AND WHAT EXACTLY IS A JOKE? ASK ANDREW MALE
(from A Saucerful Of Secrets, 1968)
It begins cold, no instrumental introduction, just Syd singing, in a voice somewhere between drowsy and sardonic, that “It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here/And I’m much obliged to you for making it clear that I’m not here.” In both their belletrist formality and gnomic nature, they’re words that might have been uttered by the Dormouse or the Cheshire Cat in Barrett’s childhood copy of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland – a paradoxical riddle about appearance and disappearance. The mood is further invested with a nonchalant fragility by the barelythere strums of Syd’s Levin acoustic, Roger’s baby-steps electric bass, Nick Mason’s hi-hat taps, and Rick Wright’s recorder trills. Like many of Barrett’s songs, Jugband Blues at first appears deceptively slight, a fragile creation seemingly born in the moment of first utterance, and displaying few solid signs of authorial nutsand-bolts ‘craftsmanship’. As with a child’s nursery rhyme, the song’s first third floats in a limbo of the eternal present, unspooling horizontally, shifting character from the innocently romantic (“And I never knew the moon could be so big”) to deeply disturbed (“and I’m wondering who could be writing this song”) to a kind of naive resolve in the second verse (“I don’t care if the sun don’t shine… I’ll do my loving in the winter”). It may mean nothing. Then again, it may mean everything. The base track was recorded at De Lane Lea Studios in the second week of October 1967, a period of “relentlessly unsettled” weather, according to the Met Office, when Syd was living at 101 Cromwell Road with his girlfriend, Lindsay Corner, and a handful of acid-fried acolytes. Tiring of pop fame, besieged by groupies and hangers-on, dosing on LSD, Barrett was, like the Cheshire Cat, gradually disappearing from view, leaving behind a look of blank resignation. So, while it’s easy to read Syd’s final Floyd song as a portrait of acid-fried crack-up, mightn’t it also be a wet autumn abdication, from a band member simultaneously “here” and “not here” to a band he no longer felt a part of: I’m off, I’ll do my loving in the winter, and who’s writing this song anyway? Of the Salvation Army-band-and-kazoo interlude that arrives at around 1:10, Barrett apparently told producer Norman Smith that the musicians should play “what they like”, the possibility being that it just didn’t matter any more. Or maybe Syd wanted to bid farewell to the Floyd on a note of parodic anarchy, because what’s more ‘late 1967’ than a Salvation Army Band playing what they want? What to make of it all? Surely the last line must go to Syd: “And what exactly is a dream/And what exactly is a joke?” His time in Pink Floyd had been both.