• A Very Irregular Head

  • The Life of Syd Barrett
  • By: Rob Chapman
  • Narrated by: Simon Vance
  • Length: 13 hrs and 40 mins
  • 4.4 out of 5 stars (230 ratings)

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A Very Irregular Head

By: Rob Chapman
Narrated by: Simon Vance
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Publisher's Summary

“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, Rolling Stone, 1971).

Roger Keith “Syd” Barrett was the definition of a golden boy. With good looks and an aptitude for music, he was a charismatic child who fast became a teenage leader in 1960s England. Along with three school chums - Roger Waters, Richard Wright, and Nick Mason - he formed what would become Pink Floyd. Starting as a British cover band, they soon pioneered a new sound: British psychedelic rock. With early, trippy, Barrett-penned hits, Pink Floyd captured the zeitgeist of swinging London in all its technicolor glory.

But there was a dark side. Barrett fell in with some hardcore hippies and began taking large quantities of LSD. His already-fragile mental state - most believe him to have been schizophrenic - further unraveled. The once bright-eyed lad was quickly replaced by a sinister, dead-eyed shadow of his former self given to eccentric, reclusive, and sometimes violent behavior. Sacked from the band, Barrett retreated to his mother’s house, where he remained until his death, rarely seen or heard.

A Very Irregular Head lifts the veil of secrecy that has surrounded 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, tragic artist. Besides capturing the promise of Barrett’s youth, Chapman challenges the 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 which stretches through Kenneth Graham, Hilaire Belloc, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, John Lennon, David Bowie, and on up to Damon Albarn of Blur.

A tragic, affectionate, and compelling portrait of a singular artist, this will stand as the authoritative word on this very English genius for years to come.

©2010 Rob Chapman (P)2010 Blackstone Audio, Inc.

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  • Overall
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    3 out of 5 stars

Very Touching

Wonderful Book. Very calm study by Rob Chapman. Giving due respect to Syd Barrett and his family. Simon Vance is a pleasure as always.

5 people found this helpful

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Unlocks the Mystery.

As a fan of Syd's work, I was excited to hear this book - am not disappointed!
An intimate, beautiful portrait of a struggling soul, who has often been sidetracked as a madman with very little regard.
Check it out!!

4 people found this helpful

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The best Syd Barrett biography

While not breaking any new ground in terms of the rock ‘n’ roll biography template, Rob Chapman‘s book is fantastically researched and extremely well written. He clearly understands personalities and has no trouble explaining music. Granted the first quarter of the book is a little slow, but after that it is exceptional in its efforts to understand the subject, not as a madman, but somebody who Ultimately was just uncomfortable with the demands of pop stardom. Yes, drugs played a role but more than anything Syd was neither equipped nor willing to continue down the path that left him unfulfilled. His last years are particularly sad but nowhere near as bleak and catatonic as the legends would lead you to believe. Chapman certainly uncovers some interesting new nuggets and I learned so much. I didn’t want the book to end; if anything, I wish it were twice as long.

1 person found this helpful

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Heartbreaking as well as Enlightening

Syd gets his due. Finally. Wonderfully researched and well presented. Essential listening for any 60's music fan.

1 person found this helpful

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Admiring but Obsessive, Skewed History

This detailed history of Pink Floyd's founding member has virtues and detriments that overlap: it is good at humanizing Syd Barrett by recounting his family and school days, including (especially) his reading history and interests in painting (though few of his paintings survive, many people assert that Barrett had more painterly than musical talent), but overloads the account with ephemera like Barrett's teenaged letters to friends (quoted at odd length) and a litany of the contents of his apartment at the time of his death. Chapman is especially good at analyzing the history of Barrett's lyrical and musical influences and empathetically re-creates the effect of his guitar-novice--but still dazzling--experiments onstage, but seems to preserve, in spite of better instincts, a teen-aged fan's mythic-scaled view of Barrett (as a pop star) which almost no one apart from the author authorizes within his research. This skewed view of Barrett as a romantic artist leads the author to read Barrett's depressions &/or his divided personality--often, yet not exclusively-- as canny artistic choices. This seems fanciful and even insensitive to Barrett's suffering at times. The wealth of detail on Barrett and the out-sized role assigned to him also leads Chapman to repress or ignore most of the other members of Pink Floyd, perhaps because he had limited access to them in interviews. In any case, even a provisional history of the band, and how they jelled musically, up to the summer of 1968 (that is systemic and not just Barrett-focused) isn't clearly narrated. Roger Waters and Barrett were friends since childhood; David Gilmour was also a close musical friend of Barrett's before joining the band. The musical history of the band, especially how the rest of the band fed and translated Barrett's influence and then, with Gilmour, outgrew it--could get more press in this book. Any clear statement of what ailed Barrett could also get a clearer analysis. Late in the book, Chapman does review most plausible theories (schizophrenia, drug-related problems, a "natural" reclusiveness apart from any real mental problems) and tends to gravitate to the unconvincing theory that there wasn't much wrong with Barrett. Roger Waters, who lived and worked with Barrett and saw him repeatedly at his lowest points, has said Barrett was "undoubtedly" schizophrenic. Chapman's focus on literary and artistic qualities in Barrett and his milieu is admirable, but the reduction of his persona into a blacksmith-like artist forging his own destiny is far too fanciful to explain the alienation--from art, from music, from his own friends, from the band he named-- that Barrett experienced. The book's most redeeming quality is that Chapman does allow many sane, creative, insightful people who knew Barrett (apart, again, from the band itself) to speak without grandiosity and with critical sympathy about Barrett's path into his days in the 1966-67 sun, what a delight he often was, and his tormented peregrinations after Pink Floyd. Despite needing a sympathetic editor, this is an articulate and well-detailed biography.

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Art as art or art as business

I don’t remember ever hearing the name of Syd Barrett, though it’s possible that I just don’t remember. Or, it could be because he left the group before it became such a world sensation. I have this book partly because it was free but also because I liked Pink Floyd. And yet, I found that this book would have been interesting even if I had known nothing of Pink Floyd. This book is not an autobiography. It’s more of an analysis (not a judgment) of his life and how he lived it.

Syd Barrett was not his real name. He was Roger Keith Barrett but was nicknamed Sid as a youth in school which he later changed to Syd. Syd was one of the founding members of Pink Floyd and the one who came up with its name. But Syd was more of a rennaisance artist and in his early years he was much more interested in painting and literature. It was while he was in London at an art college that he began to become much more interested in music. 

Pink Floyd began in 1965 and Syd had a great influence on their early direction. They brought over from Jazz the concept of extended solos and improvisation and applied it to the British version of Rock and Roll and Pop that had already begun to take America by storm. Syd also provided many of the lyrics’ references to classics of English literature. By 1967, they had already had two Top 20 hits. 

It was around that time that Syd’s behavior became very erratic. Like many pop groups at the time, he was experimenting with LSD and some attributed his behavior to the effects of drugs or to some innate psychological disorder. It would seem logical that there was some truth to that, but in reality, this was common with so many artists in the mid-60s without such drastic effects. He was the lead guitarist and there were times in concert that he just wandered the stage playing one note continuously or just without playing at all. On a short American tour he once started detuning the strings on his guitar on stage and at another just marched around blowing a whistle. In January 1968 they got another guitarist, David Gilmour and performed as a 5-piece band. There was some concern that the band would not survive without their genius songwriter but at some point, they just decided not to pick him up on the way to the next concert, then the next, and so on until 3 months later they announced that he had left the band. Syd Barrett didn’t even let on that he even knew that they were continuing to do concerts without him. His name became a sad example of the genius that sometimes appears in those with psychotic disorders or genius destroyed by drugs. 

Chapman paints a slighly different portrait in this book. He doesn’t deny that there was some psychological issues or that drugs were not a part of the problem. But, he shows with extensive research and interviews that the real issue may well have been that Syd was adverse to losing artistic and personal control of his life. He didn’t want to follow the dictates of promotional events required by the record companies nor adjust his lyrics to more closely follow the “market” and make their albums more saleable. He didn’t want to be a star. He didn’t want to become, as one called it, “public property” as a celebrity. He just wanted to make music as an artist, music in his own way without worrying about popularity. His antics were less of a psychotic break than a gesture of defiance. He saw the group that he had been a part of founding as now compromising their art. 

Chapman tells of a recording session where he introduced a new song. He told them that the name of the song was, "Have You Got It Yet?" but every time they played it, he changed the song. They worked on it almost all day, getting more and more frustrated with the constant changes before realizing that it was an elaborate practical joke and that the song title had told them in the beginning the purpose of the joke. When they decided to quite telling them of their concerts and just go without him, they thought that he didn’t notice, but his flatmate was one of the band members who would make excuses about why he was going out. Once he told him that he was going out for a packet of cigarettes and when he returned, Syd was sitting in the same chair and asked, “Did you get your cigarettes?” It was clear that Syd knew what was going on. The better explanation was not that he was so broken down that he was oblivious but that he was so disgusted with the compromises made that he just wanted to handle it with sarcasm rather than speak out. 

So, Syd dropped the name that he was now well-know by and returned to just being Roger Barrett. He returned to Cambridge and moved into his mother’s home and took up painting, withdrawing from the wider world. He was not a hermit. He got out into the community, but refused any contact with anyone who wanted to see him because of his musical fame. Sadly, most of his paintings have not survived because he didn’t want to expose them to the same critical world of popularity and marketing that he was seen in the music world. He burned most of his paintings soon after finishing them. They were for himself, his own self-expression. Those that did survive had received high critical a claim. The more I read, the more I kept thinking of Van Gogh. The obvious difference is that Syd did become famous in his lifetime, but he wasn’t ready for the world of stardom and the industry but I kept wondering what would have happened to Van Gogh if he had become famous in today’s world and if the industry for selling paintings were like the music industry.

 Syd was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer at the age of 60 and refused to enter a hospital or to take drugs. He returned home and kept painting until he died two months later.

Chapman’s book is well-written. He shows a lot of understanding and a willingness to go beyond the quick popular analyses and consider more than just the surface. It’s written against an interesting backdrop of the mid-60s music scene. And, he doesn’t blame the other members of the band who were also greatly affected by the loss of Syd and were generous toward him after he left. His departure inspired much of the music in the coming years, music that explored grief, loss, isolation, and psychological trauma in ways that no other pop band has done. Just listen to “Wish You Were Here” and “The Wall.” Chapman’s work is more than a biography. It’s an analysis of an artist, a culture, a time, an industry, and of how difficult it is to face anything you don’t understand, particularly psychological issues. We all tend to pretend to see nothing, especially when it is someone we care about. And, that’s why this is such a good book. You don’t have to like Pink Floyd. You don’t have to be interested in 60s music. You may not want to feel any pity for a druggie. But, this book is worth reading.

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A well rounded overview

I found the book to be a great overview of the full person Roger Keith “Syd” Barrett was. I found the chapters painted a full picture of the man throughout his life and the person he was for the latter half of his years.

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Interesting, but….

As a long time Pink Floyd fan, I first saw them at the Santa Monica Civic in 1973, I’ve read a few group biographies and articles over the years. Yet I didn’t know much about Syd Barrett beyond the myth of the man. This book deals with the myths and dispels them convincingly with in depth research and first persona accounts. You also get decent picture of what Syd, who was notoriously private even in his Pink Floyd days, was like as a human being, creative partner, friend and family member. The part of the book I found annoying was when the author spent an inordinate amount of time pretentiously voicing his negative opinions on other artists, the culture of the times and various genera of music and art while gushing endlessly about Syd’s greatness. A self admitted fan boy of Syd Barrett from his early teens his view artificially colors what would have been a good biography on a complex man and artist.

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Extremely boring

This audible story reminded me of someone reading an essay. Very monotone. Good to fall asleep to.

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Deconstructing the myths

This is a great retrospective of Syd’s life, and a must for any fan.

When I was much younger, I idolized and romanticized Syd the myth, the “mad acid casualty.” Over the years it became increasingly clear to me that very little fact was actually known, and what filled that vacuum was myth, exaggeration and mis-remembered stories.

Chapman comes across as a man on a mission, not only to tell his story as accurately as possible, but to dispel the erroneous myths and portray Syd’s humanity, rather than trading on time-worn romanticization. He wholly succeeds.

If you’re one that still clings to those myths, you may be disappointed that Chapman rains on your parade. But there is still so much known about Syd that is truly remarkable that it is more than sufficient for a compelling narrative. Well done!

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  • Amy Clare
  • 10-24-22

Wonderful

This was so interesting. A very well researched biography. The author clearly cared about his subject, it was respectful and very sensitively written. It managed to get behind the myths surrounding Syd Barrett. Also quite sad but not sure if anyone will understand how he felt in the later years of his life.
Highly recommended.

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  • Wildschwein
  • 11-30-21

Well researched and respectfully written

I loved this book. It's a sad tale indeed but highlights the connection between art. psychology, music history, literature and rock star trappings (amongst other things). I have been oddly inspired by this story. It doesnt unravel the mystery per se and leaves you with more questions which you know can never be answered. I tend to think Syd was more an architect of his own isolation than the traditional mythologies about him would have you believe. He was certainly damaged and a sad and misunderstood soul but seemed to find some solace in his own company. There are some very well used quotes from Susan Sontag in the text that tallk about the artist and silence that resonates so clearly with Syd's story. Upon finishing the book and listening to Syd's solo LPs I now get a sense of nausa that is difficult to explain. I feel out of my body and out of my own head!