Syd Barrett: a Very Irregular Head by Rob Chapman: review
Sam Taylor explores the strange, psychedlic life of Pink Floyd legend Syd Barrett, reviewing Rob Chapman’s intelligent new biography
In the autumn of 1971, during the last interview he ever gave, Roger “Syd” Barrett said of himself: “I don’t think I’m easy to talk about. I’ve got a very irregular head. And I’m not anything you think I am anyway.” This quotation not only provides Rob Chapman’s excellent biography with its title, but with one of its central themes: however much information and insight you bring to the story of Syd Barrett – and Chapman brings a great deal of both – he remains somehow unknowable.
Flowering briefly in the late Sixties, Barrett was a hugely idiosyncratic and original songwriter: not a genius on the scale of John Lennon or Brian Wilson, but at his peak, he distilled something whimsical, happy-sad and peculiarly English into a kind of essence of the times. He has also proved to be influential: you can hear elements of his music in everything from Bowie to Blur. But by the age of 25, when he gave that interview, Barrett’s glorious pop career was already over and his long, silent retirement had begun. This second period of his life would see his legend grow (out of all proportion to his slender oeuvre) even as the man himself severed all ties from his past. He burned his diaries; he cut off his long, curly locks; he dropped his nickname and became plain Roger again. The last time he saw his former Pink Floyd band mates, in 1975, they were recording a 26-minute song in his honour, but when he walked into the studio none of them even recognised him.
Once the most beautiful and photographed man in London, Barrett had become a pot-bellied skinhead with shaven eyebrows and an empty stare. Apparently someone asked him what he thought of Roger Waters’s tribute to him, Shine On You Crazy Diamond. “Sounds a bit old,” he replied.
Except perhaps he didn’t say that. Or perhaps it wasn’t that particular song that was being recorded when he walked into the studio. As Chapman points out, this would have been “extremely convenient for the legend”.
One of the best things about this book is the way its author refuses to accept the myths and rumours that surround Barrett’s story at face value. Every time one of the Syd legends is recounted – that he played a gig with a bottle of Brylcreem and crushed Mandrax pills in his hair; that he tried to flag down an aeroplane as if it were a taxi – Chapman investigates the story, examines the different versions, juggles dates and probabilities, and comes to the conclusion that such facts are really fictions.
This is, without doubt, the most serious and intelligent of the four Barrett biographies so far published. The first since his death in 2006, it is also the first that has the co-operation of his family. And Chapman is a fan, so it is done with genuine passion. Written in simple, unpretentious prose, it is particularly good at contextualisation: explaining the social and political roots of the London psychedelic scene; detailing Barrett’s musical and literary influences (Bo Diddley and The Wind in the Willows).
It is also good at peeling away images of glamour to the daily reality beneath: Pink Floyd actually spent much of the Summer of Love, for instance, being pelted with pint pots in places like Stowmarket and Rugby.
By the end of that summer, Barrett’s behaviour had become erratic, and by the following spring he had been dumped from the band. All of this happens in the blink of an eye, but the years that follow seem almost eventless. While Pink Floyd toured the world and sold millions of records, their former singer made two solo albums then just slowly disappeared.
In 1982, he walked from London back to his mother’s house in Cambridge. In the words of his sister Rosemary (who is the main witness to the final 30 years of his life), “He was a different person than the Roger that went to London. This person that came back was totally and utterly different and not really a very nice person. A very unhappy person, and a very damaged person.”
Clearly, something deeply traumatic happened to Syd Barrett at the height of his fame. Yet we never really discover what it was. Drugs played a part, as did a dislike of the hassles and superficiality of being a rock star. The many friends and colleagues that Chapman talks to give their opinions, but at times it feels as though the subject of their talk just vanishes amid their words. First he was sweet, then he became famous, then he went mad. But who was he? Oddly, it is only when Barrett’s life narrows down to the banal details of bicycle trips to Sainsbury’s and family Christmases and disastrous but persistent attempts at DIY that we get any sense of him as a real person. But the real person we get a sense of is Roger Barrett, not Syd.
This is not Chapman’s fault: the truth is that all hope of cracking the enigma that was Syd Barrett went up in smoke above his Cambridge garden, the day he burned his diaries. And as the man himself said, he had a very irregular head. And he wasn’t anything you think he was anyway.
* Sam Taylor’s novel The Island at the End of the World is out now in paperback