Thursday, February 19, 2009
Here's looking at you, Syd
Here's Looking at You, Syd
How did one of pop music's epic breakdowns—that of Pink Floyd's dashing, mentally ill, drug-addled front man, Syd Barrett—find a place in a drama about Communist Czechoslovakia? The author recalls the genesis of his most recent play, Rock 'n' Roll, a London hit which reaches Broadway this month.
by. Tom Stoppard November 2007
At a certain street junction in Notting Hill in London there is nothing to memorialize what turned out to be one of the defining fractures in the story of rock music. I think about it every time I pass that way. Forty years ago come January, an old Bentley carrying three-quarters of Pink Floyd, plus a new recruit brought in to cover for their hopelessly zonked-out front man Syd Barrett, was en route to their 242nd gig when … well, here is Tim Willis telling it again in Madcap (2002):
As they crossed the junction of Holland Park Avenue and Ladbroke Grove, one of them—no one remembers who—asked, "Shall we pick up Syd?" "Fuck it," said the others. "Let's not bother."
There are people, says Esme, a 60s-going-on-90s flower child in Rock 'n' Roll, "who think Pink Floyd have been rubbish since 1968." Barrett, the voice, words, and spirit of the band's first album and of two solo albums after the split, does that to people, some people, like my friend Charlie, who—years ago now—would groan and shake his head over my constancy to what he called the "lugubrious, pretentious" post-Barrett Floyd and try to convert me to the "lost genius" who'd retired hurt to cultivate his garden in Cambridge.
I didn't get it, but what I got was the shimmer of a play asking to be written. I like pop music (which is a genus; rock is a species) and I could see and hear the ghost of a play set in a suburban semi (which in England means half a house in a street of houses halved as symmetrically as Rorschach blots and occupied by people who are definitely not rock gods), and here, in my play, the reclusive middle-aged "crazy diamond" would … er, do what, exactly?
Charlie lent me a couple of books about Barrett, and I got hold of a couple more. Books about Barrett go from acid hell to nerd heaven (engineers' reports detailing overdubs and so on), but as for writing a play about any of it—well, you'd have to have been there.
There was another little problem too: I have no understanding of music, none at all. Much as I love the noise it makes, I can stare for hours at a guitar band and never work out which guitar is making which bit of noise. Also, my brain seems incapable of forming a template even for sounds I've heard a hundred times. You know how it is at rock concerts when half the crowd starts to applaud the first few notes of what's coming? My brain is like a two-year-old playing with wooden shapes: sometimes I'm still looking for the right-shaped hole when the lyrics finally kick in, and it turns out to be "Brown Sugar." Me and music. So I put Syd aside, wrote plays about other matters, and listened to a lot of rock and roll as the years went by.
With each play, I tend to become fixated on one particular track and live with it for months, during the writing—my drug of choice, just to get my brain sorted. Then I'd turn off the music and start work. I wrote most of "The Coast of Utopia" between listening to "Comfortably Numb" on repeat. With another play, Arcadia, the drug was the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want," and since that play ends with a couple waltzing to music from an offstage party, I wrote the song into the ending and stayed high on that idea till I'd finished. It was inspiring. When, in rehearsals, it was pointed out to me that "You Can't Always Get What You Want" isn't a waltz and that, therefore, my couple would have to waltz to something else, I was astonished, uncomprehending, and resentful.
These somewhat humiliating confessions do more than enough to explain why the Syd Barrett play never got started. To explain how Syd then got enmeshed in a play, Rock 'n' Roll, which is partly about Communism, partly about consciousness, slightly about Sappho, and mainly about Czechoslovakia between 1968 and 1990, is first simple, then difficult. It was because of the photograph of a 55-year-old man wrapped up warm in muffler and gloves, on his bike.
When you take away everything plays think they're about, what's left is what all plays—all stories—are really about, and what they're really about is time. Events, things happening—Ophelia drowns! Camille coughs! Somebody has bought the cherry orchard!—are different manifestations of what governs the narratives we make up, just as it governs the narrative we live in: the unceasing ticktock of the universe. There is no stasis, not even in death, which turns into memory.
Barrett died, 60 years old, a month after my play opened, 5 years after that photograph of him cycling home with his shopping from the supermarket. When I first saw the photo—in Willis's book—I found myself staring at it for minutes, at the thickset body supporting the heavy, shaven potato head, comparing it with images of Barrett in his "dark angel" days, like the shot on this story's opening page. "He was beautiful," Esme says. "He was like the guarantee of beauty," and, high-flown though it might be to apply Virgil's untranslatable chord "there are tears of things," sunt lacrimae rerum, to a snatched photo of a burly bloke with Colgate and Super Soft toilet paper in his bicycle basket, that's what came into my mind in the long moment when I understood that it was this play, the one about Communism, consciousness, Sappho, and, God help us, Czechoslovakia, into which Syd Barrett fitted. The tears of things are in mutability and the governance of time.
Perhaps it was because Barrett dropped out of sight for decades that time seemed not merely to connect the two images in the usual commonplace way (he used to look like this, then later he looked like that, so what?), but also to sever them. A person's identity is no mystery to itself. We are each conscious of ourselves and there is only one person in there: the difference between this photo of me and that one is unmysterious. But everyone else's identity we construct from observable evidence, and the reason I was so fascinated by Barrett on his bicycle was that for a mind-wrenching moment, he was—literally—a different person.
This is not completely fanciful, and barely a paradox. Barrett himself colluded with it when he answered someone who doorstepped him, "Syd can't talk to you now," and long before he was photographed on his bicycle he reverted to his real name, which was Roger. I don't doubt that in the first instance he was just trying to get rid of an unwelcome caller, and in the second instance he was simply putting his old days and ways behind him: it's not necessary to infer a dislocation of his self-consciousness. The collusion was with the way we adjust our idea of who he is, who anyone is. And this is partly how drama works, through constant adjustment of our idea of who people really are under the labels, the "Communist academic," the "Czech rock fanatic," the "wife dying of cancer," and the others.
The realization that this was Syd's play, too, is not as bizarre as it might seem. The lineaments of the unwritten play included a Czech rock fan and an outlaw band, the Plastic People of the Universe, so rock and roll was already part of it. As for the English Communist professor, Cambridge would do nicely for him. Syd's last gig, in 1972 at the local Corn Exchange, was reviewed by Melody Maker: "A girl gets up on stage and dances; he sees her, and looks faintly startled." So let's give the professor a daughter who was that very girl, and let's see why Syd looked faintly startled. Willis's short, exemplary book recounts, too, how the student daughter of Syd's first real girlfriend was walking to lectures one day, wearing one of her mother's Barbara Hulanicki coatdresses from 30 years before, when "this bald man on a bike pulled up to the kerb." The man said, "Hello, little Lib." "Hello," said the girl and moved on. It was a few seconds before she realized that the man had called her by her mother's name, and when she turned round, he'd gone. So while Czechoslovakia is going from Prague Spring to Velvet Revolution, let the Cambridge professor's flower-child daughter have a daughter who grows up and …
And also between the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution, in another part of the wood, at some unknown moment, so it seems to us, the beautiful, undamaged young man in velvet and silk who sang, "I've got a bike, you can ride it if you like / It's got a basket, a bell that rings … " turned into a very ordinary-looking bloke called Roger, who lived alone, never spoke to the neighbors, tidied his garden, and died from complications of diabetes. In both identities, he stepped out of a stillborn attempt at a play all about himself, and without difficulty entered the dance of made-up characters in a made-up story, which, like every story, made-up or otherwise, like his own, is secretly about time, the disinterested ongoingness of everything, the unconditional mutability that makes every life poignant.
Tom Stoppard is a playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter.