The Album List: #55 Syd Barrett “The Madcap Laughs”

Stripey floors.

Yes, Syd has come back.

This album is a mess, erratic, and difficult to listen to.  This doesn’t make it less beautiful. Syd, descending into madness quickly, somehow managed to create two solo albums of quality before completely retreating. This one is the better record.

With help from former Pink Floyd band mate Roger Waters and school chum and usurper David Gilmour, as well as producers Peter Jenner and Malcolm Jones, and music help from members of the Soft Machine, this album has a rawness and wildness. It’s not polished. Syd’s playing on the acoustic guitar is unpredictable. There are pieces of studio chatter. It’s less a record to me than a historical document, a primary source of sorts. This is Syd Barrett. Recluse. Mad man. Genius. Father of Pink Floyd.

Moments of lucidity puncture the whimsy on occasion. “Dark Globe” is Syd’s screamy, acoustic tribute to his own brain. There is a sadness to the song, a resignation. Syd was quite brilliant and seemed to know that he was sinking fast. He pleads with his head, then sadly asks if we will miss him at all.

If one prefers, there is straight up nutter butters. A song like “Terrapin”, with its nursery rhyme imagery and gentle melody, is perfectly made to introduce your kids to burned out schizophrenic rock stars. It’s a sweet love song from a sad man.

You can go the James Joyce route. Literally. “Golden Hair” is a Joyce poem set to music.  Or the trippy, mind bending imagery of “Octopus”.  Or the messy “Love You”, which is more fully realized as a song musically. Or you can listen to the dark slide guitar of “Late Night”, one of the loneliest songs ever. You can rage against the inclusion of “Feel”, with Syd clearly not in his right mind and incessant studio chatter in between a terrible and unfinished song.

But I have a soft spot for a couple of songs- the off-key but simple and honest “Long Gone”, and the Floydesque “No Man’s Land”. The latter sounds like a  leftover from the Piper sessions with the band. The former is just so weird. I’m a sucker for both weird and Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

The album remains a tribute to Syd’s songwriting genius, sweetness, wild imagination, and musical inventiveness. It is also a document of a sad decline, a memory of wasted genius, and ultimately a life lost. Syd would release his followup record Barrett in 1971 before disappearing into his mother’s house Cambridge, rarely leaving this home before dying of pancreatic cancer in 2006. It was a soul crushing loss for me. In my mind, it’s 1967 and Syd’s young and free and writing “See Emily Play”.


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