on 20 August 2012
This is the only biography of Roger "Syd" Barrett I've read and having finished it there feels little need to read any more. Chapman has thoroughly researched the rise and fall of the enigmatic and deeply troubled founding member of Pink Floyd and made a serious attempt to dispel the many myths that surround him as well as argue the case for his being one of the great songwriters of his generation.
One of the myths around Syd that Chapman deals with is the idea that Syd suddenly went "mad" in 1967 and everything that he did afterwards was essentially part of this "madness". Instead, Chapman convincingly pieces-together a picture of a highly talented but fragile young man who was deeply unhappy with the trappings and responsibilities of fame and pop music as a career and who slowly but surely unravelled amid a fug of LSD, mandrax and alcohol. We see a man who initially appears to rebel against the demands of the music industry and who slowly but surely becomes more and more unhappy and distant from those around him eventually, apparently, unable or completely unwilling to function as a pop star or even socially.
Chapman wisely does not attempt to diagnose Barrett - as many have - and instead just allows the (completely inconclusive) evidence speak. We hear a great deal about Syd's mental health problems and the effect they had on him and those close to him. Its worth noting that Chapman conclusively dispels another Barrett myth - that of the canny idealist who simply "walked away" from fame and lived happily, if silently, ever after. The truth is far sadder. After his return to Cambridge Barrett continued to live a quiet, withdrawn life and although he was far from the total casualty he was sometimes painted as (Chapman's quotes from members of Syd's family reveal that a little of the personality of the youth who fronted Pink Floyd carried into middle age) he was nonetheless a deeply troubled individual, never able to overcome his psychological problems.
A major part of the book is analysis of Syd's songs and this will be of particular interest to Syd fans with Chapman attempting to find Barrett's influences. Here, the author banishes the notion of Syd's music as mere "acid head" nonsense and instead reveals it as the product of a superb imagination and truly talented lyricist and wordsmith. This is what makes Barrett's ultimate withdrawal and psychological trouble so poignant, beyond the personal tragedy.
Overall this is one of the best biographies I've read; illuminating, sad and yet also uplifting. Well worth a read to any fan of Syd's.
on 7 August 2010
If there were anyone qualified to write a biography on Syd Barrett, then a former writer for the Syd fanzine has to fit the bill. Of the five Syd books I have this is by far the most authoritative and insightful, but not necessarily the best read. If you're only going to buy one, though, this would be it. What's wonderful about it is that he traces many of Syd's songwriting influences and where he stole his lyrics from. What's bad about it is that he seems keen to put down some of his fellow biographers and almost pointedly ignore aspects they featured - Tim Willis's book on Syd features photos and stories from his trip to Butlin's Skegness camp with his first girlfriend, Libby. There's no mention of this. He hardly mentions 'Iggy', Syd's "eskimo chains", the naked girl on the Madcap album cover that used to share a flat with him. Girlfriends after Libby get tangential mentions, as though they are peripheral to the core of the book, which is tracing where the musical and literary styles emerged from.
So, you have to accept that this is a brilliant, but very right-on treatment of Syd, keen to dispel myths about him and undermine accepted Syd stories. For instance just because no-one can agree the date of the 'melting brylcreem face' story it doesn't mean to say it didn't happen.
What this, like all the Syd bios fails to answer is: if he was getting hundreds of thousands of pounds from royalties every year - and millions after Echoes came out in 2001 - why didn't his family move him from his house, where Chapman maintains Syd was subject to regular unwanted intrusions, to a more private location? Who had financial control of his affairs? Is that such a difficult question?
The book is great on the literary hooks, but 'Crazy Diamond' and 'Madcap' are still worth reading to get a sense of the timescale of his career. There is so much reference backward and forward with 'Irregular Head' that at times it's difficult to work out where you are in the story. And where Chapman goes into detailed, long-winded psycho-analysis of Syd's predicament, one of the other bios simply quotes Pete Townshend as saying he thought "Syd was a bit of a mummy's boy".
The only Syd story I can contribute is that before I discovered Syd's music I was working on a farm in Trumpington,on the outskirts of Cambridge and one of the local lads who also worked on the farm, a real jack-the-lad who seemed to be able to wangle free punts from two or three colleges was always trying to get us to go to a pub to get a glimpse of Syd, "because he's always in there drinking". This was quite a few years after he'd left Floyd. I wasn't interested and we didn't go. But this was the summer of 1979. The book says he returned to Cambridge in 1982 - that's how difficult Syd stories are to pin down even for the most dilligent of biographers.
on 1 July 2010
This is one of the best book about Syd I have ever read. "A labour of love and deep-level research that strips away the layers of myth to recast Barrett as a musician, a poet and an English romantic", says the front page (Jon Savage's words), and I completely agree with this assessment. A must-read for anyone interested in learning about Syd as a real person, not as a nutty chap who once upon a time played in the band which he named Pink Floyd.
In my opinion, reading this book is almost as satisfying as getting into "Random Precision: Recording the Music of Syd Barrett, 1965-1974" by David Parker (for which I'll write a review soon). While David Parker's research is focused on studio works of Syd, there's little wonder that there is less info about this particular (but very important) area in Rob Chapman's work. I'd recommend buying these books in pair, to get a real, demystified picture about Syd's life, art, and music, and to learn about the attempts he made to resume his career as musician before his former bandmates started to call him Crazy Diamond.
on 18 November 2011
This is by far the best biography of Syd Barrett to date: it tells the tale concisely and clearly, and the quality of the writing is as far ahead of its rivals as Syd was ahead of the other band members. Like both of the other major attempts at a Syd biography, it's commendably researched: like Julian Palacios's "Dark Globe", it shows great compassion, particularly regarding the latter years; uniquely, it's actually well-written. It's also the only book that really captures Syd's unique humour (and demonstrates it was there right till the end).
Apart from the prose, Chapman also has the edge in his refusal to take myths and legends at face value, his rejection of easy but unusubstantiated generalisations about LSD and mental illness, and his acceptance that a writer with no psychiatric training has no place attempting to diagnose a condition that came on over 40 years ago in a person he never knew.
However, what really sets Chapman ahead of the pack, and would make this a great book even if there were no other Syd bios, is his determination to take Syd's art seriously, to understand its context, and to establish its importance. The fascination this small body of work has held for so many people for so long cannot just be ascribed to the "acid casualty" myth and sentimental attachments to the ideals of 1967: Chapman's analysis of what Syd was up to is a huge step towards defining exactly why he was a significant creative figure, and not just that freaky bloke who was in Pink Floyd before they were big. And it's also, you know, just interesting.
This analysis, as other customer reviews indicate, isn't to everyone's taste. That's a shame, but points to the only real criticism I could offer here - the book is probably not for the casual reader with a passing interest in Barrett and little prior knowledge. However, for those seeking understanding, rather than "just the facts, ma'am", this is the one to go for.
on 20 October 2011
A weird one this. On the plus side the book is very well-researched and quotes new sources for some of the explantions it gives, even although it suffers from having the interview co-operation of none of the Floyd. It does shine a light on some of the 'crazy Syd' stories and offers explanations as to their source in some cases (in one case, the author himself!) and debunks a load of others. Perhaps most significantly it paints Barrett as an artist whose seeming withdrawal fom music at the tail end of his days with PF as being both an expression of artistic minimalism (eg, banging away on one string at gigs) and as his disenchantment with them 'music biz' (eg, his sightless staring on the Pat Boone show).
The problem with all this is that the author tries valiantly to say that Syd was *not* insane at this point, but also has to concede that he lost it at some point (even his own family accept that Roger/Syd "isn't right") but doesn't really say when or how or why. That unfortunately undermines much of what the book is about, in that it merely shift's Syd's psychosis to some later date. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter one way or the other.
An interesting book and better than others on the subject, giving Roger Barrett a better and more sympathetic press than many others.
on 28 April 2010
A must read for Syd fans - the author Rob Chapman bravely tackles the mysteries of pop's greatest enigma in an enchanting fashion.
He charts Syd's idyllic childhood in Cambridge to the pinnacle of success in Pink Floyd and his downward spiral into obscurity. As Syd lived a 'half life' Chapman needs to fill in gaps wherever possible, and he does this skillfully, by exploring Syd's work against the background of 60's London.
Almost every single article about Syd in existence has been read and scrutinised. The author challenges many theories about Syd's influences - the common references to Edward Lear, Lewis Carrol and Kenneth Grahame are shook off as minimal, as its commonly held that Syd was more likely to take one small idea and go off on a tangent of his own.
Not always. Chapman discovers that Syd seems to have thieved the lyrics for 'Octopus' from Henry Newbolt's poem 'Rilloby Rill.' I never knew that and dont hold it against Syd because his twist was always a masterpiece. Chapman scrutinises every word and lyric, song by song, so its a real joy for the diehards.
The chapters names are lyrics of his songs, eg: 'Watching buttercups cup the light' such touches appear throughout the book.
The book title 'A very irregular head' is spot on and how Syd referred to himself in his last ever interview with Rolling Stone in 1971. Big feather in the authors cap to get Syd's first girlfriend Libby Gausden to open up her letters and quote them in the book!This is truly groundbreaking stuff and delightfully detailed. Tragic is the fact that she gave him Syd back his diaries and he burned them, which doesnt bear thinking about.
Chapman charts Syd's disintegration highly respectfully and much of the account seems to be accurate. Syd is said to have lost his mind in one weekend on June 2nd, '67: Dave Gilmour has always been the strongest source on this.
Some of the same faces are interviewed, including Syd's sister Rosemary, who also cooperated on the other extremely short biography by Tim Willis.
On a more critical note, there is not a lot of new information, but Syd was notoriously secretive. So with this in mind, the book exhausts what it can. There is much about the swinging 60's which fills in some gaps and appeals to all music fans
Although the book does examine the possibilities that Syd had schizophrenia.... its pretty well established that Syd was a sound synesthete (hears colours) and that fed directly into his music. Chapman has only mentioned this in one sentence.Considering the extensive way Chapman dedicated pages to so many other issues, this surely deserved more attention.
However, these are pithy criticisms. Syd fans will gobble up anything they can find on him. This book goes beyond the pale of enquiry. A must-have for music fans.
on 6 June 2010
This is the fourth Syd biography I have read having been a devotee since my teens and in some ways this is the best book written about him. The main flaw is also the main advantage of the book - by avoiding extensive input from the other band members, it allows the author to veer off into relatively fresh territory regarding the literary influences on Syd work - the unravelling of "Octopus" being particularly impressive research. The section exploding myths is also a highly interesting piece of work though those of us who have been Sydologists for yonks always thought of them as apocrhypal at best. The weaknesses of the book are in the analysis of the music itself and this is amplified by the absemce of commentary from the other musical players in the scenario - especially when considering the recording sessions of 1967, none of the books have given us a proper flavour of what the sessions were like and what the players themselves felt about the strengths and direction of the music. The absence is also noticeable in the analysis of later recording sessions. This is again a lost opportunity as even Nick Mason failed to go into any real detail in his own book and so we are still left with no real feel for how Piper and the later BBC sessions were conducted. To balance this there is plenty of analysis of the lyrics and I suppose that is always the flaw in a journalist rather than a miusician wiritng books about music, the musical analysis rarely rises above generalised assessments of technique. Shame. However, this is not a fatal blow to the book which overall is a good read and given the rabid intensity of Syd fans will no doubt be gratefully received. Somewhat reassuringly Syd and his music remains largely an enigma and this book leaves many questions unanswered which is hardly a bad thing as Syd himself said, "I'm not what you think I am anyway". Worthy but not definitive, give it a read. Three.
on 1 December 2010
A great read - I can't recommend it highly enough. Brilliantly evocative of the Sixties in Britain, amusing at times and finally unbearably sad, but brilliantly written throughout. If you've never heard a Floyd or Barret song, but have any interest in these heady times or the cultural history of Britain, you'll love this book - and then you'll want to listen to the songs.
on 4 December 2014
As an avid collector of pop music history, autobiographies, records and pretty much everything else it’s always good to add another book to collection, reading them however is a different kettle of fish.
As a fan of the Pink Floyd Syd Barrett era but very little after its one of several books I have on Syd and agree with the bulk of reviewers that it is a well written and informative book covers in plenty of detail the Pink Floyd era and up to the final abortive recordings of 1974. The only minor criticism of the book is Rob Chapman waxes lyrically on Edward Lear, Lewis Carrol and Kenneth Grahame, which though an influence on Syd and his song writing and probably art to a degree, it slightly reflects away from what actually happened during the mid-60’s through to his ‘disappearance from the ‘scene’.
With such a dearth of information on Syd from the early 70’s to his death in 2006, I suppose it would be down to his remaining family members to cast new light on his withdrawal from society and put straight the occasional tabloid intrusions over the 30 or so years he was back in Cambridge, and to understand if he regained any direction in his life and ultimately if he had any kind of happiness or content after the mad psychedelic years.
Not being a particular fan of post Syd Pink Floyd and certainly not a fan of Dave Gilmour’s music, at least it was good to know the usurper of the Barrett tenancy, turned out to be the protector of him and at least made sure he got the money he so richly deserved.
A Very Irregular Head is certainly worth a read and adding to your collection whether a Pink Floyd fan or just interested in music in general.
on 28 July 2011
Chapman has written an excellent book, which entirely avoids the `mythical approach' to Syd, so common in rock journalism, relying instead on a scholarly approach, fusing sociological, historical, psychological and literary prisms as a means of approaching Barrett's life and trying to understand who he was, and divining what moved his spirit.
Chapman has collected an impressive array of sources here - he has interviewed Barrett's sister, nephew, friends and girlfriends, as well as collecting quotes from previous band mates and years of obscure and mainstream press sources.
It is a most beautiful and moving book, and if you are at all interested in Barrett, then Id say it is a book you must have on your shelf, and it is a book to read, and re read, and treasure.
Its value is in its scholarly foundation, as well as in its emotional and spiritual worth. Chapman has totally by passed the absurdity and hagiography of the music press and produced a far deeper work of significant value.
One closes the book still left wondering and asking many more questions about Syd - Chapman's text does not pretend to have 'resolved the mystery' of Syd's world. But one feels lifted up by the spirit of Chapman's work, and further inspired by the poetic muse of Barrett.