Syd passed the acid test with flying colors in 1968, when he sank into a Narcissus-pool from which he has yet to return. After showing up for a gig with his hair streaked with crushed Mandrax tablets, Syd was fired from the band that he had founded and was replaced by David Gilmour. Pink Floyd continue to explore Syd-ish lyrical themes of betrayed innocence, alienation and insanity and expand on diluted versions of the fractured, disorienting, musical structures that were Syd’s signature contribution to The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
In 1969 and 1970, Syd released two solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett. Subsequent releases like Opel mined the outtakes from those sessions, but there has been no new music from Syd in three decades. When asked by an English journalist to comment on Wouldn’t You Miss Me?, Syd remarked: “I don’t do that anymore”. This album contains one addition to Syd’s small oeuvre: a stereo recording, made in 1970, of “Bob Dylan Blues”, a sarcastic non-tribute to “Dylan, the king”.
As Pink Floyd went on to sell zillions of albums, Syd’s cult developed on a larger scale than those of other candy colored casualties of the 1960s, like the late Skip Spence (Moby Grape) and Arthur Lee, the acid-corroded mastermind of Love who, like Syd, retired into a life of erratic seclusion. Out of sympathy or self-interest or a mixture of both, Pink Floyd help keep Syd’s myth alive. “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” is the band’s most overt tribute to their lost founder, but other works like Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall also seem to return obsessively to Syd-related themes: the gifted, alienated madcap who escapes behind a wall of insanity.
Syd’s cult appeal may lie partly in his representation of everyone’s wasted potential. We all lose something to the dragon that ate Syd, but most of us don’t live lives so thoroughly diminished and overshadowed by the loss of youthful potential. Then there is the charisma of insanity. The extreme self-absorption of the insane is magnetic. Beyond deploring the cruelty of nineteenth century asylums charging admission to watch the lunatics, we might ask why people would pay to watch the spectacle of insanity in the first place. If buying a Syd Barrett CD is our electronic equivalent of paying to watch the crazies, what sort of vicarious experience do we hope to get for our $12.99? Whatever we see in Syd probably reveals more about our own delusions than about his. I like to imagine that I am an analyst.
Much of the material on Syd’s solo albums was written before his breakdown, but the developing signs of terminal estrangement are clearly present. Syd’s lyrics are a maze of winding elaborations, unpredictable shifts of direction and sudden dead ends, but the constant motifs are communication breakdown, isolation, fragility and a painfully exaggerated sensitivity to signs that don’t connect people, but only flash back confirmations of a profound and incurable isolation. “There’s no good trying to place your hand / Where I can’t see because I understand / That you’re different from me /Yes I can tell that you can’t be what you pretend”. This could be delusional, LSD-influenced paranoia or hyper-aware and exaggeratedly intense insight into the meaning of a gesture. Songs like “No Use Trying”, “Long Gone”, “Baby Lemonade” and “Octopus” reveal a tendency to fixate on and over-interpret the smallest, most transient signs, as the big picture, and the connectivity it suggests, disappears behind these fragmentary, hyper-magnified details: “Yes you’re rocking backwards and you’re rocking towards the red and yellow mane of a stallion horse”.
There is a hallucinatory beauty in some of Syd’s lyrics that can evoke Blake and Dickinson: “And I borrowed a page from a leopard’s cage / And I frowned at the evening sun’s blaze / Her head lifted high / To a light in the sky / The opening door of a face” (“Long Gone”). As with Dickinson, there is the sense that Syd’s music is not a bridge intended to connect artist and audience, but a monument that stands alone, glorying in its own strangeness, to be admired and wondered at, but never permitting its own incorporation into human society.
Becoming incomprehensible is a final retreat-from/revenge-on the world and a terrible, self-inflicted punishment. In “Baby Lemonade”, with its pitiful, pleading chorus, “Please, please, Baby Lemonade”, Syd’s loneliness is as palpable as its cause: “the clock they sent through the washing machine / come around—make it soon—so alone”. The invitation is tempting, stuffed as it is with strange, Dickinsonian hints connecting time, loneliness, machines and people, but the channels through which people and things reach one another are problematic. How can we ever get through to/be reached by someone who inhabits a realm where clocks are sent through washing machines?
At other times, Syd is capable of making quite mundane pleas for company and understanding. “Here I Go” is a jaunty, McCartney-ish, lonesome-to-loved tale of a guy, dumped by his girlfriend, who ends up happily married to her sister. The first girl rejects him because she doesn’t like his music. She says, rather cruelly, “a big band is much better than you”. The hero wakes up a little later and “remembers” a song, which he thinks will make the girl, “take my hand and forget that old band”. He goes to her house to play it, but her room is dark. Her sister, however, who is “kinda cute”, invites him in anyway and asks him to play the song for her. The song works so well that they are soon, “lying in bed, happily wed”. Music is the key to acceptance: “what a boon that tune”, the singer concludes.
This whimsical fantasy is most interesting because Syd works out in it, for once, the problems that seem so insoluble in “No Good Trying”, “Long Gone”, and “Baby Lemonade”. The song suggests that music can be a bridge between self and world, rather than a monument to artistic isolation. Songs attract people to the singer and inspire love. The same theme is expressed in James Joyce’s poem “Golden Hair”. This time the male narrator is drawn out of his solitude by a woman singing: “I’ve left my book I’ve left my room / For I heard you singing through the gloom / Singing and singing a merry air / Lean out of your window, Golden Hair”. Syd’s choice of this poem and the eerily beautiful setting he gives it underline the message implicit in “Here I Go”, that music was Syd’s one functioning connector to the world outside his mind.
Yet even the common thread that unites these two songs splits and unravels at a certain point. The surface theme of “Here I Go” is the desire to find completion in another, but the song’s over-controlled outcome implies underlying fears about love’s uncontrollable riskiness. The song is full of internal rhymes and this formal concern with symmetry and pairing is mirrored in the song’s rigidly “happy” ending: the couple is as firmly sealed in the marital bed as any couple in a fairy tale.
“Golden Hair”, on the other hand, is about the fear of losing one’s original self-sufficiency in love. The narrator of “Golden Hair” is first separated, by Golden Hair’s song, from the closed loop of his comfortable isolation, symbolized by his relationship with a book: “My book is closed I read no more / Watching the fire dance on the floor”. Fire, gold, dancing and music are ambiguous bridging images to the singing Golden Hair, images of love as spellbinding, transient, beautiful, costly, valuable and dangerous. The narrator next leaves the security of his room to enter the “gloom”. There he follows Golden Hair’s song, although his quest remains incomplete. Having abandoned the comfort and security of his independent life, he is left alone, exposed and in the dark, pleading to the mysterious singer to acknowledge him. The song gives no promise that Golden Hair will ever respond, and this painful indeterminacy is the song’s theme: love is risky business; abandon singleness at your peril.
In Syd’s insanity pleas, I hear two alternating voices: a castaway making music to attract company and a siren drawing us closer to the mirror of isolation.