Nothing had been heard from Syd Barrett for more than 30 years, but the announcement of his death yesterday still came as a sad blow to rock music fans. KEIRON PIM pays tribute to the mysterious founder of Pink Floyd.
When Elvis Presley passed away in 1977, John Lennon sneered that he'd really died 19 years earlier when he joined the US Army.
And it could be argued that the Syd Barrett known and loved by pop fans died in 1974, when his creator retreated from the London scene that had almost destroyed his mind and walked all the way home to his mother's house in Cambridge.
There he returned to being Roger Keith Barrett, the middle-class art school graduate with aspirations to making a living through painting, and lived a closeted existence, funded largely by royalties from his old band, Pink Floyd.
Sightings of the former rock star became few and far between, and rumours of his madness eked out and were amplified by Floyd fans desperate to know what had become of their absent hero. Some said he'd shaved his head and eyebrows and swollen to grotesque obesity; others that he had nipped down from his mother's attic to paint her fridge green while she was out shopping and quickly returned to his bolthole.
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What was beyond doubt was that between the band's inception in 1965 and his sacking in 1968, Barrett consumed hallucinogenic drugs in such gargantuan quantities that his mental equilibrium was forever disrupted. He burned gloriously for a few years and then burnt out.
The band itself, a relatively straight bunch of former architecture students from Cambridge, went from strength to strength, in commercial terms at least. From being something of an English curio, known for Barrett's quirky songs such as See Emily Play and Arnold Layne (the amusing tale of a knickers-stealing transvestite), Pink Floyd became globetrotting rock stars under the guidance of bassist Roger Waters.
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The band never forgot its guiding genius, however. It was touching for any Barrett fan watching last year's Live 8 concert to hear Waters dedicate Wish You Were Here to "everyone who's not here, but particularly for Syd"; and of course there's Shine On You Crazy Diamond, which featured on the same 1975 album as that track. Its lyrics formed a poignant tribute: "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."
That recording session gave birth to one of the many stories of his eccentricity. The band were at Abbey Road when Barrett coincidentally reappeared from his exile, unannounced, bald and obese, and listened to them record their tribute to him before dismissing it as sounding "a bit old". And then he was gone again.
On another occasion while playing with Pink Floyd (named after two blues singers in his record collection, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council), he covered his head with hair gel, allegedly mixed with crushed Mandrax pills, which subsequently melted all down his face under the heat of the studio lighting.
He would infuriate his bandmates by strumming only one guitar chord throughout a concert, if he deigned to play his instrument at all. To his fans he was a free spirit but to people who had to live and work with him he was a pain in the neck; certainly the remainder of Pink Floyd despaired of his unreliability.
For while on the surface the anecdotes had a certain rock'n'roll glamour, in truth they were evidence of a sad mental decline, in which a gifted and self-aware young man descended into confusion and paranoia. Pink Floyd dropped him in January 1968 after he proved too erratic. The band usually took a detour to pick him up by car for their gigs but this time, on the way to Southampton University, they decided not to bother. An attempt to retain him as an in-house songwriting genius, much as the Beach Boys did with the similarly troubled Brian Wilson, proved impossible. He went on to record two well-loved (and in places infuriating) solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, aided by his replacement in Pink Floyd, Dave Gilmour. Highlights include Octopus, a surreal diatribe allied to a jaunty pop tune, and the slow, melodic Terrapin, with its endearing opening triplet: "I really love you, and I mean you / the star above you, crystal blue / oh baby, my hair's on end about you!"
Its lyrics are typically childlike. Throughout his short career Barrett, like Lennon, perhaps the only greater creator of English psychedelic pop, was inspired by the literature of his childhood. Where Lennon's I Am the Walrus and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds consciously echoed the work of Lewis Carroll, Pink Floyd's debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn betrayed Barrett's love of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. His was a truly English pop music, delivered in an unashamedly well-spoken accent. He was the youngest of five siblings from a well-off Cambridge family. His father, Arthur Barrett, was a prominent pathologist and he and his wife Winifred encouraged the young Roger in his music. He acquired the nickname "Syd" aged 15, in a reference to an old local musician, Sid Barrett, and altered the spelling to make himself distinctive.
Syd Barrett formed little more than a decade within the 60-year life of Roger Barrett, and it is that youthful invention of the 1960s whom music fans are mourning, back when he was young and beautiful, with the haunted look in his eyes that spoke to every romantic.
If there is one song that will resonate with his fans today, it is the plaintive acoustic song Dark Globe, from his solo album The Madcap Laughs, which prophesies his retreat into the hermit-like existence in which he would spend the rest of his life. It is almost too sad to listen to its despairing refrain: "Would you miss me? Wouldn't you miss me at all?"