There’s a scene in a Syd Barrett documentary where he’s shown in silent footage from the ’60s, when he was carefree, a little impish, showing no hint of what was to come. The commentary is by one of his friends, possibly Duggie Fields, and says that what life gave Syd was the chance to shine so brightly that it hurt, then to disappear from the public eye. He got to remain as a cult figure, in some bubble of suspended animation, but he didn’t die some rock’n’roll death like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison or any of his equally legendary, but deceased contemporaries. The question was asked if, given the choice, wouldn’t we all secretly wish for that? To rise like a comet, then twinkle out before age added a layer of ridicule to the youthful proceedings. I’m paraphrasing, but that was the essense.
Perhaps that was the appeal of him, that so many people identified with him in his fragility; or wanted to be him in his glory; or harked the warning of his life; or felt like hed forged a dark path, which they inadvertently found themselves walking, along which he could light the way back home, as the vaulted piper at the gates of the dawn. I discovered his music, then his story, in the mid-90s, and it would be indiscreet to say which of the above I most associate with myself. I forced myself to learn how to which a computer on, paying ï¿½1.50 for an half an hour using the local librarys internet connection because my friend, Ian, assured me that there was stuff about Syd on the internet; and my first, and longest lasting, internet name is Matilda Mother after one of his songs. My appreciation of him has sometimes bordered upon the obsessive, so I wanted to write his obituary for you.
Syd Barrett died on July 7th 2006. The news was announced today and, thus far, gives a couple of potential causes. It was either cancer or complications resulting from his diabetes. The guestbook of Astral Piper (http://www.sydbarrett.org/guestbook.htm) is already filling up with one person after another posting their commemorations and registering their shock. Mailing groups, full of sad gits like me, are receiving a huge number of posts, as everyone rushes for somewhere to be with others who are feeling the same. It’s all evidence enough that his star which shone so brightly that it still casts a light over 30 years since he last made a record. Such an outpouring of love and tribute proved his lyrics, gleaned from the I Ching, were ultimately about himself,
Thunder in the early course of heaven
Things cannot be destroyed once and for all.
Roger ‘Syd’ Barrett was born in Cambridge, on January 6th, 1946, and is mostly famous for founding Pink Floyd. That’s not quite true. He’s mostly famous for being an acid casualty; and for being the subject of just about every Pink Floyd song recorded after they took on David Gilmour to replace him and then ‘forgot’ to pick Syd up en route to a gig. This isn’t necessarily all true, but it’s the legend. The truth is that while he did appear to spend a couple of years in the mid-to-late ’60s permanently tripping, there was probably already an element of schizophrenia, manic depression and/or bipolar there too. Quite rightly, the psychologists haven’t actually put his medical records in the public domain, so authors and commentators have been left speculating from his known behaviour.
Syd was responsible for the name, Pink Floyd, after forming the band from old schoolfriends and fellow students; he was also their first songwriter. In the late ’60s, Pink Floyd WAS Syd Barrett, as he guided them through a punishing schedule of non-stop touring and into Abbey Road Studios to record their first album, ‘Piper at the Gates of the Dawn’. (Next door, The Beatles were recording ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and spliffs were passed between the two studios. There exists a tune where guitar is played first by Syd, with John Lennon singing, then vice versa; though it was never released.) Syd was the piper, though this is a reference more to Pan than to any instrument. He was the one on the stage at the Games for May event, where they played in the dawn, the pink haze of sky reflected back over the crowd from the mirrors on Syd’s telecaster. This was the concert that David Bowie attended and later wrote, ‘Memory of a Free Festival’ about, apparently. This was Syd at his zenith. The Syd who seems perpetually frozen in time as the psychedelic elf, playing in the fresh new day, when it’s all going to be ok now.
It wasn’t ok for Syd. He left the studio after a late-night lock in to finish off ‘Piper at the Gates of the Dawn’ and disappeared. He failed to turn up as scheduled for a Radio One session, leaving the rest of the band a little lost, as they’d never had to sit in the glare of the limelight without him to deflect it before. This was Syd’s lost weekend, which later transpired to have taken place in the Black Mountains, where June Childe (later Mrs Marc Bolan) had taken him to try to save his sanity. He returned with ‘eyes like black holes in the sky’. Everyone knows what happened next, because everyone knows the words to ‘Shine on you Crazy Diamond’.
That lost weekend had escalated into increasingly erratic behaviour, including standing motionless centre-stage refusing to sing or play, into a thwart evening in Syd’s kitchen, where he tried to explain to them what was happening to him, in words which later became ‘Comfortably Numb’. The rest of Pink Floyd stopped picking him up for gigs and significant members of their entourage, including their manager, left them in favour of Syd, as he really did seem the best bet to support at the time. There was going to be a kind of Brian Wilson/Beach Boys scenario, where Syd hid away quietly writing songs, while the rest of the band toured them. But even this didn’t work. Syd was just too far gone and too unpredictable. He appeared on their second album, ‘Saucerful of Secrets’, but only notably in ‘Jugland Blues’ and ‘Heart of the Sun’. He was asked to leave and significant members of their entourage, including their manager, left them in favour of Syd, as he really did seem the best bet to support at the time.
Sheer hatred of Roger Waters rose amongst those who followed Syd; it was his pressure on the fragile lad which caused the trouble, not the drugs, the possible mental issues, or the fact that Syd was never alone, but always surrounded by those taking and taking and taking and dropping acid into his tea. This glaring at Roger hasn’t stopped yet, but has deepened as more people join onto the Syd bandwagon, stamping in indignation about times which occurred maybe before they were even born. The record company using Roger to force Syd into more work, more songs, more gigs, doing it more like ‘See Emily Plays’ than ‘Interstellar Overdrive’.
Two solo albums ensued. The first was destined never to be finished, until David Gilmour and Rick Wright crowbarred time between a hectic Pink Floyd happenings to guide him into landing. The second was overseen by David from the outset, but there was only so much he could do when confronted by Syd’s unfocused mind. Both albums, ‘Madcap Laughs’ and ‘Barrett’, come across like the soundtrack to a breakdown, which, in fairness, they more or less were. You either love them or hate them; but a legion of Syd fans rate them over his Pink Floyd stuff. Then one day, Syd closed the door to his room, in the flat he shared with Duggie, and walked away. He took nothing, just walked from London back to Cambridge, where his Mum was waiting for him. Occasional rumours emerge, that he was living in his Mum’s basement, quietly returning to his first love of art; but mostly the Barrett family closed ranks and only the most despicable of tabloid journalists have got a glimpse of him since, though he spoke to no-one. He lived off Pink Floyd royalties, as they always include a song or two of his on compilations, and his interests are firmly looked after by the band’s lawyers and accountants. For all the alleged animosity, they did that.
There was a persistent rumour, until David Gilmour recently confirmed it as fact, that Syd appeared like Banquo’s ghost at the recording of that song. The musical backing was all set and all that was required was Roger Waters’s vocals, when an overweight, balding man wandered into the studio. Everyone ignored him, believing him to be something to do with everyone else, but it was David who looked into his eyes and realized that this was Syd. This knowing fused through those present; causing Roger to lose the plot, but ultimately have to sing his poignant tribute whilst staring through the mixing desk window at its subject. No-one had seen him for years before and his being there brought with it an air of the eerie; that the piper really did have some magical sixth sense to choose that moment in space and time. (Personally, I can’t help but glance at June Childe with slight suspicion here.)
Syd’s place was always on the edge of the veil – the piper, the prophet, the prisoner, the madcap laughing from his place on the border – now he’s crossed it. It’s comforting to know that, by the closing decades of his life, he probably did have what he’d so plainatively asked for in ‘Dominoes’ all those years ago, ‘a life which comes of no harm’. There have been 30 years of speculation that he might someday walk onto a stage again with Pink Floyd, or return to the public eye, too many reporters and supposed fans invaded his space, trying to trick Syd into appearing on the countenance of Roger Barrett. He ignored them, except for the time he called through the door that Syd’s gone.
Syd has gone now, where no-one will disturb his peace again.
Life that comes of no harm
you and I, you and I and dominoes, the day goes by…
With love and respect always