ROB CHAPMAN (author of “A VERY IRREGULAR HEAD: THE LIFE OF SYD BARRETT”)

25 Jan

It seems at least mildly unnecessary to put too much elbow grease into an introduction of Rob Chapman, or into describing what makes his recent book, “A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett,” so utterly essential.

On the first point, Mr. Chapman maintains a robust website – www.rob-chapman.com – that does a far more compelling and comprehensive job of detailing his past and his future than could ever be done here (not to mention offering you the opportunity to read about P.J. Proby – which you should do, of course).

On the second, these Apes wrote recently about “A Very Irregular Head,” including the title among the very best books of 2010.

We would like to think that it suffices to say (though it never really does) that if you care at all about Syd Barrett, about Pink Floyd, about psychedelic music, about art, about artists, about creativity, you run the very real risk of being utterly gobsmacked by the remarkable and remarkably told story contained within “A Very Irregular Head.”

We are very pleased to post this in-depth interview with the author. You may want to read the book before you read this interview; you may want to wait until afterward. But make no mistake: You want to read this book.

The amount of care and research that went into “A Very Irregular Head” is staggering. How long did it take you to complete the book? How long had you been thinking about it before that?

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I was commissioned to write the book early in 2007. I delivered a typically unwieldy first draft of 160,000 words in the summer of 2009. I delivered a final draft of 140,000 words in September 2009. As for how long I’d been thinking about it, the glib answer is since I was 12 in 1967, but that’s not so glib actually. My interest in and appreciation of Syd Barrett transcends fandom. If there is such a thing as the psycho-geography of an artist’s terrain I’ve been ploughing it for 40 odd (some very odd) years.

In the introduction to the book, you write about being a starry-eyed seventeen year-old, seeing Syd Barrett perform in February of 1972. What was it about Syd that put the stars in your eyes at that age? How do you think your cosmos-to-eyeballs relationship has changed over the years, when it comes to Syd’s music? For music in general?

The stars were already there, well before I saw Syd perform live. I do actually have stars in my eyes. My irises are blue but if you look closely, I have yellow star clusters shooting out like flames from the black sun of my pupils. I don’t think the cosmos-to-eyeballs relationship to the music can ever be as intense as it was in my youth, when I regularly used to trip to Syd’s records. That’s the reason why I understand the acid momentum in his music so well. It’s not to be found in anything as overt as the lyrics – Syd was never that literal, as I make clear in the book, lateral maybe but never literal. No, it’s in the bounce, the scansion, the derailed logic, the irregular metre, the way he sings “sheeee’s walking” in “Apples and Oranges” or “taaaaall mirror” in “Arnold Layne.” I know exactly where that comes from. As for the last four words of your question I think that’s impossible to answer. I don’t think there is such a thing as ‘music in general’.

Were there any misconceptions that you held about Syd that were corrected through your writing and research? Not to undervalue the scholarship of your book, but is there a common misconception held by the public at large with regard to Syd that you might hope “Irregular Head” can correct?

That’s two very different questions. To answer the first one, not misconceptions, no. I don’t think I’ve ever misconceived Syd, but many of my “intuitive hunches” shall we say, were more than clarified. Ideas about his upbringing, his social milieu, his apprenticeship, his art school training, his methodology. Those are the things I found fascinating. For example, the way he applied very avant-garde techniques to very un avant-garde material. That’s very rich territory for a biographer to explore.

To answer the second question, I’ve no idea what common misconceptions the public at large hold about Syd. I wouldn’t imagine the public at large have many conceptions of Syd at all. But if you mean fans, well I suppose the main one I wanted to correct was the idea that he was just this lunatic or acid casualty whose music was somehow just a bi-product of madness.

As a writer who has forged the opportunity to discuss, dissect and deliberate over some of your favorite music of all time, how do you view the writer/critic relationship with the artist/musician? Are they connected at all in your mind? Is it – as the old chestnut goes – really like dancing about architecture?

I’ve never had a problem with the old truism about dancing to architecture. I think you can dance to architecture. There’s some pretty funky architecture to dance to. Unless you are using very precise technical terminology (which is, for most of the time, only really of any use to fellow practitioners) I think all writing about art is in some way dancing to architecture. It’s all about similitude, being analogous, metaphorical, adjectival, etc. I don’t have a problem with that. The key problem is doing it well and with a vocabulary that’s adequate to the task. So much music writing is leaden and bog standard. Either that or it’s just written from a point of blind admiration or elevated fandom. In England I could probably count the current working music writers that I admire on my fingers. I probably wouldn’t need to utilize the thumbs. Jon Savage, Barney Hoskyns, Rob Young, Simon Reynolds, David Toop. A few others maybe. Ten years ago I would have included Ian MacDonald in that list, but he committed suicide. The rest are mostly journeymen, careerists, and hacks for hire, and it shows in their writing.

There’s a whole bigger question about the future of the music press that needs to be addressed too.  Internet forums and blogs are a double-edged sword. On the one side they advance democracy of opinion, on the other side the worst ones advance lots of unedited drivel too, but then so do some professional music writers. I don’t want to spend valuable time that could otherwise be spent with a good book, wallowing around in the moronic abyss of certain fan forums, but I don’t believe in the sanctity of the critic either. Loads of my mates know as much about music as I do but they don’t earn a living out of it. It’s them I’m usually writing for actually, not some self-appointed Syd Barrett expert.

Aside from Syd Barrett, what was the music that originally led to you expressing your thoughts through writing? How do you think you’ve progressed as a writer through the years?

I might as well continue the rant that I started above. I never wanted to be a music journalist you see. (I always wanted to be a lumberjack!) I only drifted into music journalism full time in 1994 when I turned 40, a.) because I could do it and b.) because I had the historical perspective and a phenomenal memory. And having drifted into it, I’ve spent the last five years drifting out of it again. I finally seem to have succeeded. It’s important to point out that I don’t have the traditional career trajectory of a music hack. I’m 56 now. I didn’t want to write for NME or hang out with bands in my early 20s. I wanted to be in bands, which I was, and write songs, which I did. It amuses me when I see reviews of my book that refer to me as a music journalist; music writer maybe, but not music journalist. I’ve never been part of that dismal little clique who run English music journalism and I’m glad to have extricated myself from that world. It was making me ill actually. As Lenny Bruce once said “people are leaving the church and going back to religion.” Well I’ve left music journalism and gone back to music.

Having got that off my chest you were right to locate Syd as the initial fulcrum point of my writing. Because of all the things I mentioned earlier about tripping and inner logic, Syd was a big influence on my early song writing, not that I wanted to write like him (and doubt if I ever did) but he gave me permission to write in free verse. And to write verses in triplets not fours. I’m sure that came subliminally from Syd too. But most importantly Syd led me through into the other room. Because I was exposed first hand to psychedelia and paisley patterned pop in all its infinite variety when I was 12, 13, 14 I’ve always preferred the exotic otherworld sense of pop, not necessarily stylistically or even sonically, but as a springboard to propel you into the imagined world. The life of the mind is always more interesting than the real. The idea is often more interesting than the actual. I found pop music a great forum for that when I was 12 or 13. Again, I have to emphasis this had little to do with fandom in the conventional sense. Pop musicians to me at that age were akin to the Justice League of America or the Legion of Super Heroes. I was as likely to meet Lightning Lad or Mon-El as I was a Bee Gee or a Lemon Piper.

The other important thing to mention is my earliest creative impulses aged 16-17-18, when I tentatively started writing.  I predominantly wrote cut ups and haiku. I didn’t start writing in order to express myself. If anything the opposite was true. I was just as interested in negating the I and the ego. Cut ups introduce an element of chance and random association to the creative process. Haiku imposes a notion of discipline. In each case content is largely subservient to form. I rather enjoyed that. It was far more interesting to me than writing dreadful teenage poetry. Not that I didn’t write a fair amount of dreadful teenage poetry as well. Do you want to see some of it? I thought not. These days I respect poetry as a craft sufficiently enough to leave it well alone. I wish a few of these creative writing courses would do the same. The world doesn’t need more poets. In particular it doesn’t need more “local poets.” Trust me on this one.

The other songwriter that led me through into that “other room” I talked about was Kevin Ayers. I saw Kevin Ayers and the Whole World live in Hyde Park in the summer of 1970 on the same bill as Pink Floyd who performed “Atom Heart Mother” that day. It was a lovely sunny day. I was 15 years old and listening to Kevin Ayers songs that day was like some Gurdjieffan lightning bolt of clarity. Suddenly everything made sense. Nothing I say here in mere words can convey what that day did for me. The clear blue sky, the early summer air, the crystalline quality of it all and Kevin Ayers singing those songs.

To fast forward a thousand years and answer the last part of your question, the way I have progressed as a writer over the years is to try and stay true to the principles I absorbed by osmosis that day. Use a simple unshowy vocabulary. Throw in the odd curve ball koan, the odd menacing hee-hee.

Running through the book, there exists a sense – both subtle and overt – of early psychedelic music being a bit of a missed opportunity in the story of popular music as a whole. The “wave speech” from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” fairly encapsulates this thought for a generation as a whole: ” … that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting-on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave …” A fair comparison to psychedelic music? What does psychedelic music mean to you in 2011?

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I deliberately and willfully crow barred in my “manifesto” at the end of “Irregular Head.” I won’t over re-iterate it here, but I do think popular music should have kicked on in 1967 and 1968, instead of reverting back to its trad roots. There are all kinds of lines and connections that could have been drawn that I didn’t mention in the book’s conclusion, that rickety bridge that was being built between Scott Walker grandiose and Jim Webb baroque for instance. But pop lost its nerve and it all went riffy again didn’t it. Do you know who I blame more than anyone? (And I should have had the bottle to say this in the book.) The Band. That’s who. There, I’ve said it. I quite like some of The Band’s music. “Chest Fever” is the greatest song Vanilla Fudge never covered. But I think their influence on rock at the turn of the decade was pernicious and retrogressive. The Band put rock music in a rocking chair on the porch. Just where it didn’t belong.

I have a massive bone to pick with the whole authenticity thing. If you want to draw battle lines at all they aren’t between the generational “us and them” that you allude to above; they are between modernists and traditionalists. I’m an avowed modernist. I’m for the new thing. I came to the conclusion many years ago that rock music is essentially a conservative form.

I think we need a working theory that completely reconfigurates and realigns all our existing notions about the development of music. For example I was very taken a couple of years back with Marybeth Hamilton’s book about the blues, where among other things she controversially opined that “the blues” as we know it wasn’t invented in the Mississippi Delta, it was invented by a bunch of white blues collectors and musicologists in the 1950s. Naturally some people, probably the very people she attacked, found this very contentious. I know, for example, from a conversation I had with Joe Boyd that he hated the book. But, for all its undoubted flaws, which are considerable, I found it fascinating. For a start pop culture should be robust enough to withstand, and incorporate such polemic, but on a more empirical level, how many black people do you know who play the blues? Go into any bar in Memphis, or listen to any specialist radio show playing the blues and the proponents will almost all be white. That tells us something, doesn’t it? It tells us something about how we invent heritage. It also tells us (whisper this quietly) that black people have moved on, but then I think Lead Belly was trying to tell John Lomax that 80 odd years ago!

I find it odd that the Animals, a bunch of guys from Newcastle, playing John Lee Hooker tunes like “Dimples” and “Boom Boom” is somehow authentic, yet Eric Burdon decked out in a kaftan singing “Sky Pilot” or “Monterey” is preposterous. Give me psychedelic Eric over blues hollering little Eric any day of the week. And ditto all those other psychedelic voyagers who temporarily traded in their blues licks for a bit of interplanetary exploration during the mid to late sixties.

“Get back to where you once belonged?” No! Get forward to where you’ve never been. That’s my motto.

Which brings me neatly and rather poignantly to your question about what psychedelic music means to me in 2011. In a word I was going to say Broadcast, my favourite band on the planet. When their album “The Noise Made By People” came out in 2000 I described it in my Times review as a “Pet Sounds” for the 21st century. That wasn’t lazy or dishonest journalism, it was in appreciation of their beautifully crafted sound. Some of their reference points were obvious, they were clearly familiar with the band The United States Of America, and “Old Man Willow” by Elephants Memory, the music that accompanies the trip sequence in Midnight Cowboy, but none of it sounded retro or pastiche. They were clearly foraging somewhere new. All of their records have impressed me and they were pretty amazing live too. Their most recent release, with Focus Group, “Witch Cults Of The Radio Age,” was astounding even by their astounding standards. But devastatingly, tragically, between receiving your questions and writing this, singer Trish Keenan has died of pneumonia. She was only 42. If readers take only one thing away from my ramblings here, let it be an appreciation of Trish Keenan and her awesome legacy. Forget about me banging on aboutForget about me banging on about Syd. Check out Broadcast. They were everything that psychedelia should be in the modern era.

Following up on that thought, how does one guard against falling into the trap of age that says, “you had to be there – the music was sooooooo much better back then”? Is there any position more annoying? Isn’t part of the enduring appeal of rock and roll that it will always seem most exciting to the youngest in the audience?

It ought to be obvious from the above answer that I’m not that kind of guy. God preserve us from the “music was better in the old days” brigade. Posit your own golden age, fine. Build your own personal Arcadia, no problem. But recognize that it’s only that. Your subjective little bubble world. During the noughties I seem to have developed the pop tastes of a 16 year old. R&B is the sound of the noughties, indisputably. Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love,” Ameria’s “One Thing,” Britney’s “Blackout” LP. These are the great records of this decade. But then, as you’ll have detected, I don’t have a problem with modernism. Of course I’m also reconnecting with my earliest pop tastes, the Shangri La’s, The Ronettes, Leslie Gore. Those people still sound immortal to me. These are the faces that should be carved in pop’s Mt. Rushmore. My tastes range from Shadow Morton to Rocket Morton. I’ve never had a problem with pop music. If you let your tastes become era bound or genre bound you fossilize. The great thing about young people now is that they don’t come to music with all that emotional counter-cultural baggage that a lot of my generation are saddled with. They can pick and mix from 50 years of legacy. That’s healthy. I think music is in a really healthy state right now. Britney’s gone dubstep. What more do you need! (My hunch is that Lester Bangs would have loved the current era.)

A two-part question. First, true or false: More college students in the UK and America are likely to recognize Sid Vicious over Syd Barrett. Second, is this a good thing, a bad thing, or just a thing?

It’s just a thing.

Were there any books that were particularly inspirational for you in writing “Irregular Head”? Books with a high-standard that you wished to uphold?

I approached the writing of my Syd Barrett book as if it were a literary biography. Syd didn’t live a typical rock and roll life and he didn’t have typical rock and roll influences. I think that he only ever tangentially collided with the typical rock trajectory. (Can you collide with a rock trajectory? Wouldn’t you just bounce off the side?)  With this in mind my influences were almost wholly literary and are clearly annotated in the books bibliography. For me Richard Ellman’s James Joyce biography is the benchmark. More recently I was very taken with Jonathan Bate’s biography of the poet John Clare. The research in those books is impeccable. There is very little conjecture, only evidence. None of that “one can well imagine John sitting under this very tree as he penned …” that spoils some populist history (not to mention some populist historians.) I tried to stick to those principles myself. No “Syd will almost certainly have …” No, did he or didn’t he? And if you don’t know, shut up! One or two people have taken me to task for not mentioning certain previously well-aired Syd stories in my book. The truth is, if they weren’t interesting, and didn’t add anything to our wider understanding of the man, or, more importantly, if they couldn’t be substantiated, they didn’t go in. For instance, take the theory that Syd had the condition known as “synesthesia.” It’s nonsense. It’s based on little more than Syd’s sister Rosemary once suggesting it as a possibility (rather than a fact) and the half remembered testimony of a former band mate who remembers Syd saying something like “make it sound more blue,” or words to that effect. That’s all the material that some biographers need in order to fabricate a theory. I’ve done a lot of research on the condition and have read most of the pioneering studies. I read lots of material on LSD-induced synesthesia, where the condition is temporary and a novel response to the drug itself, and historical studies that refute most of the claims that certain literary figures from the past had it (many 19th century poets for example.)  They weren’t experiencing synesthesia. They were just clever people with imagination. As was Syd.

But that’s just an illustration of how rigorous my research is. I read all that stuff just to eliminate it from my enquiries, so to speak. There’s not a single mention of it in “A Very Irregular Head.” But I bet right now, someone out there in cyberspace is bleating about its omission from the book.

What’s next for Rob Chapman?

I’ve always got three or four projects on the go, so in no particular order: I had a novel published in 2008 called “Dusk Music.” It has turned out to be the first part of a trilogy. Part three is complete and I’m three quarters of the way through what is intended to be the second novel; it’s about a six foot two cross dressing classical piano player called May Grey, who has a walk on part  (well, shimmy on part) in “Dusk Music.”

I’ve also done quite a bit of treatment and blocking out work on a screenplay on the life of John Clare. But I’ve recently been told that there is a John Clare movie in post-production at the moment. I haven’t found hard evidence yet, but if it’s true my screenplay is dead in the water.

I’m also touting the idea of a book on the late broadcaster John Peel. I’ve had a bit of publisher interest from editors, but unfortunately the marketing people who run not just publishing but the whole world don’t think there is an audience for it. I think they are wrong so watch this space. If I could get 140,000 words out of Syd Barrett, imagine what I could do with John Peel.

If nobody wants any of the above I’ve just got back to finishing my big book on radio, which I started in the early 1990s. In 1992 I had a book published on the history of the British offshore pop pirates called “Selling The Sixties,” and it was originally intended to be a follow up to that, but it’s ended up being much larger in scope and ambition, nothing less than a comprehensive history of 20th century cultural and technological dissent. A long way from Arcadia and Syd Barrett.

But looming larger and sooner than any of these things is the fact that in April 2011 I am going to be a first time father – at 56! It’s been an unconventional life, you could say, but fatherhood at 56 is a bit out of the loop even by my standards!

www.rob-chapman.com

If you are near Richmond, Virginia, “A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett” is available at the finest independent bookstore in town, Chop Suey Books.

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