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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Syd Barrett: Barrett


1) Baby Lemonade; 2) Love Song; 3) Dominoes; 4) It Is Obvious; 5) Rats; 6) Maisie; 7) Gigolo Aunt; 8) Waving My Arms In The Air; 9) I Never Lied To You; 10) Wined And Dined; 11) Wolfpack; 12) Effervescing Elephant.

General verdict: A last-minute nursing assistant attempt to squeeze genius from madness.

Surprisingly, Syd's second and last studio album, sanctioned by EMI in light of the positive response to Madcap, actually sounds a little more like a regular pop/rock record than the con­fused mess that Madcap represented. Doubtless, this has to do with the slightly more cohesive nature of the recording sessions: spread over five months rather than an entire year, and with a permanent backing band, which included Gilmour, Wright, and Jerry Shirley on drums, plus a couple guests here and there. This does not mean that Syd himself was in much better shape: according to David's and Rick's memories, the sessions largely consisted of them following Syd around and trying to bottle up occasional flashes of genius emerging from the general decay — with mixed results, to say the least.

They did eventually come up with the idea of laying down their own basic tracks and letting Syd play or sing against them, which explains why so many songs this time around have steady rhyth­mic grooves that you can tap your foot to — one reason, perhaps, why some people prefer Bar­rett to its predecessor. The problem with this, of course, is that you can never tell if the final result was something that Syd really wanted himself; but, clearly, it was either that or nothing, and overall, I remain amazed at the kind of sacrifice these guys were making for their poor old friend — more artistically satisfying, perhaps, than changing the diapers on an immobilized patient, but also far more depressing.

That said, it is interesting that the three tracks laid down during the first session, February 26, are almost normal — even Gilmour reportedly noticed that and became afraid that they were losing the «Barrett-ness»... so he immediately rushed out and got Syd a pack of Mandrax, just to make sure. (Well, I did make up that last part, so don't get any ideas). ʽBaby Lemonadeʼ and ʽGigolo Auntʼ could have both made excellent singles, with their upbeat attitudes, catchy choruses, and clearly, if briefly, returning Mother-Goose-on-speed spirit. Granted, ʽGigolo Auntʼ runs out of lyrical ideas midway through and becomes an extended blues jam, with Syd in surprising control of his electric lead (Gilmour restricts himself to bass), not quite able to come out with a smoothly flowing solo, but at least consistently staying in key and sometimes churning out «biting» licks that clearly show the spirit was still there. The first half, however, is a nifty little Brit-pop nugget, once again touching upon the complicated and rather psychotic relations between Syd and the female sex: that line about "I almost want you back" is subtly cutting, as it encapsulates the man's tormenting indecisiveness about everything.

On the opposite side of the fence from ʽBaby Lemonadeʼ and ʽGigolo Auntʼ is ʽMaisieʼ, a dark, gloomy blues tune that is essentially Syd's personal tribute to Howlin' Wolf — he even adopts the deepest, bassiest tone that he is capable of for the performance. The groove is never allowed to develop into anything larger than just a groove, but it is interesting to see Syd actually doing impersonations: judging by the style of Madcap, you'd think that theatrical artistry would be the very last thing on his mind at the time. Yet he was strong enough to put on a couple faces for these sessions, and pretty cool faces at that — I'm sure Captain Beefheart, of all people, would have appreciated the grumpy grumble of "Maisie... Maisie... bad luck... bride of a bull...".

As time went by, though, control and focus were inevitably lost, and already tracks like ʽLove Songʼ and ʽIt Is Obviousʼ sound like unfinished ramblings, hastily molded into some sort of shape by the rhythm session of Gilmour and Shirley but, perhaps, more treasurable to us in their rawest form — a hypothesis that you can verify for yourself, since the CD edition of Barrett comes loaded with bonuses, including early acoustic takes on both of these songs and more. Both of them are really just okay in any form, but the man did hit the nail on the head with ʽDominoesʼ: the single saddest moment of this entire record is hearing Rick's quiet, mournful organ swirl by as Syd utters the line "you and I... you and I and dominoes..." Somehow that one line just perfectly captures the idea of total isolation and seclusion, more so than ʽDark Globeʼ or ʽLate Nightʼ, just by way of its tranquil melancholy and obedient submission to one's doom.

One might take offense at Gilmour and Wright's decision to end the album with ʽEffervescing Elephantʼ, a brief nod to circus / music hall music with lyrics that would make Dr. Seuss blush; however, they did so more or less in their own tradition (ʽBikeʼ, remember?) — one final bit of deflation always works wonders for serious statements, and, who knows, perhaps they saw the song as a good luck charm of sorts: with Syd actually writing at least a few songs on general absurdist themes rather than about his own sorry condition, one could entertain a very weak hope that one day he'd be strong enough to snap out of it...

Alas, that day never came. Who knows what might have become of Syd Barrett, had he actually made it and regained a bit of psychic health? Could he have gone on to become a wise and humble and ironic singer-songwriter, something like a UK equivalent of Randy Newman? Would he have embraced New Wave and hired Robert Fripp to play on his sessions? Or are these idle and meaningless questions, since the man was destined not to outlive the Sixties, having died in spirit, if not in body, around the same 27-year mark as Janis, Jimi, and Jim? Whatever be the case, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett together constitute a short, strange, and — when you carefully consider the context — rather terrifying artistic legacy that, hopefully, will not be forgotten as long as people still cut off their own ears and run around naked in the rain and snow.

1 comment:

  1. I love Madcap from start to finish, but I never really got into the sequel. Maybe I'll give it another spin.

    John Frusciante is apparently a big Syd fan (his early solo albums had that half-insane, half-lovely blend like Syd's):