Saturday, 1 March 2014

Bike

Speaking of Syd Barrett, as I was, here's what I think is probably Syd's cleverest and most revealing song, and certainly one of his most popular - Bike.  It's the last song on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and it appears on virtually every Pink Floyd compilation you could lay your hands on.  Written at the latest in early 1967, it also sheds some very disturbing light on Barrett's state of mind well before any obvious symptoms of mental illness started to appear.


Perhaps the closest comparison to this song among Pink Floyd's contemporaries is The Beatles' Can't Buy Me Love, written mostly by Paul McCartney and recorded in 1964.


Pink Floyd and The Beatles weren't exactly friends but there was a lot more contact between them than you might imagine.  Both John Lennon and Paul McCartney attended early Floyd performances.  Yoko Ono was a regular at the UFO Club where Floyd cut their teeth, staging semi-improvised pieces of performance art in between musical sets.  Norman Smith, who produced The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, was a protege of Beatles' producer George Martin and worked as an engineer on early Beatles albums.  While Pink Floyd were working in Abbey Road's Studio 3 making Piper, The Beatles were next door in the more palatial Studio 2 recording Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.  While Smith was firmly pushing Pink Floyd away from psychedelia towards a more commercial sound, his mentor was assisting The Beatles to become more psychedelic.

Bike and Can't Buy Me Love share a similar theme, a disdain for worldly wealth and a willingness to give it away.  McCartney expresses this in highly conventional terms.  He can only think of one gift to offer and it is that most stereotypical of love tokens, a diamond ring.  He is also prepared to offer other gifts, but these are left unspecified.  The ring is a very external object, something you would go to a jeweller's and buy specifically for your love, the gift of a wealthy man which, by 1964, McCartney well and truly was.

McCartney's reason for scorning wealth is also highly conventional.  Money can't buy him love.  It may buy him favour and he is prepared to purchase this, but he is aware of higher values.  There is of course a further subtext because the diamond ring implies an offer of marriage.  It seems that McCartney is prepared to take this step, but he understands as a man besieged by gold diggers that it must be based on something more than the love of his riches.  In the end McCartney leaves me unconvinced.  His scorn for wealth, in the context of this object that means nothing to him and his conventional love-life, seems like a mere pose.

Can't Buy Me Love really doesn't bear much further analysis.  Its lyric is superficial, words to hang on the catchy tune that accompanies it.  Bike, on the other hand, is a remarkable piece of songwriting and Exhibit A in the explanation for why Barrett has been so idolised despite his career being over almost before it had begun.

For a start, this song is completely driven by its lyric.  McCartney, like most songwriters, shaped his words to fit into a strict, predetermined song structure.  Each verse has the same number of lines, of the same length, with rhyming words at the end.  Barrett cheerfully throws all this out of the window.  His lines and verses vary in length.  Rhymes, half-rhymes and alliterations appear in odd places. The words run and tumble over each other like a slightly manic conversation.  This means that musically each verse has to be slightly different and it gives the song an improvisational quality that even John Lennon's most scatological songs never attained.  Rather than use the music to mask this unevenness, he further emphasises it with abrupt changes in tempo and dynamics.

Secondly, Syd's scorn for possessions is entirely convincing.  It is plain that he has made no effort to acquire objects of value.  Only two of the things on offer even belong to him (the bike is borrowed, the mouse appears to belong to himself, even the gingerbread men are of uncertain ownership), and everything on offer is meagre and shabby.  Yet his generosity is so much greater than McCartney's, just as the poor widow who gave two pennies gave a greater gift than the rich man who gave a large sum.  The disdain with which he offers them is even more convincing.  "I'll give you anything, everything if you want things" implies that wanting things seems odd to him.

This is a lyric that invites you to dig deeper.  Each of the objects on offer tells you something about the singer.  The bike, as well as being borrowed, places him as a child or at least as child-like.  He has not yet graduated to owning a car, let alone a rock star limousine.  He has not yet travelled far from home, and this song is not so far from the nursery rhymes which inspire much of Syd's songwriting.  Syd did eventually own cars, but he continued to ride a bike until the end of his life.

A cloak is a symbol of nobility and status but in keeping with the child-like scene this one appears to be a dress-up.  It also seems to be a little tattered, although the fact that the tear is up the front may be a joke at the listeners' expense given that a cloak does not have a front.  In any case, Syd does not claim any special status for himself.  As his fame grew he became less and less comfortable with it.  He was quite happy to give it away.

The mouse in this tale is almost a person rather than a thing.  Certainly he has a name, Gerald, and the singer knows him rather than owning him.  Yet he is a sad specimen.  He is ageing (we know mice don't live long) and he is homeless, almost unheard of for a mouse which can nest wherever he can find space. Gerald is like Syd, renting rooms in a series of chaotic share houses and spending half his life on the road staying in cheap hotels.

The gingerbread men, of course, remind us of the popular children's tale in which the gingerbread man leaps off the plate and leads his pursuers a merry chase across the countryside, taunting them as he goes - "run, run as fast as you can, you can't catch me I'm the gingerbread man".  Syd has not one, but a whole clan of them and it is not clear where they are.  Are they on the dish, or are they all around the room?  Like Gerald, they have a life of their own.  Unlike Gerald, who seems harmless and a little forlorn, these guys could get up to some serious mischief.

Finally, we have the "room of musical tunes".  This verse is, on one level, the musician's equivalent of asking the young woman upstairs to see his etchings.  Yet I also suspect that the "room" is his head, in which the tunes reside.  They are musical only in the broadest sense of the term, as he tells us - "some chime, some ching, most of them are clockwork".  Indeed!  As the couple walk down the hall and open the door you hear not a tune, or even a set of tunes, but a cacophony of apparently random sounds.  This is the chaotic noise which inhabits Syd's head and which his friend or lover is being asked to share.

Paul McCartney didn't care much for money because he valued love more.  On the other hand, it's not clear why Syd doesn't care for possessions.  He just doesn't.  Although Bike could be heard as a love song, love is not actually mentioned.  Instead there is a kind of narcissism.  "You're the kind of girl who fits in with my world".  Given the world Syd describes in the verses this is not much of a compliment.  It is almost a brush-off.  This is a meagre, shabby, disjointed world, narcissistic in a charming, child-like way.  If you have come to this, perhaps you had better take a close look at your life.

Only a few of Syd's songs rise to this height.  I wish there had been more.

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