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Tina Jackson
Tina Jackson

Syd Barrett
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Madcap
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Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head, by Rob Chapman

Tina Jackson

Syd Barrett’s parting shots, interview-wise, would have been perfect lines from a nonsense rhyme if they hadn’t, in retrospect, been so sad. ‘I’m full of dust and guitars,’ he said. ‘I’ve got a very irregular head. I’m not anything you think I am, anyway.’         

          The subject of Rob Chapman’s painstaking - nay, loving - biography, is a man whose legend looms larger than his actual life. The rag-haired beauty who was the focal point of early Pink Floyd, Barrett was the crown prince of pastoral psychedelia, the beautiful dandy whose tunes and lyrics rendered a tilted arcadia teetering between the gently odd and the nightmarishly alarming. By 1972, however, it was game over: the pin-up boy of London’s beautiful people was, depending on who was telling it, either a broken, burned-out human chemistry set, or suffering from full-blown schizophrenia. He went home to Cambridge, where he lived in the basement of his mother’s house and barely communicated with another human being until his death at 60 in 2006.

          As Chapman’s excellent, exhaustive account of Barrett’s life - or at least, what is known about Barrett’s life - makes clear, telling tales is key, not just to Barrett’s work, but to what has become of his own life: the scraps proliferating around Crazy Syd have gained the status of myths. Who cares if any of these are true? – Syd locked his girlfriend in a room for days and fed her water biscuits under the door! His acid evangelist mates put psychedelics in his tea and locked him in a wardrobe when he was having a bad trip! He smeared his hair with Mandrax and Brylcream and stood immobile on stage as the mess melted under the lights!

          In the telling, these tales have taken on a life of their own, and the tellers want them to be true, regardless of the patient research on Chapman’s part. He valiantly attempts to disprove them and redeem his enigmatic subject from the sensationalism filling the blank left by the man’s own silence. But the tales, in the way of these things, have taken on a life of their own.

          Chapman is particularly interesting and informative on Barrett’s literary influences: Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Hilaire Belloc, and Kenneth Grahame, the author of Wind In The Willows and the unknowing contributor of the title of the first Pink Floyd album: Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. Each one is the creator of enchanting, strange, self-contained worlds with their own internal logic; worlds of soft-focus beauty and unselfconscious oddity; worlds of wordplay and nonsense. Worlds, it would seem, like the one Syd Barrett inhabited. Tantalising worlds that must have a bearing on his Pink Floyd song Matilda Mother, where a child at bedtime wants to know what happened after the end of the story: ‘Oh, mother, tell me more.’

          As there isn’t much of Syd’s life to tell after his breakdown and retreat to Cambridge, the stories beckon, and demand to be re-read: Nick Kent’s seminal piece of Syd-mythologising, The Cracked Ballad Of Syd Barrett; Tim Willis’s vivid evocation of a burned-moth existence in Madcap: The Half-Life Of Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd’s Lost Genius. Syd’s two solo albums beckon too: The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, where the fragile, dislocated and sometimes poignantly beautiful scraps of songs defy any attempt to impose an orderly, coherent narrative.

          Perhaps, though, Chapman and Barrett’s other biographers might protest, it’s best to understand Barrett’s life in terms he might have understood: as a nonsense rhyme. The man with an irregular head. The man, to borrow a lyric from the often equally cryptic Mark E Smith, whose head expanded.


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