Sunday, February 12, 2012

Missed? Syd is/was/will be

As talented as Syd Barrett undeniably was, his solo output highlights the issues that surrounded his departure from Pink Floyd.

What were those issues? Scattered performances, uncommercial lyrics/topics, an aversion to honing the material in the attempt to preserve the spontaneity of first performance (or whatever). Uneven temperament, increasingly weird behavior ... All of that and more.

But for as great as the Syd-era Pink Floyd compositions were ("The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" being a marvelous album, and the "Arnold Layne," "See Emily Play," "Apples and Oranges" singles being fabulous, and his "Jugband Blues" swan song with the Floyd being an absolute treasure), I am captivated by the honesty and mystery of Syd's solo work ... warts and all.

Don't get me wrong. I am not in any way suggesting that people should bypass Syd's work with the Floyd and dive right into the solo material. You need to hear the spacy grandeur of "Astronomy Domine," the introductory track on "Piper" that sets the stage for the rest of the album and helped define Pink Floyd's "space music" reputation up through the early 1970s.

And then there's "Bike," the faux nursery rhyme that has a very weird, very cool tempo change at the end before erupting into a chaotic and kind of scary outbreak of clock chimes. This was a signpost of where Syd was going, but remains a catchy and highly enjoyable song that children and adults can get behind.

Oh, and there's the catchy James Bond rip of "Lucifer Sam," with a great guitar riff and some spooky organ. As far as songs go, there are few tunes as cool as this that use a cat as the focus. "That cat's something I can't explain!" There are flashes of light, flashes of darkness and an inspiring sense of mischief ... all in this one song. Psychedelia, after all, wasn't just about books of the dead or finding "the answer."

Really, the whole first album is a series of delights. There's whimsy and riffing and poetry and guitar muscle and scattered nonsense and eerie flashes throughout. The band's flair is established, and their sound is phenomenal.

Strip away the ornamentation of "Piper," and remove a fair portion of whimsy ... and you'll find Syd's solo material.

As I've already mentioned, Syd's performances are scattered. Some of the material is quite rough. But to hear Syd letting loose gives his material an every-man charm, while his fondness for word play and lyrical jell-o keeps his songs fresh with every listen.

My first exposure to Syd's work (outside of the Pink Floyd material) came with the fantastic "Crazy Diamond" box set. I wanted to immerse myself in his songs.

And it was, at first, way too much. You wouldn't necessarily think of a 3-disc box set as being "too much" for anyone, especially in this age where box sets can mean 4 discs, 5 discs, 6 discs, and more. But the bonus tracks, featuring different takes that themselves feature different arrangements or lyrics or vocal stylings (not always by choice ... again, Syd was erratic), really add heft to this release.

Honestly, if you're an addict like me ... then sure, by all means, I'll take as many versions of "Golden Hair" and "Octopus" and "Dominoes" as you want to provide. But for someone who is jumping headfirst into Barrett's output, this can be daunting.

I've since grown to cherish the box and all its odds-and-ends, but early on in my ownership of it I usually would compile my own CDs or cassettes of "key tracks" to enjoy highlights.

And that's where"Wouldn't You Miss Me: The Best of Syd Barrett" comes in.

While some compilation albums (best ofs, greatest hits) usually lay off of the good album cuts, this disc has the dubious benefit of not having many tracks to choose from. Since Syd only released two official albums, and a third collection of tracks was released after he stepped out of the spotlight, there's only about 35 or so individual solo Syd songs legitimately available.

The compilers of "Wouldn't You Miss Me?" take the best of those tracks to fashion a single-disc retrospective that is very strong. It's a disc for fans, by fans. And it doesn't hurt that former bandmates Roger Waters, Rick Wright and David Gilmour helped produce some sessions and played on others. Clearly, Pink Floyd wanted their former leader to get his music out there even if it wasn't with them anymore. So while the material doesn't sound LIKE Pink Floyd, many songs benefit from Floydian touches.

Regardless of that involvement, Syd's material stands by itself. From Syd's trippy "Octopus" to the groovy "Baby Lemonade" through to his marvelous and originally unreleased gem "Opel," and including such beautiful cuts as his "Golden Hair" (an adaptation of a poem) and the previously unreleased "Bob Dylan's Blues," this single-disc retrospective is everything a Barrett fan can enjoy WHILE ALSO REMAINING easily accessible to those who just want to give him a try.

Sure, there aren't any other elusive and still unreleased songs included that Floyd fans have long coveted ("Vegetable Man," "Scream Thy Last Scream"), but it's still well worth the purchase cost. To compile all of the songs made available here, you'd have to grab an array of releases ... and you still wouldn't get "Bob Dylan's Blues," as that was made available for "Wouldn't You Miss Me" from David Gilmour's personal collection.

As you can see, if you're curious about Syd Barrett this is the place to start.

But if you're wanting the best of solo Syd AND the best of Syd's work with Pink Floyd, grab the most recent compilation: "An Introduction to Syd Barrett." It has some remixes and features some remastering of material. Also, David Gilmour (the man who "replaced" Barrett in Pink Floyd) contributes some guitar and bass overdubs to fill out some of Syd's sketchier songs. It's quite a collection of goodies in its own right.

"Introduction" features six Pink Floyd cuts and twelve solo tracks. Many of the tracks got a 2010 digital remaster (the first remaster of some of these songs), and some releases of the album allowed for a digital download of the never-before-released Barrett outtake, the 20-minute instrumental "Rhamadan." For Barrett enthusiasts, this track's inclusion warranted the price of the whole collection. (Personally, I'm not too enamored with it ... it's an interesting track that holds up to a handful of listens, but I've always been more fascinated by Barrett's lyrical and vocal stylings than his instrumental freakouts.)

If I have to choose between single-disc collections, though, I'm going to go with "Wouldn't You Miss Me?" as the more essential of the two. Chances are, if you're curious enough about Syd Barrett, you'll fork out the cash to get "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" and/or "Relics" to get Barrett's best Floyd stuff. (I'd also recommend picking up "A Saucerful of Secrets," the Floyd's second album, as it has some really good material ... including Syd's "Jugband Blues," his last song with Pink Floyd.) So your money is better spent getting the best of his solo work, and that's more abundant on "Miss Me?" than on "An Introduction."

Syd's material is sometimes hard to take. You can hear him shuffling papers while reading his lyrics. You can hear him lose his place on a song. His voice jumps octaves and notes. In many places, the fantasy he seemed to represent in his earlier works became nightmarish in his solo songs. But the beauty is there, in all its power and all its tragedy.

Whether it was drug burnout, mental illness, exhaustion, fear or a combination of some or all of these things, Syd walked away from music in 1971. He'd pop up in unexpected locations and random times (notably when Pink Floyd was recording an homage to him, "Shine On You Crazy Diamond"), but he never again would step into the glare of rock and roll stardom again. He died in July of 2006, but his music is as alive and compelling as ever.

The wailed question of "won't you miss me / wouldn't you miss me at all?" from his song "Dark Globe" on his first solo album "The Madcap Laughs" continues to ring across the years. The answer? Yes. Yes, we miss him. We miss him a lot.

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