This is an important month for admirers of the late Syd Barrett. The artist’s birthday falls on January 6, and his first solo album The Madcap Laughs was released January 3, 1970. These anniversaries occasion an opportunity to ponder what Barrett left in the very short slice of time that shattered musical conventions.
What Barrett accomplished on guitar is legendary in itself, taking the lowly Danelectro 59-DC and, with a Zippo lighter or a ball bearing for a slide, creating entirely surreal soundscapes scarcely resembling anything on the blues records he enjoyed as a youth. But it was Barrett’s lyrics that gave substance to his melodic adventures. As we might expect from a native Cantabrigian, Barrett’s verse was informed by sundry literary figures. One Russian fan site conjectures influences ranging from C.S. Lewis (“Flaming” and “Scarecrow”) to Tolkien (“The Gnome” and “Dark Globe”). Known references include James Joyce’s verse for “Golden Hair” and Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children on “Matilda Mother.” I would like to expand upon the latter, as Syd Barrett’s oeuvre seems to be one large cautionary tale, reflected both in his artistry and later, after his crack-up and expulsion from the Pink Floyd, in his personal life.
Cautionary tales are written or recited for young audiences. Syd Barrett’s music clearly displays infectiously playful, childlike elements. The Piper At the Gates of Dawn has been characterized as consisting of two main features: extended pieces that included free-from passages (“Interstellar Overdrive”) and shorter, whimsical pop songs.
Of the latter it has been suggested that these include certain dark elements. A good example is “Flaming.” The melody and the vocals pack the giddy spontaneity of adolescence — a sense of being swept up in infatuation for the first time. Listening to this song is to be transported back to age 13 or 14. The subject to whom the song is directed can neither see nor hear Barrett, but he can see and hear her. Using buttercups and dandelions to heighten a sense of euphoria, Barrett sings
Too much? I won’t touch you — but then I might.
Later we discover this conversation involves “travelling by telephone” — the preferred medium of exchange for adolescents for the past 60 years (the only difference today being wireless texting). But the notion of Barrett inserting himself as the agent of sensory overload, of shattering the playful possibilities with a very direct and perhaps unwelcome advance — this is the tension that drives “Flaming.”
Taking playfulness to an abruptly different level is the hallmark of “Bike.” After offering a female friend his bike (with a basket and bell that rings), his pet mouse Gerald, and a plate of gingerbread men — the stuff of dating ads — Barrett points to a “room full of musical tunes” and invites her to “go into the other room and make them work.”
This stuff is irresistibly sweet yet potentially dangerous at the same time. But even on the vaunted “Interstellar Overdrive,” an inviting opening riff lures the listener into a disorienting matrix of dissonance (as one intrepid YouTuber demonstrated, this track could have served the “Star Gate” sequence of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as well if not better than György Ligeti’s “Atmospheres”).
As it turns out, Barrett’s personal life took a real-life dark turn after he was left behind, out of practical necessity, by the rest of the Floyd. It was reported that he became physically abusive toward a couple of girlfriends. It is hard to square those stories with the man heard in the music, who never intimated aggression but hinted at more to an afternoon together than bike-riding, feeding the pet mouse, or lying on an eiderdown. Perhaps it was the effect of too much psychedelic drug use on an already fragile mental state. Regardless, Syd Barrett’s music remains unmatched in its ability to pique our curiosity — then throw us for a loop.