Thursday, 9 September 2010

A Very Irregular Head

Just finished A Very Irregular Head by Rob Chapman, a biography of Syd Barrett lent to me by my father-in-law. Well worth reading, especially as he offers a revisionist Syd history, investigating a number of 'classic' stories that seem to have no basis in fact (eg the Brylcreem and Mandrax story) and delving into the literary influences on his distinctive lyrics. Chapman deals very sensitively with the 'lost years' when Barrett retreated totally from fame, living quietly in Cambridge, that is until idiots began ringing on his doorbell and following him around. It is very thorough in places, although at times I thought I was reading a collection of lit crit (it's always a problem when 'music' journalists concentrate on the words as they often lack the knowledge and vocabulary to deal with the music).

The influence of laptop guitarist Keith Rowe of AMM on Syd is given prominence - I saw AMM supporting Faust a few years back - together with the nonsense tradition of English verse and stories. Many names from the time or influential figures are given mini biographies but others are mentioned with the assumption that we know who they were - do many people today know who Alex Trocchi was?

It seems that almost nothing is known about the time that Syd spent at Chelsea Cloisters in the late 70s prior to walking back to Cambridge (the John Clare connection is interesting here, Iain Sinclair wrote about it in Edge of the Orison). Certain topics are almost totally ignored - I wanted to know more about the recording of Saucerful of Secrets and Iggy the girl who appears naked on the sleeve of The Madcap Laughs.

I'm sure I'm not alone in finding Sydworld a disturbing place to inhabit - 3 days of listening to his music was enough for me, wonderful though some of it is. I have his Pink Floyd stuff plus the box set that came out a few years ago containing his solo material - I love the fractured songs and the bizarre wordplay but after a while a darkness begins to descend on this listener as he hears the well gradually run dry. The total renunciation of fame and fortune (although David Gilmour made sure he received his considerable royalties) is an intriguing example; in the age of the internet it is becoming increasingly difficult to live a private, reclusive life and I admire those who do.

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