Syd Barrett biography is essential reading

Rob Chapman
“A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett”
Da Capo Press, 978-0-306-81914-8, Hardcover, 480 pages, $28

By Gillian G. Gaar

This is the first biography of Pink Floyd founder Roger “Syd” Barrett that has the cooperation of his family, which alone makes it essential reading for Floyd- and Barrettophiles. Chapman explores Barrett’s upbringing more thoroughly than ever before, adding to his portrait by quoting extensively from Barrett’s writings of the period, such as letters to his first girlfriend. He also paints an evocative picture of London as the ‘60s began to swing, and what it was like in those precious few months before the scene went mainstream.

Chapman also tries to place Barrett in the historical context of literary tradition, referring back to writers who painted with similar imagery, such as A.A. Milne, Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, and especially Kenneth Grahame (whose book “Wind in the Willows” provided the title for Pink Floyd’s first album, “Piper at the Gates of Dawn”). It’s a device that’s interesting at first, but gets over-used, to the point where it becomes tiresome. Chapman also makes curious observations about Barrett’s gradual withdrawal from the group he founded, writing that it’s better for Barrett to have faded from view rather than deteriorating into a lesser musician stuck playing secondary venues. Which rather willfully overlooks Barrett’s accompanying mental deterioration; perhaps it would’ve been better for Barrett to have remained mentally healthy, whatever else he may (or may not) have been doing musically.

Chapman does unravel a number of myths, even as he adds to the mythologizing of Barrett’s legend. It would be interesting to know if Barrett’s work will survive the passage of time, as Robert Johnson’s, who had an equally small output, has. Chapman makes the case that he will. But even he concedes it’s unlikely anyone will ever know what exactly made Syd Barrett tick.


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