A Saucerful of Syd

Pink Floyd’s original leading man still casts a long shadow

The Pink Floyd

As a Pink Floyd fan – of both the early, over-and-done Syd Barrett era and the long, mega-successful Roger Waters-led era – I’ve spent a fair amount of rock critic-y time pondering what once was and then what it became.

I do believe this: Much as I love what Barrett did, it’s likely people today would not care nearly so much about Barrett had not Pink Floyd gone on to become the monster it became.

Barrett, who died in 2006 from pancreatic cancer, would have likely become a tragic rock ‘n’ roll footnote, a burnt-out rock star, a cautionary tale, an eccentric cult hero, but more a relic of a distant age than a case of genius interrupted. There just wouldn’t have been the kind of afterlife if Pink Floyd had not gone onto superstar status in his wake.

The sonic change in Pink Floyd – Barrett was mostly gone as they recorded their second album A Saucerful of Secrets, his only writing credit is the final track, “Jugband Blues” – wasn’t immediate by any means. There were still long instrumentals and crazy-quilt songs. But it’s not incorrect to say, in broad strokes, over time, the Floyd’s sound shifted from Barrett’s sometimes cacophonous, other times whimsical psychedelic style to something more structured, produced, profound and grandiose. While there were certainly splendiferous songs and moments, under (mostly) bassist-singer-songwriter Waters’ direction, Pink Floyd’s was often a dark and disturbing vision.

And there’s this: Waters ruminated over Barrett’s fate, at least in part, on The Dark Side of the Moon – the 1973 album that propelled them to top – not to mention Wish You Were Here and The Wall as well.

The drugs – LSD and Mandrax – and mental illness became a one-two combo that forced Barrett’s exit in 1968. “The pressures which hit him were the pressures from going from just being another guy on the block to being the spokesman of your generation,” Peter Jenner told me in 1990. Jenner managed both the early Floyd and post-Floyd Barrett. “Especially during the psychedelic thing, there was a lot of heavy messiah-ism going around. People would come up and ask him the meaning of life — that put a young person who’d just written a song and played a bit of guitar under enormous pressure.”

Barrett, who made two post-Floyd solo albums with Gilmour and Jenner’s help, was out of the music business by age 25. He spent the next 35 years more or less in an isolated, downward spiral.

“If you’re being given a lot of acid and there’s some sort of latent confusion inside you, Syd cracked of it,” Jenner said. “Acid is a very nasty, powerful drug, much underestimated. If you’re latently insecure and paranoid, it makes you very insecure and paranoid. It was a sad case. He was a very handsome, lovely person who became very violent, very fat, the opposite of everything he was.”

Syd Barrett and friend

Gilmour, who was brought into Floyd to fill Barrett’s guitar role in 1968, told me this in 1984: “Syd was a close personal friend of mine, who I loved dearly. I haven’t seen him, but I have got one or two friends who do see him and, uh, he’s the same; he’s mentally ill. You can’t talk to him really. . .. He’ll talk back to you, but it won’t make any sense, really, what he says.

“Most people have an illusion about what they think he is. Unfortunately, they’re wrong. The romantic talk of the madcap Syd Barrett writing songs and making music quietly on his own is, I’m afraid, a sad myth. He’s not really a human being anymore.”

And keyboardist Rick Wright, who died in 2008, told me this in 1997, speaking about Barrett’s mental capacity: “It’s nothing. It’s the same since he left the band back in ’68. Very sad. He’s diabetic, sad to say, and possibly going blind slowly. There’s not much more I can say. We were asked by his doctors not to be in touch — it reminds him of who he was and puts him in deep depression. They say there’s nothing you can do and you should not speak to him or see him. We respect his doctors.”

There were those old royalties to keep him solvent; it’s something Gilmour made sure was taken care of. “Word is that he’s comfortably off,” Wright said. “He’s not suffering financially.”

British writer Rob Chapman wrote an exhaustive biography, A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett, published in 2010. Barrett’s post-fame journey led him from a busy life in London back to his childhood home in Cambridge and to a reclusive existence, marked by isolation and, quite likely, paranoia. He gardened, he went to the local pub, he painted – and then destroyed the paintings. He wanted nothing to do with his life as a creative musician and pop star. He didn’t respond to the name “Syd.” His given name was Roger. He may not have known Syd existed. The once-gorgeous Barrett wanted very little to do with life outside his own head, whatever was going on there.

Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head by Rob Chapman

There have been several Barrett bios, but Chapman’s was the first bio to have cooperation from Barrett’s family, most notably his caretaker, sister Rosemary. Hence, we learn more about Barrett’s post-pop years. Chapman explored some of the stories about “crazy Syd,” exploding some, confirming others.

Was his madness part of his genetic makeup? Was it caused by drugs? Exacerbated by them? Chapman explored all of this territory. I highly recommend the book.

On Pink Floyd’s first album Barrett, showed a flair for skewed genius –sometimes employing ominous nursery rhyme-lyrics with melodies that took unexpected twists and scrambled emotions. The post-Floyd albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, were both heart-breaking and fragile. There was also an album called Opel – an acoustically based outtakes and alternate-takes record which finds Barrett often a-rhythmic and off-key. Painful at times. Poignant at others. An Introduction to Syd Barrett, a compilation CD, the first to include both Floyd and solo songs, with has five remixes by Jenner, was released in 2010.

Syd Barrett An Introduction to Syd Barrett, Capitol 2010

The solo albums, in particular, seem like the sound of things falling apart. You hear whimsical, yet scary premonitions in songs “Clowns and Jugglers,” “Baby Lemonade” and “Terrapin.” In Barrett’s juxtapositions of styles — folk and acid blues, in his cut-and-paste snatches of verse, in his embrace of dissonance — he was one of those who laid the groundwork for what became progressive rock and the more experimental end of post-punk or new wave.   

“One of the great things in Barrett’s songs is that sense of potential,” singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock – himself oft compared to a saner Barrett – told Chapman, “It’s a sense of manic potential and by the end it’s a feeling of potential that’s gone … There’s a real feeling like an old man looking back with sadness. You know he’s resigned from life.”


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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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