THE HALF-LIFE OF SYD BARRETT,
PINK FLOYD'S LOST GENIUS -
Was Syd Barrett a genius? Well, the terms need to be defined, really, but if someone has Aspergers exasperated by copious drug use and then has a nervous breakdown, is it a recipe for genius? Is it a recipe for Syd Barrett?
According to Tim Willis, author of Madcap - The Half-Life Of Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd's Lost Genius, the answer is a most definite 'Yes', Syd Barrett was a bona fide genius and he's at pains to prove it. He compares him to the poet Rimbaud, that other boy genius who blazed so brightly whilst young before turning his back on his art to become a gun runner in Ethiopia. The comparison is fair enough but sometimes Willis overdoes it and comes across as if he's clutching at straws in his attempt to present Barrett as the instigator of various cultural shifts.
According to Willis, Barrett was using cut-out, blackmail-type lettering years before Jamie Reid came along and used it for the Sex Pistols' album cover. Apparently, Jamie Reid and Malcolm McLaren tried to contact Barrett to ask him to produce that same album. Apparently, Ziggy Stardust was based on Barrett as in "He came on so loaded, man. Well hung and snow white tan". Apparently, Barrett was using the cut-up method of writing (in a booklet he produced called Fart Enjoy), years before William Burroughs started using it. Apparently, it was even Barrett himself who first planted the seed of the idea of him being replaced by David Gilmour ages before Pink Floyd had even formed.
There's no question over the genius of Barrett's songs and music, whether it's his nursery-rhyme freak-outs lasting 40 minutes each or his English psychedelic vignettes. That's never been contested. No, it's Barrett's mental health that has been the subject of a debate that still to this day is ongoing. Is Barrett viewed as a genius because of his mental health problems? Were it not for his mental health problems would he still be as canonised as he is?
I don't know about anyone else but I actually want my pop stars to be unhinged. I want them to be of interest, to have something to say for themselves if not through their music then through their personalities. If they can do it through both then all the better but I want my pop stars to be fat and bloated Elvis Presley style, shooting at the television with a golden pistol whilst overdosing on qualludes. I want them locked in permanent childhood Michael Jackson style, riding their own private rollercoaster at midnight and having sex with their pet monkey. I want them fading away before our very eyes a la Karen Carpenter. I want them in full-blown fucked-up mode a la Sid Vicious; heroin tracks down their arms, on stage with a bloody nose and 'gimme-a-fix' carved into their chest. I want them blown away into oblivion by massive consumption of hallucinogenics a la Syd Barrett. And if the myth doesn't match the truth, I want the myth. And when it comes to Syd Barrett, there are certainly a lot of myths.
"Where are you going, Syd?" a friend calls out to him after seeing Syd striding down Oxford Street. "Far further than you could possibly imagine," comes the reply. Syd's on an epic trip, is the implied meaning. Trip, of course, being of the LSD kind.
On another occasion, Syd is spotted by some friends standing on the kerb of a road in Cambridge. "What are you up to, Syd?" he's asked. "Waiting for a lift," he replies. "Well, you've got one. Hop in." he's told. They all then go to a nearby pub where Syd doesn't say another word.
Syd visits a King's Road shop, tries on three pairs of trousers in different sizes, then buys the lot.
Syd's in a studio with Robert Wyatt during the recording of Madcap and he's asked what key he's in? "Yeah!" comes Barrett's reply. Songs in the key of Yeah!
Roger Waters takes Barrett to visit psychiatrist RD Laing but when they get there, Barrett refuses to get out the car. "What can you do?" asks Waters. Barrett and RD Laing. Can you imagine?
Photographer Mick Rock visits Barrett at his Earl's Court flat to take some pictures for the Madcap album sleeve and finds him there with a naked Eskimo. He's painted the dusty, unprimed floorboards alternatively blue and orange - literally painting himself into a corner.
Barrett is hammering from inside his lavatory, "Get me out! Get me out!" It's explained to him through the door that he would have to release the catch. An hour later Syd works it out and emerges sweating and trembling like he'd had a fit. Or an acid flashback, even.
For all this, the question still remains: Was Syd Barrett a genius? Well, if someone has Aspergers exasperated by copious drug use and then has a nervous breakdown, is that a recipe for genius? Is it a recipe for Syd Barrett?