Recently music memes have been popping up quite a bit on Facebook and other places. I was reflecting on whether to do one of those when I realized that some songs were closely related to specific years in my life. Sometimes a song can set up a sympathetic resonance with a certain time or event in a way that thinking of one brings the other into focus.
With this in mind I decided to take the last 20 years and pick out a song for each one which vividly caused that vibration in time for me. As I went through those two decades there were some runners-up that were so deserving that I can’t help but comment on them as well. Lastly, just to make this as confusing as possible, I’m going to take them out of sequence and just choose an entry for a year that catches my fancy that day. Eventually all 20 years and (almost) 20 songs will get their moment.
“I’ve got a very irregular head”
Had Roger Keith “Syd” Barrett not withdrawn from the world of music and lived a quiet, modest life for the remaining 36 years he may have just been a footnote to the history of the band he named Pink Floyd. Like Nick Drake, who was a contemporary, this story involves mental illness, reclusiveness, and a small loyal fan base that never let him be forgotten altogether. Often either characterized as a genius who fell to pieces or as a moderately talented artist whose demons led him to drugs and career immolation the truth about Barrett’s life is the mean of those views. In short, Syd Barrett burnt brightly as the creative force behind Pink Floyd’s earliest work only to drop out of the band and then music due to mental illness likely intensified by heavy drug use. It was Barrett’s compositions which created the memorable psychedelic-tinged early Floyd hits like “Bike” and “See Emily Play.” Erratic behavior led to him being eased out of the group starting with A Saucerful of Secrets, their second LP. A brief solo career ensued resulting in two albums: The Madcap Laughs and Barrett (both released in 1970 although Madcap was based on recording from ’68 and ’69.). After having little success with those and a few aborted later ventures he left music for good to garden and paint at his mother’s house in Cambridge until he died in 2006. He never recorded again. Early on in his self imposed exile he attracted a fervent fan base and a mythical persona which made spotting the recluse a notable event. The “Syd Barrett Appreciation Society” even self-published a fanzine, Terrapin, in the mid-70’s to keep his memory alive. Once again like Nick Drake the influence that Barrett had on music was felt but never acknowledged until after his death with quotes like these:
“The few times I saw him perform in London at UFO and the Marquee clubs during the 60s will forever be etched in my mind. He was so charismatic and such a startlingly original songwriter.” –David Bowie
“I wonder what music would be like if he’d never lived.” – Guy Garvey (Elbow)
As far as my introduction to Syd Barrett is concerned it came about due to the popularity of the band he once led. You couldn’t live during the era that saw the release of Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall without having some exposure to the music of Pink Floyd. The Wall was one of my first purchases in 1984 on that newfangled “compact disc” format. Related events like Laser Floyd at concert venues were an institution that gave teens a purpose for being stoned. Seeing and listening to all this gave me an interest in the earlier works of the band where I discovered the story of Barrett’s career with them. I picked up the first Pink Floyd album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and heard music I liked that didn’t have the current lead singer, Roger Waters, at center stage.
Years later in 1988 I came across the album “Opel” at a record store and purchased it. A compilation of unused takes and unreleased tracks from Barrett’s solo years its immediate appeal to me was the rough, sometimes unfinished, feel of the songs and vocals. He had a talent for writing pieces that would wedge themselves into my head either through lyrical playfulness or blunt emotional force. Later that year I acquired his two solo albums which while more finished still had that ember of instability which made his work interesting.
Listening to this now in comparison to some comparable music of the time like The Soft Machine, Ken Ayers, or Nick Drake I find that Barrett’s solo work seems like a cross between the singer/songwriter and psychedelic genres. He made music that is fragile by way of haunted and in a general sense reflected the aimless and confused feelings I had struggling with early adulthood. The track Opel is the one I listened to most and remember best with its elongated semi-wail that Syd Barrett sings in the final passage. Simple lyrics indeed, but the delivery was what I never forgot:
I’m trying to find you
To find you
I’m living, I’m giving,
To find you, To find you,
I’m living, I’m living,
I’m trying, I’m giving