This was originally published in issue one of Classic Rock presents…Prog, part of a much bigger piece on Pink Floyd generally. It reworks some material from a Vox article written in the mid 90s which I can no longer find either in the stack of mouldy mags in the box in the attic or online.
Dateline Cambridge, the mid 1990s. In the words of that bloody song by the TV Personalities, I know where Syd Barrett lives. It wasn’t really very hard to find his house, a few phone calls, a couple of letters and here we are. It’s been a quarter of a century since Syd’s last disastrous stage appearance – with Stars, also featuring ex-Pretty Things and Pink Fairies drummer Twink – and since then all has been quiet. Too quiet…
His absence has been maddening. In our arrogance, we have come to seek him out, to doorstep him as though her was some dodgy company director or politician. To get him – force him, even – to explain himself. How dare you revolutionise rock’n’roll and then give it all up and just walk away without a word! Not even having the good manners to die young!
Of course there are no illusions that we are the first hacks, fans and weird obsessives to come looking for Roger ‘Syd’ Barrett. And as one grouchy neighbour makes clear, we’re weren’t even the first that day.
After half an hour of knocking the door, I stuff a note through the letterbox and we sit in the car and wait. By midnight there’s no sign of anyone. If he was hiding in the house, he was sitting there with all the lights out. We give up and leave; if I’m honest, I’m glad and relieved not to have found him. It was never that Syd was ‘lost’, he just really never wanted to be found.
Like Robert Johnson, Syd Barrett’s recorded legacy is slim. There are 40 odd songs, mostly written during a rich creative period from 1966 to 1967, ranging from the cosmic freak-out of Interstellar Overdrive to the childish whimsy of The Gnome to the cracked and melancholy Jug Band Blues. Yet these songs drew up the blueprint that would shape Pink Floyd for three decades – they never really emerged from his shadow – as well as for the post-psychedelic progressive rock scene.
His two solo albums and the handful of demos and out-takes that have surfaced in recent years, collapsed into his own little world, Edward Lear-like nonsense poetry and jittery post-acid comedown folksiness, they sold poorly at the time though a devoted cult of believers has tended to his flame through the long decades of his silence.
You could argue that Syd looms large in the history of punk rock, the lo-fi indie scene and the new generation of psychedelic folkies like Devandra Banhardt. Everyone from The Jesus And Mary Chain to David Bowie have covered his songs and paid some homage to his inspiration. And the inspiration was not just his music. Everyone loves a mad genius, a star that explodes and leaves a vacuum in its wake. Better to burn out than to fade away.
His is a potent myth: a heartbreakingly beautiful man, the person that everyone wanted to be around, a powerhouse of musical and artistic talent. The drugs which helped to fuel and sustain this maverick creativity also helped to push him over the edge into the realm of mental illness. At the peak of their fame on an American tour, Syd started to behave oddly. He would go into catatonic trances. He would be unable even to mime let alone perform his songs. In the space of a year the man who had helped to revolutionise – no exaggeration – English rock’n’roll was a burnt out case, ejected from the band he had formed and shaped.
The solo albums that followed were dark and disturbing and sold poorly. After the second one, everyone – not least of all Syd himself – seemed to have given up on his music career. In an interview with journalist Giovanni Dadomo, around the recording of his second album Barrett in 1970, though published in the Syd Barrett fanzine Terrapin in 1974, when asked if he was looking forward to performing again he replied, “Yes, that would be nice. I used to enjoy it, it was a gas. But so’s doing nothing. It’s art school laziness, really.”
Syd, it seemed, both burned out like a supernova and then spent the decades until his death fading away. His absences was maddening. In a world where Iggy Pop advertises car insurance and where The New York Dolls and the MC5 regularly tour and record despite key members having died off decades ago, there was something about Syd’s retreat from his own legacy that really rankled. Being insane isn’t a barrier to a comeback: look at Roky Erickson, Brian Wilson, Arthur Lee and even Sly Stone. Nobody is too mental to come back, do one of those fawning broadsheet retrospectives, play Glastonbury, do a duet with some twat like Pete Doherty and maybe do an ad for Apple Computers.
It wasn’t for lack of trying: people had tempted Syd for years. Jimmy Page and Brian Eno expressed an interest in producing him in the early 70s, later on The Damned approached him to produce their second album Music For Pleasure (they settled for Floyd drummer Nick Mason instead).
But, goes the myth, Barrett was beyond it all, a chronic basket case, a recluse, holed up in his mother’s Cambridge house, lost forever in an acid casualty wilderness. At various times it was reported that he was in a mental hospital, that he had died, even that he was recording in secret.
Most famously, he turned up in the studio when Pink Floyd were recording Wish You Were Here (it’s a matter of conjecture as to whether or not they were actually working on Shine On You Crazy Diamond, their soaring tribute to him.) Overweight, hair and eyebrows shaved, it was the first time that any of the band had seen him in almost five years. Roger Waters was apparently reduced to tears. When asked what he thought of Wish You Were Here, Barrett said it sounded “a bit old”. He later attended Dave Gilmour’s wedding and slipped away from the party. That was the last time any of the band saw him.
Some psychedelic stories are a long strange trip but the story of Syd is more akin to being shot out of a cannon. Barrett arrived in London to join The Tea Set (aka the T Set, the Screaming Abdaba, the Abdabs and the Architectural Abdabs) in 1965. Syd wasn’t yet 20, a self taught guitarist inspired by Stax mainstay Steve Cropper and Bo Diddley, he gave the band their name when they found themselves on the same bill as another group called the Tea Set. The Pink Floyd Sound soon became part of the tiny London underground scene. Barrett pioneered new guitar techniques that involved feeding it through echo boxes, using a Zippo lighter as a slide. The band were booked at the UFO Club in late 1966 and soon became the British underground’s first superstars.
It’s hard to convey how quickly the music scene changed. In 1966, most British musicians had few ambitions beyond playing R&B. A year later they wanted to surrender to the void and journey to the innermost centre of eternity.
LSD had been doing the rounds in underground circles for a few years. It was not actually made illegal in the UK until 1966. All of The Pink Floyd had used it and Barrett was seen to gobble it like Smarties. While there is no doubt that psychedelic chemicals opened the user’s mind to new possibilities, The Pink Floyd were bringing to rock music some of what progressive jazz musicians like John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk had been doing for some time (admittedly similarly chemically inspired).
The long drawn out songs like Interstellar Overdrive would be the template for post-Syd Pink Floyd and the psychedelic and progressive bands who followed. The fairytale songs like Bike tapped into other traditions like music hall songs, children’s songs and folklore. The debut album The Piper At the Gates Of Dawn was bloated with possibilities.
Dave Gilmour has gone on record as saying that he believed that Syd’s drug use merely exacerbated a problem that was already there, that the breakdown would have happened anyway. The band were touring incessantly and Syd was under pressure to write another hit single to follow up Arnold Layne and See Emily Play. The mentalness increased: Roger Waters referred to “The Syd problem” as Barrett became increasingly isolated from the band and unable or unwilling to perform. One solution that was mooted was that Syd would record and write but not tour. Syd on the other hand suggested hiring two sax players and a girl singer. By early 1968 after a few shambollic gigs as a five piece – Barrett’s friend Dave Gilmour had been drafted in as a second guitarist and, it was vainly hoped, a stabilising influence on Syd – Barrett was out. The band’s second album A Saucerful Of Secrets was recorded with little input from Syd. The closing track Jugband Blues is a bleak evocative description of a breakdown, a sad farewell to the Floyd. His last contribution to the band was the song Vegetable Man. Then manager Peter Jenner said: “It’s just a description of what he’s wearing. It’s very disturbing. Roger took it off the album because it was too dark.”
The two solo albums that followed are a more low key expression of that dark insanity. Recorded with Dave Gilmour – the musicians had to play around Syd, who seemed incapable of playing the same song the same way twice – they sound like psychedelia stripped of all the effects and studio wizardry, leaving only the actual musical and lyrical weirdness beneath.
Syd then joined Stars, a sort of three piece supergroup with Twink. At one show Syd froze onstage and then walked off. A few days later Twink recalls meeting him in the street. Syd read him a bad review of the show and quit there and then.
And that was Syd’s career in music. Afterwards, according to legend, he became a hermit. A virtual shutaway, lost forever in his own psychosis, unable to communicate, a total basket case.
Since his death, however, another picture of Barrett has emerged. According to his sister Rosemary, in an interview with The Times, Syd was neither mentally ill nor was he a recluse. He had spent a short time in a private “home for lost souls” and had seen a psychiatrist, though he was not on any medication nor in a therapy programme. He was shy and retiring, though loved the company of his nieces and nephews, was chatty to the staff in the DIY and gardening stores he frequented, and had lived alone and looked after himself since the death of his mother in 1991. He had turned his back on music and wanted nothing to do with it, but he was a keen gardener, he had returned to his first love, painting, and had even written a book about the history of art.
“He avoided contact with journalists and fans. He simply couldn’t understand the interest in something that had happened so long ago and he wasn’t willing to interrupt his own musings for their sake,” she said.
Syd would paint large canvasses, photograph them and then destroy them. He didn’t like to be reminded of the past; he went round to his sister’s to watch a BBC TV documentary about him and the Pink Floyd, but left, complaining it was “too loud”.
Driving away from Cambridge that night, I like to think that a neighbour would then give Syd the secret knock and whisper: “It’s OK, they’ve buggered off back to London.” Syd would then emerge from his refuge, maybe make a cup of tea, pick up his guitar and then sing one of the many songs that he’d written but never recorded, songs that he alone would ever hear.