Syd Barrett, le rock et autres trucs...
The best Pink Floyd book I've read in years is of course Mark Blake's Pigs Might Fly. Don't tell this to his friends and relatives but I know from a reliable source that he prays at the Holy Church of Iggy the Inuit from time to time.
The funniest book about the Floyd are the memoirs, not of Nick gentleman drummer boy Mason, although they are good for a chuckle or two, crusty apple pie indeed, but those of Guy Pratt. About a third of My Bass and Other Animals colours pink as Guy joined the diet Floyd, although diet was not exactly the right word to describe the intake of Mr. Gilmour at that time, on their A Momentary Lapse of Reason world tour. Pratt has a very weird kind of humour and one of his pranks was an attempt to crash the Pink Floyd tour plane by frantically running up and down the corridor, in mid-flight! Normal bands have a tour bus; Pink Floyd has a tour plane and the drummer was flying it. If you don’t want to read the book, you can watch an interview where Guy tells about his Floydian encounters.
The best, best as in anoraky, Syd Barrett biography is Julian Palacios' Lost in the Woods, he is a silly bugger if you ask me as he invited the Church on the SBRS forum. Around this time a second (more condensed, I’m afraid) version of his book should finally appear. So far for this commercial break-up.
Speaking about Barretthings, the amount of Syd related books is slowly overhauling the man’s solo output and recently two new ones (in French) have made it onto my desk. Written by Jean-Michel Espitallier, Syd Barrett, le rock et autres trucs, looked the most promising. It doesn't claim to be a biography but a personal rendition, part essay, of a French Barrett connoisseur.
In my opinion France and rock go together like Germany and humour, Italy and efficiency, Belgium and world soccer finales but this one, I hoped, could be an exception as Mr. Jean-Michel Espitallier is not only is a devoted Barrett fan, but also the translator of the French edition of Tim Willis' Madcap biography, a renowned minor poet (dixit Francis Xavier Enderby) and drummer of the French rock band Prexley? (although that last is not exactly a reference, see above).
The title is a nice pun, un jeu de mots, as it can be interpreted as rock and other stuff but also as rock and other tricks. That is why I preferred to start with this tome instead of the other French Barrett book lying on my desk, called The First Pink Floyd, already deserving the price for lamest title of the year.
Stuff & tricks
It is 30 November 2004 and Jean-Michel Espitallier is nervously strolling around St. Margaret’s Square hoping to get a glimpse of the man who was once known as Syd but now prefers to be called Roger. When Syd-Roger drives by (in his sister's car) and the vehicle has to stop at the crossroads - I deliberately use this term here - where Jean-Michel is sitting on a bench, both men meet in the eye and both pretend, for a couple of minutes, not to see the other one. This anecdote sets the tone of the book, marvellously described by the drummer who can't hide his poetic roots. Strong stuff. Nice trick.
I once remarked at the, now defunct, Astral Piper forum that I couldn’t understand the romantic feelings some female Barrett fans had for Syd. I mean, this guy was a slightly disturbed diabetic senior and if I should have asked them to have a fling with my grandfather they would’ve been insulted… Espitallier is aware of this dichotomy and compares Syd Barrett to Peter Pan. Syd was a Cambridge youngster who refused to grow up and died in the early Seventies when he, like Icarus, reached for the sky too soon. After all these years, fans were still hoping to find a glimpse of Syd, although only Roger had survived.
From old aged Roger it goes to old aged rock. Espitallier makes the point that we have forgotten about the My Lai massacre but only remember its soundtrack. Good Morning Vietnam has turned into an infomercialised cd-compilation (I have a Tour Of Duty TV-Shop-six-pack myself). Television documentaries use The Mamas and The Papas to comment napalm warfare. We look at a vintage take of an American soldier who has just placed a bullet through a women’s head but all we discuss is Suzy Q by the Creedence Clearwater Revival. Although the above is not really new, innovative or original, it is good to see it in print from time to time.
Jean-Michel Espitallier is not always well informed. I can forgive him that he mistakes the Dutch designer duo Simon Posthuma and Marijke Koger for a couple of Germans but when it comes to Syd some facts should better have been checked before putting it into print. That Mick Rock did not shoot the cover of The Madcap Laughs is perhaps stuff for anoraks (Mick Rock himself has more or less hinted he was behind it anyway, a fact that Storm Thorgerson denies) but the story that, shortly before his death, Syd Barrett found a guitar from his brother-in-law and started strumming it can be found in the Mike Watkinson & Pete Anderson Crazy Diamond biography, that appeared 15 years before Syd Barrett passed away. And that particular anecdote probably dated already from a few years before it went into print. There are so many myths about Syd Barrett that one doesn’t need to create new ones.
It is perhaps understandable, the man is a poet and not a biographer. His book is about the Barrett phenomenon and not about the historical Barrett.
Lost in translation
Jean-Michel Espitallier writes : Il y a la musique qui nous rentre dans le cerveau musical et il y a la musique qui passe directement dans la poitrine…
Espitallier not only has been hit in the stomach by Syd’s music but received some hits on the head as well, resulting in some serious brain damage. He heard his first Syd song in 1973 and remembers it as Babe Lemonade; actually it is Baby Lemonade. And Jean-Michel’s lethargic song title memories keep on going on. Barrett’s James Joyce adaptation is baptized Golden Air (not Hair) and Syd’s final Pink Floyd statement Jugband Blues is changed to Jugband Blue. A couple of decades ago I started reading a promising French novel but quit after a dozen pages because the author kept on insisting on a Beatles’ song called Eleanor Rugby. Things like that make me grind my teeth. It makes me even wonder if Jean-Michel Espitallier is a real Barrett fan or a mere fraud trying to cash in, like a few others, on the Barrett legacy. For Ig’s sake, it just takes a 10 seconds look on a record sleeve to see if a title has been noted down without mistakes.
The book ends with a list of creative geniuses who stopped being creative at a certain point in their lives. One of these persons is the 19th century poet Arthur Rimbaud, who stopped writing at 21 and proclaimed: Merde à la poésie! I would like to end this review with: Merde au poète! But let’s have a look at the pros and cons of his Syd-hiking first (bad pun, I know)…
Pros: instead of the umpteenth biography this book is a personal journey from the author through music, art and literature, using the Barrett legend as a guide. Interesting viewpoints about music, fandom, culture and politics are intertwined with nice wordplays such as ‘Bob Dylan had a Plan Baez’.
Cons: actually Jean-Michel Espitallier gets more Barrett song titles wrong than he gets them right. At a certain moment I even thought he did it on purpose, the man is a poet after all.
I used to have this philosophy teacher who subtracted points from our exam results if we made spelling mistakes. Although we were angry with the man in those days I can now see he had a point (our points, actually). So out of 10, Syd Barrett, le rock et autres trucs gets an 8 for its content, but I feel obliged to subtract at least 5 points for its many mistakes.
...it is silent in here. Did a poet pass or did someone fart?
Espitallier, Jean-Michel: Syd Barrett, le rock et autres trucs, Editions Philippe Rey, Paris, 2009, 192 pages, 17 €.
Note: This book grew out of an essai radiophonique Jean-Michel Espitallier gave on radiostation France Culture on 4 November 2007. Called Syd Barrett Quand Même it can be found on the (interesting) French Floyd fansite Seedfloyd. Webbrowser version: http://www.seedfloyd.fr/article/syd-barrett-quand-meme. Direct downloads in MP3 or WMA format can be found on the same page.