Thursday, July 13, 2006

There's Someone in My Head, But It's Not Me

If you'd like to scroll down past the news and get right to Red Hook Red's unique memorial to Syd Barrett, I wouldn't blame you. Red is actually too dark a color for him: stick him and he bleeds pink. The man knows more about Pink Floyd than any other human or animal I know. First, though, just a couple of notes on today's news.

The nation of India took a hellacious hit Tuesday—nearly 200 people were killed in the terror bombings in Mumbai. But on Wednesday, their living returned to work and life. They did not nuke Pakistan, send troops into Kashmir to start blowing things and people up, they did not strike out or ramp up or proliferate destruction. They just carried on, in the hope that their police will do the job of nabbing those that committed the atrocities against Mumbai and its people. They are the victims of terror, to be sure; but they are not reacting so as to inflame the problem. Instead, they are acting to solve it.

Are you listening, Israel? Does this strike a chord with you, somewhere deep down? Or are you, like the American government, so drunk on destruction that you cannot see what is directly before you?

Another Enron guy turns up dead... Nope, nothing to see here, folks...just go back to bed and whisper your conspiracy theories under the covers...

How Democracy Works: Everybody keep an eye on Mexico this weekend, if you want to see democracy (remember that?) in action. The people are rising up to demand a fair counting of their votes. What is needed, really, both there and right here in America, is a system that allows for the formation of a coalition government in cases where a vote is a virtual tie. We already know the alternative: have at least half the people of a nation forced to live with the rule of a government they didn't vote for.

In the Blogosphere: Eric Alterman takes off the gloves on Novak. About time someone did.

My Daily Kos diary has been updated with another entry from my Life Lessons in a Time of War series. It's now a book, if you're interested in this sort of thing. I know it's not for everybody (hell, it's not even for most bodies).

And I know I've been tough on Mr. Zidane this week (he has deserved it); so I should note now that he has apologized for being a stupid lunkhead. Unfortunately, he did what many people do when they apologize: instead of letting their regret flow freely, they qualify it with rationales. This fellow claims he was only acting "like a man," because the Italian guy was dissing his Mama and his sister. No, pal: you were acting like a mindless oaf, and you could have killed or done serious damage to another man, clouting him in the sternum like that. Let's just leave it there; I'm sure you have your book deals to close and your checks to cash.

And now, Red Hook Red arrives back at the blog, with a retrospective on the life and career of Syd Barrett.

Crazy Diamond

Few musicians have made themselves truly legendary in one year and with only one year, but that’s exactly what the late Roger Keith “Syd” Barrett accomplished. That year was 1967, when his band Pink Floyd became the darlings of London’s psychedelic underground scene. (The band’s distinctive name was conjured spur-of-the-moment by Barrett, who needed to replace their old one – The T Set – because it had already been taken, and did it by combining two of his musical influences: obscure bluesmen Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.) Syd was already beginning to come off the spool, ravaged by the pressures of fame and his overindulgence of drugs, when the Floyd hit the singles charts with Arnold Layne, and after a disastrous tour of the U.S. in 1968, he was out of the band and off to a reclusive life in Cambridge, replaced by his childhood friend David Gilmour. But for that one glorious year, Syd produced music as unique as anything ever heard in modern pop music.

Syd’s classic songs – Arnold Layne, See Emily Play, Flaming, The Scarecrow, Bike, and Astronomy Domine are lyrical, melodic, beautiful, whimsical, sometimes violent, and possessed of a thoroughly British charm as well as a child-like insanity that proved to be all too real. His guitar playing was frantic, chaotic, squalling and utterly inventive. His final tracks with the Floyd and his solo material – the small amount he was able to produce after he left the band – are a tough listen. The flicker of his genius is there, but his dissolution is all too evident as he falters and drifts – “Vegetable man, where are you?” he asks in a song he composed about himself. Scream Thy Last Scream (Old Woman With a Casket) is utterly frightening because his onrushing mental illness is so vividly real. And his plaintive final words as a member of Pink Floyd – heard on Jugband Blues from their second album A Saucerful of Secrets – are truly haunting:

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.
And I never knew the moon could be so big
And I never knew the moon could be so blue
And I'm grateful that you threw away my old shoes
And brought me here instead dressed in red
And I'm wondering who could be writing this song.

I don't care if the sun don't shine
And I don't care if nothing is mine
And I don't care if I'm nervous with you
I'll do my loving in the winter.

And the sea isn't green
And I love the queen
And what exactly is a dream?
And what exactly is a joke?

Syd’s departure inspired the themes that the Floyd later explored with great style and enormous success – madness, absence, the soullessness of the music business – as well as a fair amount of survivor’s guilt. They frequently acknowledged their founder and friend as the years went by – Shine On You Crazy Diamond being only the most well-known and powerful instance. Meanwhile, Syd’s small musical output combined with the Floyd’s legendary status was enough to make him an icon to a devoted cult of fans who produced a regular newsletter about him even though he retired to his mother’s house and refused to speak of his days with the Floyd or produce any more music. His songs were covered by Robyn Hitchcock, who sounds eerily like Syd, and the subject of several books – a compelling example of true genius thwarted that left his admirers always hoping in vain for more.

It’s fascinating to ponder what the Floyd would have become had Syd remained healthy. The band’s most powerful works -- Dark Side of the Moon, Animals, The Wall, The Final Cut – are entirely the products of Roger Waters’ vision of the world combined with the ethereally powerful musical sensibilities of Dave Gilmour and Rick Wright. (Wish You Were Here is a forlorn not to Syd in the wake of the band’s milestone triumph, Dark Side…) Syd was nowhere near as angry or political as Waters, but he was as musically innovative as Gilmour, Wright and drummer Nick Mason, so his Floyd likely would have been noticeably sweeter but as weird as they were in their Ummagumma -- Atom Heart Mother - Meddle era.

As a longtime Floyd fan, it hurts to say that Syd very likely would have been long forgotten if the Floyd had not kept his memory and legacy alive within their subsequent music. But that’s not to deny the originality or power of what he was able to create in the warm, bright window of (relative) lucidity that was 1967. I know I’ve never heard anyone quite like him.

Alone in the clouds all blue.
Lying on an eiderdown.
You can't see me, but I can you.

Lazing in the foggy dew.
Sitting on a unicorn.
No fear!
You can't hear me, but I can you.

Watching buttercups cup the light.
Sleeping on a dandelion.
Too much!
I won't touch you, but then I might.

Streaming through the starlit skies.
Travelling by telephone.
Hey ho here we go!
Ever so high...

Alone in the clouds all blue.
Lying on an eiderdown.
You can't see me, but I can you.
-- Flaming

—Red Hook Red

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