly sardonic and satirical cut than anything else in the slender Barrett canon. But then, Syd always liked a joke. Never let if be forgotten that this is the man whose last act of atristic sabotage upon Pink Floyd was to get them to learn a song called Have You Got It Yet? which he kept changing each time he played it - a moment which Roger Waters quite rightly described as "mad genius". And if Syd's sister Rosemary is to be believed, even this startling 16 stone manifestation at the Wish You Were Here sessions was an elaborate madcap jape.
It's the way he tells them, I guess. Barrett's lyrics frequently revealed a humour as dark and elliptical as, well, Dylan's. The Dylan of Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues, Bob Dylan's 115th Dream, Tarantula, Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window, or the funniest song that Mr Zimmerman ever wrote, Clothes Line, from The Basement Tapes - a deadpan skit on Bobbie Gentry's Ode to Billie Joe, where nothing whatsoever happens for three and a half minutes - is hilarious. The comparison isn't as tenuous as it sounds. Although they were a Grand Canyon apart circumstantially, Dylan and Barrett briefly shared the same chemically charged momentum, tousled persona, penchant for the Symbolists, semi-detached intonation and immaculate sense of cool, not to mention the same reluctance to play the fame game. One broke his neck. The other broke his brain.
Although recorded in March 1970, the sleevenotes suggets that Bob Dylan Blues was written shortly after Barrett and Dave Gilmour saw Dylan live in 1963. The fact that it takes its melodic cue from Donovan's Catch The Wind (another sly Syd joke?) while its vocal delivery and title-refrain echo A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall would suggest that it was penned a couple of years later. Speculation aside, it's a remarkable addition to the canon. Unfortunately, the Barrett legacy has been so effectively hung out to dry by those who revel in the currency of casualty that it's sometimes hard to glimpse the man behind the limp.limbed acid mannequin. Why attempt to pin down the freefloating maelstrom of lyrical energy that possesses songs like Octopus or Wolfpack when you can add yet another mad Syd story to the myth?
The fact is that Syd was still in reasonably good shape when he made his solo LPs, probably as good as Peter Green was in when he made The End Of The Game during the same period. As with other eggshell psyches, the grim descent came later. Although Madcap and Barrett reveal an artist skirting the perimeters of disintegration, each album contains enough tantalising glimpses of the genius that was lost to us to make them heart-renderlingly poignant to listen to even after all these years. Roger Waters summed up Syd's solo output as well as anyone in 1987 when he said, "It's the humanity of it all that's so impressive, It's about deeply-held values and beliefs." Like Lennon's first two solo albums, they have a stark sense of unravelling about them. The trouble is, Syd couldn't stop.
Forgive me a minor quibble about this collection's track selection, but for the die-hard Barrett fans (is there any other kind?) who are going to have to pay 14 quid for one track, a few more unreleased items wouldn't have gone amiss. There's a breathtaking version of Dark Globe still languishing in the vaults, complete with Syd's beautiful high-register harmonies. Given that this collection lifts a line from the Madcap song for its title, it might have been a nice bonus. As the instrumental version of Golden hair is included along with its vocal counterpart, it would have been nice for the sake of thematic continuity to have found room for the spellbinding instrumental of Late Night which highlights Syd's gossamer-touch slide guitar.
Nowadays Syds lives quietly, paints prolifically, and listens to classical music. One hopes that he finds the sense of permanence and serenity in those forms that was so denied to him in his storm-tossed youth.
And to all you eager young pups who keep on knocking at his door in Cambridge, leave him alone. Buy this collection instead and keep the man in paint brushes.
Oh, and the next time that Messrs Gilmour, Wright, Mason and Waters happen to be clearing out their cupboards, can we have the great lost Floyd sessions that yielded Scream Thy Last Scream and Vegetable Man? A man could wear out his bootlegs waiting, you know.