“Bob Dylan’s Blues” might be an uncharacteristically prosaic title from a man better known for his songs about gnomes, octopuses and effervescing elephants. But as this newly unearthed Syd Barrett song — to be included on a new compilation, Wouldn’t You Miss Me (EMI), which is due for release in the U.K. on April 16th — suggests, Pink Floyd’s original “Crazy Diamond” was far from immune to the occasional mortal influence.
Barrett, the errant star of British psychedelia, masterminded Pink Floyd’s early success before a combination of a nervous breakdown and a tendency to overindulge in the era’s more potent stimulants prompted his departure from the group early in 1968. Tales of mammoth drug binges, erratic stage performances and baffling behavioral traits inevitably earned Barrett the “acid casualty” epithet. After two solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, both clearly the work of a wildly distracted man, he simply disappeared from view, taking up residence in the cellar of his family home in Cambridge. Turning his back on rock & roll, he returned to painting. Occasional Syd sightings, each one depicting the acid rock pin-up as increasingly bald and overweight, prompted inevitable rumors of renewed activity, but aside from a disastrous studio session in 1974, he’s maintained a strange, intensely private silence. Since the death of his mother in the early Nineties, Syd Barrett lives alone in Cambridge, suffers from diabetes and is tended to by his sister.
The Barrett legend has also been maintained by Pink Floyd themselves, most noticeably by Roger Waters, whose “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” and The Wall were both inspired by his ex-colleague’s mental health problems. Now, it is guitarist Dave Gilmour, Barrett’s replacement in Pink Floyd and producer of his two solo LPs, who provides the fillip. “Bob Dylan’s Blues,” a remarkable pastiche unlike anything else in the Barrett canon, has been culled from Gilmour’s private collection and is being released with the blessing of Barrett’s family.
“We knew of the song’s existence when we put together [1993’s] Crazy Diamond box set,” says project co-ordinator Tim Chacksfield, “but we had plenty of other material so there was no pressure for us to find it.” The new compilation provided an ideal opportunity to approach Gilmour and request permission to use the song. But why the guitarist took the master tape with him after the February 27, 1970 demo session had been completed remains a mystery. David Parker, author of Random Precision — Recording the Music of Syd Barrett 1965-1974, maintains that Gilmour has always rated the song highly. Chacksfield tends to agree: “The fact that Dave was happy to let it out says a lot.”
Although R&B, improvised music and nursery rhyme-like folksong clearly influenced Barrett, the Dylan connection is far more obscure. Barrett and Gilmour — at the time mere Cambridge-based teenage beat buffs — did catch the visiting American at an early show in London in 1963, and it’s likely that “Bob Dylan’s Blues” was written during the following months. Peter Barnes, Pink Floyd’s music publisher, maintains, “It’s one of Syd’s very earliest songs written before he even had a publishing deal.”
The 1970 recording, with Barrett accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, is a neat take on Dylan’s early, talking blues style. While finger-picking with typical, Dylan-like imprecision, Barrett gently lampoons Dylan’s activism and instead plays up the singer’s infamous nonchalance: “Got the Bob Dylan blues/And the Bob Dylan shoes/And my clothes and my hair’s in a mess/But you know/I just couldn’t care less.” The chorus is equally even-handed: “Cos I’m a poet/Doncha know it/And the wind, you can blow it/Cos I’m Mr. Dylan, the King/And I’m free as a bird on the wing.”
Though he later adopted Dylan’s unkempt curly-top hairstyle, this is the first aural evidence of Syd Barrett’s early enthusiasm for Dylan and provides an amusing aside to his more brain-teasing material.