“Flaming” by Pink Floyd, Released November 2nd, 1967
Yippee, you can’t see me
But I can you
This snatch of typically childlike lyricism from the paisley-splattered pen of Syd Barrett has loooonnnggg been used, over and over and over again in biographies, documentaries, articles, and message boards, as a concrete example of the initial fraying stage of his mind. All sorts of incredibly complex psychological jibber jabber has been squeezed from this particular rock; Syd is singing about his isolation from everyone around him! Syd is expressing his fear and dissatisfaction with the pop star tread wheel! Psychosis was eroding his mind yet his facilities were still solid enough to document his own decline! A heartbreaking commentary on depression and social exile! But here’s a question:
What if this was just a tossed-off little ditty about playing hide-and-seek?
Keep in mind that in 66/67, as the counterculture was blossoming under the benevolence of Flower Power, childhood whimsy was WAY IN. Hippies climbed trees. Hippies blew bubbles and flew kites. Hippies named their bands things like Strawberry Alarm Clock and Flowers And Trees. Infantilism was certainly nothing new to our Syd. The guy was practically a child-mind OG, devouring Lewis Carroll from the time he could read and tossing in ring-around-the-posies sentiments with even his darkest early songs. Many, many people’s first LSD experiences take them right back to the root of childhood, whether that’s a good thing or not, and in Syd’s case he always looked upon those early days as the happiest of times before the dreary aspects of responsibility and accountability, things he could never quite manage as an adult, set in upon him like psychic vampires. In this series we’ve been tracking Barrett’s progression track-by-track, and it makes absolute sense that he would be looking to scribble an unadorned homage to a favorite Cambridge green childhood game for his band’s big debut album. Indeed, this minted Early Floyd classic kicks off as a super-straight realist sketch of a good old fashioned game of hide-and-seek:
Alone in the clouds all blue
Lying on an eiderdown
Yippee, you can’t see me
But I can you
When you’re looking for a madman you’re sure to find one, but in these opening lines Syd manages to dodge the heaviness that has been placed on them over the years, reveling in sheer joyful whimsy.
Things do get a little more surreal in verse two, but then again, the introduction of a unicorn is bound to do that.
Lazing in the foggy dew
Sitting on a unicorn
No fair, you can’t hear me
But I can you
Before you jump to any “HIS MIND WAS SCRAMBLED” conclusions, consider that unicorns were also way in vogue in 1967, particularly in London, with everyone from Bowie to Marc Bolan beating on tablas while singing about them. Over the summer and fall of 1967 you basically had to have at least one unicorn mention in a song in order to crack Top Of The Pops, so keep in mind that one critic’s “delightfully eccentric” is another’s “trying to get a hit by adhering to tends”. Yet like all things Syd Barrett, the maestro brings his singular sense of the simplistic deconstruction to the game here, pragmatically substituting a one-horned beast in place of the previous verse’s eiderdown blanket. It’s a masterful touch, to be sure. Where Bolan would have warbled about said unicorn for many a verse of dripping metaphor, Syd captures it all in just one mention.
For some reason most Barrett biographies and deep dives tend to overlook where the real scatterbrained darkness of the song lurks, which is toward the end of verse three.
Watching buttercups cup the light
Sleeping on a dandelion
Too much, I won’t touch you
But then I might
OK here we go. Sexual confusion, alternate realms, questions of what’s real and what’s not, vague threats and promises, the tantalizing beckoning of the void. I’d be tempted to continue with my “nothing to see here, just a harmless song about a childhood game, people” if the final two line twist wasn’t so deliciously strange. Now, “too much” was an expression used far and wide in the counterculture, right up there with “far out” and “unreal” and “wow”, a mind-blown expression of all that was beautiful and bright, but when followed by the “I won’t touch you, but then I might” we get into some interesting territory indeed. Even if we’re still within the parameters of a harmless childhood game, which Syd was definitely trying to stick to with this song, he just couldn’t help but color the scene with metaphors both romantic and threatened, frightened and daring, the swirling mass of lovable contradictions that made him a consistently fascinating song smith.
It’s the seldom quoted final verse that really takes off for the stratosphere.
Screaming through the starlit sky
Traveling by telephone
Hey ho, here we go
Ever so high
It’s interesting to see here that Syd was still enjoying LSD at this stage, using it as an exploratory tool to travel starlit skies, beam himself through telephones, coloring in his simple lyrical stanzas with perfectly curated odd touches that really made his songs come to strange life. There are no resigned sighs of paranoid terror like we’d get on his solo albums. Here we go, baby. It was all new and glistening and rife with wayward possibilities. Ever so high indeed.
Even in derailing his otherwise perfectly-curated vision of childhood play, Barrett was fully in control of his songwriting facilities here on Piper. If a wrench was being thrown into the works, it’s because he wanted to throw it in there just to see what would happen.
As always with the Early Floyd, Syd’s otherwise straitlaced band mates were right there with him on the void’s edge, providing a suitably dissonant backdrop that perfectly blanketed both Barrett’s monotone prophet vocal stylings and gently skewed vision. Check out those Roger Waters bass bombs dropping all over the backing track to the point where they almost throw off Ricky Wright’s fussy organ runs. Plus there’s the patented “Strawberry Fields” studio effect, a vibe that somehow could only be adequately captured at Abbey Road, where every note feels as if it’s in the process of bleeding through the universe’s nervous system and into the cosmos beyond.
It’s totally understandable that Syd scholars look for signs of mental deterioration in all of the man’s music, but with “Flaming” we have an artist clearly in full, brilliant control of his seemingly unlimited creative capabilities and vision.
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