Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Madcap Loved: The Love Songs of Syd Barrett

Thanks to friend and fellow Floyd fanatic Dave, my infamous essay on Syd Barrett's first solo album, The Madcap Laughs is now in my possession!

Written in 1997 for Dave's now-defunct Pink Floyd website, Breathe, many passages of this essay, "The Madcap Loved" were quoted in Julian Palacios' 1998 Syd bio, Lost in the Woods, which is itself now sadly out of print. The excerpts were used without my permission (or knowledge, until alerted by a friend), but I didn't mind a bit - especially since I can now claim the fame of my name being an index entry in a book!

After being lost in obscurity for almost 10 years, I present the essay below for amusement, curiosity, and interest. I've done a bit of quick and dirty editing on some of the wonkier sentences, but most of the essay remains exactly how it ran when I wrote it as a 22-year-old Syd fanatic in 1997.


The Madcap Loved:
The Love Songs of Syd Barrett

Syd Barrett is probably one of the ultimate writers of love songs for this and previous generations of music fans. I say this without hesitation, as I have believed this statement to be true the moment I heard his first solo album, The Madcap Laughs. The album is a lilting movement of ballads, upbeat pop songs and "bubblegum" songs—all dealing with love and its effect on others. I remember finding a British vinyl pressing of it at a record show a year or so ago and ever since then, it has been a mainstay to the "playlist" of albums on my record player. From the first note of "Terrapin," I was hooked.

The most obvious and direct way of affirming my statement above, is to examine the songs, to find the similar threads that hold this album together. It is not, as most tend to be, a type of album that one needs to "skip" through, to find the certain songs they recognize or are worth listening to. This whole album hangs together so beautifully, that to skip a song would be to miss the "point" or "cohesion" of the songs. As one will see, I use Barrett as the "subject" or "speaker" in all of the song lyrics. This may be off base in some cases, but with Barrett (as with many other songwriters) it seems that he writes very personally, and the characters in his songs are somehow connected to him or represent real people in his life.

The first song or lead-off song is "Terrapin." This is a slow, sweet song primarily about the worship of a lover. Barrett imagines that he and his love can become turtles (or terrapins) to escape the hectic day to day life "below the boulders" of a turtle tank. The first verse of this (and of the whole album) is:

I really love you, and I mean you/The star above you, crystal blue/Well oh baby, my hair's on end about you

Setting the tone of the album, with an affirmation of total love for another. This, as in 3/4 of the other songs, has the word "love" somewhere in the lyrics. In other songs on "Madcap" the love is not as "direct" and "outward" as in this example.

Following this opening song, the mood changes from "exulted love," to Barrett's calm perseverance when trying to soothe a girlfriend into seeing how important she is to him, no matter how plain she is. "No Good Trying," repeats its title frequently, with different reasons why she has no way of arguing her way out of how attractive and lovable she is to him, no matter how flawed she is:

I can see that you can't be, what you pretend

The woman is real and not merely an archetype, although she tries to feign "archetypal attitudes" by "holding a sequined fan" (pretending to be wealthy) or as she's "trying to hold her love where [I] can't see...," when he sees how she truly feels about him.

As she tries to hide herself and her feelings from him, he relates:

The caterpillar hood won't cover the head/that you know you should be home in bed

She should hide nothing from him, but be (in all probability) "naked" or "exposed" with Barrett in the most intimate surroundings—the bedroom. This could also be a nod to Barrett himself, as he is known as a bit of a recluse, and he realizes this is improper, but "comfortable" behavior and thus he hides like his terrapin image or under the aforementioned "caterpillar hood".

"Love You," the most outward and "poppy" song on the album, is a gushy outpouring of love to a girl Barrett may not have ever met. The first verse is a cacaphony of honey-dripped words that ooze together into endless streams of affection:

Honey love, ya honey little honey funny sunny morning love you more funny love in the skyline baby...

This stream of amorous jargon may be what Barrett is feeling within himself about this girl, but cannot put it down coherently into actual sentences to speak directly to her. This can also been seen as the "baby talk" lovers engage in when in the earlier stages of "courting."

One is reminded of The Doors' classic "Hello, I Love You," rumored to be written by Ray Davies (a type of early model Syd Barrett) in which a man sees a woman and instantaneously falls in love with her when in actual fact, it is her beauty and physicality he is attracted to. Granted, this is one of the first steps in mutual attraction, but there is no "depth" to the lyrics. Barrett may have been mocking or parodying these types of "fluffy" love songs that Davies and Donovan (his rivals) were famous for with his song.

The next line links the songs directly:

Ice cream, 'scuse me, I seen you looking good the other evening

Barrett's casual and cocky "pick-up line," in relation to the Davies' model reads in the same abstract as how the song began, yet the end of the line is just as cliché as saying, "hello, I love you." The lyrics also mention: "If we in love like I think we'd be." The ever-hopeful Barrett character in this song believes that she may grow to love him, but finishes the verse with, "It ain't a long rhyme it took ages to think, I think I'll hurl it in the water baby," as if perhaps giving up such a farfetched notion. Thus, this is the first of the many "unrequited" love songs on the album.

"No Man's Land" is one of the only songs that does not mention the word "love" somewhere in the song. In this case, it is done purposefully. The song relates to the loss of love, another main theme on the album. Lyrics such as: "You would hold another hand, oh understand" or "If it's there would you go there too/when I live I die," show the hurt and pain that the ex-lover is going through and he doesn't want his lost love to "see [me] cry." The song ends in a rant that is almost unintelligible to the casual listener which may relate to the ex-lover's state of “unwellness” and may also comment upon Barrett's own sanity. This, as in other songs on this album, may be relating to not only lost love, but the loss of "stability of self" or sanity, which is an aspect of Barrett's own personal life.

"Dark Globe" is probably one of the most "known" songs on this album. This is a beautiful lament over lost or unreciprocated love, following the same thread as the above song. It starts out: "Oh where are you now/pussy willow that smiled on this leaf/when I was alone/you promised the stone from your heart." Barrett almost "grieves" over what "used to be" and wonders about the girl: "Won't you miss me? Wouldn't you miss me at all?" as she has merely cast him aside, forgotten.

The last song on the first side, "Here I Go" plays much like an early Beatles song—it has a sort of "skiffle" aspect to it and has a definite, though simplistic storyline about a girl Barrett knows who "didn't like [his] songs and that made [him] feel blue" and has not much in common with him. The song itself is a way of winning his girlfriend back from "the big band" that's "far better than [him]":

Well everything's wrong and my patience was gone
When I woke one morning and remembered this song,
Mmm-hmm hmm, kinda catchy, I hope!
That she will talk to me now and even allow me to hold her hand and forget that old band.

The second part alludes to his journeys to her apartment building to win her back, but the song relates:

Her sister said, that my girl was gone
But come inside boy and play, play, play me a song
I said yeah, here I go
She's kinda cute don't ya know that
After a while of seeing her smile I knew we could make it,
Make it in style.

Thus, his serendipitous journey ends as the last verse relates:

So now I've got, all I need,
She and I are in love, we've agreed
She likes this song and my others too
So now you see my world is...
Because it's you, what a boon this tune,
I tell you soon, we'll be lying in bed, happily wed
And I won't think of that girl or what she said.

Ironically, the song itself has become the vehicle for winning the heart of a woman as opposed to losing one. Barrett acknowledges this himself by saying, "What a boon this tune" — even though his old girlfriend did not like it, he has found a "match" that does.

This is written much like British pop songs that still have staying power today. One is reminded of "Up the Junction" by Squeeze or even "Eleanor Rigby" by The Beatles. Barrett's song may again be slightly parodical of these other hits, but at the same time stands out as a fine example of this type of more "upbeat" pop song. This song also ends the album side, and along the way, there have been definite changes in emotion from high ethereal love, to unreciprocated love or "love gone bad" to the ever-hopeful "Here I Go."

Madcap’s second side continues this upbeat, positive outlook, but in "Octopus," it does not hinge upon the love of another, but the love of life itself. The nonsense lyrics in this song are reminiscent of Lewis Carroll in their childish playfulness. The chorus:

Please leave us here/Close our eyes to the Octopus ride!

tells of how life has ups and downs and is bumpy, fast and unpredictable, much like the mainstay ride at any fair, The Octopus. Barrett relates:

Isn't it good to be lost in the wood/isn't it bad so quiet there, in the wood?

which relates to the changes life offers us—they're scary, but exciting at the same time. It's a sort of double-edged sword, with change comes excitement, but also with fear. There is another reference to Barrett in this song as well. The line:

Well, the madcap laughed at the man on the border

may directly relate to the sanity of Barrett himself, or anyone else. The "madcap" who embraces life wholly and completely with joy and reckless abandon is coupled with the more stable, yet stagnated "man on the border" (border of sanity) who is "within the norm," but may be repressing his inner "madcap." This is also true of the "madcap" possessing a "man on the border" who keeps him from going totally "over the edge." Thus, Barrett may be relating the age-old theory that to create anything, one needs both stability and recklessness—the Apollo-Dionysus theory. One of the last lines of the song relates: "they'll never put me in their bag" which is Barrett's way of saying that "they," the judging general public, will never "pin him down" into a category, and he’s right - they never have succeeded in doing this.

Madcap’s second offering on side two is the most beautiful, lyrical song on the whole album. In his teens, Barrett put James Joyce's poem, "Golden Hair" to music and this is the final product. The gorgeous poem is a man’s ode to his Petrarchan love object, his woman upon a pedestal.

My book is closed, I read no more...I've left my book, I've left my room/for I heard you singing through the gloom

The poet only wants to think of her, the woman, as the sole part of his life, his other half.

"Long Gone" is another song about lost love, which is quite melancholy. The lines:

And I stood very still, by the windowsill, and I wondered for those I loved still/I cried in my mind, would I stand behind/the beauty of those in her eyes

seem as if the love object has deserted him, and he is left wondering about “those” who still find favor with him. It seems he can't believe she has left and may still be in some sort of "shock," although she is long gone, probably to never return.

"She Took a Long Cold Look" is the second of the four songs ("Long Gone" being the first) that are held together by a type of "bauhaus scaffolding." These four pieces seem very "ragged," as there are various stops and false starts that seem more "realistic" than the polished studio versions making up the bulk of the album. This is again, a song of breakup. It seems as if Barrett may have been going through something personally during these songs. The other tracks seem more "detached" from his psyche, yet these raw, unrehearsed takes are more heartfelt and "real."

The song itself displays the last remnants of a dying relationship. His girlfriend likes to "see him get down to ground/she doesn't have the time just to be with me,” relating that she puts him down and gives him "long cold looks" or stares. Barrett also describes himself as a "broken pier on a wavy sea” – symbolic of a broken man, unable to find refuge anywhere in his life.

"Feel," the next song in this emotional pattern, seems as if Barrett is not only detached from his proverbial girlfriend, but from everyone else. The song begins:

You feel me/Away far too empty, you're so alone/I want to come home...

He is felt by others, but he does not say that he feels. Barrett wants to "come home," but doesn't seem to be able to. He is again, like a "broken pier on a wavy sea," which could describe his unstable mental state at the time.

How I love you to be by my side, they wail

is a fascinating line, as it sets up the idea of "hero worship" by Syd fans, but could also relate to Barrett's parents wishes for him to be safe at home, away from the ravages of rock and roll stardom. The different types of love in this song are heard on many levels.

"If It's in You" falls into the same pattern as songs like "Love You" or "Octopus." It is held together with the same sort of nonsense Carrollian lyrics that again relate to the happiness of being in love, but also with Syd's possible unease about falling in love or having a close relationship with anyone:

Oh you tight, you're so close, yes you are/please hold on to the steel rail

As if getting any closer to him would be dangerous or next to impossible to achieve without getting hurt. The use of "steel" here can relate to the underlying bitterness the second side of this album presents about lost love or "love gone wrong."

Finally, we reach the last song and coincidentally, the prettiest, most underrated song on the album. "Late Night" relates to how Barrett sees his love in relation to others and how she differs, which makes her special and makes him love her all the more:

When we grew very tall/and I saw you so small/then I wanted to stay with you

This could be a reference to getting high and perhaps in one of Barrett's LSD "visions," he saw his love as "smaller," as perception especially is altered on this drug. There is also the aspect of Barrett wanting to take care of the girl. He sees her as small and helpless when everyone else is tall and strong.

But alas, again, this girl may have left him as well:

When I woke up today/and you weren't there to play/then I wanted to be with you

And he remembers: "the way you kiss, will always be a very special thing to me."

The best line of this whole album occurs in this last song:

Inside me I feel, alone and unreal

This can either relate to the emptiness of losing love or a nod to Barrett's own "unstable" condition in which he feels "detached" from the rest of the world.

Overall, The Madcap Laughs speaks of love on various levels and touches on several different kinds of love. Although others may not want to delve so deeply into it, the album is still definitely worth a listen- Syd fan or not - for its enchanting and haunting lyrics, lovely melodies, and simply as a way to, perhaps, be able to crawl a little farther into Barrett's psyche, as no musician is totally detached from the music he makes.

©1997, 2010, 2012 Elisa Ward

Thoughts? Comments? Email me

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, I "love" the Syd - nice to hear your take on the madcap laughs.