“Please, you know I’m feeling frail”

The 40th anniversary edition of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn includes an alternate version of “Matilda Mother,” in which Syd Barrett opens the song with the following lines borrowed from the Victorian writer Hilaire Belloc:

“There was a boy whose name was Jim
His friends they were very good to him
They gave him tea and cakes and jam
And slices of delicious ham
Oh mother, tell me more”

As with everything else on that debut album, Barrett’s singing is astonishing. The reissue also includes all of Pink Floyd’s 1967 singles. There’s a moment on “See Emily Play” where Barrett sets the magical tone permeating everything he produced at the time, couched within his careful phrasing of one simple line: “Put on a gown that touches the ground.” Another song I keep playing over & over is the jagged “Apples and Oranges,” which in both the mono and stereo versions contains an undercurrent of barely noticeable guitar feedback that only fully emerges in the final moments of the song, as Barrett makes his guitar spray a closing barrage of finely-held electric noise. The song seems decades ahead of anything being written at the time, more in tune with what’s found on Radiohead’s fantastic new album In Rainbows. (The video footage of Pink Floyd performing the song on their first U.S. tour in late 1967 shows Barrett already checked out from the band, barely lip-singing the words.)

It’s this sense of prophecy and eventual silence around Barrett that feeds much of the energy in Tom Stoppard’s recent play Rock ’n’ Roll (Grove Press, 2006). Stoppard opens the play with a haunting image of Barrett squatting on a garden wall in Cambridge one night, playing a song to a young girl who eventually becomes one of the play’s central characters. His LPs become talismans for her throughout the ensuing decades. After he says hello to her unexpectedly at a supermarket one day in the late 1980s, she’s devastated by an awareness of time having passed since she glimpsed him that night singing in her garden in 1968. Back at home, she tries to explain to her teenage daughter:

“When I was your age. I mean. Is this where it’s all going if we’re lucky? A windy corner by a supermarket, with a plastic bag on the handlebars full of, I don’t know, ready-meals and loo paper... lumpy faces and thickening bodies in forgettable clothes, going home with the shopping? But we were all beautiful then, blazing with beauty. He played on his pipe and sang to me, and it was like suddenly time didn’t leave things behind but kept them together, and everything there ever was was still there, even the dead, coming up as grass or down as rain on the crematorium gardens, so I wasn’t really surprised by the Great God Pan getting it together again in my, you know, spaced-out brain.”

Barrett’s music serves as a meter for the play, showing up in Cambridge and Prague over several decades. And Barrett’s presence, or absence, haunts every page of Stoppard’s book, partly as a source of utopian possibility and partly as a reminder of the limitations reality imposes on dreams. It seems like cosmic coincidence that Barrett died while this play was opening in London last year, emphasizing his spectral presence throughout the text and in certain types of music one might hear today. A song of his I hadn’t heard until now is “Candy and a Currant Bun,” the B-side to Pink Floyd’s first single. It includes the hilarious verse:

“Ooh, don’t talk to me
Please, just fuck with me
Please, you know I’m feeling frail”

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