Friday, December 13, 2019

Acid Casualty - Syd Barrett - Part 1

Some 51 years ago The Pink Floyd recorded their first single, "Arnold Layne," a psychedelic bauble written by the not quite [yet] madcap Syd Barrett about a transvestite who steals ladies' underwater off backyard clotheslines. Radio London banned the track, but "Arnold Layne" made the UK top 20. In March 1967, the band recorded a follow-up, the sparklingly sinister "See Emily Play," one of the great tracks in British psychedelia, a song that I didn't discover until the David Bowie cover LP Pinups. It went top 10 and Pink Floyd (sans definite article) would soon lose Barrett, whose drug use and increasingly distracted behavior got him kicked out of the band by early '68; Barrett's behavior is ofttimes described as that of an "Acid Casualty." Syd recorded two solo efforts, moved back in with his mum, and took to gardening, while his ghoulish presence imbued his former band's greatest works, Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. He died of cancer in 2006.

Put like that, Syd's story is really quite tepid. I've tried to decode and understand the life of the elusive enigma that was Syd for a very long time. While the band ousted Barrett, part of me thinks that he wanted exactly that; Syd was too much the genius, and no one knows exactly how much acid he took and how frequently he tripped, the dosage back then severe and pure. Couple this with his schizophrenia and bam! Back in the 60s, acid was everywhere and so many voyagers ignited their pineal glands in amazement, taking too much (the heroic dose), too frequently, and Syd was the first in line. (I'm reminded of high school in the 70s. The acid didn't flow as easily by then, but I remember a kid on the bus in the morning who had taken acid 13 days in a row. I was in awe of him. Through my college years and my minimal experiences with LSD, I can say for a fact that I could only do it back then because I had the brash bravery of my youth – I couldn't do it anymore and quite frankly I'm scared to.)

My theory rests on the fact that Syd didn't like the limelight, and that, like so many artists, his art, not his success as an artist, was key in his synesthetic-psyche. Syd was a gallant soul, and while he may have "reached for the secret too soon" and, you know, "cried for the moon," maybe he just wanted to be left alone.

It's a coincidence that AM has taken this route as a mini-history of progressive rock and that I have started watching Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams. The 2nd episode is amazing, by the way, but episode four (the least amazing I’ve seen so far, but still intriguing), begins with Steve Buschemi listening to a cover version of Barrett's "Octopus." And so, in the Pink Floyd spirit that follows along this prog history, I've taken up the task of looking further into Barrett, not as an acid casualty, but as a reclusive artist. What follows is far from comprehensive and merely a smattering of research that reflects Syd's art and artistry.

In the graphic above, Syd probably messed up the water heater at his childhood home and wrote, "Mum was very cross. She hit me. I cried." There's artistry  right there, and in it, there is little question that Syd Barrett was one of the "umma" (the brotherhood of prophets - see Herbert's "Dune") and "just mad enough to be holy." Barrett's madness was not quite a sudden explosion, however, but rather a gradual implosion, the clues to which he articulated in his music long before his behavior signaled distress. Syd's songs contained warnings from the beginning: he dealt with instability and the primal need for comfort via authority's fairytales ("Matilda Mother"), the desire for control of a situation and the outsider/observer role ("Flaming"), while even "Jugband Blues" (on Floyd's Saucerful Of Secrets) spelled out inner conflicts. By the time of The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, Syd's songs clearly revealed raw spots in his psyche amid the poetically jumbled voodoo of his writing. 

What Syd created in sound and imagery was brand new; no one had yet discovered Hendrix and the Beatles were just recording Sgt. Pepper (at the same time and in the same studios) as Pink Floyd were cutting Piper. Barrett's music was as experimental as you could get without crossing over entirely into freeform jazz; there simply were no other bands extending the boundaries of rock beyond the basic 4/4 sex-and-love themes. Funny what happens simultaneously - Pepper, Velvet Underground and Nico, King Crimson, Cream - squint a little, drink the Kool-Aid and maybe Syd is the catalyst for all of it. Syd certainly listened to American jazz, blues, jug band music and rock, as did most young British rock 'n' rollers of the time. He used to cite Bo Diddley as his major influence, yet each of these is no more than alluded to in his music, which contains every style of guitar playing imaginable: funky rhythm churns up speeding riffs that distort into jazzy improvisational blues. At times an Eastern influence surfaces, blending vocal chants, jangling guitar and devotional hum in tunes like "Matilda Mother" and the lovely I Ching-inspired "Chapter 24."

His trademark (and Achilles heel) was sudden surprise: trance-like riffs would slide abruptly into intense, slightly offbeat strumming ("Astronomy Domine"), choppy urgency gives way to powerful, frightening peaks ("Interstellar Overdrive"), harmless lyrics skitter over a fierce undertow of evil-sounding feedback and menacing wah-wah ("Lucifer Sam"). Stylized extremes made Barrett's guitar the focus of Floyd's early music; his instrumental mannerisms dominated each song even when Syd merely played chords. Barrett's rhythms were usually unpredictable; one never knew what process in Syd's brain dictated when to speed up or slow down the pace, when to sweeten or sour the sound, and when to wrench the tempo totally out of joint, shifting gears to turn rhythms inside-out. As a result, Barrett's playing was variously described by critics as "clumsy and anarchic," "adventurous and distinctive," "idiosyncratic," "revolutionary" or "brilliant and painful."

Syd's influence on Pink Floyd continued to manifest itself long after he left the band. Carrying on without him was difficult at first since the public and the label obviously felt that Syd was all the band had, which led theoretically to the band's decision to concentrate on the filmscores.

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