Last month I found myself at the Barbican for a memorial concert to the great poet/troubadour of English psychedelic rock—Syd Barrett. Earlier in the day, Tony Blair had made his final announcement about his departure date.
Various figures from the bohemian fringes of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Mike Heron and Kevin Ayers, sang songs from Barrett’s Pink Floyd days or from his two haunting solo albums, produced after his mind had been irrevocably damaged by drugs. There were also more mainstream figures who had been influenced by Syd, such as Chrissie Hynde and Damon Albarn (of Blur)—and all the original members of Pink Floyd itself dutifully turned up.
The occasion—organised by the music producer and impresario Joe Boyd—was memorable but oddly subdued. Everyone sitting around me—people who must have been enthusiastically dropping acid in the late 1960s—looked neat and polite; they could have been academics, or even accountants. The only moment when some part of the audience roused themselves was when a nervous looking Roger Waters came on the stage—there were shouts of “Have you got it yet?”—the phrase that Syd shouted at the other Pink Floyd members as he became increasingly dysfunctional in late 1967. Waters is clearly regarded as the villain by some true Barrett fans, the man responsible for moving the band on after Syd lost his marbles. And Waters, rather shamefully, was the only performer not to sing a Barrett song—choosing instead a dreadful sub-Bob Dylan song from one of his solo albums (he performed on his own, of course; the other three members of the original Pink Floyd played separately as a result of the band’s acrimonious break-up).
For me the evening’s only other sour moment was produced by Damon Albarn. Introducing one of the Barrett songs he played, he made a sarcastic reference to his relief at Tony Blair’s imminent departure. No one seemed to notice—or if they did, it certainly didn’t strike a chord. Then it occurred to me that perhaps all these rather respectable-looking people sitting around me had become (like me) moderate social democrats with quite a lot of time for Blair, or even, who knows, even Tories. I can’t help thinking that Syd himself was probably deeply conservative—his love of childhood books and poetry and of English things, and his lack of shame about being middle- class, suggest a thoroughly well-adjusted child…