You all know who Syd Barrett is even if you think you don't. Without him there would have been no Pink Floyd. Barrett dominated the band during their first years, writing most of their material, singing lead vocals and playing lead guitar. He left the band (or the band left him) for reasons of mental health, and in 1970 with the aid of his replacement in the Floyd, David Gilmour, recorded two solo albums: The Madcap Laughs and Barrett. Syd then performed with Stars, an ensemble in the Cambridge area, but left them after three gigs and virtually vanished from the public eye.
For the past five years Barrett has generally been written off as an acid casualty, but more often lamented as a musical visionary whose interior landscape became too disorienting for him to handle. Some of the stories one hears about Barrett are disconcertingly true, others only sound like Syd, but most of his acquaintances express the same conclusion: intuitive and fragile, Barrett was a unique talent and an erratic mind on the edge of a different type of existence - as well as a man who indelibly affected those who came into contact with him.
Several people close to Syd at various times in his life offer their perspectives in this article, and the resulting portrait is Picasso-like: a profile viewed simultaneously in different dimensions of seeing. Many thanks go to the following for their help:
Glen Buxton (formerly guitarist with Alice Cooper)
Duggie Fields (designer, artist and Barrett's flat-mate for several years)
Lindsey Korner (Barrett's girlfriend during the Pink Floyd days)
Bryan Morrison (former Pink Floyd manager and publisher, still Barrett's publisher)
Mick Rock (photographer for Hipgnosis in London during the 60's)
Jerry Shirley (formerly with Humble Pie and Natural Gas, drummer on Barrett's albums and currently with A&M's Midnight)
Twink (drummer for Pretty Things, Pink Fairies, Tomorrow, Stars and Rings, who still believes in Syd)
and David Gilmour, for devotion above and beyond the call of rock 'n' roll.
There is no question that Syd Barrett was one of the "umma" (the brotherhood of prophets - see Herbert's "Dune") and "just mad enough to be holy." Barrett's madness was not quite a sudden explosion, however, but rather a gradual implosion, the clues to which he articulated in his music long before his behavior signalled distress. Syd's songs contained warnings from the beginning: he dealt with instability and the primal need for comfort via authority's fairytales ("Matilda Mother"), the desire for control of a situation and the outsider/observer role ("Flaming"). The lyrics of "Jugband Blues" (on Floyd's Saucerful Of Secrets) also spelled out some of his conflicts. By the time of The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, Syd's songs clearly revealed raw spots in his psyche amid the poetically jumbled voodoo of his writing.
Ten years since the release of Pink Floyd's first album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, it's difficult for those unfamiliar with Pink Floyd's music or the burgeoning British music scene of the 60's to attribute great importance to Syd Barrett. All it takes to be convinced of Barrett's significance, however, is a careful listen to Piper, A Saucerful Of Secrets (the second LP), and the singles he wrote for the group (on Relics and Masters Of Rock, a Dutch collection). What Syd created in sound and imagery was brand new: at that time America hadn't even heard of Hendrixian feedback and distortion as part of a guitar's capabilities, and the Beatles were just recording Sergeant Pepper (at the same time and in the same studios) as Pink Floyd were cutting Piper. Barrett's music was as experimental as you could get without crossing over entirely into freeform jazz; there simply were no other bands extending the boundaries of rock beyond the basic 4/4 sex-and-love themes.
Syd certainly listened to American jazz, blues, jug band music and rock, as did most young British rock 'n' rollers of the time. He used to cite Bo Diddley as his major influence, yet these inputs are no more than alluded to in his music, which contains every style of guitar playing imaginable: funky rhythm churns up speeding riffs that distort into jazzy improvisation. At times an Eastern influence surfaces, blending vocal chants, jangling guitar and devotional hum in tunes like "Matilda Mother" and the lovely "Chapter 24," based on the I Ching.
Barrett's guitar work maintained a psychedelic, dramatic ambience of incongruous contrasts, violent changes and inspired psychosis. No technician a la Eric Clapton, Barrett simply knew his own particular instrument well and pushed it to its limits. Compared by critics to Jeff Beck, Lou Reed (in his early Velvet Underground days) and Jimi Hendrix, Barrett lacked only the consistency to match their achievements. His trademark (and Achilles heel) was sudden surprise: trance-like riffs would slide abruptly into intense, slightly offbeat strumming ("Astronomy Domine"), choppy urgency gives way to powerful, frightening peaks ("Interstellar Overdrive"), harmless lyrics skitter over a fierce undertow of evil-sounding feedback and menacing wah-wah ("Lucifer Sam"). Stylized extremes made Barrett's guitar the focus of Floyd's early music; his instrumental mannerisms dominated each song even when Syd merely played chords. Barrett's rhythms were usually unpredictable; one never knew what process in Syd's brain dictated when to speed up or slow down the pace, when to sweeten or sour the sound, and when to wrench the tempo totally out of joint, shifting gears to turn rhythms inside-out. As a result, Barrett's playing was variously described by critics as "clumsy and anarchic," "adventurous and distinctive," "idiosyncratic," "revolutionary" or "brilliant and painful."
Indisputably Barrett was an innovator. Whether he was entirely conscious or in control of his art is impossible to determine; perhaps it's enough to say that he was indeed effective. His work with Pink Floyd still ranks as some of the most expressive, sensational playing recorded by a rock guitarist. Even 10 years later Barrett's solos stand as fixed entities in the overall scope of Pink Floyd's music; it's a rare long-term Floyd fan who doesn't know every note, each frenzy of feedback and electronic eccentricity. Yet Syd borrowed no familiar blue licks as the young Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page were wont to do.
Barrett's songwriting genius was original and extremist as well. His singing was highly stylized; obscure chanting vocals, high-tension verses and explosive choruses alternating with deadpan storytelling and hypnotic drawls. He utilized fairytale technique, surrealistic juxtaposition of psychedelic detail and plain fact, childhood experience and adult confusion. Like the Beatles, Barrett combined dream imagery and irony with simple, direct tunes, strong, catchy melodic hooks with nonsense rhymes and wandering verses that sound like nothing so much as what goes on inside people's heads when their minds are running aimlessly.
Although some of Barrett's songs seem to be straightforward stories, one always discovers a twist: multiple meanings to a line that belie the childlike wonder of the words ("Gnome"), innocuous lyrics devastatingly undermined with a questing guitar or unlikely special effects ("Scarecrow," "Jugband Blues"). Certainly psychedelia asserted its influence on Barrett's writing; there are descriptions and perceptions one can attribute only to drugs or hallucinatory schizophrenia, but others are strictly the products of his unaffected imagination.
As a songwriter Barrett has been compared with Pete Townshend and Ray Davies. Dave Gilmour echoes that evaluation: "Syd was one of the great rock and roll tragedies. He was one of the most talented people and could have given a fantastic amount. He really could write songs and if he had stayed right, could have beaten Ray Davies at his own game."
Syd's influence on Pink Floyd continued to manifest itself long after he left the band. Carrying on without him was difficult at first, since the public and music business obviously thought Syd was all the band had. Initially Gilmour's style conformed to the Barrett prototype established on the first album, and their music retained Syd's spirit, but their songwriting gradually changed. In the years following Syd's departure he remarked that the band wasn't progressing, and in a real sense this was true. Even Pink Floyd's three most recent albums to a large extent expand and develop themes and riffs Syd laid down with them in 1967.
The point of view Barrett used in his songs, an alternation (and occasional fusion) of second and third persons, still predominated Pink Floyd compositions; pieces of his solos find their way into Gilmour's, tracks from Saucerful rearrange themselves on Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. Even 1977's Animals displays Barrett's dark humor and takes off on his "Rats" premises. The dramatic mixes Syd applied to the Floyd's early recordings are now magnified by 16-track studios but employ the same technique: whole walls of sound rocket from one side of the room to the other, the guitar careens in and out of different speakers, submerged speech and incidental sounds chatter beneath instrumentals; their use of sound as an emotional tool is absolutely Barrettonian.
The most obvious impact of Syd Barrett-in-absentia has been on the concerns of much of Pink Floyd's music since 1969. They began dealing with the politics of reality in the outside world and became obsessed with the internal world of madness. The lyrics to "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" are in perfect context on an album that clearly expresses the band's outrage at the whoring business of rock and roll and its toll on a human being like Barrett:
Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun Shine on you crazy diamond. Now there's a look in your eyes like black holes in the sky, Shine on you crazy diamond. You were caught on the crossfire of childhood and stardom, blown on the steel breeze. Come on you target for far away laughter, come on you stranger, you legend, you martyr and shine!
Syd did indeed wear out his welcome with Pink Floyd. He became nearly impossible to follow musically as he reached for more abstract constructs, constantly re-phrasing, shifting and re-writing as he performed, expressing a compulsive need for uniqueness without considering logic. He worried about being considered "redundant," was anxious about growing older without accomplishing everything he wanted, and at one point said in exasperation to his roommate Fields, "Duggie, you're 23 and you're not famous!"
By 23 Syd was already internationally famous and began the rollercoaster ride to oblivion. Onstage he often found it inconceivable to play, standing among the amps with his back to the audience, staring at his guitar as if he'd never seen one before. Occasionally he exhibited flashes of virtuosity that dazzled audiences and made them hope for more, but Barrett was incapable of performing for its own sake. He wanted to achieve something indefinable each time he set out to play, and frequently this Olympian vision prevented Syd from producing anything at all for fear it not be perfect, brilliant and innovative.
Paralysis generated fear, and many Pink Floyd concerts found Barrett treating his guitar as if it were a treacherous grenade; at other times he would simply disappear for the duration and a substitute would have to be called in. Barrett's musical ideas were metamorphosing, too; as he became more withdrawn personally, his songs tended to deal only with internal reality and became more obscure. He was becoming more of a conceptual artist than a musician, and eventually broke the barrier between form and content (and genius and insanity) by becoming what he had sung about.
Why didn't anyone see Barrett metaphysically waving his arms in the air ? Perhaps because during London's turbulent '60s scene it was difficult, especially in a love-and-drug stupor, to distinguish incipient dementia from contrived brinksmanship. Barrett, as a genuine innovator and avant-gardist, probably had more leeway to act peculiar than most of the artiste/intellectual crowd he hung out with. Certainly no one around Syd was in a stable enough state to estimate the strength or weakness of his grasp on ordinary reality. Most of Barrett's craziness was accepted as "just Syd" until it became impossible for the Floyd to perform with his spells of onstage paralysis and offstage freakouts.
The incredible struggle Gilmour and Waters of Pink Floyd endured during the recording of Barrett's solo albums, the sheer energy and patience it took to motivate Syd and keep him on the track, was the final straw. When Barrett dissolved Stars, it was apparent that he could not continue musically until he recovered from his shell-shock.
By all accounts Syd Barrett's career began like thousands of others among the crowd of young people during the first psychedelic rush of the '60s. He attended art school, became involved with other art and architectural students (among them the nucleus of the embryonic Pink Floyd) and finally left school for music. Syd's home in Cambridge, where his mother ran a boarding house, was the local social hang-out for the Cambridge students and drop-outs who later moved to London to form their own artistic enclave; until just a few years ago Barrett was still oscillating between his flat in London and his mother's in Cambridge.
Like all local "freak" scenes, the Pink Floyd crowd had a nexus; flats in London's Cromwell Road and Earl's Court became mecca for Cambridge hippies and budding mods. Mick Rock remembers one of Syd's flats as "a burnt-out place, the biggest hovel, the biggest shit-heap; a total acid-shell, the craziest flat in the world. There were so many people, it was like a railway station. Two cats Syd had, one called Pink and one called Floyd, were still living in the flat after he left. He just left them there. Those were the cats they used to give acid to. You know what heavy dope scenes were like."
When Pink Floyd "made it," Syd Barrett was about 21 years old. "They used to rehearse in the flat," Duggie Fields says, "and I used to go downstairs and put on Smokey Robinson as loud as possible. I don't know where they all arrived from, but I went to architecture school so did Rick [Wright, the Floyd's keyboard player] and Roger [Waters, bassist]. I don't quite remember how I met them all. I just remember suddenly being surrounded by the Pink Floyd and hundreds of groupies instantly."
Barrett felt ensuing changes keenly. Within a few months after his "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play" (the first Floyd singles) made Pink Floyd stars, Lindsey Korner says "chronic schizophrenia" set in. It wasn't drugs particularly that set Syd off, she insists; from the time she first met him Korner considered Syd one of the sweetest, most together people, even though Syd's previous girlfriend says he was off the wall a little even then. According to Lindsey "it got a bit crazed" during the fall of '67; by Christmas Syd had started to "act a little bonkers."
"Oh, he went more than slightly bonkers," Fields affirms. "It must have been very difficult for him. I think the pressures on Syd before that time must have upset him very much, the kind of pressure where it takes off very fast, which Pink Floyd did - certainly in terms of the way people behaved towards them. I used to be speechless at the number of people who would invade our flat, and how they would behave towards anyone who was in the group; especially girls. I'd never seen anything like it. Some of the girls were stunning, and they would literally throw themselves at Syd. He was the most attractive one; Syd was a very physically attractive person - I think he had problems with that.
"I saw it even when he was out of the group (by the beginning of 1969). People kept coming around and he would actually lock himself in his room. Like if he made the mistake of answering the front door before he'd locked himself in his room, he found it very difficult to say no. He'd have these girls pounding on his bedroom door all night, literally, and he'd be locked inside, trapped. He did rather encourage that behavior to a certain extent, but then he didn't know what to do with it; he would resent it."
In 1967 Pink Floyd toured America for the first and last time with Syd Barrett. During their LA stay the band was invited to visit the Alice Cooper entourage, quartered in a house in Venice during their stint as the Cheetah club's house band. Cooper and his band had heard the Floyd's Piper at the Gates and their reaction, guitarist Glen Buxton recalls, was, "Wow! These guys should be reckoned with!" So Pink Floyd came to dinner.
"Syd Barrett I remember," Buxton says emphatically. "I don't remember him ever saying two words. It wasn't because he was a snob; he was a very strange person. He never talked, but we'd be sitting at dinner and all of a sudden I'd pick up the sugar and pass it to him, and he'd shake his head like 'Yeah, thanks,' It was like I heard him say 'Pass the sugar' - it's like telepathy; it really was. It was very weird. You would find yourself right in the middle of doing something, as you were passing the sugar or whatever, and you'd think, 'Well, damn! I didn't hear anybody say anything!' That was the first time in my life I'd ever met anybody that could actually do that freely. And this guy did it all the time."
If leaving Pink Floyd were hard for Barrett, so were his last months in the band. Shirley explains: "When he plays a song, it's very rare that he plays it the same way each time - any song. And some songs are more off-the-wall than others. When he was with the Floyd, towards the very end, Syd came in once and started playing this tune, and played it completely different. Every chord change just kept going somewhere else and he'd keep yelling (the title), 'Have you got it yet ?' I guess then it was Roger (who kept yelling back, 'No!') who kind of realized, 'Oh, dear.'"
Similar episodes became more frequent until the Floyd reached breaking point. "It was getting absolutely impossible for the band," Shirley recalls. "They couldn't record because he'd come in and do one of those 'Have you got it yet' numbers, and then onstage he would either not play or he'd hit his guitar and just turn it out of tune, or do nothing. They were pulling their hair out, they decided to bring in another guitarist to complement, so Syd wouldn't have to play guitar and maybe he'd just do the singing. Dave came in and they were a five-piece for about four or five weeks. It got better because Dave was together in what he did. Then the ultimate decision came down that if they were going to survive as a band, Syd would have to go. Now I don't know whether Syd felt it and left, or whether he was asked to. But he left. Dave went through some real heavy stuff for the first few months. Syd would turn up at London gigs and stand in front of the stage looking up at Dave; 'That's *my* band.'"
Syd had probably met Dave in the early '60s when Gilmour played in a Cambridge band. "They used to play things like 'In the Midnight Hour,'" Rock recalls, "and Syd would go watch Dave play 'cause I think Dave had got his chords down a bit better than Syd in the early days. Syd was always a bit weird about Dave. That was his band, the Floyd."
Even before Pink Floyd returned to England from their American tour, Barrett was proving more than merely eccentric. Buxton remembers "the crew used to say he was impossible on the road. They'd fly a thousand miles, get to the gig, he'd get up onstage and wouldn't have a guitar. He would do things like leave all his money in his clothes in the hotel room, or on the plane. Sometimes, they'd have to fly back and pick up his guitar. I didn't pick up that he was a drug casualty, although there were lots at the time who would do those exact things because they were drugged out. But Syd was definitely from Mars or something."
Fields and Gayla Pinion, Syd's girlfriend during the difficult years after Pink Floyd, were most continuously exposed to Barrett - crazies, and Duggie recalls trying periods of life with Syd. "When he gave up the group he took up painting again for a bit, but he never enjoyed it. He didn't really have a sense of direction.
"He used to lie in bed every morning, and I would get this feeling like the wall between our rooms didn't quite exist, because I'd know that Syd was lying in bed thinking, 'What do I do today ? Shall I get out of bed ? If I get out of bed, I can do this, and I can do that - or I can do *that*, or I could do that.' He had the world at his feet, all the possibilities, and he just couldn't choose. He had great problems committing himself to any action. As for committing himself to doing anything for any length of time - he was the kind of person who'd change in the middle. He'd set off, lose his motivation, and start questioning what he was doing - which might just be walking down the street."
Fields attempted to alter Barrett's pattern, but nothing quite worked. "Sometimes he'd be completely jolly and then just snap - you could never tell what he was like. He could be fabulous. He was the sort of person who had amazing charm; if he wanted your attention, he'd get it. He was very bright. After he left the group he was very much aware of being a failure. I think that was quite difficult, coming to terms with that."
At one point when Gayla moved out of the flat, Syd rented her room (the smallest) to first three, then five people. Fields despaired; eventually Syd couldn't deal with them either because they were always underfoot, wanting his attention, as did many slightly younger people who idolized him. Fields recalls visitors constantly bringing pills to Barrett: "Just give Syd mandrakes and he'll be friendly." More visitors came "with their hounds as well" and Syd, unable to tolerate the situation any longer, went back to Cambridge. "He just left them," Duggie recalls, "and then rang me up and said that I had to get rid of them. I said *he* had to get rid of them, bit I actually did in the end. I said, 'Look, Syd wants you out; he's coming back!' They were a bit frightened of him because he did have a violent side."
Barrett's first solo album, Shirley says, was a result of the Floyd finally convincing Syd "that he should get off his ass and make an album." Gilmour and Waters co-produced the LP, but after the experience Waters gave up ("That's it! I can't cope with that again!") and Rick Wright joined Dave as co-producer for the second one.
The two albums, release later in America as a double package, are curios even seven years after their appearance. Syd wrote all the material (some of it years before) except the lyrics to "Golden Hair" (a James Joyce poem), and every symptom of his personal problems is in it evidence. The tone is somber and unsettling, with only three frivolous songs. Many tunes end abruptly or with contrived instrumental fades when Syd runs out of lyrics. Barrett's singing is a deep-pitched melancholy monotone.
There are painful moments when his voice cracks or careens out of control reaching for notes he once could sing; he shouts the higher notes, not believing he can make them. His acoustic guitar playing is mainly arhythmic strumming full of arbitrary and often clever tempo shifts and reversals, punctuated with extreme dramatic bursts and tenuous pianissimo. There are no brilliant solo flashes, but several tunes display his instrumental ability: "Wined and Dined" and "Effervescing Elephant," with which Barrett was familiar enough not to have trouble with the chords; "Wolfpack," Syd's temporary favorite and demonically energized number; "Gigolo Aunt," recorded in one take on a good day; and "Dominoes," the track on which Syd's spacey, chaotic playing most resembles his Pink Floyd style.
Syd's changes were foreshadowed musically on "Apples and Oranges," a late '67 Floyd single. That tune resembles the work on the solo albums: background drone, rushed verse and slow chorus, and intense vocal line ascending and descending uneasily became stock characteristics of Madcap and Barrett. The transformation in Barrett's self-image and confidence is evident if one compares the brashness and electricity of the early Floyd albums with the dead-sounding Syd of 1970, chanting rather than singing, vocal sometimes estranged from his rhythms, unnerved by his mistakes; literally falling apart several times, incapable of performing properly at that particular moment, but unwilling to give up entirely. He music is stark, eerie and often depressing despite some genuinely funny lyrics and the efforts of Syd's musicians to add lively touches to the bleakness.
Some Barrett traits, however, didn't change. His simple stories trade off with surrealistic half-sense and nonsense; nursery rhyme structures are bent with restless time signatures and startling chord progressions. Choruses switch tempos and lyrics (often unintelligible) function more as sound. Words become less communicative elements than instruments of sensation as Barrett meanders through inexplicable mental territory, sometimes resolving into straight songs and sometimes dissolving into multi-rhyming babble.
Despite some incredible songwriting, complicated structures and stunning sonic/verbal images, there's no way to avoid feeling that the two albums are the portrait of a breakdown. Scattered throughout the nightmare/fantasy lyrics are whispers and screams from a confused Syd, trying to carry on in the midst of utter disorientation and emotional turmoil. In "Long Gone" he sings:
And I stood very still by the window sill and I wondered for those I love still And I cried in my mind where I stand behind...
"Waving My Arms In The Air" recalls Syd's early Floyd days when, attired in a long cape, he would stand onstage with his image projected onto a screen behind him, and do exactly that. "You shouldn't try to be what you can't be," he sings, and sounds quite human, but when he shifts into the love song "I Never Lied To You" the voice goes flat and lifeless. In "Late Night," however, Barrett articulates clearly: "Inside me I feel alone and unreal."
Was Barrett as out of control in reality as he sounds on the albums ? "Well, yes and no," Fields says. "He really didn't have to have that much control before, but when you have to provide you own motivation all the time it is difficult, certainly in terms of writing a song. When it came down to recording there were always problems. He was not at his most together recording the album. He had to be taken there sometimes, and he had to be got. It didn't seem to make any difference whether it was making him happy or unhappy; he'd been through that, the excitement of it, the first time around."
Jerry Shirley agrees that Barrett was bizarre during the sessions. On the day the backing tracks to "Dominoes" (a beautiful song with a haunting arrangement) were recorded with great success, enthusiasm was running high. Dave was with Syd trying to get a lead guitar track, but Barrett couldn't play anything that made sense. In a brainstorm Gilmour turned the tape around and had Syd play guitar to the tracks coming at him backwards. "It played back," Shirley says, "and the backwards guitar sounded great; the best lead he ever played. The first time out and he didn't put a note wrong."
Shirley refers to "If It's In You," the track on which Syd can't find the melody and fllounders, breaking stride throughout the song. "That's a classic example of Syd in the studio. Between that and talking in very obscure abstracts. It's all going on in his head, but only little bits of it manage to get out of his mouth. And then the way he sings he goes into that scream - sometimes he can sing a melody absolutely fine, and the next time 'round he'll sing a totally different melody, or just go off key. 'Rats' in particular was really odd. That was just a very crazed jam, and Syd had this lyric that he just shouted over the top. It's quite nuts. But some of his songs are very beautiful."
To ease the process for Syd, before they went into the studio to cut, Gilmour would sit with him and wither make up demo tapes of the songs or, if possible, learn the song with him. Then he'd explain it to the other musicians and play along with Syd, although he made Syd do the leads instead of taking them himself. If it weren't for Gilmour, Shirley feels there would have been little semblance of togetherness; working with Syd was mainly playing it by ear. "You never knew from one day to the next exactly how it would go."
Could Barrett have been pulling some numbers on purpose ? Shirley answers with a baffled squeak, "I honestly couldn't say. Sometimes he does it just to put everybody on, sometimes he does it because he's genuinely paranoid about what's happening around him. He's like the weather, he changes. For every 10 things he says that are off-the-wall and odd, he'll say one thing that's completely coherent and right on the ball. He'll seem out of touch with what's gone on just before, then he'll suddenly turn around and say, 'Jerry, remember the day we went to get a burger down at the Earl's Court Road ?' - complete recall of something that happened a long time ago. Just coming and going, all the time."
Barrett's one public appearance during the LP sessions was a brief set during a 3-day festival at the Olympia in London. Syd eventually even managed to play his guitar instead of holding it as if it were about to explode. Barrett's initial decision to play, however, kept unmaking itself. "He was going to do it, he wasn't going to do it, it was on and off, so finally we said, 'Look, Syd, come on, man - you can do it!' We got up, I played drums, Dave played bass and he managed to get through a few songs. It got good, and then after about the fourth song Syd said, "Oh great; thanks very much' and walked off! We tried, you know."
For Barrett the solo albums didn't change things much. He left London for Cambridge when he decided to become a doctor. "Yes, a doctor," Duggie affirms, "and he and Gayla were going to get married and live in Oxford. He had a bit of the suburban dream. That was a very bizarre sort of thing underlying him. He had lots of concepts that he found very attractive like that; he didn't really like all the one-night stands; he wanted the marriage and that bit, in the back of his head." Syd and Gayla became engaged and left the flat to Fields, who never saw Barrett after that.
Drummer Twink, then with the psychedelic band Tomorrow, met Barrett in '67 when Pink Floyd played a European festival. The band brought gifts with them; Twink's, from Syd, was a hash pipe. Though they remained friendly afterwards, it wasn't until 1972 that they got together musically. "I didn't know him closely for that long," but I was in the same space and I could understand exactly where he was at. I thought he was very together, you know. As a friend it was a very warm relationship; no bad vibes at all. We didn't have any crazy scenes."
Stars was originally brought together by bass player Jack Monk's wife Ginny, who took Barrett down to a Cambridge pub to jam with Twink and some others. A few days later a more permanent arrangement coalesced, and Stars began rehearsing for their first gig, an open air May Day celebration in Market Square. Their material, mostly Syd's, included some for the Pink Floyd days; Barrett recorded practice sessions and one coffeebar gig, and seemed genuinely interested in working again when a promoter friend of Twink's booked Stars into the Corn Exchange. At that gig everything that could possibly go wrong did: the PA sabotaged Syd's vocals, Monk's amp acted up and somehow Barrett cut his finger open. Added to Syd's memory blanks and hesitant playing, the result was bad press and immediate depression for Syd.
"We just weren't ready for it," Twink concedes. "It was a disastrous gig, the reviews were really bad, and Syd was really hung up about it; so the band folded. He came 'round to my house and said he didn't want to play anymore. He didn't explain; he just left. I was really amazed working with him, at his actual ability as a guitar player."
After Stars, Syd Barrett made no more public appearances. Anecdotes from the years following are rife; one acquaintance reported Syd carrying his dirty clothes into the London boutique Granny Takes a Trip because he thought it was a dry-cleaners. Duggie Fields ran into Barrett in London's Speakeasy club. "I wasn't sure he recognized me. I was with some people he'd known for years; we talked for about five minutes, but did he really know who we were ? That was when he was starting to get heavy, and he didn't look like the same kind of person at all."
In 1975 a strange reunion took place at EMI Studios, attributable, Jerry Shirley feels, to Syd's uncanny sixth sense of timing. "The last time I saw him was possibly the last time the guys in the Floyd saw him, too. They were putting the finishing touches on Wish You Were Here. Earlier that day Dave Gilmour had gotten married and they had to work that night, so EMI had this roundtable dinner in the canteen for them.
Across the table from me was this overweight Hare Krishna-looking chap. I thought maybe it was just someone who somebody knows. I looked at Dave and he smiled; then I realized it was Syd. The guy had to weigh close to 200 pounds and had no hair on his head. It was a bit of a shock, but after a minute I plucked up enough courage to say hello. I introduced my wife and I dunno; I think he just laughed. I asked him what he was doing lately. 'Oh, you know, not much: eating, sleeping. I get up, eat, go for a walk, sleep.'"
That night the band finished the album and were playing back the final mix of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond." "When the song ended Roger Waters turned to Syd and said, 'Well, Syd what do you think of that ?' He said, 'Sounds a bit old.' I believe Syd just got up and split not too long after that. After two years of nobody seeing him, of all the days for him to appear out of nowhere!"
Jerry Shirley is less then optimistic about the possibility of Barrett recording again. "The last person to make that sort of effort was Dave, and they barely got him to do it; it was like pulling teeth. Since then I don't think there's anybody close enough to him to get him to do it. He would have to return to the planet long enough for someone to believe that he's got it in him to actually get through the sessions. And that would just be the first step. The guys really did persevere through those sessions, god! Especially Dave, particularly in light of the way Syd was to him before. But I don't know if anybody - if he showed that he really wanted to try for it, then maybe one of them would make the effort."
Have any of Barrett's friends made a serious effort to sit down and talk with him about his future ? "Oh yeah," Shirley says. "No chance. You'd get some sort of sense out of him, and then he'd just laugh at you. Lots of people tried lots of different things."
Bryan Morrison cleared up a few of the mysteries surrounding Barrett. He explained Syd's departure from Pink Floyd: "He didn't leave of his own free will, really. I mean, he kept threatening to leave. I think in the end it was by mutual agreement, because he was having some personal problems. He wasn't able to get it together anymore, and by agreement he left the band."
Did a similar thing happen with Stars, or did Barrett have any reason for leaving that band ? Morrison hesitates a bit before answering. "Have you ever met Syd ? Well, one of the main things - he had psychiatric problems, and was actually in a sanitorium." This was about eight years Morrison estimates, in Cambridge: Syd's parents had him committed.
There are other Barrett recordings outside the solo LPs and some "incoherent" tapes, Morrison says. Right now Syd is living on his royalties in a London hotel. "He doesn't have any involvement with anything or anybody. He is a recluse - with about 25 guitars around him. I see him very rarely. I mean, I know where he is, but he doesn't want to be bothered; he just sits there on his own, watching television all day and getting fat. That's what he does." Can nobody talk Syd into becoming musically active again ? "No. It's impossible." To Morrison's knowledge Syd hasn't been outside of England since the Pink Floyd tour in 1967, and he gave his last interview in 1971. Barrett is firmly anchored in his shell.
Then is Barrett's extended schizophrenic episode (see "The Politics of Experience," R.D. Laing) permanent insanity of just prolonged post-Floyd depression ? Chemical ingestion coupled with chronic existential anxiety ? Morbidly sensitized insecurity and a crumbling value structure ? Or diabolically effective defense and legend material ?
Let's put it this way. Anyone who's ever been in chronic pain and confusion can sympathize with Barrett. Anyone ever caught in the equally real dread of the principal's office or never returning from a drug experience has experienced Barrett's primal fears. Anyone who's ever teetered on the edge of chaos and felt the black panic of falling into the void can comprehend the Madcap. Someone who's almost grokked the universe and then lost the definition on the tip of their tongue knows what it's like to be a crazy diamond. Twink says Barrett's no acid freak.
Shine on, Syd.
Jay Whitten: email@example.com