Thursday 13 July 2006
It was the summer of love in 1967 when I went on a "Blind Date" with Syd Barrett,
writes Chris Welch [further to the obituary by Robert Webb, 12 July]. It wasn't a romantic tryst, more like one of the last episodes of Cilla Black's darkly comic TV shows. Syd was beautiful and Syd was charismatic, but he wasn't very communicative. At least that's what the go-betweens who set up the meeting foretold.
Amongst all music folk of those madcap days, Syd's name was spoken with awe. An enigmatic "underground" hero and clearly a genius, he had changed the whole mood of the times with songs like "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play". If one could imagine Bob Dylan morphed into Pete Doherty, his was that kind of sensuously infuriating personality.
In fact Syd wasn't so monosyllabic. Barrett could be as chatty as Pete Townshend or Ray Davies about his songwriting skills. He had happily told Nick Jones of Melody Maker about the meaning of his first Floydian hit single, written about a transvestite. Said Syd:
"Arnold Layne" was a nice name and fitted well into the music I had already composed. Arnold just happens to dig dressing up in women's clothes. A lot of people do - so let's face up to reality. There's nothing smutty about it. The music is all coming straight out of our heads and it's not too far out to understand. Most people understand that what we play isn't just a noise.
Unfortunately, the pressure of being a Floydian figurehead clearly became something of a burden and Syd's behaviour was increasingly unpredictable. Venturing outside their spiritual home in London, the group sometimes found themselves pelted with beer bottles. Syd responded by standing on stage and simply scraping his strings. He refused to co-operate with his record producer and distanced himself from a music world he began to regard as a joke. That's when I went to interview Syd at an EMI recording studio at the behest of his managers Andrew King and Peter Jenner. Maybe they thought it would be a kind of therapy.
Would that I had asked him about his life, his problems and copious use of LSD. Instead I was sanctioned to conduct the Melody Maker's regular "Blind Date" feature. This meant lugging along a portable battery-powered gramophone and playing him the latest singles. Yet the surreal set-up intrigued and amused Syd. I had been warned to expect a human vegetable or a madman liable to explode into a frenzy of auto-destruction. Instead I found a worried, frightened man. As we talked I calmed him with soothing words and noticed his managers peering through the control room window at us and muttering, "Syd's talking to him . . ."
What helped prevent a communication breakdown was my choice of records. The idea was to play the track and elicit comments before revealing the name of the artist. The first song played was "Trying to Forget". Syd said: "I don't know who it was. Well let me think - who's dead? It must be Jim Reeves!"
He began to laugh with delight until I played him David Bowie's latest pop platter, "Love You 'Til Tuesday". Syd stared at me with a haunted look and launched into a cold, angry diatribe:
Yeah, it's a joke number. Jokes are good. Everybody likes jokes. The Pink Floyd like jokes. If you play it a second time it might be even more of a joke. Jokes are good. The Pink Floyd like jokes. I think that was a very funny joke. Very chirpy. But I don't think my toes were tapping.
And then he smiled. He was playing the games that drove others to despair. It was a sweet date but I don't think I could have survived a tour with Syd.
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