Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Ghost of Syd Barrett

So, to continue my Pink Floyd odyssey. One of the most intriguing things about Pink Floyd is the fact that although Syd Barrett was only part of the band for such a short time his influence and, in a sense, his presence lingered long after he left.

In the early years after his departure it's not necessarily so obvious.  Their songs didn't openly reference him and they seemed to be carrying on smoothly with David Gilmour in his place.  However, although their music gradually became more structured and sophisticated, it still had Syd's fingerprints on it.  For instance, even though Syd was the only member whose use of hallucinogenics went beyond the odd experiment, they continued to write "psychedelic" songs after his departure.  You would swear Roger Waters' 'Cirrus Minor' and 'Julia Dream' or Rick Wright's 'Remember a Day' and 'Paintbox' were inspired by LSD, but neither Waters nor Wright used the stuff.  They were copying Syd.

Of course in these early years Syd was around a lot more.  Gilmour, Wright and Waters all worked with him on his solo albums.  He still lived in share houses in London and they must have bumped into each other socially from time to time.  Their relationship was changed but not yet severed.

However, as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s Syd became increasingly reclusive.  Although he was still in London his friends rarely saw him.  If they did, chances were he would give them a blank stare.  To all intents and purposes he disappeared from their lives and indeed from the world.  Their grief, or at least Roger Waters', is plain in the way he starts popping up in their lyrics.

The first, rather vague, reference is on the twin closing tracks on Dark Side of the Moon, 'Brain Damage/Eclipse'.  It's fairly generic - the madness that appears in the daily news segues into the specific madness of a person facing radical brain surgery before the moon (universal symbol of insanity) blocks out everything else.  It could be about anybody.

The success of Dark Side of the Moon scared the pants off the quartet.  Suddenly they were no longer a quirky underground band with a cult following, they were millionaire rock stars with profiles and expectations to match.  What do you do to follow up something like that?

Their initial idea was an album called Kitchen Sounds recorded entirely on kitchen implements.  The idea sounds absurd - actually, it is absurd - but not without precedent.  Atom Heart Mother, released in 1970, included a track called 'Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast', which consisted of a recording of the band's roadie Alan Styles making and eating his breakfast interwoven with meandering musical segments.  The result is curious rather than compelling.  It was also a peculiarly left-field, Syd kind of thing to do.

Of course Kitchen Sounds was also a very elaborate piece of procrastination.  After a few months of mucking about for no tangible result save a segment recorded on tuned wine glasses which can be heard faintly in the background of 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond', they decided to settle down and write some proper music.  It shouldn't surprise that after such a Syd-esque musical detour the result was Wish You Were Here, a full-scale tribute to Syd.  Wish You Were Here consists of four songs.  Two of them, 'Welcome to the Machine' and 'Have a Cigar', are angry, jagged pieces about the harshness and cynicism of the music industry and what it does to sensitive souls.  As the executive says in 'Have a Cigar', "we're so happy we can hardly count".

There was a strong feeling among his contemporaries that the commercial expectations of his managers and record company were a huge contributor to Syd's decline, and some of his moments of greatest public distress occurred when he was required (at least once physically forced) to mime 'See Emily Play' on Top of the Pops.  So as well as biting the hand that fed them, the remaining band members were hitting back on behalf of their fallen friend and, perhaps, deflecting their own guilt.

It's the other two songs, though, which define the album and which continue to be played to this day.  They are laments for Syd and expressions of regret at his decline.  'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' is a sprawling, multi-part instrumental punctured by three sung verses with lyrics written by Roger Waters.  Here's a shortened version.

Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun
Shine on you crazy diamond 
Now there's a look in your eyes like black holes in the sky 
Shine on you crazy diamond
You were caught on the cross fire of childhood and stardom, 
Blown on the steel breeze
Come on you target for faraway laughter,
Come on you stranger, you legend, you martyr, and shine

You reached for the secret too soon, you cried for the moon
Shine on you crazy diamond
Threatened by shadows at night and exposed in the light
Shine on you crazy diamond
Well you wore out your welcome with random precision,
Rode on the steel breeze
Come on you raver, you seer of visions,
Come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, and shine!

Nobody knows where you are, how near or how far
Shine on you crazy diamond
Pile on many more layers and I'll be joining you there
Shine on you crazy diamond
And we'll bask in the shadow of yesterday's triumph
Sail on the steel breeze
Come on you boy child, you winner and loser
Come on you miner for truth and delusion and shine!

Although the lyric is clumsy and ponderous - so different from Syd's own playful, anarchic songwriting  - this is a very emotionally complex song.  It combines grief and horror (the look in his eyes, the faraway laughter), a certain suppressed anger ("you wore out your welcome with random precision") and a deep longing and nostalgia for the days when he and Syd were like brothers.  Perhaps it was only like that in Waters' memory, or his imagination, but this sense of longing, grief and regret tinges not only the sung section but the entire piece.

There is a famous story which recounts how Syd turned up at the Abbey Road studio during the final mixing of 'Shine On'.  So in a sense he was there, but of course this was a different person to the one they had known.  It apparently took a while for the band members to recognise him, because in the time since they had seen him last he had gained a huge amount of weight and shaved off his hair and eyebrows.  He conversed with them in a scattered sort of way, even professing himself ready to add a guitar part, had tea with them in the canteen and eventually left without saying goodbye.

Much mystery and a certain sense of psychic mumbo jumbo surrounds his arrival out of the blue just as they were finishing a song about him, but I suspect the true story is that someone invited him.  Even in the 1970s random strangers couldn't just stroll into a mega rock band's recording session unannounced.

 'Wish You Were Here' charts a very similar emotional landscape, but in contrast to the elaborate symphony of 'Shine On' this is a simple acoustic ballad with a guitar part every beginner guitarist used to try and learn. Its lyric is even more cryptic.

Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change? And did you exchange
A walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?

How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We're just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, 
Year after year,
Running over the same old ground. 
What have we found?
The same old fears.
Wish you were here.

What's interesting about both these songs is that Waters doesn't simply mourn Syd's loss, he also identifies with him.  Sometimes he seems to envy him, wishing that he could have escaped as Syd did instead of soldiering on in this harsh world.  At other times he seems to see Syd's madness in himself, or to fear that Syd's fate could easily be his own.  "Pile on many more layers and I'll be joining you there."

This identification goes a lot further in The Wall, the album in which Waters exposes his own mental health issues for the world to see.  The childhood scenes in The Wall are almost exclusively based on Waters' own life, but as the story moves in to adulthood and 'Pink' becomes a rock star Waters' persona becomes mixed with Syd's.  'Nobody Home' is the closest example, heard here in the version that appeared on the film.

I've got a little black book with my poems in 
Got a bag with a toothbrush and a comb in 
When I'm a good dog they sometimes throw me the bone in 
I got elastic bands keepin' my shoes on 
Got those swollen hand blues 
I got thirteen channels of shit on the TV to choose from 
I've got electric light and I've got second sight 
I got amazing powers of observation 
And that is how I know, when I try to get through 
On the telephone to you, there'll be nobody home 

 I've got the obligatory Hendrix perm and the inevitable pinhole burns 
Now all down the front of my favorite satin shirt 
I've got nicotine stains on my fingers, I've got a silver spoon on a chain 
Got a grand piano to prop up my mortal remains 
I've got wild staring eyes and I've got a strong urge to fly, 
But I got nowhere to fly to 
Ooh, babe when I pick up the phone there is still nobody home 

 I've got a pair of Gohill boots and I got fading roots 

Some of this could be any member of Pink Floyd.  They all wore satin shirts and Gohill boots, and they all smoked, but there are plenty of telltale signs that this is Syd - the Hendrix perm, the black book of poems, the bag with toothbrush and comb he brought to the Wish You Were Here recording session, the wild staring eyes and the thirteen channels of shit on the TV create a picture of Syd stretching from his artistic youth to his eventual collapse.  It's so much better, and so much sadder, than the songs on Wish You Were Here because the laboured attempts at poetic imagery are replaced by a simple, powerful portrait built out of concrete images of a man in trouble.

If this were not enough, a little earlier in the album there is the chilling 'One of My Turns', which starts out as a rather pathetic song of dying love before suddenly exploding into manic rage accompanied by the sound of smashing glass.  Of course the whole album is driven by Waters' suppressed anger, but unpredictable violent rages were a feature of Syd's illness and a number of girlfriends were subjected to violence.

I suspect this, as much as anything, is why Waters was haunted by Syd's image for so long.  Of course he missed his friend and mourned his disappearance and replacement by someone who looked the same but wasn't.  Yet more than that he feared that Syd's fate could so easily be his own.  He felt himself teetering on the edge of that same madness, struggling to restrain the same rage, fighting the urge to withdraw into the same blank, featureless mental refuge.

The Wall seems to have exorcised the ghost.  Syd's image faded from Waters' music after that, replaced by more earthy, present day concerns.  But from then on the music was never quite as good.

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