Saturday, December 23, 2006

What becomes a legend most?

Pink Floyd (Psychedelia)
iPod Choice: Jugband Blues (1968)

Roger ‘Syd’ Barrett, 1946 - 2006

Sad news for rock fans this year was the passing of Roger ‘Syd’ Barrett, founding member and inspiration behind Pink Floyd. His rise and fall are traceable through the evolution of Pink Floyd’s classic early singles (all Barrett originals), the psychedelic masterpiece Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, and two patchily brilliant solo LPs.

A gifted composer and guitarist, Barrett exerted a wizardlike attraction on admirers. Said to be borderline autistic or aspergic, he was also one of the rare individuals who have experienced synaesthesia - an apparent ability to see sounds and hear colours - which helped effect a singular musical vision.

Possessing a peculiarly English whimsy and childlike sense of wonder - in this respect John Lennon being perhaps his only equal among contemporaries - Syd’s influence was felt by The Beatles and David Bowie.

Yet Barrett was active as a musician for a relatively brief period, leading his bandmates to the verge of stardom before a drug-induced psychological collapse prompted social withdrawal and eventual seclusion. The story of Syd unwittingly sacrificing his sanity on the altar of psychedelia is a cautionary tale for all users of ‘mind-expanding’ substances, and also for those who indulge in idol worship.

I’ve recently been revisiting Jugband Blues, Barrett’s schizophrenic swansong from Floyd's A Saucerful of Secrets album. Representing the point where his mania span irrecoverably out of control, Jugband Blues shows a brilliant mind struggling to maintain its hold on reality. It begins with these extraordinary lines:

It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here
And I’m most obliged to you for making it clear that I’m not here

A 'blues' in its fatalistic sadness, Jugband Blues depicts a plaintive yet scary awareness of an unhinged mind slipping beyond its owner’s grasp. The song ends with a schizoid juxtaposition of brass band and interstellar guitar which jarringly gives way to Syd's self-mocking realization of impending psychological collapse:

And the sea isn’t green/And I love the Queen
And what exactly is a dream?/And what exactly is a joke?

Following Barrett's abdication from pop sainthood, he led a fairly normal existence, doing home repair (reportedly amused by the often ramshackle results), shopping, painting, cooking curries and entertaining his nephews and nieces with dextrous word games. Though psychologically delicate, he probably wasn't as near mental collapse as many fans suppose.

Auction photos of Barrett's estate depict bicycles, stereo equipment, kitchenware and homemade furniture, often curiously painted and modified. Fascinating in their skewed mundanity, these household objects suggest an affecting eccentricity rather than the stuff of which legends are made.

Barrett himself had no interest in his mythic status; indifferent to his past and bemused by fans' obsessive attention, he could only remark of a BBC tribute to his music that it was “rather noisy.”

So what becomes a legend most? In Syd's case, an understandable denial of the fantasy which fans had projected onto him. Though the pressures of his hyper-reality caused Barrett to turn his back on stardom, his followers clung vicariously to his myth.

Projecting - a la Jung - their unconscious desires onto their hero, they behaved as if he were truly what they imagined, a madcap magus, rather than a suburban recluse who desired nothing less than humdrum individuation.


Susan Stoute said...

Hi Shiffi, I've been checking back regularly to your blog for your insightful comments, please keep them coming they make for a stimulating read. What happened to Syd Barrett is sad and he seemed to open a Pandora's box of delights which blew up in his face. Eric Clapton said the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom...but he wouldn't recommend it for everyone! Syd is a good example of that I suppose. Are there any modern day figures like Syd?

Shiffi Le Soy said...

Hello Susan, thank you for your posting. I guess there are modern-day figures in a similar position to Syd, though I'm not sure we'll ever experience a time like the sixties, when everything was new and so much was being discovered. A lot of the pop I hear these days is refracted through a postmodern ironical perspective, so the innocence that can produce a Syd is perhaps less common. One name that does come to mind is Ryan Adams, offered up as saviour by many admirers. I can't say I'm a huge fan, but he is obviously talented and is a gripping live performer. I know many of his fans are concerned that he has the kind of intense presence that could burn out too quickly, but that's also part of the attraction, isn't it?

Conchito Marrakon said...

Great comment which I completely agree with. Isn't that what we do with all our heroes? We project (a la Jung, as you say), all of our fantasies onto their object. I wonder if you have anything to say, Mr. Le Soy, about Jung's theory of archetypes in relation to Syd?

Anonymous said...

After reading this, I feel that I understand Syd in a way I did not before. Thank you.

Mathilda said...

That's a beautiful and perceptive tribute to Syd, Mr Le Soy.