Tag Archives: Games for May

Nature in Syd Barrett’s Songs

6 Jan

In lyrics Syd Barrett wrote for Pink Floyd and his two solo albums, he crated a tapestry of images, moods, fragrances and colours that change from vibrancy and childlike whimsicality of early psychedelia to more sombre, tinged with melancholy tunes that smell of withered flowers, last summer sunsets and have that after party mood when the guests are gone, the music stops and solitude remains. In many of his songs, images from nature serve to mirror the state of his soul, his emotions and his loneliness.

“Jiving on down to the beach to see the blue and the gray
Seems to be all and it’s rosy-it’s a beautiful day!”

(Gigolo Aunt)

John William Waterhouse, Ophelia, 1894, detail

Syd Barrett was the imaginative and stylish individual behind the early Pink Floyd. He also went on to have a brief solo career and released two albums in 1970; “The Madcap Laughs” and “Barrett” which mostly feature his melancholy voice and guitar, mirroring the dark and sad waters of his soul. Although the mood of Syd’s lyrics changes from the early ones which are fun and quirky, and later ones which tend to be more mystical and introspective, there is a theme which lingers throughout Syd’s poetry – nature.

The reason behind the frequency of nature as a topic of Syd’s lyrics is tied to his childhood; where he grew up and how he grew up. Syd was part of the baby boom generation and grew up in a safe and clean middle-class neighbourhood in Cambridge where his father worked as a pathologist. Unlike Morrissey, for example, whose early memories are tied to the dark and grim streets of Manchester and a red brick house which he can never go back to, the stage of Syd’s early memories is a lovely Victorian house where mum read fairy-tales and the arts were appreciated. Despite being only an hour away from London, Cambridge was, at the time, still a quaint town where myths and reality lived in harmony.

Constant Puyo, 1903.

In the book “Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe”, the author Julian Palacious describes the area as a”bleak land rife with myth; a land where one can see the ruins of monasteries and abbeys looming through the heavy autumn fog, the spring of the Nine Wells associated with druids and witchcraft, a place where cold winters bloom into chill and damp springs and violet flowers fill the meadow all the way to the Beechwoods, a place of fairy ring mushrooms and willow trees gently touching the surface of the river Cam with their long yellow branches; all in all a setting ideal for a psychedelic schoolgirl to explore the secrets that nature beholds and float down the river forever and ever like a modern Ophelia: Syd conjured the very thing in his song “See Emily Play”. Palacios further says that “The Fens were rumoured to be the haunt of lost souls, witches, and web-footed peasants”, thus mingling the vivid Celtic past and mystic of nature with everyday suburban reality.

Arthur Rackham illustration for The Old Woman in the Wood from The Grimm’s Fairy Tales

In his book “Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head”, Rob Chapman also comments on nature being a common theme in Syd’s lyrics “Like Lear, Syd would populate his lyrics with imagery drawn from botany , zoology and nature. Lear and Caroll influenced the clarity of his lyrics too…”, adding that Syd “grew up surrounded by Fen countryside, absorbed in pastoral pursuits and Arcadian literature, and frequently drew upon nature for the subject matter of his artwork. His father was a keen amateur botanist and the entire family were be taken for Sunday morning jaunts to the Cambridge Botanical Gardens. The experience would be ingrained and absorbed from an early age.” We might say that nature was Syd’s first love, one which came before painting and music, and one which stayed much longer, even in his old age when he tended to the roses in his garden.

Photo found here.

In his early writings for Pink Floyd, nature is the setting of Syd’s psychedelic imaginings. In one song from their first album, “Flaming”, a very cheerful tune, nature comes alive and the meadow is one big playground. The lyrics bring to mind whimsicality of Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland: “Alone in the clouds all blue/ Lying on an eiderdown/ (…) Lazing in the foggy dew/ Sitting on a unicorn./ No fair, you can’t hear me/ But I can you./ Watching buttercups cup the light/ Sleeping on a dandelion.” Through his perceptions of nature, Syd paints us the landscapes of his soul, through the sounds we see its changing colours from yellow, gentle green and pink, to greys, dusty pinks and faded blues.

The first hint of the darkness to come can be traced in the lyrics of “The Scarecrow” where a solitary scarecrow standing in the middle of a golden barley fields brings to mind the sad landscapes that Vincent van Gogh had painted near the end of his life. Another song, “Octopus” from his first solo album, mingles the cheerfulness of his early days with a premonition of the madness that was to come: “Isn’t it good to be lost in the wood/ Isn’t it bad so quiet there, in the wood/ Meant even less to me than I thought… the seas will reach and always seep/ So high you go, so low you creep/ the wind it blows in tropical heat”. One time Syd was on holiday with his family in Wales, he was but a little boy, and he wandered off into the forest and was lost for hours.

“The land in silence stands” (Swan Lee)

And the landscape turns melancholy; the gates of childhood are closed, dandelions have withered and unicorns are nowhere to be found… the dark sea of adulthood is sad and mute as the grave, and its shore desolate and unpromising. Lost hopes and lamentation at the sudden awakening. There isn’t a song which better paints a picture of Syd’s mind at the time than “Wined and Dined” whose lyrics and melody both recall happier times and lament at the sadness that just doesn’t go away:

“Only last summer, it’s not so long ago
Just last summer, now musk winds blow…”

Melodies and lyrics of Syd’s solo albums bring to mind not the pictures of meadows and flowers, but scenes of isolation; murky waters, birds flying away, broken pier, trees are silent and lonely… Syd shows an acute awareness of what is going on around him. As a lyricist, and a poet too, Syd used images of nature as symbols for his states of mind and ways of expressing feelings imaginatively and indirectly; he is painting landscapes with his words which mirror the states of his soul.

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise Over the Sea, 1822

Here are some interesting lines from his song “She took a long cold look” from “The Madcap Laughs”, the image of the broker pier, wavy sea and water streaming over him are striking:

“a broken pier on the wavy sea
she wonders why for all she wants to see…
But I got up and I stomped around
and hid the piece where the trees touch the ground…

And looking high up into the sky
I breathe as the water streams over me…”

Picture found here.

A beautiful song “Opel” has long sad solos and a sense of isolation lingers throughout it, especially haunting are the last lines “I’m trying to find you” sang in his distant voice and accompanied by his guitar:

“On a distant shore, miles from land
Stands the ebony totem in ebony sand
A dream in a mist of grey…
On a far distant shore…

The pebble that stood alone
And driftwood lies half buried
Warm shallow waters sweep shells
So the cockles shine…

I’m trying
I’m trying to find you!
To find you
I’m living, I’m giving,
To find you, To find you…”

Syd Barrett – See Emily Play

26 May

Pink Floyd’s second single, See Emily Play, allegedly told a story of a young aristocrat, known as the psychedelic schoolgirl. Mystical, whimsical and childish, verses of ‘See Emily Play‘ contain a deeper meaning than you’d expect. By reading this post further, you’ll discover the influences that created this beautiful and strange psychedelic gem; from Shakespeare and Romantics to Pre-Raphaelites and Pagan festivals.

pink floyd early posters 1

Recorded on 23 May 1967, and released on 16 June, the song instantly became a hit and struck a chord with the public, preparing the youth for a vivid and mind expanding atmosphere of, what was later known as, the summer of love. It was Pink Floyd’s second single which paved their way to success. Interviews and performances at the Top of the Pops soon followed. At that point Syd had already started struggling with the concept of being a commercial rock musician rather than being an artist.

Still, the lyrics of the song represent the very best of Syd’s writing; witty, childish and whimsical, they are the testimony to the spirit of the 1960s, and yet some of the verses posses a certain mysticism. It is impossible to pinpoint precisely what inspired Syd to write this song for its verses are engulfed in mystery, as is the case in most of Syd’s songs. Syd himself had many versions, one of it was that he feel asleep in the woods after taking LSD and saw an unusual girl.

The main inspiration for the song was, in fact, a fifteen year old girl Emily Young, who skylarked across Holland Park to the London Free School with her friend Anjelica Huston. Emily was nicknamed ‘psychedelic schoolgirl’ at the UFO club. Intellectual curiosity prompted Emily to visit the Free School and educate herself beyond school curriculum. Her private ‘evening classes’ consisted of reading William Blake, existentialists and Romantic poets, dressed at the same time in a noticeable long Victorian style gown ‘that touched the ground’.

Pete Brown said that ‘See Emily Play‘ was based on this schoolgirl.

This English cult of the schoolgirl in fetish uniform has always been around – the more dubious side of English culture, allied with British repression and fetishism. Emily was someone I went out and about with. I was friends with her because Anjelica Huston was at the same school, and hung out with Emily as well. I met them walking down to Portobello Road. I did poetry gigs in schools. I was young, in my twenties. These girls were seventeen or eighteen. I went out with them. English schoolgirls in the sixties were forward-looking, discovering their own sexuality.‘ (Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe by Julian Palacios)

1960s Emily Young - Syd's Muse                      Emily Young in the 1960s

Syd’s young muse blossomed into a notable sculptor whose aim is ‘to tell a truth about the origins of human life and consciousness.‘ In a way her sculptures remind me of Gauguin’s work, at least in approach. Like Gauguin, Emily believes that the truth about life lies in primitive and archaic, and that art is hidden in the forces of nature, not in Western world galleries. I’m delighted to see that despite her progression from a confused 1960s schoolgirl to a prolific artist, she hasn’t lost the open-minded attitude towards life. Her worldview is still psychedelic.

LYRICS:

Emily tries but misunderstands, ah ooh
She’s often inclined to borrow somebody’s dreams till tomorrow
There is no other day
Let’s try it another way
You’ll lose your mind and play
Free games for may
See Emily play

Soon after dark Emily cries, ah ooh
Gazing through trees in sorrow hardly a sound till tomorrow
There is no other day
Let’s try it another way
You’ll lose your mind and play
Free games for may
See Emily play

Put on a gown that touches the ground, ah ooh
Float on a river forever and ever, Emily
There is no other day
Let’s try it another way
You’ll lose your mind and play
Free games for may
See Emily play.

1852. Ophelia by John Everett MillaisMillais’ ‘Ophelia’

The story of Emily Young is, however, merely a segment of Syd’s fantastical song. The opening verses of the third stanza can instantly be connected to Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece – Ophelia. It is impossible to believe that the whole century separates these two maidens in long flowing gowns! ‘Put on a gown that touches the ground, ah ooh, Float on a river forever and ever, Emily…’ Emily’s graceful figure full of calmness in a flowing white gown that touched the ground, so brilliantly white against the darkness of the dance hall in All Saints, caught Syd’s eye while he wailed ‘I’m high, Don’t try to spoil the fun‘ into the microphone.

Beautiful and complex, strange as the mists of Avalon, this pop gem is at once intelligible and psychedelic all the way. It simultaneously unites all the elements that Syd’s fantasy world was made of; May Queens and Green Man, psychedelic drugs, tragic heroines, mysterious world of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, children’s stories, Romantic poems along with bright and innocent childish visions. See Emily Play is, at the same time, a hymn to the English woods, willow branches, rivers and pagan festivals, as well as the embodiment of dozens of archetypes of European literature – tragic and innocent maidens such as Ophelia. We know that Barrett was familiar with John William Waterhouse’s rendition of Ophelia who is painted in a long flowing gown, surrounded by the magnificent and mysterious woods and deep sinister water. Flowers, mystery, lost maidens, muses; all amalgamated in the mind of a psychedelic Mad Hatter of rock ‘n’ roll – Syd Barrett.

1894. John William Waterhouse's Ophelia1894. John William Waterhouse – Ophelia

Influence of a great Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, can also be traced in Syd’s writing. Shelley’s poem ‘The Song of Asia‘ was printed in Syd’s copy of ‘The Cambridge Book of Poetry‘. Specific verses evoke both the spirit of the song, and the ones of the Pre-Raphaelites masterpieces.

Whilst all the winds with melody are ringing.
It seems to float ever, for ever,
Upon that many-winding river,
Between mountains, woods, abysses,
A paradise of wildernesses!
Till, like one in slumber bound,
Borne to the ocean, I float down, around,
Into a sea profound, of ever-spreading sound.

1910. Ophelia - John William Waterhouse1910. Ophelia – John William Waterhouse

Final stanza of ‘See Emily Play‘ offers the listener a feeling of isolation; floating forever on a river, in loneliness and sorrow. Tragic destiny awaits Emily, as it awaited other innocent heroines before her; Ophelia, Lady of Shallot, Lavinia… At the same time, these verses may suggest a more personal subject, the one that never stopped occupying Syd’s mind; the end of childhood, days of innocence and playfulness are gone forever. Still, the usage of the same subject, by artists centuries apart, from Shakespeare, Romantics and Pre-Raphaelites to Syd Barrett, shows us that themes in art are eternal, whether it’s a poem, a painting or a rock song.

And what did Emily had to say about the song? ‘Floating forever on a river is a perfect dream image of the soul moving through time and space, through eternity. Of the world at peace in its place in the cosmos. Individual and universe flowing in perfect order with nature at one.

syd 118

I decided to write about this song because it’s beautiful and lyrical, thematically rooted in nature, folklore and other artworks that I love, and most importantly – it is a song I can identify with. In fact, it is the only song I can identify with, especially with the verse ‘She’s often inclined to borrow somebody’s dreams till tomorrow’. Then the ‘free games for May’ and I was born in May. For an unknown reason, I’ve felt like a ‘psychedelic schoolgirl’ for a long time. One cannot be sad when one is immersed in psychedelia.