Pink Floyd RSS News Feed

Statistics

We have 26 guests online
Visitors: 53390673
black strat book
Nick Mason Inside Out signed copy
Brain Damage and A Fleeting Glimpse
Home arrow Reviews arrow Books
"Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head" - Rob Chapman Print E-mail
Written by Christopher Hughes   
Thursday, 06 January 2011

Syd Barrett - A Very Irregular HeadToday, January 6th, would have been Roger "Syd" Barrett's 65th birthday, and we're sure that, like us, many people around the world will be marking this special day in their own way.

It seems entirely appropriate then, that we've just received a detailed review of "Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head", the book by Rob Chapman published last year. The book has received glowing reviews in the press. Published by Faber and Faber, the book runs to some 448 pages, and includes the help of Syd's sister. The Sunday Times called it "a gripping portrait of the final, reclusive years of the charismatic co-founder of Pink Floyd", and The Observer said that it was "a consistently illuminating, and often surprising, read. Syd is a looming presence here, an elusive to the point of spectral figure, who haunts the pages of this, the best book yet about him".

Of all the books about Syd, this book has polarised opinions within the Floyd community more than any other, with some people loving it, and others taking issue with things within. Our friend Christopher Hughes has taken a break from the Australian floods to go through the book in detail, and here are his thoughts it...followed with the thoughts of some other BD visitors who disagree with him!

The short version is ...

On the whole, as a book it was easy enough to read, but by the end I found myself wanting to skip the seemingly endless comparisons to some long dead poet. I didn't though in case I missed something important. Sadly not the case. The book took so long to read because for so much of it I was bored. Bored by the same old same old. The continual comparisons to poets. The continual in depth analysis of lyrics as some far reaching epiphany on life. The continual bagging of the rest of the band, Syd's friends, managers, promoters and fans.

Chapman's continual swapping from third to first person was also annoying as he wrote of his own experiences as a Floyd fan; important, but badly written. Likewise, for all his time and effort (and the talking up from the Syd website and the like) it was disappointing to see simple errors, especially lyrics, that were then made into big problems as he (mis)interpreted these errors.

That said, there were parts that were very interesting indeed. A lot of new info was brought to light about his childhood and his life in the 80s and 90s. For this it was certainly worth the read, but that's about it.

The long version is ...

Rob Chapman seems to have written a book whereby his lifelong love for Syd Barrett has manifested itself into a book that spends most of its time trying to convince the reader that Syd Barrett was not only a musical genius, but should now go down in history as a literary and artistic one as well. I can handle the first one, I think his music is positively wonderful, just as all of us here think whatever we think of his music. A book isn't going to change whatever it is we think of his music. The literary idea is noble but misplaced simply because Syd didn't write poetry, even though he may well have been inspired by it at length and written lyrics that are very poetic. There is a subtle difference that Chapman seems to want to blur, or even remove completely. The third is neither here nor there in this context. Very few of Syd's paintings have come to light and the ones I have seen are good enough as far as they go but not much more than that.

Chapman's efforts on his art are disappointing on the whole, made worse by the fact that art was Syd's first and biggest artistic love. But like me, maybe Chapman isn't that interested in his art to begin with and as such, pays it nothing more than a cursory glance ... despite describing at length Syd's effort to paint, he does little in the way of describing of the actual artworks and their position in art movements.

The complete opposite can be said about Chapman's approach to Syd's music, particularly his lyrics, as Chapman goes to great lengths to describe them again and again. It was a strange habit Chapman repeated, whereby he would describe a poet (Lear, Carroll, Clare etc) from a century or more ago, explain his eccentricities, then stick in a quote about him. And then, almost word for word, it would be followed by 'he could have been writing about Syd'. Well, sorry to point this one out Rob, they weren't. There are plenty of words that could have been written about Syd's lyrics as poetry, but they weren't. Syd wasn't a poet, he was a pop star.

In fact, the world he was in was full of poets and poetry readings and not once did Syd offer up a lyric as a poem to be published or performed by him or anyone else. Some of his lyrics have poetic qualities, and I love them so, but Chapman seems desperate to make a link and get Syd's legacy to join the greats of English literature. The reality check is he will be a curious footnote in Pink Floyd's glorious history and not much more. I personally think that unfair and harsh, but it is the reality.

Not surprisingly a lot of the book deals with LSD and its effects. On the whole, Chapman was treading a well trodden path, but the biggest thing I learnt was that an LSD trip was a window on childhood (p142-143), that returned the user to it. Which makes me wonder if that explains a whole lot more about Syd's actions and reactions to LSD. His music clearly is 'childish' (in a good way) so maybe he was already there.

Can this idea of regression explain why so many others had to then and have had to now, take drugs to understand, appreciate, dare I say it 'dig' Pink Floyd's early music? Now I have no experience in taking the stuff nor any training in psycho-analysing, so my question would be, is it possible that as Syd was already in the 'zone', taking the drug effected him in different ways? Chapman interprets the situation as Syd wanting to revert to his childhood, but could it be that it ultimately took him further away from it? It took him so far that he went to a place of no return. A curious aside in all of this that Chapman describes at length later in the book, but never makes the connection, is Hans Keller's famous review/interview in which he feels "it is a little bit of a regression to childhood". Maybe Hans Keller was right after all!

What is also interesting about this is the idea that maybe it does explain why his Floyd stuff was so much better than his solo stuff ... or at least so much more in line with nonsense poetry and childhood fantasy. Maybe Syd was already in such a mind state to write his Pink Floyd songs without the drugs (just like Lewis Carroll was) and the drugs actually had an adverse affect on his creativity by robbing him of that approach. So his latter efforts were still out there, but a different kind of out there.

Chapman has also gone to great lengths to get an answer to "what happened to Syd?" from so many people. All the obvious ones are in there (band, management, family etc) but he also managed various neighbours, doormen, school chums, teachers, secretaries and fans. For whatever reason he hasn't offered up one himself. He finished by portraying Syd as a sad, fat, bald man who was playing this role in the vain hope that the world would leave him alone. But then he didn't paint a good picture about anyone really. Even Syd's sister Rosemary came out as condescending, even uncaring, doing what she had to do while Syd was alive, then flogging off his life since his death. I'd like to think she isn't like this. Just as Chapman has given poor portrayals of everyone else and is wrong in many instances, I hope he is wrong here.

The final chapter starts with Syd's return to Cambridge, when shortly afterwards, he was admitted to Fulbourn (a mental health facility) where he stayed for a whole three days. His sister laments this as a lost opportunity as Fulbourn failed him by diagnosing Syd with a personality disorder, not a psychological problem. This was when little bells rang in my own head. The previous chapter had Chapman describe at length the various myths that have surrounded Syd, two started by Chapman himself. But this left me thinking all Chapman was trying to do was say "well these are all the myths and this is why they are myths, which by default means everything else I've written here must be true". One of these 'must be trues' is that no one understood Syd.

My little bells ringing were asking the simple question based on a linking of various bits of information Chapman had sprinkled through the book. What if Syd really didn't have a psychological problem but he did in fact have a personality disorder? What if Fulbourn was right? What if all he needed was therapy to deal with his issues instead of drugs to fix a problem that wasn't there. The drugs may calm the symptoms and make it easier for those around the sufferer (and even the sufferer) to live day by day. But that isn't a cure.

Chapman ends his book with what-ifs as well. None of them sensible and none of them seemingly linked to the facts he's placed in front of us. Many of them founded on his wish that Syd had flourished for decades instead of years. Well my list of what-ifs is; what if Syd lived the life he wanted to lead? What if Syd didn't want to be famous, ever, more-so once he confirmed how crap it was for him? What if he wasn't mad? What if everyone around him was trying to find Syd again and he was perfectly happy being Roger? What if Syd was just a bloke like all the rest of us, who happened to have an artistic flare that he regretfully shared with the world for a bit then struggled with all his might, to the point of exhaustion, to get it back and be left alone.

The other aspect of the book that came across in waves was the usual worshiping of Syd and degrading of the other three/four. This approach is to be expected from folks who write books about Syd, as opposed to books about Pink Floyd. Likewise, the passing over of the likes of Joe Boyd and Norman Smith is an expected approach as the whole notion of anyone having a positive input into a Syd Barrett song is seemingly sacrilegious. Chapman only confused the issue further when he complimented someone for their good work, then in the next breath, for the same thing, criticised them for it.

As for Floyd bashing. Well I could go on at length about that but where's the fun in that. So I will leave it two examples. At one point, when bemoaning yet again the others ability to hold an instrument the right way round it seemed, he played on the Beatles quote that Ringo wasn't even the best drummer in the Beatles by saying Nick wasn't the best drummer in Pink Floyd, claiming DG was. Such a notion is plain ludicrous as both Nick's efforts show, and DG's for that matter.

Better still was his description of Shine On as a tribute to Syd. So good a criticism I will quote it in part ...

"As a song, 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' is overblown, overwrought, epic in scale and self aggrandising, all the things that Syd wasn't. ... Like several of Waters' efforts from this period the song's use of mental illness as a leitmotif is crass and heavy handed. ... angst ridden dirge..." (p344)

I particularly like this description because Chapman completely misses the point. Just because it is about Syd, doesn't mean it has to be written in a Syd style or manner that encapsulates Syd's thoughts and feelings. I also like the idea that there is someone out there who thinks that Shine On is a dirge. A wonderful world indeed.

To finish, at last, I revert to my usual test of any music book. As I read a book about Pink Floyd, if I find myself wanting to listen to the music then the writer must be doing something right. Simply put, it didn't make me want to listen to the music. Or more correctly, it didn't inspire me to enjoy the music. It did make me listen to it to try and figure out what on Earth Chapman was bollocking on about as he had some very strange ideas indeed. It's certainly all well and good to have an idea and find hidden meanings in art, but some of what he was on about was a bit far fetched. For example, the idea that Lucifer Sam (p158) was an expression of Syd's stoned paranoia is different to say the least; as opposed to a song about a cat.

As mentioned previously, a lot of his ideas were also comparisons with long dead poets that Syd in all probability read. By the end of it though, I had the impression Chapman had an anthology of old verse, he found something that matched, then came up with as surreal an idea as possible. A never ending battle to get the reader to believe Syd was up there with the rest. All it did was give the impression that Syd was a plagiarist of the highest quality.

It also left me in little doubt that Chapman's true colours were not those of a writer attempting to delve into the life and times of Syd Barrett for the betterment of all, but simply another of those stranger of Syd fans who bemoan an awful lot about everything that never was. Chapman has attempted to fool the reader into thinking that he was something other than a magazine reporter and Syd fan who decided to write a book. He lets himself down when he, at length, does the same old same old wishing that Syd had done more, bemoaning that Pink Floyd fans think more of Roger Waters' lyrics than Syd's, that they think more of Rick Wright's musicianship than Syd's, that David Gilmour dared to take his place and do a better job (let alone pick and choose the releases of Syd's solo stuff) and that Nick Mason dared to be normal at a time when all around was not.

Most of all, he seems to bemoan that the four of them not only succeeded, incredibly well, but they didn't go loopy into the bargain. As such, what he failed to do was accept the simple fact that all along Syd did what Syd wanted to do no matter how much the likes of Rob Chapman wanted him to otherwise. He had an irregular head alright, but far too many folks don't seem to accept that as ok.

Overall, thank gawd I was a nutter Syd Barrett fan before I read this, because I suspect it would have put me off seeking out his efforts if I was only a latter day Pink Floyd fan. It is worth the read, but only just.

UPDATE - prior to Christopher's review, we'd only received luke-warm (at best) comments about the book, with some people being positively hostile. This review has brought out some of those who have really enjoyed the book - for example, Mark Stay, who said: "I've just finished this book myself, and while the reviewer identifies some of the problems of the writer's style, I think this is still the most insightful and well-researched books on Syd. Certainly, it cov...ers the post-Floyd era better than any other previous book, largely due to the cooperation of Syd's family, and it does a very good job of demystifying Syd and that period's more fanciful myths and legends. However, the post-Syd Floyd-bashing isn't going to impress anyone or win the author any friends, and to call 'Shine on you crazy diamond' a dirge is simply unforgivable. But it's still worth a read. Possibly the best book on Syd out there."

Martin Wells added "I thought it was excellent, especially given the poor biogs published previously."

As we said at the start, it's a book that has generated wildly different views from the fanbase, and we're pleased to bring these other views to balance things up a bit!

ORDERING INFORMATION

If you wish to give the book a try - and as you can see, many people have been enthusiastic about it - you can purchase it getting a discount off the recommended retail price, by ordering through the following links: Amazon UK, Amazon US/International, Amazon Canada, Amazon France, or Amazon Germany. You can also order it through Play.com.

 
< Prev   Next >
Brain Damage on Facebook Follow Brain Damage on Twitter Brain Damage's YouTube channel
Pink Floyd Calendar

Next 20 concerts

Pink Floyd on iTunes
Donate to Brain Damage
Behind The Wall book
Pink Floyd: Backstage book
HeYou Floyd Fanzine - order details
www.Brain-Damage.co.uk - the Pink Floyd, David Gilmour & Roger Waters news & info site
All content except where noted otherwise is © Brain Damage/Matt Johns 2017.
Please see 'About Brain Damage' page for legal details and the small print!
Website generously designed and built by 3B Web Design