11 July 2006

Syd Barrett's Final Trip

20 Tir-Mordad - Year 1385

I just read Bear's post and I'm gutted. I felt I had to weigh in with my own tribute--as Pink Floyd are one of my all-time favourite bands.

If you didn't know already, Syd Barrett, one of the founders of Pink Floyd passed away this past Friday. He was 60 years old. His brother, Alan Barrett, reported the news today.

His story has been told, re-told (and exaggerated) often. I'll do my own sorta rambling "Cliff Notes" version here.

Roger Keith Barrett was born on January 6th, 1946 (Gregorian) in Cambridgeshire, UK. Not a lot is known about his childhood, but he did attend art school in Cambridge. He picked up the guitar, often jamming with his friend David Gilmour (who, somewhat ironically, would replace him in the Floyd). He moved to London in his late teens--and met up with another old school friend, Roger Waters. Waters was playing in a band (with various names like The T-Set, The Architectural Abdabs, The Megadeaths) and decided he needed a new face, so Syd was invited in on the lead guitar post. They churned through the typical set of blues and R&B covers, even recording a single, Lucy Leave b/w King Bee, in 1965.

Syd also began to dabble with psychedelics at this point, mostly marijuana--but in summer 1966, he went to the Gog Magog hills, ate some hallucinogenic mushrooms--and the UK's first psychedelic superstar was born. The band hit the nascent London underground scene, bouyed by Barrett's new compositions. They were far-removed from 12-bar blues...incorporating trippy light shows and improvised "freak-outs", reflecting Floyd's front man's mind-expansions. They soon became the "house band" of the new sound, with few rivals (except maybe The Soft Machine).

Maverick young producer Joe Boyd spotted them at a show and offered some studio time. Barrett responded with what is considered the crown jewel of UK psychedelic pop, Arnold Layne. Released in March 1967, it's unique lyrical content (about a transvestite who recieves a harsh sentence from the law when caught) and production saw it make the charts. Syd' vocals were also distinctive and have been imitated by may others, most notably Robyn Hitchcock and Colin Newman of Wire. "Arnold Layne"s success was proof of Barrett's mastery of combining words and melody.

The Floyd's first full-length (after their See Emily Play single 'sound-tracked' the fabled "Summer Of Love") album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, was released in August 1967. So forward-looking was this collection that some of it's studio trickery still hasn't been surpassed. Barrett's capabilities were at their height, with psychedelic pop whimsy like Mathilda Mother and The Gnome alongside classic freak-outs like Pow R. Toch and their signature jam, Interstellar Overdrive. "The Piper..." formed a UK psychedelic triptych with the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's.. and The Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow--for being the top psych records of any era. Pink Floyd and Syd were the toast of the underground, but all of the attention and a mammoth LSD intake started to unravel Barrett very quickly.

A disastrous U.S. tour in autumn '67 confirmed the band's fears that Syd was "coming unglued"--especially the much-reported "Mandrax-in-the-hair" incident and Barrett's de-tuning his guitar on-stage. In early 1968, it was decided that he would function as a Brian Wilson type figure, writing and recording but not touring with the band. Replacements were sought out, including Davy O'List of The Nice--but eventually they asked Barrett's old Cambridge mate, David Gilmour. A few shows were played as a five-piece, but by this point, Syd had no interest in the pop-star treadmill--and he elected to leave the band altogether, after two of his singles written for the group, Vegetable Man and Scream Thy Last Scream, were rejected for release. His last recorded moment with Pink Floyd is Jugband Blues, on the '68 album, Saucerful Of Secrets--and ends with the haunting lines "...and what exactly is a dream/and what exactly is a joke?..."

A year later Barrett would enter the studio for his first solo album, The Madcap Laughs--but by this time, he was so debilitated that he couldn't keep a song in the same key for more than one take and the sessions were reaching epic false-take proportions. Gilmour and Waters (along with all of The Soft Machine) stepped in to help complete the record and it was released in January 1970. The sparse love songs and trippy puzzled missives made for uneasy listening and failed to spark off Syd's solo career, though he was allowed to follow up "Madcap.." with a second set, Barrett, released in November 1970. Waters and Gilmour again helped out, but it wasn't enough and Syd moved back to Cambridge. He formed a short-lived trio called Stars with Twink (of Tomorrow and The Pink Fairies) and another mate on bass, in 1971, but it only lasted for a couple of live gigs (one opening for Hawkwind at the Cambridge Corn Exchange) and a few home recordings. After that--Syd all but retired from music and performing

Barrett's legacy continued in Pink Floyd, however, especially in Roger Waters' song-writing. His "madness" and breakdown loomed large in songs like If (on Atom Heart Mother, released in 1970), Free Four (from the Obscured By Clouds sound-track, released in 1972)--and of course, the ground-breaking song cycle/"concept" albums Dark Side Of The Moon (1973) and Wish You Were Here (1975). It's also been widely reported about Syd showing up to the studio during the sessions for "W.Y.W.H." and asking when he was going to do "his bit". He looked so completely different that the band didn't know who he was at first. Waters also based the "Pink Floyd" character, in the 1979 double-album/rock opera The Wall, partly on himself and partly on Syd. Over time, Barrett became a cult figure, mostly forgotten. In 1980, the Television Personalities had a minor hit with I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives, though they annoyed Gilmour when opening for Pink Floyd by actually telling the crowd where Barrett lived in Cambridge. Gilmour was very protective of his former friend, making sure he received his royalty cheques and checking on his health.

Barrett thankfully missed the bitter split between his former band-mates in the early 80s and kept a low profile. Interest in Floyd's founder rose again in 1990 with Nicholas Schaffner's "A Saucerful Of Secrets: A History Of Pink Floyd" book, which published new photos of the former front man. Shows for Floyd's 1994 tour started with a film of four men trying to carry a huge bust through a field--the bust's face looked a lot like the young Barrett. Periodic updates about Syd's health appeared, telling of his diabetic condition, sometimes they seemed severe. Just last year, Barrett was nearly in a coma, though he recovered after a stint in hospital.
This time, it appears the diabetes got the better of him. R.I.P. Roger Keith Barrett.

To the shining crazy diamond, the psychedelic poet of '67 and beyond, the engine of the starship that took us into interstellar overdrive--thank you for all of the music...you will be missed.


Anonymous said...

Nice tribute, mate.

From the things I have read, it would seem that Syd had a very nice, normal, happy, middle class up bringing with his loving family. He was a pretty well-balanced, if sensitive person until things started to crumble in the late sixties.

Was it the acid? It couldn't have helped, especially with the copious amounts he was ingesting. However, it could well be that he had a latent mental health problem anyway or was just too sensitive for the lifesyle he chose.

The photo of him in the studio during the recording of 'Wish You Were Here' is very sad, I think. He seemed in a mess at the time and looked rather typical of many young men with mental health difficulties. I truly hope he managed to rise above things a bit later in his life. All the reports seem to suggest he found some contentment in painting and gardening.

I sometimes feel that Floyd exploited his legend somewhat and find it rather hypocritical when they complain about people wanting to know about Syd. However, Gilmour certainly seemed to really care about him (he was his oldest friend among the group members) and he was more than right to tear into The Television Personalities who were a prime example of the sort of knobs that Syd had to suffer on his doorstep over the years.

Thanks, Mr. Barrett.

The Purple Gooroo said...

Cheers, Bear.

It seemed to be a lot of factors that drove Syd to "madness"--the pop star life-style, all the hangers-on, the acid--plus the pressure of being the main songwriter for the group--I mean, trying to top "The Piper.." alone prolly would've sent me over the edge...

Yeah, apparently Rick Wright started weeping once he twigged that it was Syd in the studio in '75. He (Syd) definitely looked worse for wear then--and at the beginning of the 90s. Recent photos have seen him looking healthier...ironically while his diabetes got worse.

I suppose Waters did dwell on Syd's condition a bit too much for songwriting purposes--but maybe he was fascinated by "madness"--as it could have easily been himself who "lost his trolley". He nearly did during that Toronto show in '77 where he (Waters) spit on that crazed fan.

I am glad Syd was able to lead a fairly quiet life up to the end.

R.I.P. Syd--hope you're well, wherever you are.

Anonymous said...

It is funny how well he's been looking. One pic in 'The Independent' today had him looking pretty fine. It was taken in 2003 and he'd lost a lot of weight and was wearing a vest. The vest was alright, though!