“I don’t think I’m easy to talk about. I’ve got a very irregular head. And I’m not anything that you think I am anyway.”—Syd Barrett’s last interview, Rolling Stone, 1971 Roger Keith “Syd” Barrett (1946–2006) was, by all accounts, the very definition of a golden boy. Blessed with good looks and a natural aptitude for painting and music, he was a charismatic, elfin child beloved by all, who fast became a teenage leader in Cambridge, England, where a burgeoning bohemian scene was flourishing in the early 1960s. Along with three friends and collaborators—Roger Waters, Richard Wright, and Nick Mason—he formed what would soon become Pink Floyd, and rock ’n’ roll was never the same. Starting as a typical British cover band aping approximations of American rhythm ’n’ blues, they soon pioneered an entirely new sound, and British psychedelic rock was born. With early, trippy, Barrett-penned pop hits such as “Arnold Layne” (about a clothesline-thieving cross-dresser) and “See Emily Play” (written specifically for the epochal “Games For May” concert), Pink Floyd, with Syd Barrett as their main creative visionary, captured the zeitgeist of “Swinging” London in all its Technicolor glory. But there was a dark side to all this new-found freedom. Barrett, like so many around him, began ingesting large quantities of a revolutionary new drug, LSD, and his already-fragile mental state—coupled with a personality inherently unsuited to the life of a pop star—began to unravel. The once bright-eyed lad was quickly replaced, seemingly overnight, by a glowering, sinister, dead-eyed shadow of his former self, given to erratic, highly eccentric, reclusive, and sometimes violent behavior. Inevitably sacked from the band, Barrett retreated from London to his mother’s house in Cambridge, where he would remain until his death, only rarely seen or heard, further fueling the mystery. In the meantime, Pink Floyd emerged from the underground to become one of the biggest international rock bands of all time, releasing multi-platinum albums, many that dealt thematically with the loss of their friend Syd Barrett: The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall are all, on many levels, about him. In A Very Irregular Head, journalist Rob Chapman lifts the veil of secrecy that has surrounded the legend of Syd Barrett for nearly four decades, drawing on exclusive access to family, friends, archives, journals, letters, and artwork to create the definitive portrait of a brilliant and tragic artist. Besides capturing all the promise of Barrett’s youthful years, Chapman challenges the oft-held notion that Barrett was a hopelessly lost recluse in his later years, and creates a portrait of a true British eccentric who is rightfully placed within a rich literary lineage that stretches through Kenneth Graham, Hilaire Belloc, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, John Lennon, David Bowie, and on up to the pioneers of Britpop. A tragic, affectionate, and compelling portrait of a singular artist, A Very Irregular Head will stand as the authoritative word on this very English genius for years to come.
Bookforum, Fall 2010 “[Syd Barrett] was ‘here’ and gone far too quickly, but Chapman has enshrined his achievement with intelligence and grace.” The Observer “Chapman has unravelled the skeins of rumour, exaggeration, and anecdote that have been wound so tightly around Barrett. . . . the best book yet about him.” Timeout (London) “Though Syd has been the subject of various biographies, none has approached his peculiar life, inspirations, and struggles with both drugs and mental illness with anything like the sensitivity and rigor of Rob Chapman’s heavyweight account . . . Chapman’s obvious feel for his subject and palpably zealous research make for a book that comes as close as any maybe will to capturing Barrett’s wayward lightning in a bottle.” Daily Telegraph “The most serious and intelligent of the four Barrett biographies . . . The first since his death in 2006, it is also the first that has the cooperation of his family. And Chapman is a fan, so it is done with genuine passion. Written in simple, unpretentious prose, it is particularly good at contextualization: explaining the social and political roots of the London psychedelic scene; detailing Barrett’s musical and literary influences.”
Times Literary Supplement “Chapman’s portrait is the most sympathetic and reliable yet published. It is well written and impressively researched.” Mojo “The best written, the most accurate, and by far the most incisive account of the man’s life and work. . . . Chapman has well-attuned ears, a vast critical palette on which to draw, and an understanding of the English literary canon that repeatedly gives new meanings and insights to our understanding of the forces which shaped the so-called ‘Madcap.’” The Wire “Rob Chapman bravely hacks his way through the undergrowth of innuendo and speculation to give us the clearest insight yet into the rise and fall of one of rock’s greatest enigmas. His critical analysis is inspired. His panorama of what he calls Barrett’s found world, an unprecedented meeting of a whimsical English tradition and modernist techniques, is impressively researched.” Hartford Advocate, 10/15/10“Chapman separates the wheat of the myth from the chaff of inconvenient facts. He does a superb job of tracking down nearly every conceivable person who knew Barrett… Kudos.” Flagpole“separate[ing] the fact from the myth and the legends”
ShortandSweetNYC.com“a great read; it’s the not-so-simple, but honest story of a shining talent who dimmed a little too early for his fans’ tastes, but probably not his own.” Buffalo News, 11/28/10“Excellent.” Boston Globe, 11/26/10 “[C]limb aboard for a train back to the time of paisley shirts, velvet trousers, acid parties, and the brilliant whimsy of Syd Barrett…[in this] striking, richly detailed new biography.” KEXP Radio blog, 12/15/10 “Of special note are the wonderful literary connections Chapman makes, showing that Barrett was in a long line of romantic bards who had several secret lives mirrored in every line they scribed….This takes the material beyond the tsk-tsk of patronizing an ‘acid casualty’ and gives honor and nobility back to a classically English author.” Metroland, 12/13/10 “Grippingly thorough.” Austin Chronicle, 12/10/10 “[Chapman] sets the record straight.” Boston Herald, 12/18/10 About the Author
Rob Chapman has written for Mojo,The Times, Guardian, Independent on Sunday, Uncut, Word, and the dance music fanzine Jockey Slut. He is the author of two books of nonfiction and a novel. He has compiled and written liner notes for CD reissues by artists as varied as the Last Poets and John Faley, as well as numerous psychedelia and loungecore compilations. He lives in Manchester, England.