Unfortunately or not, there won’t ever be a consensus regarding Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd’s one-time leader. He was, perhaps, an eccentric. Maybe a nutter. He was a songwriter – for a bit. But at this point, almost five years after his death, his legacy’s comprised nearly entirely of myth.
In his A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett, ex-Glaxo Babies singer Rob Chapman attempts to shuffle out the fallacious stories with some factual ones and set them aside a spate of interviews (though none with Pink Floyd members) and his own personal recollections. There’s a brief introduction with Graham Coxon, Blur’s guitarist, not amounting to much more than a cool idea. But the remainder of Irregular Head is pretty engrossing – all 400-pages of it.
Following a young Roger Barrett through school and his childhood, replete with his father’s early demise, the book’s author is able to weave a filmic narrative out of stories and other ephemera from the era. It becomes pretty clear early on, though, that Chapman is angling towards reconciling reality with Barrett’s legacy. Innumerable mentions are made of an incident during which the one time head-Floyd allegedly dolloped hair treatment and drugs on his pate prior to a performance at the UFO Club. Revisited countless times and related by as many different people, there’s no consensus regarding the actual events. Here, the truth winds up being whatever people decide to re-tell. And that, unfortunately, seems to be the trajectory of Barrett’s public biography.
After being jettisoned from the group he named, the latter period of Barrett’s life doesn’t get too rosey. Syd sightings were tabloid fodder during the early 1970s in Britain. And at every opportunity, a journo would show up at Barrett’s home – he eventually returned to Cambridge, where he was raised and lived with his mother – to snap a few clandestine photos, try to ask some questions, and head back to the big city.
Just prior to repairing to the family home, Barrett’s reported skirmishes with sanity find themselves ceaselessly documented in events ranging from holding up in a pricey hotel, living off royalties, and buying absurd numbers of guitars all the way to erratic sessions recording songs for his three post-Floyd solo albums. Even folks present at these events tend to conflagrate various meetings in singular occurences, sometimes borrowing from other people’s lives to flesh out a narrative. Chapman does an admirable job dispelling some of these rumors and tirelessly works towards the avoidance of painting Barrett as an acid casualty. Whether he was or not isn’t concluded here. But that doesn’t seem to be the point.
What’s unique about this particular volume is the extensive examination of Barrett’s life as a painter. Granted, it ended abruptly after the songwriter made music his career for all of a few years. But Chapman describes a version of Barrett which sounds like a catch-all for any and every sort of literature, art, and music. He was an AMM fan and a blues fan. Barrett liked fine-lit, abstract art, painted it and recoiled from it, burned his own work and lived in seclusion for the majority of his life.
A Very Irregular Head won’t be the last book on Barrett, but it’s probably going to be the most journalistic in scope and least bawdy. Part of that has to do with Chapman being an ardent fan. Part of that has to do with truth remaining at the heart of existence even as people, purposefully or not, work to obfuscate it on this dark globe.Visit: Rob Chapman | Da Capo Press
Purchase: Powell’s Books | Amazon