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SYD BARRETT – HIS BOOK (1964/65) by Andrew Rawlinson
I was at school with Syd in Cambridge. He was a couple of years younger than me, which is a lot at school, but he lived just round the corner from Roger Waters, and Roger and I were in the same class.
When Roger and Syd (and Geoff Mott of the Mottoes, who went to the same school) started playing music, I used to go along to listen. I was more into Surrealism, happenings and concrete poetry myself but Syd was interested in all this as well. Our heroes were Burroughs and Kerouac, Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage, the films of Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage. It was heady stuff.
Participation was essential. Happenings included the audience: the event was the people who were there. In like spirit, I bought a large map of the world, copied the outlines of 40 or 50 countries onto sheets of paper, sent them to various people with the instruction, ‘Decorate this how you like and send it back to me’ – and stuck the countries back on the map. Result: a group creation, one that nobody could predict. Syd got Russia, I think – the biggest country in the world. He painted it light blue all over. (I don’t know what happened to that world – it just disappeared.)
Syd took to these experiments with relish. So when I sent him a book I’d made, he sent back FART ENJOY as a ‘reply’ (or maybe the sequel). I’m not sure about the exact date. I know where I was living, so that places it between the end of 1964 and the summer of 1965. He was in London (Tottenham Street I think, not Earlham Street) and I was in Cambridge. I don’t suppose it took him very long – he was always a fast worker. It’s seven sheets of cardboard held together by sellotape.
It’s also a little gem and as good a reflection of the man himself as I know: experimental, colourful, wide open and right on the button. He used the cut-up technique several times (‘Lieutenant Lunch Date’ and ‘Post Office Tower’), sometimes with nursery rhymes as an implied backdrop (‘Sprat Locket Patch’. ‘Hark!’). Origin of Floral Structures’ splices together a textbook and Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Jeremy Fisher. The collages and paintings are exactly like the words: a mixture of austere-bordering-on-abstract and what could be called blazing whimsy. (Just like his music).
‘Add a Mark’ is typical participatory art’. ‘Divided Self’ is a list of synonyms from a thesaurus (and you read into it what you like about Syd’s self). I’ve no idea what ‘Topical’ is about. And as for ‘Dear Roge’, I always thought it was a real letter he just copied out. Now I’m not so sure. It could be a spoof that is indistinguishable from the real thing. If it is, it fooled me.
Quite a few rock’n’rollers have tried their hand at writing and painting. Syd is different from them all. He’s far more accessible than Dylan’s unreadable Tarantula (which must be a cut-up though I’ve never seen any proof) but a lot tougher than Bolan’s sword-and-sorcery romance or Jim Morrison’s self-conscious indulgences. He’s quite as experimental as Henry Rollins and Lydia Lunch (thought not as angry) – or as Lennon and Eno, come to that (though they worked harder at it). He certainly isn’t as ‘serious’ as Nick Cave, Pete Townshend, Leonard Cohen (who’s had a whole volume of criticism written about him, for crying out loud) or Patti Smith (the pick of the bunch). But then Syd’s a sprinter not a long-distance runner. (Or perhaps it would be better to say that he’s a decathlon-er; doing several events at the same time.)
As for the painters, he’s way beyond the amateur-cum-doodlers like Dylan; John Entwhistle, Nick Mason. And he’s far more original and experimental than the ‘serious’ artists like Don Van Vliet/Capt. Beefheart, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simonon. Of course, they are trying to build up a body of work which he wasn’t. Yet you feel he coulda been a contender.
But nobody in the rock world has ever integrated words and images like Syd or produced anything quite as fresh and complete as this. Syd did it in a day or two at the age of 18 or 19.
So what happened to him? It’s an obvious – and an easy – question to ask but just because I knew him doesn’t mean I can answer it. He was one of the sunniest individuals I’ve ever met. Brimful of talent. He could turn his hand to anything and it would work. He never had to sweat over anything. “I don’t seek – I find” as Picasso said.
One of the symptoms of LSD overload seems to be that the connections between things disappear. (Don’t ask me how or why, especially as the main effect of a ‘good trip; is that things get more connected.) I wasn’t around while Syd was cracking up (although I met him several times afterwards, when he was in pieces) so I don’t know if that’s what happened to him. But it seems he couldn’t connect anything up anymore – a fantastic loss for someone for whom words, music and painting were really just different facets of a single brilliant orb.
There is a view that Syd was a doomed hero who went too far and got lost. As I see it, he was only just beginning. He was an explorer but not a survivor. He didn’t know how to protect himself. He wasn’t tough or careful. He was an innocent who tried one thing too many and it did him in. I wish I could say more – but there isn’t any more.
I’m not expecting his book to fill the void. But a light shines in it, through it, nonetheless.
Labels: Syd Barrett Fart Enjoy