Penned by Robyn Hitchcock recently as tribute to Syd Barrett on his 77th birthday, the text below is a remarkably eloquent and candid bit of writing - an exorcism of indebtedness. While I'm unlikely to get around to giving RH's urrrv another go, it gives me an angle on how it might be approached with more sympathy and generosity. Simply put, some artists are so towering and imposing that their impact on subsequent artists still in their formative stage is "all I want to be is exactly this". It's as though the nascent artistic self goes into shock; the anxiety-of-influence that usually fights back against the inspirational influx is paralysed. The sui generis ancestor becomes a genre: an individual personality and imagination transformed into a learnable craft, potentially the dedicated work of a lifetime. But although exact replication is possible (Shakin' Stevens as professional Elvis impersonator), in the better case scenario, originality seeps out almost despite the imitative intent: the secondary artist can't actually live the life of their role model, they necessarily have their own experience, desires, as well as interactions with other musicians, etc. History doesn't repeat.
Syd Barrett: The Vanishing
Thoughts on his 77th birthday…
If Bob Dylan is the most scrutinized musician of our times, Syd Barrett must be one of the most pursued. Almost as soon as he’d slipped off the radar, in the dismal wasteland of February 1972, the dogs were in pursuit.
I was one of those dogs. You only had to listen to “The Face of Death” on the first Soft Boys EP to see how completely I’d marinaded myself in Syd Barrett. The song was not, as some assumed, about Syd himself, but another local character who haunted the streets of Cambridge with an expression of terminal hopelessness on a face which looked like it was upside down. The poor guy lived alone in a room full of milk bottles and apparently injected himself with insulin for his diabetes. Rumours travel fast in those small, cold byways. He walked slowly, as if he’d been punched in the stomach, and he wore a leather jacket; I *think* his name was Arthur.
A few years previously, I even tried to call on Barrett himself, at his old family home on Hills Road. Thankfully he was out. But he was also no longer called Syd, it appeared. I stood on the doorstep pink with embarrassment, my stomach tight with dread - terrified of actually meeting this man who was rapidly becoming What I Wanted To Be - but the compulsion to see him was stronger than my anxieties. I rang the doorbell of the ample, suburban house and eventually a young student lodger answered. I explained my mission and she didn’t seem surprised:
“Oh, right - just a minute: Mrs B” she called up the stairs, “is Roger in?”
Who, I wondered, was Roger? I was about to explain that actually I was looking for Syd, when a calm lady with a faintly lizard-like aura and a print dress padded down the stairs towards me. She didn’t seem surprised to see me, either - pilgrims were already flocking to that door, I guessed. This dame with iron-grey hair, looking like an aunt of my own mother, this must be Mrs Barrett…
“Ah, no, you’ve missed him, I’m afraid - he’s in London now. Was there anything you wanted to see Roger about?”
“Oh, er, I - no, I mean.” I was flustered and breathing fast: pleased that I’d summoned the nerve to intrude on them (hardcore fan that I was) but somewhat relieved that the object of my quest was not actually there: “I - er - he’s in London?”
“Is he… um… is he making a record?”
“We-ll”, said Mrs B, looking up at me with her head tipped slightly to one side, “I believe he’s by way of making a record, yes…”
Enough was more than enough, and I fled. It turned out that Syd’s real name was Roger, and had been all along.
The more I looked for news of Barrett, the less there was. Rumours had already made their way out of that house, of Syd (or Roger?) living in the cellar of his childhood home, playing Pink Floyd records at the wrong speed and laughing hysterically. But he’d also been seeing playing local jam sessions. He’d been seen eating chocolate cake. He’d been seen but he was gone.
As the 1970s wore on, it became more and more apparent that Syd Barrett really was no more. When he made his famous visit to his old band at Abbey Road studios just as they were finishing their tribute to him “Shine On, You Crazy Diamond” nobody even recognized him for a while. Syd had been a lean, handsome and saturnine figure: Roger was fat, bald and had no eyebrows. Did he drop by that day just to make that point: that his old self was over?
He was no longer by way of making a record. Several attempts were made to lure him back into the recording studio, but when the tapes finally surfaced they turned out to be uninspired 12-bar noodlings: not even chaotic, just boring. Barrett clearly had no more songs in him. Nonetheless he continued to buy guitars until his royalties ran out. Part of him obviously wanted to believe he was still in the game, just as we, his fans, did.
Syd the musician was the flower that briefly blossomed on the cactus that was Roger, his host body. Minus Syd, that host body reverted to what he had been before, an art student. Roger returned to his mother’s house in Cambridge and spent the last 30 years or so of his life painting pictures. And then, apparently, burning them.
I, meanwhile, had done my best to re-activate my vanished hero in my own Cambridge art-rock combo, the Soft Boys. Of course, you can only be Art-Rock posthumously - à la Velvet Underground or Roxy Music: during our career nobody knew how to categorize The Soft Boys - us included - so we were effectively unmarketable, and the music business soon gave up on us. We didn’t exactly help them sell us. One of our few definite markers was that I sounded very like Syd Barrett. We even recorded “Vegetable Man”, one of his rare unreleased songs. This magnetized the Barrett ghouls - and I’d long been one of those.
I may well have identity issues. Who are any of us if we examine ourselves from close up enough? Take somebody who no longer wants to exist (Barrett), and then add somebody who would rather be someone else (me) and…you get the picture. All I know is that if I like a kind of music I try to echo it, as closely as I can. Whether I absorb my influences or simply continue to echo them isn’t really for me to say. I write and play the music that I want to hear. Sometimes I do feel like the creature in the John Carpenter movie The Thing: that I’m just an amalgam of everything I’ve absorbed. Someone described me once as the Peter Sellers of rock: I’ve had worse compliments…
"Roger Barrett, whoever he was, became a blank canvas onto which his admirers could project their fantasies. It became more about them, and less about him. He continued to live on a suburban backstreet, looking as nondescript as possible. His address had long ago been trumpeted on the Barrett grapevine, some of whom persisted in staking him out on his way to the shops or cycling around town. They were still looking for Syd, or traces of him. I’ve seen footage of what might or might not be Roger Barrett, in a string vest on a cloudy afternoon. I was based in Cambridge till the early 1980s and may have passed him a dozen times in the town centre - I would never have known.
"In the end, it’s the gap between who you are and who your admirers want you to be. You encourage them to think you’re something you’re not because - oh, boy: wouldn’t it be fabulous if you really were it? And in reality you’re just a lump of aging flesh shuffling along on a dreary avenue. One psychotic Beatles fan chose to rob the world of John Lennon because he felt that John was no longer whom that fan had imagined him to be. So it goes."
As an artist, I know that the best part of me is my art. I’m truly grateful for the music Syd left us, and I’m truly grateful that I never ran into Roger.
RH, January 6 2023