Joyce, if you don’t know, was the greatest prose writer of the 20th century, in English. I don’t insist he was the greatest novelist because he pretty much broke the mold, such as it was, of the novel. And though it was not a permanent effect (even if I wish it were) he did it in a rather flamboyant and non-repeatable (though perhaps imitable) fashion. He’s the bomb. But as a poet, rather less. As a poet, he’s essentially a lyricist. About this I don’t complain overmuch as I have a great respect for lyrics. It’s just that I have a hard time treating lyrics such as Joyce published as poems, per se.
Which brings us to today’s song, recorded in 1970 by Syd Barrett (him again!) for the album The Madcap Laughs. Barrett set to music and sings a lyric from Joyce’s volume Chamber Music. The lyrics have no actual title, as Joyce uses the old convention of calling the poem by its first line: “Lean Out of the Window.” Barrett entitles the song, more fittingly, “Golden Hair.” Or “Goldenhair” (Joyce had a thing for compound words).
Joyce was himself a singer and knew the words to lots and lots of songs—lyrics are included throughout his books Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Joyce never set a poem to music, to my knowledge, though some of his lyrics were set to music in his lifetime. I like to think he would have enjoyed Barrett’s “Golden Hair”; it’s quite atmospheric, creating a mood that seems to suit the poem perfectly. It’s hard for me to say, in a way, because I knew the song before I ever read Joyce’s poems.
The lines suggest a sort of siren song that calls a man away from his book and his room (and his no doubt quiet, bachelor life) to seek out a voice “singing and singing a merry air”—Barrett’s vocal on that is haunting rather than “merry,” so that we feel the tension of the “gloom” and the melancholy that leads the man on, longing for the source of this “merry air” (I can’t help thinking of a man seeking in his books “surcease of sorrow” and then he’s interrupted, not by a raven at his window, but by a voice singing “on the midnight air”). When he gets to her window, we imagine, he can see her and her golden hair within. And then comes the call for her to lean out of the window, Rapunzel-like, to let him come to her. And that’s it. It’s all in the longing that the singing creates, both song and longing find their image in—and listen to how Barrett draws out the final pronouncement—“golden hair.” It becomes now her name, and the name for this entire experience. And so, the name of the song as well.
Recorded with some of his former band-mates (those Floyd guys) the song has some eerie ambient sounds moving through it, like a sustained cymbal, and nice use of echo. Probably the Barrett track I liked best immediately. Others were more of an acquired taste.