Friday, February 29, 2008

Book Review: Crazy Diamond: Syd Barrett and the Dawn of Pink Floyd by Mike Watkinson and Pete Anderson

Originally published in 1991, Crazy Diamond was one of the first serious attempts to document the life of Pink Floyd founder and cautionary tale Syd Barrett. Recently updated after Barrett's death in 2006, it's still the best Barrett biography I've read.

Its greatest strength is that it looks past the mythic and questionable tales of Barrett's post-Pink Floyd life to create a revealing portrayal of the musician as a person, not a caricature of LSD abuse or the many other labels both fans and music journalists have applied to Barrett ever since he disappeared from the music scene in 1967.

The book takes a chronological approach to Barrett's life, including how he first became interested in art and music at a young age, the founding of Pink Floyd and the band's influence on the psychedelic scene. It also follows Barrett's exit from the band and his two solo albums, and of course, his mental issues. These include his well documented behavioral "eccentricities," and retreat from public view, as well as the possible factors that resulted in this retreat.

The book is nicely rounded out with the critical and commercial responses to Barrett's only Pink Floyd album, The Piper At the Gates of Dawn, why Barrett continues to hold people's interest despite a scant recording career, and how his decline is eerily similar to that of other artists.

In any book about Syd Barrett, there will inevitably be a focus on his mental decline. The authors do an admirable job of chronicling this without turning into hack armchair psychologists. What becomes clear is that starting around 1967, Barrett became increasingly withdrawn, and his behavior increasingly bizarre, with the initial and obvious culprit being his extreme regimen of acid intake. The authors also suggest other factors, with varying degrees of plausibility, including the singer's sensitive personality, his fear of the fan worship he found himself subject to, and a never-diagnosed mental condition (possibly Asperger's disease).

The well-known stories are all told again, including how the musician would be completely uncommunicative, would sometimes play the same note over and over during concerts, and would, as one contributor to the book stated, "travel in his own mind." Pink Floyd member Nick Mason is more direct, describing Barrett as an "f---ing maniac."

Barrett's post-Floyd life is also examined. After releasing two solo albums, including the brilliant and disturbing The Madcap Laughs, Barrett essentially lived a solitary existence until his death in 2006. From what details we do know, he had little human interaction outside of his family, and passed the time by painting, walking, riding his bike, and watching television. Attempts by music fans and journalists to speak with the legendary Pink Floyd founder were either met with adamant refusals or only a few cryptic words. When Barrett was spotted, the details were strange and perhaps apocryphal; no doubt these stories have helped shape the image of Barrett that still persists to this day.

In some ways this book is not easy to read. Many of Barrett's flaws are exposed, including violent episodes against both former girlfriends and music business executives. The irony is that the book discusses the intimate faults and shortcomings of a man who, regardless of whatever mental conditions he had, wanted his privacy from the world at large respected.

The authors do an admirable job of walking the fine line between accurate biography and dirt digging. They also show how the notion of Barrett as a throwback to the suffering artist living in splendid artistic isolation is complete and utter BS. The great unanswered question is what would have happened to both Pink Floyd and Barrett had he essentially not gone off the rails.

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