Sunday, January 15, 2023

"I may well have identity issues" (Retro with Attitude 2)

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


Stylo said...

Funny you should write a post concerning Syd Barrett soon after you post about the unevenness of Jeff Beck's work. I was wondering if there were another comparably iconic figure with an even weaker back catalogue, and I think Syd Barrett probably fulfils the brief. His two solo albums are not only unlistenable, but they feel accidentally exploitative of a clearly ill man.
To elaborate, large parts of The Madcap Laughs appear to be studio outtakes rather than coherent songs, and the album Barrett feels equally unfinished, and often not even partially developed. From my understanding, the rest of Pink Floyd thought getting Syd to record anything would prove beneficial for his mental health, but the results were wholly disheartening. This is not at all to say that music made by people with mental health issues is by its nature artistically compromised (Nick Drake and Brian Wilson serve as fine counterexamples), but in this instance the listener feels slightly sordid at the music's barely even perfunctory nature. This isn't stew out of bones, it's stew out of water.

Stylo said...

Sorry, got the order you posted the wrong way round. Just correct it in your head.

Ed said...

That is a great point about nascent artists being overwhelmed by the power of their influences. And it makes me feel a little more well-disposed towards those copycats. The C86 scene, I remember, was a particularly rich habitat for it, I seem to remember: bands who would build entire careers out of approximating as closely as possible the look and sound of Echo and the Bunnymen, or the Birthday Party, or the Fall. It was like being a quasi-tribute band: they would play almost all original material, but all of it very firmly rooted in the style of their role models. And, particularly if the originals had broken up, or changed their sound, it was possible to sustain a modestly successful career for a few years that way.

Marillion were another case in point. Essentially a straight tribute to Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, down to the staging of their shows, but with their own songs to provide a fig-leaf of originality. I once read an interview with Fish where he said something like: "All these Genesis comparisons have been greatly exaggerated. We have lots of influences... the Teardrop Explodes, for example." I don't think he convinced anyone!

Jimi Hendrix has been the great example of the overwhelming influence for guitar players: Frank Marino, Randy California, Bernie Torme, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and many others have built entire careers in his shadow. Given who he was and what he did, that was always going to be inevitable, I suppose.

Ed said...

The Hitchcock piece is fantastic, as you say. I hadn’t realised that Barrett’s real first name was Roger. It adds an eerie little twist to the way Roger Waters would use Barrett through the 70s to work out his anxieties over their relationship, stardom, and mental illness.


I was going to title the blogpost "Roger and Me" but then realized probably most people don't know that Syd was really Roger

If they'd been a duo - dropped the other two - they could have been The Two Rogers.


There are all kinds of funny aspect and ironies to this thing where one singular artist becomes a genre.

One that jumps out at me that all those C86 or similar US indie people who sang like Lou Reed (perhaps more accurate to say that his being a non-singer enabled them or created the space for them to be the vocalist without having much of a voice - Lawrence from Felt, too many examples really), almost none of them, I should think, while up to their elbows in hock to VU and Reed, would have the slightest interest in Lou Reed's albums of the 1980s.

I would have had no interest - would have much more time for Reed clones than the Real Reed Thing.

That Fish quote is hilarious. Can imagine Julian Cope's horror. Should be a name for the syndrome where someone you loathe declares you are their role model / influence.


Stylo - I'm not sure I'd say those solo records are utterly barren (there's "Golden Hair" and... erm... um) but they aren't a patch for the Barrett in Pink Floyd stuff. That said, I haven't spent much time listening to Madcap and Barrett and the other one that came out much later... but probably the fact that I haven't felt the urge says something.

It's like Kevin Ayers immediately takes up the slack and his solo career is everything you could want from a non-insane Barrett.

Stylo said...

RE. Acts who hated other acts that had cited them as influences, Mark E. Smith couldn't go an interview without declaring that some despised band had claimed inspiration from the Fall. As I recall, Wet Wet Wet were the most incongruous act MES pronounced as his unwanted proteges. John Lydon usually gets snotty when a band mentions his impact, too. Oddly enough, one gets the sense that both would have also acted cantankerously and denied it if someone said that they weren't an influence on their band.

Tyler said...

I'll go to bat for Barrett's solo work - they're unavoidably patchy and very different from his Floyd songs (as Simon notes, Ayers and most of the Canterbury scene in general is much closer to what he was evolving towards before he got sick - In The Beechwoods, one of the last cuts he tracked with them, even includes a fuzz-organ solo!) but they're haunting in ways that have little or nothing to do with voyeurism, and everything to do with him wringing out as much of his talent as he could before it was too late. There's moments on Madcap and Barrett where he clearly just trails off in the middle (especially on the former) or didn't leave more than a sketch for Gilmour/Wright/Waters to embellish (especially on the latter), but they're interspersed with songs where he seems to be cramming in as much as he can - the lyrics to 'Rats' and 'Wolfpack' are dense enough, and the vocals impassioned and deliberate enough, to qualify as performance poetry

Phil Knight said...

There's an interview with Syd's former flatmate Dougie Fields here, in which he recalls that Syd didn't so much go mad as just became profoundly bored:

I personally think Syd produced a relatively minor body of work, but was influential through the superfluity of his imagination. But I can see how such a supercharged imagination can quickly run out of road. When you've come up with more ideas than all your contemporaries put together, it's inevitable that you will hit a brick wall. There are quite a lot of people in the world who have a shot at a career at an early age and then go back to live with their parents for one reason or another. Which means that there are Syds everywhere, it's just that his career happened to have been unusually publicly visible.

Tyler said...

Agreed that Syd's evolution was forcibly arrested early on, and that his story is not at all as unique as it's imagined, but I wanted to clarify one part of my 'wringing/cramming' comment that I don't think I extrapolated enough, and which also relates to a lot of similarly disturbed peers of his (Spence, Erikson, Wilson, Stone, etc).
When severely mentally ill people make art, there's often the assumption that the art arrived hand in hand with the madness - almost like a possession, the art being the refuse left behind by the psychosis. Having dealt with severe mental illness myself, I know firsthand that the opposite is true - the art is what the sane self creates in an attempt to deal with/defeat the insane self. Madness doesn't make you productive in any regard - it eats you away. The best parts of his solo records, like Spence's Oar or Erickson's later work, are touching and even heroic to me because I can feel the struggle in them - the fight to not only record your experience dealing with it, but an attempt (hopeless or not) to somehow find your way out through them.


Yes, a lot of mad or troubled people - probably most - don't produce any creative work whatsoever - either they're prevented from doing so by the illness or they just don't have it in them. So that would problematize the madness/genius equation. But are there not cases of artists who use either illness, or being neuro-untypical, as a resource in some way: a different way of seeing or hearing the world, a skewed perspective? Almost like a form of internally supplied drug experience.

Barrett was so inspirational in that short burst of genius that he inspired Rick Wright to write "Paintbox", which on some days is my favorite Pink Floyd song, even though imitative. (Whereas "Remember A Day" is just a pale copy). Lyrically and vocally "Paintbox" taps into this washed-out passivity and sadness that is the chrysalis for Dark Side of the Moon - but sonically it's very much a piece with Piper At the Gates and that brilliant string of A-sides and B-sides.

Tyler said...

I'm not saying that mental illness (or disability - God knows as an autistic, I'm constantly picking up reflections of it, intended or not) can't be inspirational in varying ways or portrayed in the work - I just mean that it's the person creates it, not the illness.

Stylo said...

I'm a firm adherent of death of the author, and ultimately I find discussing an artist's mental state at best anecdotal. Syd Barrett's mental health issues may cast light on why his solo work is patchy (I think we have all agreed at least on that, and we possibly would all agree on a stronger criticism), but we are not analysing a person, we are analysing a record. The ceaseless recording schedule of many a great country artist (a genre where you measure a discography not by the number of records, but by the yardage covered) meant that even the truly venerated like Johnny Cash or my beloved Merle Haggard made some albums that sound cursory and slipshod, and they didn't suffer from Syd Barrett's struggles. And in any case, the circumstances of recording an album are not of direct interest to the listener. What is of interest is the album itself. Syd Barrett's solo work does not feel spotty because of his travails, it feels spotty because the music is often lacklustre. How is invoking an artist's private life not invoking the post hoc fallacy?

Phil Knight said...

There's a bit of a "Withnail and I" vibe to Syd's ejection from the Floyd. At the end of the film Marwood casts aside Withnail because the latter, for all his talent and charisma, is a liability and an obstacle to Marwood's success. And from that point it is obvious that Withnail has nowhere to go but down. It's an evocation of what Isaiah Berlin called an agonistic choice, where you are attempting to estimate which option causes the least overall pain. So when Floyd became monstrously successful, the contrast with Syd's fate became magnified and severely embarrassed the band.

Which also makes me think that if Pink Floyd had only become moderately successful, say at the Humble Pie or Bad Company level, would we even think that much about Syd Barrett? We never learn Marwood's fate, so Withnail is only modestly tragic in comparison.

Matt M said...

Barrett is a negative space - and partly his fame is a result of Pink Floyd's fame. He haunts Pink Floyd. Would he be such an iconic figure if Floyd had not become megastars?

Phil - Where in Berlin's work will I find a discussion of agonistic choices? (I just had cause to look at The Hedgehog and The Fox the other day)

Simon - Golden Hair is pretty much only worthwhile solo thing he did. It shimmers like a dewy spiderweb in the post-rain sun just before it is blown away by the wind.

Tyler - Yeah, the romanticisation of mental illness as an engine of art pisses me off as well (not that I think anyone here is doing that). As noted, most mentally ill people do not create art. And an artist can be mentally healthy and still produce good stuff. Insisting that suffering is necessary for art seems like an aesthetic sadism. "the art is what the sane self creates in an attempt to deal with/defeat the insane self" - well put!

Phil Knight said...

Matt - IIRC John Gray discusses this in his book on IB.

Matt M said...

Phil - Oh FFS, the piece I've just written includes both Berlin and Gray: - but I was unaware of a connection between the two until you pointed it out. Many thanks!

Stylo said...

May I suggest few more suggestions as hedgehog/fox comparisons? The comparisons start with the hedgehog.
Sex Pistols/Clash
Joy Division/The Fall
Stone Roses/Happy Mondays
Nirvana/Guns N Roses
And you didn't mention the quintessential one, surely?
Rolling Stones/Beatles

It's worth noting that these pairings have long been established outside of the hedgehog/fox model, with some oppositional (Nirvana vs. GnR), some complimentary (Roses and Mondays jointly codifying baggy) and some just comparative (which was the better Manc postpunk group?). I think, on the face of it, the hedgehog/fox comparisons actually do illuminate important aspects of these groups. But it's also worth noting that plenty of acts elicit no such direct contrasts. Perhaps the most obvious hedgehogs, AC/DC, don't have an indisputable fox to measure against. Pink Floyd (to bring things full circle)? And it's obviously not a universal model. I don't know in which bracket the Smiths belong, and I don't think any of their contemporaries serves as a clear juxtaposition.

Matt M said...

Stylo - Absolutely. I was specifically writing about Zep and Sabbath but as I was writing the two examples that came to mind were the Oasis/Blur and Beatles/Stones comparisons - which is ironic that Oasis were copying The Beatles in a fundamentally unBeatlesish way (but I think this has been frequently noted over the last 30 years).

Some of the others I am less sold on - I think the Roses change more and the Mondays change less than the comparison implies. For many of the others, it's the case that you have one band (Sex Pistols, Joy Division, Nirvana) who produces relatively few albums vs a band that produces many more. It's hard to judge a band's scope if they've only produced one album.

Kraftwerk and Can are a tricky one. What always struck me was that they aren't that far apart when they start (Monster Movie vs Orange Traffic Cone) but by the end of the 70s they are nothing like each other.

Anyway it wasn't my intention to derail this rather touching thread about Syd Barrett and Robyn Hitchcock.

Matt M said...

BTW Apologies to Phil - I think my first comment on this thread basically restated what they'd said because I hadn't read his comment properly.

Phil Knight said...

Matt - I've made much bigger faux pas than that.

Many years ago I did a short blogpost on J.J. Burnel's Euroman Cometh. I later casually browsed another person's blog, and realised that they had, word for word, repeated my post. I then looked at the date of their post and realised it was a year old, and it had in fact been me who had unwittingly replicated their work!

Stylo said...

Matt - Considering the first comment (which was mine) argued that Syd Barrett had a weak back catalogue (a sentiment with which we all essentially concurred), I think I derailed everything from the off.

The reason I paired Kraftwerk and Can together is simply that they are the two most venerated Krautrock groups, to the extent that among music snobs, they are the two posterkrauts of a long and convoluted morass of German musical ebbs and swills across near-two decades. Of course Can and Kraftwerk weren't personally opposed to one another, but how fundamentally opposed were the philsophies of Can (let's see what we can do) and Kraftwerk (we're doing this, alright?)?

I see your point about the Sex Pistols and Joy Division (though I stand by the comparisons), but Nirvana and GnR is a pairing I think people should talk about more; not least, GnR has been one of the most unfairly maligned groups, with a significant part of that damnation stemming from Kurt's dismissal of GnR generally and Axl specifically. Axl started off as a champion of Nirvana (as did all of GnR), but Axl and Kurt had fundamentally different conceptions of punk and metal, with Kurt's the more intellectual and internalised. Both groups had their genuinely epoch-making rock album, and both groups reacted utterly idiosyncratically to that success. Vulpinely, GnR made two double albums simultaneously to show the full smorgasbord of GnR. Curling in on themselves, Nirvana's In Utero is an exercise in reclusive solipsism (Axl is also solipistic, but has a markedly different variant of solipism to Kurt). Also, GnR doesn't have that supstantial a body of work compared to Nirvana. Hell, when Nevermind came out after Use Your Illusion, nobody even wanted to say Guns N Roses (even though everybody who bought Nevermind bought at least one of Use Your Illusion's volumes).

I'm not sure what you mean by change more and less, but the Happy Mondays were a far more exploratory, eclectic and farsighted band than the avowedly narcissistic Stone Roses. Don't wave Fool's Gold in my face and lie about how they were always influenced by acid house. In any case, the Happy Mondays were the better band, and the most undervalued band in British rock. That is the hill I defend.

Matt M said...

Stylo - I have no heard much of GnR's UYI (there are about 2 mins of November Rain that I like). I do think Appetite for Destruction is a better album than Nevermind. I don't disagree with many of your comments.

Happy Mondays were a mess but that often made them more interesting that Stone Roses - but I don't feel passionately enough about it to discuss. I don't think Shaun Ryder can cope with hills anymore. He probably views stairs with a Dalek-like dread.