Let me take you on a journey. Much as Syd Barrett took us on a journey down the rabbit hole, through the screaming fields of psychedelic experimentation, and ultimately to the Gates of Dawn, this journey is about self alienation. We, as humble passengers among the Madcap’s laughing roller coaster of thoughts and sounds, must alienate ourselves from the perspectives and opinions of the outside world if we are to plunge into the depths of Barrett’s own alienation in order to understand, if only for a moment, what it is like to live inside the mind of a genius. Syd Barrett was more than the founding member of an amazing and abstract rock group; he was the Master of Ceremonies for the sounds and images too strong and emotionally intense to be of this world. He took us to the edge, but much like the rabbit hole, he never came back. He was the Piper, the Painter, and ultimately the Prisoner.
Syd Barrett (born Roger Keith Barrett) was born on January 6th, 1946 in Cambridge, England. He spent his early years growing up in a well-to-do family. Both his parents encouraged his desire for music, and he began playing guitar at an early age. When Syd was 15 he acquired the name “Syd”, taken after the local Cambridge drummer Sid Barrett. He changed the spelling to differentiate himself. It was also around this time period that Syd began experimenting with what would ultimately contribute, if not directly cause his descent into madness. He began experimenting with drugs, particularly hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD.
Although drug use has always been mentioned in comparison with Barrett, many (including his friend and Pink Floyd replacement David Gilmour) believe it was something deep-rooted that caused his breakdown, and that the drugs were only a catalyst. It is speculated that the sudden death of his father (he died when Syd was 11) may have planted the seed for which the drugs helped to sprout. In many ways the same as Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters was deeply affected by the death of his father in World War 2, the death of Syd’s father was something that he ultimately could never recover from.
While his father’s death languished over Syd, he generally wrote songs of happiness and joy during his early days with Pink Floyd. Such tracks as “See Emily Play” and “Arnold Layne” are examples of the upbeat, almost pop sound of his early work. It was not until after the band recorded Piper at the Gates of Dawn that his songs began to drift away from that format and towards the psychedelic sound. With the success of Piper… the band began to draw a large fan base, which in turn lead Syd to more frequent experimentation with drugs. If there was ever a beginning of the end, this was it. The more crowds that gathered, the more Syd experimented.
Syd’s behavior began to become erratic. On stage Syd would sometimes just stand there, detuning his guitar, and stare out into the crowd. It was after their disastrous US tour in 1967 that the band had asked Syd’s friend David Gilmour to tour as a backup guitarist to cover for Syd’s inability to play. The next year, while on the way to a show at Southampton University, the band simply decided not to pick up Syd. They had grown tired of his antics and erratic behavior. Originally the band intended to keep him on as an album contributor, much like the Beach Boys had with Brian Wilson, but even that proved impossible. Syd had simply strayed too far, and now there was no turning back.
After Syd’s departure from Pink Floyd, he recorded two solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, the second being produced by his Pink Floyd replacement David Gilmour. Gilmour also played on the album, as well as on Syd’s performance on the John Peel BBC program on February 24, 1970. Coincidentally, Gilmour also played with Syd at his one and only live concert during the time of these two albums, which was on June 6, 1970. After the forth song, Barrett unexpectedly but politely placed his guitar on the ground and walked off stage.
Syd continued to make attempts at other music projects, but none really went anywhere. Although numerous attempts were made to get him to record or produce again, nothing came of it. There is more myth and legend than there is of music left from Syd Barrett. It is said that he played his guitar with a cigarette lighter through an echo chamber; this is true. It is widely speculated that Syd made an appearance at the recording of the album Wish You Were Here, an album written mostly about Syd; this is also true. It is also said that the melting face in the film The Wall was inspired from a concert where Syd crushed Mandrax and a tube of Brylcreem into his hair, which melted down onto his face; Roger waters states this not true, but that doesn’t kill the rumor.
In his wake, Barrett has left his inspirational print on many musicians. Groups ranging from At the Drive-In to R.E.M. have all covered his work. There has been talk of a Syd Barrett biopic, of which Johnny Depp is said to have been seriously interested in for some time, and I believe he could pull it off. But from all the tributes and inspiration we are left with one sad but simple fact; there will never be another Syd Barrett. Syd was the Piper, the original story teller of cosmic debris that seems so strange to anyone who has never experienced it, but perfectly normal to those like Syd. I do not believe that Syd drifted into his own obscurity and recluse. I believe that the world pushed him there.
And now he is gone. I can only assume that Syd is up there somewhere, painting the sky with his own brush. The clouds may indeed seem a bit more odd and abstract, but fear not. That is just Syd painting his Interstellar Overdrive for us. He truly was a Diamond, and he will be missed by those who loved his music, his art, and for those who understood what he was trying to say when he told us to See Emily Play. Syd, you were a diamond. Shine On my friend. Shine On.
Jan. 6, 1946 – July 7, 2006
Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun. Shine on you crazy diamond.