When Syd Barrett, Peter Buck and Mercury Rev Set James Joyce’s Poems to Music
Few know this, but the first book of poetry by Joyce, Chamber Music, inspired scores of musicians to interpret his poems.
In 1907, James Joyce published his first book of poetry: Chamber Music, a collection of 36 poems that are fairly light and accessible. The book was released to little fanfare because it was full of clichés and had no chance at competing with the author’s other works (that same year he would write Dubliners, for example). But few understood that more than poems or “musical allusions”, they were small songs by themselves. Joyce is one of few poets who was also a musician in the strictest sense, and this collection was created as such. As Joyce himself wrote to his brother Stanislaus in a letter, in February 1907:
I don’t like the book but wish it were published and be damned to it. However, it is a young man’s book. I felt like that. It is not a book of love-verses at all, I perceive. But some of them are pretty enough to be put to music. I hope someone will do so. […] Besides they are not pretentious and have a certain grace.
Over time, many artists tried to set Chamber Music to music, with some very fortunate results. Pieces that are not very well known perhaps because they deal with a minor work from a mayor artist.
In 1969, Syd Barrett turned “Golden Hair”, poem V, into a song. It was the only non-original composition of his work as a soloist. But if the listener does not know it is a Joyce composition, there is every reason to believe that it is Barrett’s own efforts; an Elizabethan lament, as so many others he wrote. In fact, by making a subtle change to the poem (he replaced “midnight air” with “merry air” in the first verse, thereby preventing repetition in the last verse), Syd arguably improved the original.
The poems of Chamber Music arose from the solitary and speculative adolescence of Joyce, as he wrote in a letter to Nora Barnacle:
Joyce to Nora, Aug. 21, 1909:
I like to think of you reading my verses (though it took you five years to find them out). When I wrote them I was a strange lonely boy, walking about by myself at night and thinking that some day a girl would love me.
Perhaps that is why many of the lines in “Golden Hair” seem to be taken directly from Syd Barret’s lexical imagery, and resound so much with the rest of his compositions. A beautiful convergence among two geniuses.
In 2008, a group of 36 artists, including Mercury Rev, Bardo Pond, Peter Buck (REM) and Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth), recorded an album called Chamber Music: James Joyce (1907). Each was to interpret one of the book’s 36 poems, and the only requirement by Fire Records was to leave the verses just as Joyce wrote them. The result is eclectic and certainly unforgettable. After more than 100 years since his letter to Stanislaus, Joyce would be happy to know that his wish has been fulfilled.
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