A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett
Reviewed by Greg Beets, Fri., Dec. 10, 2010
A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrettby Rob Chapman
Da Capo Press, 480 pp., $28
Not long after unveiling the template for British psychedelia with 1967's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Pink Floyd co-founder Syd Barrett began a steady descent into madness and reclusion, leaving behind a sea of rumors and speculation that continued until his 2006 death from pancreatic cancer. London-based journalist Rob Chapman's family-authorized biography sets the record as straight as it's likely to get. In distilling the essence of what Barrett brought to Pink Floyd prior to his 1968 ouster, Chapman zeroes in on the influence of author Kenneth Grahame, whose surreal tales and whimsical wordplay were key to songs like "Arnold Layne" and "Bike." The primacy of visual art in Barrett's life – both before and after his reluctant bout with pop stardom – is another theme. He held particular fascination for Port Arthur, Texas-born artist Robert Rauschenberg's assemblage techniques. As a backdrop to Floyd's ascendancy, Chapman provides a vivid description of the multimodal cultural explosion that grew out of the London Free School during the mid-1960s. He also details the day-to-day drop-off in Barrett's mental state that led to a complete abandonment of music by 1972. At times, Chapman's prose gets mired in exhaustive overcontextualization, but maybe that's the trade-off when you're dealing with fleeting and/or chemically impaired recollections.