The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, July 12, 2006
"And I'm most obliged to you for making it clear that I'm not here."

The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn was the third album I ever owned, after Abbey Road and Let It Bleed, and I wanted my own copy because, as a six-year old, my favourite book was The Wind In The Willows, and that seventh chapter (along, to a lesser extent, with its ninth) is what makes the book something more than a cosy fairytale retelling of Homer; something inexplicable but majestic, a forlorn attempt to express the inexpressible - and I have wandered these Cookham and Maidenhead riverbanks, know Port Meadow intimately, and can feel and recognise the screen of wonderment. Not to mention the railway line which runs across one edge of Port Meadow, where, one morning in the 1920s, the body of Kenneth Grahame's son, for whom the book had been written, was found under a train.

Song titles like "Lucifer Sam" and "Scarecrow" seemed derived from the blues which Pink Anderson and Floyd Council had purveyed, but instead of darkness and dirt, Barrett's Floyd transposed these into English fairy tales, post-Milligan/Leacock/Carroll children's entertainments where the most sensible course of action is to ignore or bypass sense. "Interstellar Overdrive" took the essence and tactics of AMM - they shared management with the early Floyd, and Barrett was a vocal champion of theirs, hiring them as the Floyd's support act, sigh those were indeed the days my friend - and brought them as close to pop as anyone has ever managed (with Wright's descending organ figures in tandem with Barrett's starflash guitar also foreseeing and influencing Escalator Over The Hill, paid for in part with Pink Floyd money). Then the record ends with Barrett getting a bike and ringing it, and himself, into an eternity of a sort.

The subsequent story scarcely needs repeating here and has been told far more succinctly and profoundly by others. But note that on Piper, Barrett was already slowly demolishing - or, to be more precise, elasticating - the construction of the post-Beatles pop song; already rhythms were liable to derailment, tempos altering whenever he felt like it. Those stratagems - if indeed he perceived them as such - become more naturally apparent on the more exposed solo records (as with Astral Weeks, the band had to come in later and overdub/improvise around his basic tracks). Or Barrett could simply have thought that, since Charley Patton never had any problems with changing horses mid-song stream, there was no reason why he couldn't either. That might be a charitable explanation. But on Madcap, if perhaps not so on Barrett, the voice is unsullied, eager, profound, the songs' drift irresistible if you're sturdy enough to swim with them. As with Skip Spence's Oar there is a general driftness towards non-existence, but "Terrapin" could almost be the link between Noel Coward and Barry White; the elements of psychedelia spun out to infinite lengths and pauses, the song itself taking over five minutes to stutter itself to completion, the feeling more important than the direction (if any) it's taking. The Joyce adaptation "Golden Hair" is so perfect in its minimalist unmade final episode of Twin Peaks aura that even Slowdive couldn't add anything to it. The involvement of Soft Machine on "No Good Trying" underlines the importance of good and alert improvising musicians towards making the music work (especially Robert Wyatt on drums, who typically never stops listening and reacting, and is sublime) but Gilmour and Waters do a good enough job elsewhere. More mordant meditations ("Long Gone," "Late Night") suggest a man in possession of the full knowledge that with every pluck of his plectrum he's subtracting a year from his lifespan.

And then a little more, and then nothing much, and then a simple nothing; 35 years of a life whose unapologetic quietude defies analysis or snooping. He was not a poor man when he died; Gilmour and Waters made a point of ensuring that he got all of his royalties, and reputedly even gave him a cut on the Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here royalties on the entirely justified assumption that "no Syd, no records." Still, even if they didn't, Piper has never stopped selling, and neither has A Saucerful Of Secrets, bearing its one Barrett appendage "Jugband Blues" with its bemused, improvising Salvation Army band alternating with quiet but not quite stark acoustic non-sequiturs from its author.

And the Floyd never escaped Syd; listen to Ummagumma, perhaps their best record, with its brutalist and decidedly improv-friendly live cuts and its quatrain of solo studio constructs through all of which Barrett's silver strands bleed; or to Atom Heart Mother, which, via Ron Geesin's brass arrangements, takes the "Jugband Blues" template and runs with it (and astonishingly gave them their first number one album) - while as for the Moon, the Diamond and the Wall; all are products of emotional damage limitation which in their simple complexity bear down with acidic heaviness on the cold rationalist '70s of Britain; all are about not becoming Syd, or coming out of being Syd, or not ending up like, say, BS Johnson, who wanted the world to be perfect (i.e. mirrors of him) and finding the inevitable disappointment, did away with himself at around the time Dark Side Of The Moon was on its first rise (I am reading Jonathan Coe's biography of Johnson, Fiery Like An Elephant, at the moment, and goodness do I see parallels - but I'm not telling you with whom; not yet, anyway). Eno made several attempts to get him back in the studio. He was first on the wishlist to produce Never Mind The Bollocks. Contemporaries like Vashti Bunyan and Bill Fay came back, cheerful and unharmed. Everybody from Daniel Johnstone via Lou Barlow and Damon Albarn to Plan B owes him. He ignored or more likely missed it all. Like Beefheart, he latterly saw himself as a painter first (did it matter if no one ever saw his paintings?) and as a musician a distinctly distant second. But he was the reason people cried at the Floyd Live8 reunion; his is the ghost behind the millions who bought and listened to Dark Side and took no notice of its actual message; and his angle on pop is what played a major part in formulating my own. So I recall him in the same way as I recall going to the old Bothwell gas showroom, underneath the massive gasometer, with my mum to pay the gas bill aged three or four; those blurred snapshots of infancy which can never be relied upon completely, but without which subsequent life could not hope to be defined. He was, and remained, different; and sometimes that's just enough.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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