Monday, January 6, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 6):"JUGBAND BLUES" (1968) Pink Floyd

Born today in 1946 was Syd Barrett, one of the founding members of Pink Floyd. His given name was Roger Barrett and he died, age 60, in July 2006.  His tenure in Pink Floyd was fairly brief—the period of its founding in 1965 until his ousting in 1968. After that he recorded a couple of solo LPs, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, both released in 1970. The “legendary status” around Barrett was fully entrenched by the time I first began listening to Pink Floyd with the release of Dark Side of the Moon in 1973. At that point they were unavoidable. I’d heard of them, and heard a few tracks, probably, before that, but. It was really the release of the double LP, A Nice Pair (1973), containing the first two LPs—Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967, mostly written by Barrett) and A Saucerful of Secrets (1968, with Barrett credited to only one song, our exhibit for today)—that got me in past casual listener status. Soon I was conversant with Relics and Ummagumma and Meddle and Obscured By Clouds, and then the band released Wish You Were Here, which included tributes to Barrett, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” and “Wish You Were Here.”

So, yeah, Barrett was kind of the wizard behind the scenes at that point. People liked to throw around tags like “acid casualty” and all that, but, y’know, that’s just show-biz—drugs affected his behavior, certainly, too much a head, apparently, even for a major purveyor of head music. Barrett, like some pop savants, seemed not to have the stomach or nerves or whatever it takes to be a rock band front man. He also wrote incredibly odd songs—coy, fey, whimsical, trippy, psychotic, bluesy, childish, abashed, visionary, histrionic, charming, casual, hypnotic, and lots of other adjectives, like mercurial. Barrett’s legacy remains as some of the most original and immediately recognizable music—he did odd things with his guitar, particularly with distortion and effects—from a period where “everyone” was dropping acid, smoking pot, and trying to reinvent the use of their instruments, to say nothing of dabbling—in the rush of Sgt. Pepper—with as much studio sophistication as their budgets could muster. The Floyd, on that first LP, managed to do it all without being Beatles ephebes in the least. And if you think “Strawberry Fields Forever” is trippy, try “Jugband Blues.”

The song has three segments that seem like they could be parts of different songs. It’s a bit like a musical collage, in other words.  It begins with what sounds like a typical (if anything about Barrett is typical) Barrett tune: announcing itself with the kind of kick we know from “Bike”: “It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here / And I’m most obliged to you for making it clear / That I’m not here.”  With that the verse sort of winds down unexpectedly to a haunting delivery of “And I’m wondering who could be writing this song.”

At that point we jump into the “jugband” segment, which starts very lively with “I don’t care if the sun don’t shine / And I don’t care if nothing is mine” and ending (apropos of today) “I’ll do my loving in the winter”—the last word is drawn-out and segues, with a kazoo-sound, into a kind of disheveled jugband banging out a segment that speeds up and starts to fall apart simultaneously, then it all tips over into the kind of spacey interlude that’s a Pink Floyd trademark—see “Astronomy Domine,” “Interstellar Overdrive” (on the previous LP), and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” (on this one)—with ambient sounds of the jugband on another channel of a broadcast, or in another dimension.  This crescendos, along with sound effects (the very epitome of psychedelia) and gets shut off.  Segue to Syd and strumming guitar, as he delivers lines bathetic in their childishness and fragmented sense: “And the sea isn’t green / And I love the Queen / And what exactly is a dream / And what exactly is a joke”?

Dreams, jokes, love, and not being here.  It’s a potent mix and ends the LP (and Barrett’s contribution to Pink Floyd) not with a bang, not with a whimper, but on a distracted and disjointed note.  What a way to go!  I’ve always admired this song for comprising, as it were, the essence of Pink Floyd in three minutes, sans the lyrical guitar solos of Gilmour or the wails of Waters. There’s always something comforting and disconcerting about Syd’s songs, at their best. I doubt anyone could’ve kept up that unique blend for long. Rather, think of it as a special brand for a limited time only, and for the benefit of Mr. Floyd, at their intergalactic majesties request, Barrett’s nut gone flake.

Mason, Barrett, Gilmour, Waters, Wright, 1968

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