Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Thoughts On Vegetable Man

With just over ten months passed since Syd Barrett stepped out of this world into hopefully a better one, I wanted to post some thoughts on his still officially unreleased VEGETABLE MAN.
I discovered Syd when I was 19 during my first semester of college. I, of course, was familiar with Pink Floyd but have to admit that I wasn't that big of a fan at that point. It's odd but I can't recall what exactly led me to Syd. It was just like one day he wasn't there and then the next he was. I do remember clearly the first album by Syd I bought, the outtakes collection OPEL in Nashville's now closed Tower Records.
While I can't say what it was that brought me to Syd I can say that hearing OPEL for the first time was a major event in my life. It was, and remains, a music that spoke directly to my soul; music that seemed to bypass any intellectual processing and went directly to my core. The shook up and emotional feeling Syd's music first gave me still remains all these years later when I play his music.
My sudden and impassioned love for Syd and his music led me back to Pink Floyd. Suddenly albums and songs I had previously heard before became keys to unlocking some kind of mysterious dream I couldn't awake from. Throughout my late teens and early twenties Syd was my main man and I ate up everything I could find on him. Books, articles, fanzines...whatever I could locate. Inevitably the subject of the unreleased Pink Floyd song, VEGETABLE MAN, came up in all of them.
VEGETABLE MAN was recorded near the end of Syd's tenure with Pink Floyd for possible inclusion on the PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN follow up SAUCERFUL OF SECRETS. I believe it was recorded at the same sessions that yielded the majestic APPLES AND ORANGES, although I might be mistaken about that.
Along with the original Beach Boys SMILE tracks, VEGETABLE MAN (and it's strangely effective companion SCREAM THY LAST SCREAM) is one of the most legendary unreleased songs in rock history.
VEGETABLE MAN became something of a legend to me. These were the days when you would actually have to search something down, before quickly accessible downloads or youtube made everything so easy. So I read a lot about VEGETABLE MAN before I actually got to hear it, which made it all the more sweeter.
The first time I actually got to hear this mysterious creation was ironically not by Syd. When I was 21 or so I came across the first Jesus and Mary Chain 45 for the song UPSIDE DOWN. Released by Creation in 1985 as a warm up for PSYCHOCANDY, this astonishing single has the Chain's version of VEGETABLE MAN as the flip side. To my knowledge their striking cover of Syd's classic has never been re-released on any format except for that original 45, which is odd considering The Jesus and Mary Chain have released at least three b-side collections. Their cover is astonishing for a couple of reasons. What is most noteworthy is that even though they are faithful to Syd's original it still sounds like a Jesus and Mary Chain song. It would have been right at home on PSYCHOCANDY had they chosen to include it. There are very few pieces of music that are legitimately ahead of their time but VEGETABLE MAN can truly make that claim. It was post-punk, shoegazing and goth before any of these musical genres existed. Listening to the Jesus and Mary Chain do the song one can hear just how a band like them or My Bloody Valentine would have been close to impossible without Syd's innovations lyrically and on the guitar. Along with Lou Reed, Syd Barrett made feedback an instrument in itself.
So what of Pink Floyd's original version? I got to hear the real thing a year or so after the Mary Chain's cover. A friend knew a guy who knew a guy that had gotten a cassette copy of a PINK FLOYD bootleg that had a very muffled version of VEGETABLE MAN on it. We traded that cassette around like it was a missing commandment. Syd's original hit me right away, even hearing it in that distant state its genius was obvious. From the seemingly knock off lyrics and weird chord changes to the aforementioned innovative use of feedback, VEGETABLE MAN was and remains a remarkable creation.
Often said to have been written on the spot with Syd just basically describing what he was wearing and feeling, VEGETABLE MAN feels like a free-flowing word association masterpiece. A closer look reveals a track more thought out than perhaps expected though, as the song takes an incredible turn at the line "I've been looking all over the place for a place for me, but it ain't anywhere." With one line Syd manages to sum up not only his whole career but possibly his whole life. Whether or not it indeed was a a bit of throw away or one of the most grand gestures of his whole career will never be known but the final crazed minute or so of VEGETABLE MAN is some of the most inspired playing Syd and Pink Floyd ever did.
Of course all that said, I really can't blame Roger Waters and crew for not releasing it at the time. It didn't have much of a precedent and after the mystifying failure of APPLES AND ORANGES and Syd's ever increasingly bizarre behavior, VEGETABLE MAN probably wouldn't have been the best move for Pink Floyd. I do like to imagine what the reaction would have been to a single of VEGETABLE MAN with the terrifying SCREAM THY LAST SCREAM as it's flip side in the late sixties though.

Syd only ended up having the haunting JUGBAND BLUES on Pink Floyd's second album, although he did play on at least one other track. He would soon cut his brilliant and fragmented solo collections, THE MADCAP LAUGHS and BARRETT, before slipping away from us. Nothing on those two records, or any of the material that has surfaced since, sounds anything like VEGETABLE MAN. The song is a fitting closure to his time with Pink Floyd and nothing sounded quite like it before or since.
VEGETABLE MAN is easy to track down now in several different versions, all sounding much better than that original cassette copy I heard. It still remains officially unreleased and perhaps that's the way it should be. It's un-official status adds to it's endearingly mythic quality and it would almost be disappointing to have it tacked on to the end of some best of collection.
Throughout Syd's life Roger Waters and David Gilmore always made sure that he received the royalties that were due to him, that's something that needs to be remembered. Syd Barrett haunted every Pink Floyd recording that they made after he was kicked out of the band, he was like a force that stayed with them up to the end. When they reunited a couple of years back at Live 8 Roger Waters dedicated the set to him and it's still a moment that makes me cry.
Syd was rock's most important and beautiful lost soul, VEGETABLE MAN remains one of his most controversial and searing creations. A song that might just be the key to his fragmenting state or just a sly wink to a future he would help create but chose to not be a part of.


pquigley said...

If you haven't heard it already, The Soft Boys do a great version of this song. Its on their rerelease of "Underwater Moonlight" from a few years ago. Robyn Hitchcock is a professed Syd fan and played Terrapin and Gigolo Aunt at the Syd tribute in England a few weeks ago. Waters and Gilmour/Mason/Wright also played but in those separate configurations.

Jeremy Richey said...

I have heard that but it's been a while. I remember liking it very much. Hitchcock is great, he did some really good performances on the Syd Barrett doc dvd that came out a couple of years back.
I read about that Syd tribute, that would have been fantastic to see.
Thanks for your comments and for reading.