Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Shine On, You Crazy Diamond

Johnny died one night, died in his bed
Bottle of whiskey sleeping tablets by his head
Johnny's life passed him by like a warm summer's day
If you listen to the wind you can hear him play
Don't you know, don't you know

Dont ya know
Dont ya know that you are a shooting star

Shooting Star: Bad Company

Rock and roll’s folklores are filled with tales of fame, fortune, excesses of life and the attendant self indulgent, which ultimately would culminate in self-destruction to those unlucky few, the “shooting stars”. “Johnny” was, and indeed, is a common name. Nobody knows exactly who “Johnny” was in the above song. But Jimmy Hendrix was born Johnny Allan Hendrix, and he did die in his sleep after taking alcohol with sleeping pills called Vesperax (or was it Asperax? – I am not too sure) causing him to choke on his own vomit. The period within which the song was written by Paul Rodgers also coincides with the death of Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Paul Kossoff (Paul Rodger’s guitarist in the group “Free”), Jim Morrison (The Doors) and John Bonham (Led Zeppelin). The song could thus be about rock and roll’s “shooting stars” generally. Those stars which would shine so bright, lit the night with such illuminating colours and lights, which would later dive into self destruction accompanied by a blazing trail of fire leaving behind a world awestruck by their genius and musical passion. Yes. Rock and roll’s folklores are filled with their tales.

Non however, would be sadder, more dramatic and more tragic than that of the “Crazy Diamond”.

“Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
Now there's a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
You were caught on the cross fire of childhood and stardom,
blown on the steel breeze.
Come on you target for faraway laughter, come on you stranger,
you legend, you martyr, and shine!

You reached for the secret too soon, you cried for the moon.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
Threatened by shadows at night, and exposed in the light.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
Well you wore out your welcome with random precision,
rode on the steel breeze.
Come on you raver, you seer of visions, come on you painter,
you piper, you prisoner, and shine!”

Shine On You Crazy Diamond(part 1): Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd was a little band with an identity crisis – having changed its name 5 times in one year – when Syd Barett joined them in 1965. Barett himself was born Roger Keith Barett and had adopted the name “Syd” after a local Cambridge drummer, Sid Barett. It was therefore only natural that the Cambridge University art student would change the name of the band he joined, “The Tea Set”, to “The Pink Floyd Sound”, by marrying the first name of two obscure bluesmen , Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. The band would later ditch the long version of their name for the now famous “Pink Floyd”. (And thank God for the name changes as I could not imagine an album as great as “The Wall” or “Dark Side Of The Moon” being released by a band called “The Tea Set”! – for that matter alone, I am indebted to Syd Barett!).

Nothing was amiss during his childhood as his pathologist (some say his father was a zoologist) father, Arthur Max Barett and his mother, Winifred, encouraged the young Roger to be active in music. He took up instruments such as a banjo, later played bass and ultimately settled for a guitar while delving into old blues and jazz. At the age of 14, he opted for the name “Syd” and from then on, rock and roll history book was to be written with a chapter named after Syd Barett with a cross reference to Pink Floyd.

Pink Floyd was a little band but by no means it was a struggling one. It was already playing numerous gigs or live performances with a cultish followings of its brand of psychedelic rock and the then underground progressive rock. Incorporated in its set would be psychedelic light shows and a long improvised version of songs such as “Interstellar Overdrive” which apparently would go on for half an hour in an LSD-fuelled jams. Pink Floyd’s place in the swinging London era was then well carved. The only thing that was wanting was an album.

The arrival of Syd Barett as lead guitarist, partnering his old pal, Roger Waters, the bassist, together with Nick Mason on drums and keyboardist Rick Wright ensured that a place in rock and roll super stardom would be reserved for Pink Floyd. Coinciding with his arrival, Pink Floyd would a little later engage a reliable management team consisting of Andrew King and Peter Jenner, who in turn befriended Joe Boyd, an American who was building a name in the British music scene for himself. Boyd produced a recording for Pink Floyd in January 1967 during which session Syd Barett’s “Arnold Layne” was recorded as a demo single. This single was later released and peaked at number 20 on the chart. Consider the lyrical simplicity and spontaneity of Barett’s lyric:

“Arnold Layne had a strange hobby
Collecting clothes
Moonshine washing line
They suit him fine

On the wall hung a tall mirror
Distorted view, see through baby blue
He dug it
Oh, Arnold Layne
It's not the same, takes two to know
Two to know, two to know, two to know
Why can't you see?

Arnold Layne, Arnold Layne, Arnold Layne, Arnold Layne

Now he's caught - a nasty sort of person.
They gave him time
Doors bang - chain gang - he hates it

Oh, Arnold Layne
It's not the same, takes two to know
two to know, two to know, two to know,
Why can't you see?

Arnold Layne, Arnold Layne, Arnold Layne, Arnold Layne
Don't do it again”

Arnold Layne: Syd Barett/Pink Floyd

Apparently, Arnold Layne was about a guy who used to steal underwear from Waters’ mom’s clotheslines. BBC would, upon its release, ban the song for its cross-dressing and transvestism themes. Be that as it may, Barett’s psychedelic work caught the attention of the fickle British music fans who was then accustomed to The Beattles, The Yardbirds et al. Pink Floyd’s music was driven by Barett’s improvised and free style guitar techniques coupled with a tight, and yet to a certain extent, indulgent, rhythm section anchored by Mason’s drumming and Water’s mastery of the bass. Rick Wright, on the other hand, would give an extra dimension to the band’s work on the keyboard.

Barett was an instant hit. He was technically gifted and added to that, he was an experimentalist. He loved exploring the sonic capabilities and possibilities of his guitar. One of his trademark was of course his mirror covered Telecaster Esquire, wired to a distortion and echo box, played by Barett by sliding his Zippo lighter on the fret board creating a rather mysterious and chilling out-of-this-world sound. He was, not unlike Jimmy Hendrix, a showman, ever ready to take centre stage in term of stage performances or creative inputs that one wonders what would have happened between him and the mega-egoistical Roger Waters had he not left, or rather been dumped from Pink Floyd. History would later show that Waters single-handedly destroy the balance of the band by demanding control of creative inputs and directions culminating in an acrimonious break-up.

Barett followed up the success of Arnold Layne with another single, “See Emily Play” which peaked at number 6 on the chart. Barret initially claimed that Emily was a girl he saw when he was hallucinating after a drug binge but he later admitted that he made up that story as a publicity stunt. Be that as it may, he might as well have written the song for himself, considering the theme of the song:

“Emily tries but misunderstands, ah ooh
She often inclined to borrow somebody's dreams till tomorrow
There is no other day
Let's try it another way
You'll lose your mind and play
Free games for may
See Emily play

Soon after dark Emily cries, ah ooh
Gazing through trees in sorrow hardly a sound till tomorrow

There is no other day
Let's try it another way
You'll lose your mind and play
Free games for may
See Emily play

Put on a gown that touches the ground, ah ooh
Float on a river forever and ever, Emily
There is no other day
Let's try it another way
You'll lose your mind and play
Free games for may
See Emily play”

See Emily Play : Syd Barett

It was reflective, to a certain extent. God knows whether Barett was feeling the pressure of rock stardom at the time the song was written. But the theme of a girl, who tried so hard to understand the world while being isolated, depressed and sad was, in retrospect, resonant of a lonely and hard life, despite fame and fortune. Put on a gown that touches the ground/float on a river forever and ever…how hopeless can one be?

The single Apple and Oranges followed soon after, also with a degree of success. Pink Floyd was by then a force to be reckoned with. It was perhaps inevitable that a full debut album was to be released, with Barett as a creative pillar behind it. The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn was recorded between January-July 1967 at Abbey Road with Barett penning 9 of the songs and co-writing another 2 out of the 11 songs in it. It was an instant hit with the album hitting number 6 on the UK chart although a much limited success was achieved in the US. Nevertheless, Pink Floyd was by now developing a large following and was deeply entrenched in the psychedelic and progressive rock world. And the pressure was just building up for Barett.

In fact Barett was already displaying a certain degree of, what was then thought as, eccentricity while The Piper was being recorded. Barett was then known to be heavily on dope, acid , Mandax (or Mandies, as known to junkies those days, a hypnotic tranquillisers) and of course psychedelic drugs such as LSDs coupled with alcohol. There were in fact allegations that he was being “fed” with drugs although David Gilmour, who would later replace him in Pink Floyd, said that Barett would not need any encouraging if drugs were available to him. Sue Kingsford, Barett’s one time one-night stand once said, “We were all feeding it (drugs) to each other. It was a crazy time”.

David Gilmour would later recount how he had met Barett while “Emily” was being recorded. Syd didn't seem to recognise me and he just stared back,' he says. 'He was a different person from the one I'd last seen in October.' Was he on drugs, though? 'I'd done plenty of acid and dope - often with Syd - and that was different from how he had become.'

Whatever it was that Barett was taking, or suffering, the effects were soon beginning to manifest itself on and off stage. Barett would increasingly hate to perform “Emily” and “Arnold” as he did not want to be stuck with the standard 3 minute something “pop” song. During live performances, he would, in a middle of a set or song, suddenly detune his guitar until the strings were flapping and he then hit a note and held that note all night with the echo-machine at full steam! He would, some other time, just stand on stage with his hands by his side, the guitar hanging from his neck, staring blankly at nothing while his band mates played on. Perhaps he was exploring his artistic boundaries. The crowd loved his antics. Or perhaps he was sick. Plain sick.

After the release of “The Piper” in August 1967, Pink Floyd was on a mini US tour in November. And things could not get any worse. The band was not really prepared for the US tour in the sense that it was expecting things to be the same with England. They found out that they had to play at big venues supporting bands such as Holding Company (led by non other than Janis Joplin). They found out that Americans were not really into feedbacks or English psychedelia. Barett would still hit just one note per night or just standing without doing anything at all. When he played, it would be a different tune altogether.

Back in the studio, Barett would turn up one day with a nice new composition titled “Have You Got It, Yet?” for the band to practise. According to Waters, the band thought the composition was quite nice and they set to practise it only for Barett to change the arrangement in the middle of the practice. While practising the newly altered version, Barett would again arbitrarily change the arrangement again and he would the same repeatedly while asking the band “have you got it, yet?” It was only then the band realised that Barett was being cute and stopped practising the song!

It was in the US that the famous Brylcream incident happened. Apparently, Barett had had his hair permed at Vidal Sassoon. And badly too. He hated it. He thought that the “punk” style he had been experimenting with suited him better. And so, he poured a whole tin of Brylcream onto his head in the dressing room. He then crushed a handful of Mandrax and put it onto his hair. David Gilmour however suggested that Barett would not have wasted any “Mandies” but apparently the Mandax addition was confirmed by a lighting man. He then rushed onto the stage and under the heat of all the lightings, the Brylcream melted and ran down his face, making him look like a “gutted candle”! Looking at him as if he was decomposing on stage, with the crowd screaming, apparently enjoying his antics, some of the band and crew apparently abandoned the place for drinks. Later, arriving from San Francisco at Las Vegas, Barett would forget to bring his guitars, fall into a swimming pool and left his wet clothes behind.

Coming back to England, the band was supposed to play with the likes of Hendrix for 3 weeks. Barett could not perform and he had to be stopped from running away on a train. The band struggled along with a borrowed guitarist from another band. It was at this time that Messrs Waters, Mason and Wright hatched a plan. They were to ask Gilmour, a long time pal of Waters and Barett, all form Cambridge, to stand in for Barett. Gilmour was known to be an excellent guitarist and being broke and was driving a van for a living, he accepted a try out. On stage, Gilmour would play and Barett would just walked around or pretended to play. There was no input whatsoever from Barett. On the way to their gig one night, they decided not to pick Barett up. And Gilmour had, on that night, effectively replaced Barett. Barett’s days, as a co-founder of Pink Floyd, and the creative pillars behind the band, were effectively, though not officially, ended that night.

Gilmour thereafter replaced Barett as lead guitarist of Pink Floyd. Barett was obviously hurt by this turn of event. He would turn out at the band’s gigs and sat in front while staring at Gilmour. The band later recorded a second album titled A Saucerful of Secrets in 1968 which included Barett’s Jugband Blues. During the recording, Barett would sometime wait outside the studio to be invited to play. He however was resigned to the fact that he was no longer wanted. In Jugband Blues, he wrote, "It's awfully considerate of you to think of me here/And I'm most obliged to you for making it clear/that I'm not here", as the song opens.

In March 1968, it was officially announced that Barett was no longer a member of Pink Floyd.

By autumn of 1968, homeless and probably broke too, Barett would sometime go back to his mother’s house in Cambridge. When in London, he would crash at his friends’ flat, sometimes with disastrous result. After leaving, or was left out of Pink Floyd, Barett recorded 2 solo albums, “The Madcap Laughs” and “Barett”. He did perform live once with David Gilomour, among others, accompanying him on the bass. It was in 1970 at Olympia Exhibition Hall where they played 4 songs. Due to poor mixing, the vocals were inaudible and at the end of the 4th song, Barett politely put down his guitar and walked off stage.

He later formed a band called “Stars” but it was short-lived. He went back to Win’s house in Cambridge in 1981 and his mother managed to persuade some of her wealthy friends to take Barett as a gardener. He did become a gardener but during a thunderstorm, he threw down his tools and quit. He came back to London briefly before going back (walking all the way to Cambridge!) to Win’s house in 1982 where he led a reclusive life and was almost not seen again, ever again, by the public. His sister, Rosemary, became his only contact with the outside world. That year too, he reverted to his original name “Roger” and would refuse to “talk about Syd”.

The heart wrenching drama of Syd Barett however unfolded in 1975, when Pink Floyd was recording the album “Wish You Were Here” which contains among others, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (part 1 and 2). Shine On you Crazy Diamond was a tribute to Syd Barett by the band, which had never managed to banish its memory of Barett’s contributions and influences to the band. While recording the song, a plump bald man walked into the studio and sat down. Nobody knew who he was. He had shaven all his hair off, including his eyebrows and he would jump up and down of the sofa while brushing his teeth all the time. When the band members found that the guy was actually Barett, Waters shed some tears. It was as if by design, that Barett would appear in that state while the band was recording “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”, a tribute to him. Years later, in 1986, when Pink Floyd released a movie version of the album “The Wall”, there would be a scene where Pink, the lead character in that movie (played by Bob Geldof) was shown completely shaven, including his eyebrows. That scene was inspired by Syd Barett’s visit to the studio in 1975.

Barett continued to receive some royalties for his works with Pink Floyd which Dave Gilmour would ensure get to him. He later was diagnosed with ulcers and type 2 diabetes. He was in and out of hospitals for his ulcers. When Win died in 1991, he destroyed and burnt all his diaries and art books. He painted, collected coins and cooked. He died of pancreatic cancer and complications of diabetes on July 7th 2006 leaving an estate of 1.2 million pound will-ed to his 2 brothers and 2 sisters.

As it turned out, he suffered from schizophrenia. All the drugs and alcohol had just exacerbated his conditions leading to his apparent psychotic behaviour on and off the stage.

Roger Keith “Syd” Barett. The Crazy Diamond. Shine on. For your days passed you by like a warm summer’s day. And if we listen to the wind, we would still hear you play.

May God bless your soul. And may you rest in peace.

Note: The 1st photo is of a young Barett. Wonder whether the black Telecaster is the famous guitar which would later be covered with mirrors. The 2nd picture is the house in which Barett lived till his death in 2006. It was taken after his death. It was later sold for 120000 pound to a French couple who apparently did not have a clue of who Barett was and the significance of the house.

Acknowledgements:
The Guardian
Wikipedia
The Syd Barett Appreciation Society
allmusic
and all the footnotes in the various articles published in the above sites.

4 comments:

Daef said...

Art, another bloody brilliant piece. I loved it. More damn you, More!!!

Krishna said...

Art, loved this. And the level of detail! I thought I knew Barett and Pink Floyd but.....

Yusuf/Martin said...

The band's identity crisis was small compared to that of Syd's.
People say that there is a very fine line drawn between genius and insanity and Syd Barret is a good example of that. Some people claim that it was drugs which caused his breakdown, that and being unable to handle the fame which his talents produced. But there is convincing evidence that Syd had already been a sufferer of schizophrenia long before he wandered off from Pink Floyd, and that it was this illness and not drugs which caused his retreat from fame and music.

Syd lived near me in Cambridge. I never met him unfortunately.

A couple of points though.....

Pink Floyd played at both the UFO and Middle Earth clubs in London during the late 1960s with Syd and later in 1968 in Hyde Park free concert without him....I was there as a young Hippy.

art harun said...

Yusuf,

Ur da man...you must be the few lucky ones who could state with authority that you have seen Syd and Pink Floyd live!

1968! I was still learning how to catch fighter fish in the nipah swamp man...