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Home arrow Reviews arrow Books arrow "Madcap: The Half Life Of Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd's Lost Genius" - Tim Willis
"Madcap: The Half Life Of Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd's Lost Genius" - Tim Willis Print E-mail

Syd Barrett: MadcapPublisher: The Short Book Co ISBN 1-904095-24-0. Published 17 October 2002

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Of all the lost personalities within rock music, Syd Barrett has one of the most enduring legends, not least due to the numerous stories and myths that have been built up around him. He is, therefore, a popular target for biography writers - certainly, within the last decade there have been a number of books concentrating on the man commonly referred to as the Piper, the Madcap, or the Crazy Diamond.

Tim Willis, respected journalist, has thrown his hat into the ring, and submitted his version of events for our deliberation. He has impeccable credentials - a long-term friend of the Gilmours, and he enjoyed close contact with all the other significant characters which contributed to the kaleidoscopic life that Roger Keith Barrett would experience, in the creation of this book.

Many of the Syd myths have been rehashed and presented time and again, all with rock steady confidence that all of it was true. Tim questions this, and approaches his work as an opportunity to wipe the slate clean, and find out the truth behind the legend.

Certainly, initial impressions on having read the book, are that many Syd diehards will not like the book, due to the number of stories that are debunked and shown to be false. Part of the myth of Syd was that this character was capable of all sorts of "wackiness" or responsible for "amusing" tales, normally involving madness or irrational behaviour. The stories are told with relish, whilst shaking the head and saying how terrible it all was. One could argue that, if indeed such people respect Roger, that they wouldn't keep regurgitating these stories, or present them in such a salacious way. The fact that Syd was, in part, a character created as a sort of alter-ego for Roger, and that Roger was, and still is, suffering illness, should mean that people treat him with dignity and respect.

Unfortunately, not many printed accounts of the band's history, seem to do this. Has Tim managed to redress the balance?

With a huge sigh of relief, thankfully - yes, he has. The overriding view whilst reading this tome, is that Syd/Roger was/is a lot more "normal" than most seem to give him credit for. Naturally, it touches on his illness in many places, but turns some of the common tales on their head - rather than some episodes being Syd out of his head and unaware of what he was doing, Willis seems to have got enough evidence, from family and close friends and lovers, to show that some of the events were played out by Syd fully aware of what he was doing, quietly absorbing the reaction of others and getting enjoyment from this.

It is Willis's extensive use of top quality, relevent sources that give this work a lot more credence than some of the other, more excitable references out there. If anything, some people may find parts of the book quite disappointing from this very aspect - rather than raise a whole load of new myths and legends, Tim takes time to look at the existing tales that appear pretty much everywhere, and through some good investigative journalism, gets to the bottom of many.

He also puts the incredible pressure and workload the band were under in strong relief, showing where the seeds for Syd's problems (and to an extent, the problems that remained within the band for many years) lay. Few books make much of the punishing schedule they put themselves through in the early days, often playing more than one concert a night (sometimes in different countries!) allied with recording and promotional commitments.

Bookended by a meeting that Tim had with Roger Barrett at his house, which doesn't seem to fit well with the rest of the book, the book proper starts with previously unheard detail about Syd's childhood which even then displayed some of his mischievious sense of humour, his love of painting (which persists to this day) and of music, which took a distinct second place. There's a fascinating passage showing the way that Syd's life was unavoidably intertwined with the others in Cambridge - including Roger, David, Storm Thorgerson, Bob Klose, and their families - links which have not (to my knowledge) been identified so well, and put so coherently.

It was in these younger days that Syd began a relationship with Libby Gausden, and the love letters (that Libby still held) related some fascinating insights into Syd's character, and also revealed "that by '64, Barrett had already written 'Let's Roll Another One', as well as two songs called 'Butterfly' and 'Remember Me'...[and] Waters had penned a number called 'Walk With Me, Sydney'..." which was Roger's first ever song. Willis even presents the lyrics of this song which was written for Barrett and Juliet Gale.

She also recalls some of the early gigs - even then, girls would scream "Syd, Syd!" which made Waters "very grumpy. He'd say: 'We're not the bloody Beatles". This leads on to incredibly thorough detail of the genesis of the band, with all the information you could need on the very early days. Building to the height of the young Pink Floyd's professional success, it was clear how his lifestyle was tiring Barrett out. And the eventual replacement of Syd with David Gilmour is made more interesting with the revelation that some years previously, whilst Bob Klose and Chris Dennis were still in the embryonic line-up, Syd had wanted Gilmour in the line-up but because David was already a key part of a very successful band in the Cambridge area, he wasn't able to get him.

There is thorough detail of the years of solo albums and the occasional live appearance (Olympia, Stars) that covers the period well. Willis then skips forward a bit, covering what is known of the interim years and brings the tale pretty much up to date, talking of the medical problems that have befallen Roger Barrett over the years, but with balance and subtlety, rather than the normal salivating exposition. The help Willis received from Barrett's family was clearly invaluable for much of this material.

Coupled with a very nice selection of rare pictures (many of which have not been seen before), this easy to read book is heartily recommended. For once, a balanced book about the life of Roger Barrett has been written, and will hopefully answer many of the questions people still have about the eventful life of one Syd Barrett...

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