A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett By Rob Chapman Da Capo Press, 480 pp., $28.
Even the casual Pink Floyd fan knows all there is to know about Syd Barrett, right? Manchild cult-figure forms the band, takes too much LSD, fries his brain out, is left to drift away, then spends nearly four decades as a recluse in his mother's English village house?
The guy who appeared on stage with Brylcreem and crushed Mandrax tablets crushed in his hair? The guy who magically appeared - fat and ghostly - in the studio at the very moment that his former band was recording "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," their tribute to him?
Well, it turns out that thanks to rock mythology and the need of a good story, all the circumstances above - and just about everything told and retold about Barrett's life - is an uneasy combination of truth, exaggerations, hazy recall, and outright fiction. Chapman aims to set the record straight in the man, the madness, and the music in this one volume.
Drawing in scores of interviews - including some of Syd's close friends and family who have only opened up since his 2006 death from cancer - Chapman's portrait of Syd and his life is much more intricate and nuanced than the zoned-out acidhead of popular lore. And though no of Pink Floyd members spoke to Chapman for the book, he utilizes their quotes from other sources.
The book does have a few weaknesses, including a tendency to read dryly. And perhaps due to the paucity of Syd's musical output - basically the first Floyd record and two solo releases - Chapman spends a lot of pages detailing Syd-related but non-musical areas like the Cambridge counterculture, children's literature, and drug, psychology, art, and poetry movements and history. Some readers will likely skim these sections.
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Sadly, the man who just wanted to be left alone to paint and tend his garden was often the victim of "doorstop ambushes" from "fans" and the media who would get Syd to open the door (often under false pretenses) so as to gain a word, a signature, or snap a photo of a startled, middle-aged man who certainly did not resemble the Madcap, nymph-like boy of years before. Tellingly, given the Barrett family's involvement, no photos of this kind are shown.
A Very Irregular Head will likely go down as the "definitive" Barrett bio, and is certainly of interest to hardcore Syd and Floyd fans. More casual listeners may want to look a general bio like Nicolas Schaffner's Saucerful of Secrets or Mark Blake's Comfortably Numb.