Book review: A Very Irregular Head

The death of Roger Keith Barrett on July 7 2006 finally drew a line under one of the most prolonged and tragic sagas ever to occur in the turbulent world of popular music.

Once known as ‘Syd’, the co-founder of rock dinosaurs Pink Floyd (he gave the group its name) had vanished from public view since 1972 amidst dark mutterings of madness and erratic behaviour only to be seen sporadically by the hordes of intrusive doorsteppers to whom he had become a cult figure, and the gutter press, to whom he had become a target for moral judgement when appropriate.

Barrett, it must be remembered, hadn’t produced anything since 1971, when he recorded a second radio session for ‘whispering’ Bob Harris, and hadn’t committed anything concrete to tape since 1970’s Barrett solo album.

His back catalogue was brief, and flawed, consisting of Barrett, previous solo effort The Madcap Laughs, also from 1970, and his brief output with the Pink Floyd - three singles, one album – The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn – and a handful of unreleased sessions with the group, from the early 1965 demo Lucy Leave, to the full throttle experimentation of Scream Thy Last Scream and Vegetable Man.

Yet, despite this, Barrett’s myth grew, leading him to become one of music’s leading cult figures, a source of inspiration of countless musicians, and the focus for more misguided mythology ever seen before or since.

Rob Chapman’s biography A Very Irregular Head, released this month by Faber and Faber, therefore makes a refreshing change in that it sets out to de-bunk the mythology around Barrett rather than eulogise it, and, unlike previous biographies, concentrates on the man himself, rather than produce a biography of the early life of the Pink Floyd at the same time.

This is no mean feat, the two stories are so closely linked that to completely separate them would be impossible, but Chapman has managed to place the focus on the persona and character of Barrett, while only referring to the group in the background. There are no in-depth details of concert tours, gigs or focusing on isolated incidents here, Chapman’s brush paints a wider, warmer picture that’s both open and intensely personal at the same time.

What becomes progressively clearer as the book progresses is that Barrett – a supremely talented painter who arguably could have become one of the leading lights of modern art – was just not cut out for the pressures of pop culture he had been catapulted into.

Chapman captures the tragedy as the reluctant icon was pushed beyond his limits leading to his hushed-up sacking from the ‘Floyd in 1968, year-long sabbatical between 1969 and 1970 and final withdrawal from public view from 1972, following the ill-fated and conceived Stars gig.

It’s clear that this is a book which has had considerable support – access to private letters, via Barrett’s ex-girlfriend Libby Gausden, and input from the Barrett family themselves – all of whom have helped with previous biographies, although not in as much depth.

Other characters and familiar faces, such as former managers Peter Jenner and Andrew King, schoolfriends, and former close acquaintances also help out, and the result is, again, a warm and personal study of an erratic and troubled man.

Notable by their absences are the inputs of Barrett’s erstwhile bandmates – Roger Waters, David Gilmour and Nick Mason, together with previous biography contributors such as ex-fiancee Gayla Pinion.

The ‘Floyd’s lack of assistance is understandable, having been wheeled out at every conceivable opportunity to pass comment on Barrett previously, they must be getting heartily sick of it by now. That, together with the premature death of Rick Wright last year may have influenced their decision.

The ever-affable David Gilmour, however, agreed to help proof-read the final draft. Gilmour, as always, comes across as a real gentleman and someone who genuinely cared about Barrett – making sure the royalties were always forthcoming, and keeping an eye on things. It’s also refreshing not to see Roger Waters vilified as the arch-enemy of the piece, and just for once coming across as a decent-hearted, albeit commercially-minded human being.

Chapman’s work also successfully sheds light on some of the famous myths about the reclusive Barrett, including the alleged incident when he was supposed to have crushed his Mandrax pills into his Brylcreemed hair before going on stage, with the result that the concoction melted and dripped down his face.

Evidence suggests that it simply didn’t happen at all, ditto for the alleged image of Barrett running down the runway at Heathrow, suitcase in hand, trying to flag down a flight he’d missed.

Interestingly though, he did walk back to Cambridge from London when he moved back home – although not on his hands.

The accounts of his later years are harrowing and make for distressing reading, especially when you read about how insensitive fans would knock on his door – in some cases posing as couriers to gain a signature – steal his painting equipment, or, when he was dead, steal his furnishings during viewings of his house.

Curiously, you learn he actually watched the sensitively and sympathetically produced BBC Omnibus documentary on him from 2006, with his family, although he didn’t enjoy the experience.

When he finally passed away from cancer and minus three fingers from his diabetes, you almost feel it was a welcome release for a man whose existence had truly become tragic and wraith like.

This is quite possibly the most comprehensive and genuine biography of Barrett that’s available. It’s not only sympathetic to the man himself, but cuts through the myths and half-truths, and details the story of a flawed and erratic genius, who was pushed beyond breaking point not by drugs, but by the ungodly pressures of fame, and quite possibly by an inherent imbalance, dating back to his pre-fame days.

Even the foreword from the mercurial Graham Coxon is excellent and well written, setting the tone for a book that’s clearly a labour of love. It is, quite simply, brilliant.

There’s really no need for any more biographies of Barrett now, we’ve seen the flaws, read the myths, and now we’ve got the human side of the story. It’s time to let the man, and his myth finally rest in peace.