Big Big Train’s True Founder: Tom Bombadil

Since his first appearance in English literature, in 1954, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil has intrigued readers to no end.  Could he be an angelic vala gone native, an Adam without sin, or merely an enigma?

With the Bodleian’s new exhibit on J.R.R. Tolkien, some vital and compelling evidence has surfaced.  Vala gone native, Adam without sin, and enigma, Bombadil is also the founder of the greatest British progressive rock band of all time, Big Big Train.

Look closely at the Hildebrant Brothers’ depiction of Tom.  You, too, will be amazed.

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Photoshop by Brad Birzer (but, really, by Martin Teraud).

The evidence, of course, had always been there, but most refused to see it.  Here’s the most telling passage from The Fellowship of the Ring.

He then told them many remarkable stories, sometimes half as if speaking to himself, sometimes looking at them suddenly with a bright blue eye under his deep brows. Often his voice would turn to song, and he would get out of his chair and dance about. He told them tales of bees and flowers, the ways of trees, and the strange creatures of the Forest, about the evil things and good things, things friendly and things unfriendly, cruel things and kind things, and secrets hidden under brambles.

If this isn’t proof, nothing is.

The Cautionary Barrett

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 cautionaryvery 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”