Daft Globe: Syd Barrett and Dark Whimsy

(I’ve been vaguely attempting to push on with my next post about Leonora Carrington, which focuses on Mexico City, but in fact have been obsessing about Syd Barrett instead. Somehow, not only are these two subjects related, but Barrett seems particularly appropriate to the betweenness of this time of year.)

The Daft Days, or that period between Christmas and the New Year, always makes me think of Robert Fergusson’s poem with its glimpses of a Scottish sensibility beyond Calvinism if not beyond Zen. That sensibility, which we like to think expresses itself through a certain degree of drunken exuberance, putting the loup back into Lupercalia, as it were, might, I sometimes fantasise, be a corridor to something beyond the Dionysian excesses of Hogmanay and the Swally, leading us back to that condition Gregory Smith also fantasised about, where we can see the absolute propriety of the gargoyle kneeling by the angel:
For nought can cheer the heart sae weel

As can a canty Highland reel;

It even vivifies the heel

To skip and dance:

Lifeless is he wha canna feel

Its influence.

And thou, great god of Aqua Vitae!

Wha sways the empire of this city,

When fou we’re sometimes capernoity,

Be thou prepar’d

To hedge us frae that black banditti,

The City Guard.

The daftness manifests itself even in the sober as a liberation from the exactness of Chronos time (remember how Scrooge experiences three one o’clocks in the same night?), and a return to Kairos reckoning – we spend them not quite as aware of the days of the week as usual, occasionally trying to match calendar number to Norse name. We are, in short, a little lost in the Wood of Reckoning, where hog mania may well be rife.

This winter I have found myself returning to the music and lyrics of Syd Barrett – perhaps as a consequence of spending my time thinking about Leonora Carrington: he, together with the likes of Milligan, Lear, Carroll, and Richard Dadd, is emblematic of the door beyond that comforting notion of British whimsy, which leads into exactly that problematic wood, which on the one hand is only a hundred acres across, but on the other is the haunt of Robin Goodfellow, renowned spiker of our dreams.

In Barrett’s lyrics we find the usual distinctions between things recalibrated through the spectrum of psychedelia – the voices in his songs are terminally and sometimes amusingly disengaged, as in ‘Bike’:

I’ve got a cloak it’s a bit of a joke.

There’s a tear up the front. It’s red and black.

I’ve had it for months.

If you think it could look good, then I guess it should.

Sometimes the disengagement indicates a more absolute stage of withdrawal, as at the beginning of ‘Jugband Blues’: ‘And I’m wondering who could be writing this song’. Or, as in ‘Octopus’, he finds complete opposites sitting cheek by jowl with each other in the same Wild Wood, but is as it were acutely indifferent to the ambivalence he hints at

Isn’t it good to be lost in the wood

Isn’t it bad so quiet there, in the wood

Meant even less to me than I thought

Or he presents us with unanswerable conundrums where we imagined the dictionary terms would suffice, as in the end to ‘Jugband Blues’:

And what exactly is a dream?

And what exactly is a joke?

His behaviour towards and after the end of his tenure as leader of Pink Floyd is clearly that of a highly disturbed and, by all accounts, extremely frightened man, and I’m trying to shy away here from glamourising his distress and inability to function as we would all wish to be able to function. Nonetheless, in some of the creative procedures he appears to have intended, there is perhaps a glimpse beyond the ordinary dichotomy of diagnosis – healthy/sick, sane/insane – into something that remains extraordinary.

Principle among these is very much the action of leading, as described by other members of the band, in rehearsal, but then evident in recording:

‘My main memory [of the five piece line-up] is the “Have You Got It Yet” story. The four of us standing in a circle around Syd, and him going through this new song: [sings] “Have you got it yet, duh-duh … Have you got it yet, duh-duh.” We’d say, “Oh, OK. We’ll try to play it now.” And each time it got to those words, it would change again. I actually thought there was something rather brilliant about it, some clever kind of comedy. But eventually I said, “Oh, I’ve got it now”, and put my guitar down and walked away.’

It’s certainly a joke, whatever that is, though it might be one forced upon the perpetrator by expedience, rather than some Heraclitean insight into the utter singularity of the present moment. As the Humble Pie drummer Jeff Shirley said of the sessions for ‘The Madcap Laughs’, ‘He would never play the same tune twice’, a statement which seems to possess a fine ambiguity of its own as to whether he wouldn’t or couldn’t. However, Malcolm Jones’s account of recording with Barrett goes out of its way to indicate he was able to build up numerous complementary takes of songs.

This leaves the possibility of some degree of intentionality, and therefore, perhaps, allows us to speculate on what the effect of such uncertainty might be.

The unsettling effect of listening to Barrett’s solo recordings is, of course, only partly Barrett’s doing. The production decisions of his ex-band members, Gilmour and Waters, certainly impinged on their public reception, and, in Gilmour’s case at least, the stated motivation shows an ambivalence which in its abruptness recalls that lyrical volte face in ‘Octopus’: ‘Perhaps we were trying to show what Syd was really like. But perhaps we were trying to punish him.’

This partly explains the decision to include easily edited out false starts, or the continued refusal to release tracks recorded for the second Floyd album which would enable a more general public to understand the transition both Barrett and the band were undergoing.

But there is also the curious effect, which we might think of as a species of the Daftness, that Barrett’s recording mode has on our sense of time. Stewart Mason’s review on Allmusic of the opening track off ‘The Madcap Laughs’ makes this point: ‘”Terrapin” seems to go on three times as long as its five-minute length, creating a hypnotic effect through Barrett’s simple, repetitive guitar figure and stream of consciousness lyrics.’

This is in part due to how the musicians had to work. As Jones says, ‘It was a case of following him, not playing with him. They were seeing and then playing so they were always a note behind.’

Fluctuating time signatures placed his fellow musicians very much in the position of following a leader, however erratic they thought him, in a manner that recalls the methods of another ‘outsider’ working in a similar way at this time, Captain Beefheart. Beefheart, by trapping his musicians in a sensory-deprived environment and controlling every aspect of their lives, including diet, eventually got them to score and perform ‘Trout Mask Replica’.

The surreal-seeming opacity of Barrett’s lyrics would also seem to find some echoes in Beefheart’s – both artists are mixing acid with the blues and as a result remixing the template of rock music, but Barrett, like Carrington, has access to the peculiarly British strains of whimsy stretching back through Carroll and Lear to the strange woods of Shakespeare’s MacBeth or Midsummer Night’s Dream.

His refusal to answer musical questions in a straightforward manner can also be considered as a type of strategy. Thus Robert Wyatt’s request as to which key they were in received a ‘yeah’ in response, while on another occasion he directs them as follows, ‘Perhaps we could make the middle darker and maybe the end a bit middle afternoonish. At the moment it’s too windy and icy.’

This too would find echoes in later artists overtly attempting to change the premisses by which musicians play – Eno’s Oblique Strategies, Mark E. Smith’s onstage fiddling with his band’s amps, Billy Mackenzie’s absurd instructions to his producers (‘Can you make that sound like an Egyptian pyramid?’) or, most recently, David Bowie’s directions during the making of Darkstar (‘David could be very conceptual. When giving us feedback, it was never as black and white as, “I want this to sound like Motown, 1967.”‘)

We can speculate that the egos of the musicians Barrett was working with might have meant there was too much resistance to the only way he was still able to work. And ultimately, of course, Barrett retreated from that adult male-dominated world into the safer environment of his family home, where his mother and sister could to a degree shield him from the ‘black banditti’. But the point is, precisely, that we cannot know.

There is something in his story which deconstructs the clear categories we require to decide such matters – we do not know what exactly a dream is, and therefore we cannot tell what exactly is a joke. That is why, I suppose, he speaks particularly to us at the junctures between things, when we pass from one condition into another, be that our status or age or just the turning of the year.

When Keats asked ‘Do I wake or sleep?’ we suspect him ever so slightly of rhetoric. When Chuang Tzu speculates as to whether he is a man dreaming he is a butterfly or the exact opposite, we suspect him of philosophy. When Syd Barrett asks ‘What exactly is a dream?/What exactly is a joke?’ while we may fear he no longer knows the answer, we can also acknowledge that we too, from time to time, share in his uncertainty, and, perhaps, admit to ourselves that we do not know who can be writing this song.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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