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Book Review: Crazy Diamond – Syd Barrett & the Dawn of Pink Floyd by Mike Watkinson and Pete Anderson

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This was one difficult book to read. Even if you don’t particularly care for Syd Barrett the man, or for Pink Floyd the group, you’ll find the graphic day-to-day description of a person slowly unraveling and disintegrating in front of your very eyes tough to take. And what makes it more difficult, of course, is that sometimes there is literally nothing you or anybody else can do to remedy the situation. It’s like watching a train hit the car directly in front of you at a crossing. Father driving, mother and four small children all singing. You know there’s going to be significant property damage, personal injury, and perhaps loss of life, but all you can do is watch it happen and do nothing.

Crazy Diamond: Syd Barrett & the Dawn of Pink Floyd gives a very detailed examination of a very critical time in the life of Barrett and the other members of the group. Which makes it all the more painful, because we already know the outcome. On the other hand, if also gives us a fairly clear picture of just how the other members of the band coped with Syd’s increasingly bizarre antics. A band is a team, and must operate as a team. Otherwise, the band won’t be together for long. A cliché, to be sure, but there’s no ‘I’ in team. So if just one part of the team is operating independently, it can seriously disrupt or even destroy the team. Regardless of how it happens, the end result is they’re no longer a team.

When Syd failed to show up for a performance, it doesn’t take a genius to gauge the crowd’s reaction, let alone that of the rest of the band. If the recognized key link in the band turns his back on his fans, goes to the rear of the stage, then detunes his guitar, or begins playing something totally different than what the rest of the band is playing, there’s obviously going to be a negative reaction on the part of the crowd. And it’s a given that even the most understanding band will also have a less than positive reaction.

People say there are no places left on the Earth to discover and explore, but these people are dead wrong. There are six billion places left to discover and explore, and that number goes up hourly. What we know today of the human brain and its inner workings is exponentially greater than what we knew a hundred years ago, or even a hundred days ago. Yet there are other people who say we’ve explored, truly explored, less than one percent of the human brain, and our understanding is even less. Look around and you’ll immediately see quite clearly that the latter are far closer to being correct than the former.

Realistically, we don’t understand why we do some of the things we ourselves do. So how can we expect to understand what somebody else’s brain dictates to them? And dictate is exactly the precise and correct term to use. How much of what you do is really what you’ve told your brain to do? Virtually nothing, when you stop and think about it. You don’t control your brain; your brain controls you. Sure, you can tell your brain to pass on a specific instruction to raise your left index finger, but that’s not controlling your brain. That’s controlling your finger. The brain decides whether it will raise that finger. But all that is for people far smarter than you and me, or at least than me. It’s probably the stuff of theoretical textbooks for at least the next hundred years. So let’s deal with the things we can comprehend.

My compliments on Crazy Diamond, written by Mike Watkinson and Pete Anderson, are many, beginning with the painstaking care the authors took in giving all concerned their due, particularly in the confrontational aspects of this study. It’s easy to say that perhaps the other members of Floyd could have done more to ameliorate the situation. Of course they could have! There’s always more to be done. But if they could have done more, they also could have done less, too. And if they had done more, would it have been the right thing in the right place at the right time? Even if they’d been “batting” .667 (which is double a respectable batting average!), would doing the right thing in the right place but at the wrong time been more constructive, or more destructive? When you’re dealing with the human brain, and perception, it’s impossible to say. It’s not simply what you do; how it’s perceived may be more important.

Allow me to illustrate. You’re a happily married man, who one day decides to surprise his working wife by taking her to lunch. But just as you begin crossing the street to her office building, you see her and a colleague laughing as they slip into the hotel next door. What’s the first thing that comes into your mind?

But what if she and the colleague were simply sent over by the boss to check on some visitors staying at the hotel, visitors whom the boss is due to meet with, within the hour? The confrontation, and you know there will be one, may never reach the point where the situation can be reasonably explained, because you’re too busy punching out the guy and your wife. That’s perception, and perception, not facts, has controlled your reaction in this case.

Syd’s family life, to most perceptions, was happy, productive and tolerant. Watkinson and Anderson don’t say he was spoiled, but he was certainly master of his own destiny in many respects. When he told his father he wanted to play a guitar, his father got him one that same day. When he was a teenager, his house was the hangout for all the kids in his group. They knew they had a great deal of freedom there, and so Syd always had plenty of friends. Syd was personable, funny, had tolerant and understanding parents, he lived in a nice area, had his own personal space in the house, and he was a chick-magnet. The group didn’t have to sneak a smoke, didn’t have to sneak a beer, and could play their music at the volume they decided was appropriate. They could even get in a little snogging, so long as they weren’t too obvious about it. What more could a young man ask for? What more could his friends ask for?

Most people who know some of the details of the situation are certain that Syd destroyed himself with his profligate use of drugs, mainly LSD. That may have been, but it also may not have been. We really don’t know if Syd would have turned out exactly the same if he led the life of a choirboy, because we simply don’t know enough about the brain to make that determination.

What we do know is that the man was a musical genius who wasn’t always able to translate his thoughts into actions, or the correct actions. His music was psychedelic before most people had ever heard of the word. His music was punk before there was punk. Jimi Hendrix most likely learned a lot about the use of feedback, overdubbing and overdriven amplifiers from Syd. He was a role model and source of inspiration for many rockers who made bigger names for themselves, some who are still around today. We know that even in his insanity, if he was truly insane, he had enough sense to know when he could no longer control a situation, that he should walk away from it. We know that something as simple as somebody typing up lyrics using a red ribbon would set Syd off. Today we call those people lawyers, which is simply a synonym for anal. We know today that people who can’t control the chemical reactions inside their bodies are treated by a doctor for cancer, or diabetes, or whatever, while at the same time people whose chemical reactions in their brains cause them to fly off because they got lyrics typed in red are, to use the clinical term, f**kin’ goofy. Sometimes there’s no progress at all.

My gripes about the book are few. The top of my list of three is the lack of an index. I don’t know if I’m a typical or atypical book-reader, but when I’m reading a nonfiction book I want to be able to go back and refresh my memory on some things. I don’t just read through the book once and then set it aside. The book does a superb job of describing completely first-time references, but later, when the person or event is brought up again, I don’t always recall exactly who or what the authors are discussing. Realistically, the authors are not going to bring up mundane, everyday things, people or events, otherwise it would make for an extremely boring and tedious book. For most readers, the events, places and people encountered are unknown to them. And for somebody whose circle of friends or daily grind is virtually a complete unknown to most of us, then I think we can be excused for not remembering one or two, or even a few, of the people introduced in early parts of the book, and then not referred to much for the next ten or twenty or thirty pages – for instance, when a nickname is used for an otherwise well-known person, a nickname very, very few of us have ever heard. We may know very well that the main character in this book is named Syd; however, that really isn’t his name. His given name is Roger, so when a later reference to Roger is brought up, it becomes easy to confuse Roger Barrett with Roger Waters, who is referred to throughout the book as Roger. Syd, on the other hand, is not referred to as ‘Roger’ more than a handful of times. That example may be oversimplification, but you get the picture.

My second gripe is lack of a simpler compendium of references and releases. While these lists are complete insofar as I can tell, the way they’re laid out in Crazy Diamond is sometimes difficult to decipher. Perhaps a decision-logic table approach would be an improvement. My final gripe is lack of a clear timeline, which a literal line or even another decision-logic table would have made simpler.

I want to be clear that I have absolutely no complaint with the content of the book, simply in the way some of the things were presented, or laid out. Form, not style or content. I understand it’s sometimes difficult for an author, that sometimes s/he really does have to talk down to the reader. The author, assuming s/he’s competent, knows the subject and the subject’s life backward and forward, inside out. But the readers do not, which should force the author to sometimes be repetitive, or at least that s/he simplify things somewhat, for clarity’s sake.

Overall a great read, and worth the time invested. A fine tribute to a fine musician.

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About Lou Novacheck