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.” Continue reading “The Cautionary Barrett”