2010-11-26

Dark Blog

Sad Barrett
Sad Barrett, by Felix Atagong.

Dark Globe by Julian Palacios.

A while ago it was announced at the Holy Church of Iggy the Inuit that Julian Palacios' long awaited Syd Barrett biography Dark Globe (Full title: Syd Barrett & Pink Floyd: Dark Globe) had finally appeared in web shops all over the world. Palacios' previous work Lost In The Woods already dates from 1998 but is (was) still a classic work about Barrett.

Dark Globe 2010 is not an amended or appended Lost In The Woods, Palacios didn't use the easy trick Mike Watkinson & Pete Anderson fell for when they re-issued their Crazy Diamond biography, leaving the (many) errors uncorrected and just adding an extra chapter about Syd Barrett's passing. But I wouldn't go as far as the one critic who claimed that Crazy Diamond is full of 'unsubstantiated nonsense' and that it should come 'with a government health warning on the dust jacket'. Crazy Diamond still takes a soft spot in my heart as it was the first attempt at a serious Barrett biography.

Mojo January 2011 review.
Mojo January 2011 review.

But back to Julian Palacios. For those who want to immediately know if Dark Globe is worth the investment, rather than meandering through this review, I will quote Kiloh Smith from Laughing Madcaps:

Just finished Dark Globe and... it's the best book about Syd Barrett that was ever written. I'd say that Dark Globe is my favourite, followed by Crazy Diamond, with A Very Irregular Head taking up a distant third. (Full review at: sydbarrettpinkfloyd.com)

Probably this is the first time in history that Kiloh and I share the same opinion, but he is not the only one praising Palacios. Fleeting Glimpse gives the biography a perfect 10 and quite rightly so. And Mark Paytress from Mojo also has some nice things to say (see left side image).

I once noted down that the art of writing biographies is not in adding details, but in weeding out the superfluous. Palacios is not entirely of the same opinion and that is why my review took so long to appear here. Dark Globe is packed with details, quite an anorak's dream, and it does need some concentration. In my case I found it better to savour the different paragraphs, one at a time, sometimes even going back a bit, than to read the book in one big afternoon chunk.

Palacios has unearthed details that no one has ever found or published before and, this has to be said as well, not all of those are relevant to the average Barrett fan.

Postman Syd

Did you know that Syd Barrett had a job as a postman in his teenager years, delivering Christmas cards during the holidays? I didn't. Not only does Palacios reveal that but he also points out that the underwear fetishist who was immortalised in Pink Floyd's first single Arnold Layne could have been a Royal Mail post van driver.

Those familiar with the Pink Floyd's early history remember that the band lived, 64-65-ish, in Mike Leonard's house, an architect who introduced the amateurish R&B gang to light-shows and avant-garde music. Leonard also played a mean piano and replaced Rick Wright for a while, what made him think he was a member of what was ironically called Leonard's Lodgers.

Every student who has been living in a community knows that, sooner or later, food will start disappearing. Stanhope Gardens was no exception to that and Rick Wright used to keep his morning cornflakes inside a locked cupboard, fearing that Roger Waters would otherwise steal his beloved morning cereals. The mystery has lingered on for over 4 decades but Julian Palacios has finally discovered who really nicked Wright's breakfast: not Roger Waters but a boarder named Peter Kuttner. Utterly irrelevant but fun to read. The only fear I have now is that Roger Waters will probably write a concept album about it once he finds out.

Not all of this biography reads like a biography. At certain points Palacios can't hide any-more he is a writer at heart, with poetical streaks, obviously regretting that he wasn't around in those underground days. What to say about this:

The face came out from under the murky swell of psychedelic oil lights, like a frame around a picture. A pale, handsome face with thick silky hair and a white satin shirt. Something bright and small seemed to twinkle in his eyes, vanished, then winkled once more like a tiny star. (p .118)
Dark Globe, Julian Palacios.
Dark Globe, Julian Palacios.

Palacios adds many song descriptions and can get quite lyrical about chord progressions. Personally I can't be bothered as I don't hear the difference between an A and an F anyway. These parts read like a Korean DVD recording manual to me but I suppose that any amateur musician will enjoy them. Julian has been doing more than his homework and for many early Pink Floyd songs he traces back musical or textual references (today we would call that sampling), but he isn't too snotty to give due credits to where they belong.

Palacios has an encyclopaedic musical knowledge and halfway the book I regretted I didn't note down all songtitles he cites. Songs Barrett liked, songs Barrett played and rehearsed in his youth, songs that influenced some of his later work. Adding these would make a nice cd-box, not unlike the cover disks Mojo magazine sometimes issues.

Arnold Rainey

Julian's observations can sometimes be a bit über-detailed. Arnold Layne, the famous song about the cross-dressing knicker-thief, contains a slight musical nod to the 1928 Ma Rainey song Prove It On Me Blues, not coincidentally another song about cross-dressing. As I am tone-deaf - a condition I share with Roger Waters, so it mustn't be all bad as he made a fortune with it - I don't hear any familiarity between both musical pieces but blues scholar John Olivar says there is and Julian Palacios acknowledges it. I simply believe them.

Other links are easier to grasp for a simple man like me, like the fact that Jennifer Gentle (the protagonist from the Lucifer Sam song) can be traced back to a medieval ballad where it goes:

Jennifer Gentle Christmas Carol
Jennifer Gentle Christmas Carol.
There were three sisters fair and bright,
Jennifer, Gentle and Rosemary...
And they three loved one valiant knight—
As the dow [dove] flies over the mulberry-tree.
1974 Session Log
1974 Session Log.

There is one single remark in Palacios book that would create a small storm if its subject happened to be Lennon or Hendrix. In August 1974 Barrett recorded some demos for a third album that never saw the light of day. Barrett had no new songs and he just tried out some blues variations like he used to do more than a decade before in his mother's living room. Initially the 1974 demos were noted down as 'various untitled oddments' and the individual titles these tracks have now were given by producer Pete Jenner to distinguish the different parts. In Boogie #1 (there is also #2 and #3) traces of Bo Diddley's Pretty Thing can be found back. In January 2010 Palacios found out that the track nicknamed John Lee Hooker is in fact a rendition of Mojo Hand from Lighting' Hopkins. That particular titbit didn't even provoke a ripple in the usual stormy Barrett pond.

Palacios adds layers on layers of information. If you happen to be amongst the dozen or so readers who remember the 1989 Nick Sedgwick novel Light Blue With Bulges you might have wondered who was the beatnik behind the espresso machine (and with his hands in the till) of a famous Cambridge coffee bar. Don't look any further, Palacios will tell you exactly who operated the espresso machine, how the coffee bar was called and even more... reveal the brand of the Italian espresso machine... only... I would like to pass this information to you but I can't find it back right now as... and here is my biggest dissatisfaction with this book... Dark Globe contains no index.

Rollodex

In the past I have written some harsh words about biographies and reference books that omit an index:

Unfortunately the book [Pink Floyd FAQ] has got no index, what duly pisses me off, so if you want to know something about, let's say: You Gotta Be Crazy, there is no other way to find it than to start reading the bloody thing all over again. So called biographies (…) and reference books without an index (or an alphabetical or chronological filing system) are immediately put aside by me and won't be touched again. Ever.

I know for sure that Prince Stanisla(u)s Klossowski de Rola, better known as Stash, is cited in Dark Globe. But if I urgently need this information for a post at the Holy Church, to answer a question on the Late Night Syd Barrett forum or just to ease my mind, I will only be able to consult Palacios' (now defunct) 1998 biography Lost In the Woods (pages 186-93), Mark Blakes' 2007 Pigs Might Fly (pages 81 & 99) or Rob Chapman's 2010 A Very Irregular Head (p. 278) although that last insists to call the dandy prince de Rollo.

Dark Globe is by near and by far the best Syd Barrett biography ever, but not having an index is (in my awkward opinion) unforgivable as it diminishes its traceability near to factor zero. And that's a shame... I do know that indexes are but a geeks' dream and that most people don't bother with those, but my ultimate wet dream consists of reading bibliographies that have half a dozen footnotes per page. Maybe I am the problem?

Alternative timeline
Alternative timeline, by Felix Atagong.

No 4 Yes

With hindsight it is easy to call Syd Barrett a genius, but not everybody was of that opinion in 1966. Here is what Peter Banks, from Syn (a precursor of progressive rock-band Yes) had to say: “Whatever night they played was the worst night of the week. (…) A bunch of guys making noise and wearing make-up.” Perhaps that is why Nick Mason quipped, years later, that Johnny Rotten would have looked quite ridicule in a 'I hate Yes' t-shirt.

Pink Floyd was probably not the best band of the psychedelic bunch, but they surely were the loudest, even outdoing The Who in volume at the Psychedelicamania happening on the last day of 1966. A reporter of the Daily Mail, armed with a sound meter, reported on 'pop above the danger level' and warned for permanent damage to the ears.

In just a couple of months Barrett had not only shifted from quiet blues to avant-garde 120 decibel hard rock, he also traded his daily cup of earl green tea for LSD, mandrax and generally everything that could be easily swallowed or smoked.

The previous reads kind of funny but it is an infinite sad story that has been underrated by witnesses, fans and biographers alike. All kind of excuses have been used not to turn Barrett into a hopeless drug case: his father's death, the pressure of his band-mates, managers and record company, even the stroboscopic effect of the liquid light shows... (although of course all these things may have weakened his self-defence). In my opinion, Julian Palacios manages to get the tone right and he consecrates some poignantly written paragraphs to the darker side of the psychedelic summer.

Dysfunction

In April of this year the Church of Iggy the Inuit published the We are all made of stars post. The article tried to remember two people of the early Floydian era: Ian Pip Carter, a long-time friend of Gilmour and a Floyd-roadie who had to fight an heroine addiction for most of his life and; John Paul Ponji Robinson who tried, in vain, to find inner piece in eastern mysticism.

Palacios adds another Cantabrigian: Johnny Johnson, who in a paranoid, probably drug-infected, streak jumped from a six-storey window, survived the fall, but would eventually commit suicide a few years later.

Hendrix, Morrison, Jones and Joplin: 'each victim to the Dionysian excess they embodied'. Alice Ormsby-Gore: overdose (her friend Eric Clapton had more luck). Julian Ormsby-Gore: suicide. Paul Getty: heroine paralysed him for life. Talitha Dina Pol, his wife: overdose. The list is long and those who survived were not always the lucky ones...

Although there are still people who think that Syd Barrett turned avant-garde during the Floyd's first tour in America, Nick Mason, in his typical no-nonsense style, put it otherwise:

Syd went mad on that first American tour. He didn't know where he was most of the time. He detuned his guitar on stage. He just stood there rattling strings, a bit weird even for us. (Cited in Dark Globe, but originally taken from a May 1994 Mojo interview.)

Barrett's situation reminds me of an Alice Flaherty quote I encountered in a recent Douglas Coupland novel:

De-romanticizing Dysfunction:
All the theories linking creativity to mental illness are really implying mild disease. People may be reassured by the fact that almost without exception no one is severely ill and still creative. Severe mental illness tends to bring bizarre preoccupation and inflexible thought.
As the poet Sylvia Plath said, 'When you're insane , you're busy being insane – all the time when I was crazy , that's all I was.
Barrett's Psychiatry Textbook
Barrett's Psychiatry Textbook.

Trip to Sanity

There is the somewhat romantic viewpoint of Duggie Fields, but basically it tells just the same:

He (Syd) could lie in bed thinking he could do anything in the world he wanted. But when he made a decision that limited his possibilities.

The problem, for those who follow the hypothesis Syd had a problem, was that for Barrett there weren't any possibilities left, although record company, colleagues and friends mildly tried to lure him into the studio or invite him for an impromptu jam. But to paraphrase Sylvia Plath: Syd was too busy being insane, and all the time he was crazy that was all he was able doing.

While at different forums people are arguing, even today, that hallucinogenic drugs are harmless Palacios retaliates by simply listing musicians who had to fight drug-related-burn-outs:
Peter Green,
Roky Erikson,
Chris Kefford,
Shelagh McDonald,
Skip Spence,
Brian Wilson...
It took these people literally decades to crawl back to normal life after years of misery. Also Barrett hoped to overcome his condition one day as was proven by a handwritten note in his copy of The Oxford Textbook of Psychiatry. Syd bloody well understood what was wrong with him and we – the fans – don't fucking know how hard it was for him.

A dark spot that even Palacios can't clarify is 'Syd's lost weekend' that roughly went from 1975 to the early Eighties. The first 400 pages describe Barrett's public life from the mid-Sixties until the pivotal event in 1975 when Syd entered the Wish You Were Here recording sessions. The 30 remaining years of his life are dealt with in a mere 40 pages. Even for Palacios there is nothing to dig. (Rob Chapman managed to add some anecdotes from Barrett's Cambridge life – although some are disputed while you read this - but he didn't unearth anything new about Syd's Chelsea Cloister days either.)

Spot the 1 difference
Spot the 1 difference.

Atagong Strikes Again

The following paragraph will probably not add any points to my Barrett reputation scale, already at ground zero level, but who cares. Just before publishing this text I checked the official Syd Barrett website to see if Dark Globe, the biography, is mentioned there. It isn't.

It comes as no surprise as its main function apparently is to sell t-shirts, even on the discography page you'll look in vain for the latest Barrett compilation 'An Introduction to...' (review at: Gravy Train To Cambridge). I am pretty sure its web master knows everything about Flash ActionScript but is unable to recognise a Barrett-tune even if whistled through his arse. When the site started in December 2008 (a temporary page had already been present a few weeks before) it managed to get the release dates wrong from all known Syd Barrett solo albums. Yes, both of them. It is not that Barrett has been as prolific as Frank Zappa who released records for breakfast.

Fan art was mistakenly published as genuine Syd Barrett art and the bibliography contained a non existent book that had been designed as a joke by former Late Night member Stanislav. Even today slightly photoshopped pictures can be found on its pictures page. Apparently the official Syd Barrett website moguls have got no problems that their main source of income swallowed pills by the gallon and fornicated everything female within a 3 miles radius but depicting Syd Barrett with a cigarette in his mouth obviously is a bridge too far.

Clearly I am getting too old for this hobby of mine but I hope I got the message through that Syd Barrett is a bit more than a cheap shirt. Dark Globe by Julian Palacios more than proves this and contrary to my threatening promise of above I'm immediately going to read it again.

Conclusion

A certain Felix Atagong calls himself laughingly the Reverend of the Holy Church of Iggy the Inuit. But now he realises: Julian Palacios is our prophet. And Dark Globe is our holy book, but I wouldn't mind an index though.

Palacios, Julian: Syd Barrett & Pink Floyd: Dark Globe, Plexus, London, 2010.
443 pages, 24 photo pages.
ISBN10: 85965 431 1
ISBN13: 978 0 85965 431 9.
Amazon (UK) link. (The Church is not affiliated with or endorsed by this company.)

Sources (other than the above internet links):
Blake, Mark: Pigs Might Fly, Aurum Press Limited, London, 2007, p. 143.
Chapman, Rob: A Very Irregular Head, Faber and Faber, London, 2010, p. 336.
Coupland, Douglas: Player One, William Heinemann, London, 2010, p. 223. Coupland himself cites from a Alice Flaherty book called The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain.
Music score taken from: Riddles Wisely Expounded (pdf document).

Thanks: Göran Nyström.


Other Pink Floyd related books that were trashed by the Reverend can be found here:
Pigs Might Fly by Mark Blake: Si les cochons pourraient voler…
Pink Floyd by Jean-Marie Leduc: Si les cochons pourraient voler… 
Syd Barrett, le premier Pink Floyd by Emmanuel Le Bret: Barrett: first in space!
Syd Barrett, le rock et autres trucs
by Jean-Michel Espitallier: Cheap Tricks 
A Very Irregular Head by Rob Chapman: The Big Barrett Conspiracy Theory 
On Felix Atagong's Unfinished Projects:
The Rough Guide To Pink Floyd by Toby Manning: The Rough Guide To Pink Floyd 
Pink Floyd FAQ by Stuart Shea: Pink Floyd FAQ