Oh By The Way: A Saucerful Of Secrets

>> Friday, February 08, 2008

(For an explanation of what this series is, click here.)


Nobody's sure what happened to Syd Barrett. That is, people know, and they don't. A few years later, Roger Waters would write about Syd, "Nobody knows where you are, how near or how far"; a simple line that was true even though everybody in fact knew that Barrett was living in Cambridge, his hometown.


The common explanation was that he was an acid casualty, but the way things broke weren't the way they broke for any other acid casualty of the sixties. And it's been suggested that Barrett was schizophrenic, but if he was, he was an atypical schizophrenic. Someone even suggested autism a few years ago, and a few of Barrett's symptoms fit and the rest of them don't.


What can't really be argued is that, after the release of Pink Floyd's first (and, in a way, only, album), Syd Barrett began to act very strangely. He'd refuse to lip-sync songs on TV appearances ("miming," they called it then). He'd go on stage and play one chord tunelessly over and over again. For one infamous live appearance, Barrett ground a bottle of pills into his hair gel and slapped the mess over his head; under the hot stage lights, it all melted, covering Barrett's face in a hideous, gooey mask. He wasn't any better in the studio. He'd bring in a song and then begin endless rewrites while teaching the tune to the rest of the band, expressing frustration when they didn't get it.


Some people, who said they were his friends, egged him on. With more pills. With a crazier lifestyle. There's one story a journalist related about showing up at the house Barrett lived in and discovering that Barrett's housemates had locked him in a closet. They apparently thought this was pretty funny.


Roger Waters, Richard Wright and Nick Mason, the other members of Pink Floyd, were in their early 20s while all this was happening. Allow me to admit that I didn't start getting my own shit together until I was around 27 or 28, and let me add an accusation: if you say you were much different, I don't believe you. If you're reading this and you're actually in your early 20s, no offense or condescension is intended--but let me know how you feel in a few years. Anyway, the guys in the Floyd were still basically college kids, you know? With a crazy friend who--they couldn't help feeling this way (Nick Mason has even admitted it)--seemed hell-bent on sabotaging everything they had accomplished: the EMI record deal, the endless tours of Britain, the festivals, the gig at the UFO club, the first American tour, the whole shebang.


They tried. They really tried. They got Syd to talk to a shrink and they took him on vacations. They didn't really have access to the same kinds of clinics they have now, and I'm not sure they would have had the sense to get Syd locked away if they had. And, anyway, look at the train wreck that's Britney Spears' life these days--in a day of fast-food therapy and easy prescriptions, her folks can't get her to stay in a treatment program of any kind to save... well, to save her life, right? In 1968, what were a bunch of hapless wannabe rockstar kids really going to do about their crazy frontman?


When it was clear Barrett wasn't exactly going to straighten up, they tried plan B. "B" as in Beach Boys. Out in California, Brian Wilson had gone pretty much out of his head, but he could still write a beautiful tune. So the other Beach Boys left Brian at home--Brian had issues about touring anyway--and toured Brian's songs while he sat at home writing and recording more; it wasn't a bad thing, Brian seems to have liked that system. So the guys in the Floyd figured they could copy that system, maybe hire someone else to play guitar and sing, and maybe Syd could stay at home and write songs like the singles they had and the stuff on Piper. Yeah, it was a plan. Not a good one, but they cleared the first hurdle, at least. That was the fact that Barrett had this wild, eccentric style of playing guitar--especially slide guitar--and who were they going to get for that?


Well, actually, they knew a guy. There was this dude named David Gilmour who played in one of those mediocre-but-talented bands that wasn't going anywhere, a band called Joker's Wild. Joker's Wild had a bunch of really ace local musicians, but all they didn't seem to have much more than crappy covers in them in those days. Gilmour had a reputation for being able to do a spot-on imitation of anyone, and he actually was a good friend of Barrett's back in the day who had busked across Europe with him when they were teens. So they added David Gilmour to the lineup, and Pink Floyd was officially a five-piece.


A five-piece without any new songs. A five-piece with a label that wanted a follow-up album. A five-piece whose resident creative genius had gone a bit mad.


So Roger Waters and Richard Wright started writing songs. Desperately. And, necessity being the mother of invention and all, they discovered something.


They weren't that bad at it.


Matter of fact, notwithstanding the evidence of Waters' fumbling attempt to ape Waters on Piper with the song "Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk," Waters actually was a pretty good songwriter when he began to find his own voice. He didn't have Wright's gift for melody--or Gilmour's, as it would turn out--but he could come up with a catchy lyric and an occasionally clever bassline at the bottom of a song.


In 1968, the Pink Floyd went into the studio and recorded their second album, A Saucerful Of Secrets, it ended up being called. That ended up being the title track on the album, a twelve-minute instrumental suite that the band decided to record when they realized what they had ready to release was only around 25 minutes long. Gilmour later admitted he didn't quite get it and described Waters on the floor of the studio moving around little pieces of paper that represented parts of the whole. Maybe there was some thought that the band had to include a long instrumental on this album because they had one on the last album ("Interstellar Overdrive"). Regardless, it became a standard in the band's live sets for quite a few years.

The new album was a little more varied--some might say a little more aimless--than the first one. There was maybe a stab at fairy tales, Barrett's métier, in Richard Wright's "Remember A Day," but there was also the science fiction of Roger Waters' "Let There Be More Light." Waters borrowed liberally from a book of Chinese poems for "Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun," another song that remained in the band's setlist for years (and resurfaced frequently during Waters' solo setlists after he left the band). Richard Wright contributed a pastoral song about... well, it appears to be about incest, actually, called "See-Saw." Waters also took a stab at what might be his first antiwar song, a seriocomic depiction of a WWII vet called "Corporal Clegg." This was a subject Waters would occasionally return to over the years.

But the saddest contribution to the album appeared as the final track of the album. Syd Barrett contributed an intact song called "Jugband Blues." Here are the full lyrics:

It's awfully considerate of you to think of me here
And I'm much obliged to you for making it clear
That I'm not here.
And I never knew we could be so thick
And I never knew we 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?

("Jugband Blues," Syd Barrett, 1968 Westminster Music Ltd.)


Nobody who's ever heard this song has wondered who it was that was making it clear Syd wasn't there.

One evening, Pink Floyd was on their way to a show. Everyone had been picked up except Syd, and nobody noticed until the band was almost at the venue. The question was raised: should they go back and get Syd? Someone replied, "no." By "someone," I mean that Roger Waters has said it was "someone," and David Gilmour and Nick Mason have said it was Roger Waters.

And that was how Syd Barrett left Pink Floyd: he didn't get a ride.

They say that Syd would show up at shows and stand directly in front of David Gilmour, standing down in the front row, glaring up at the man who replaced him. Whatever ill-will there was didn't keep Waters and Gilmour from producing Barrett's first solo album in 1969 and Gilmour and Wright from producing Barrett's second, and last, solo album in 1970. After that second record, Syd Barrett was supposed to join a supergroup that was coalescing, called Stars, but nothing ever came of it and Barrett went home for good. He liked painting, and sometimes thought about taking up guitar again, and was sometimes photographed walking around Cambridge. If he wrote a song after 1974, it doesn't appear anyone ever heard about it. Roger Waters and David Gilmour and Richard Wright, meanwhile, sometimes wrote songs about Syd. They wrote them on Atom Heart Mother and Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here and The Wall and The Final Cut and The Division Bell, and Richard Wright wrote a song called "Pink's Song" that he couldn't get on any of Floyd's later albums, so he included it on his first solo effort, Wet Dream.

He sang,

Patiently, you watched us play parts you'd seen before.
Even then we sometimes asked, "Would you keep the score?"
Caught between the tangled web, you helped set us free.
Sadly then you lost yourself, so you had to leave.
And I must go, be on my way.
Let me go, I cannot stay.

("Pink's Song," Richard Wright, 1978 Pink Floyd Music Publ., Inc.)

Syd Barrett died in 2006, at age 60.

Side One

  • Let There Be More Light (Waters)
  • Remember A Day (Wright)
  • Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun (Waters)
  • Corporal Clegg (Waters)

Side Two

  • A Saucerful Of Secrets (Waters, Wright, Mason, Gilmour*)
  • See-Saw (Wright)
  • Jugband Blues (Barrett)


*Amusingly, David Gilmour's first songwrighting contribution to Pink Floyd
was credited to someone named "Gilmore."




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