Syd Barrett, 60, Pink Floyd Founder Who Dropped Out
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Pink Floyd co-founder Syd Barrett was reported dead “recently,” according to an announcement by the band that did not include a cause of death. Sun contributor David Zimbalist filed this appreciation of the seminal psychedelic rocker.
His first name was Roger, and people thought his first name was short for his drug of choice, but Syd Barrett received his nickname at a pub as a result of mistaken identity. Had psychologist Carl Jung himself not defined the shadow archetype as the repository of all we seek to disown, surely the life and career of the Pink Floyd founder would have provided the perfect allegory.
With a vast intake of drugs, and the increasing demands of stardom, by 1968 Barrett’s moniker took on a darker association. He was forced out of the band he had helped form just three years earlier, a mere shadow of a person. Overtaken by the demons of stardom, mentally ill and damaged by chemicals, for the past 35 years Roger Keith Barrett has led a quiet life in his mother’s home, disavowing his previous existence as arguably one of the most influential songwriters of the 20th century.
Unlike their contemporaries in the 1960s, Pink Floyd tilted their heads skywards from their inception. In 1973 they beamed back “Dark Side of the Moon,” one of the most cogent, philosophically profound statements on humanity ever pressed into plastic. Ironically, “Dark Side” and the equally brilliant follow-up, “Wish You Were Here,” would not have been born without Barrett’s physical and mental unraveling. Syd’s departure and mental illness would permeate Pink Floyd’s mature works with a profound sense of loss, existential contemplation, cynicism, and simmering rage.
Like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, childhood friends who lost their mothers during adolescence, guitarist Syd Barrett and bassist Roger Waters were bound by similarly tragic circumstances. Barrett’s father died when Syd, two years younger than Waters, was only 12. Waters’s father Eric was killed towards the end of the World War II, when Roger was still a toddler. Both attended Cambridge High School for Boys.
Syd coined the name of the group as a tribute to two southern bluesmen, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. But his approach to songwriting was far more artistic and visually abstract than his contemporaries, even before he overindulged in drugs, yet at the same time demonstrated an innate intuition for concise song structure.
A talented visual artist, Syd recognized early on that there was a visual component to the music that had not yet been tapped into. The projection of films and water slides became a key aspect of Pink Floyd’s show, for many as important a component as the music.
Under Syd’s leadership, the group became so influential that Madame Tussaude’s wax museum placed the band’s likeness next to the Beatles in their Swinging London exhibit. And it was Barret’s unique style and impish, lyrical madness that would be copied by Lennon and McCartney when they recorded the obscure Beatles B-Side “What’s The New Mary Jane,” which sounds like early Pink Floyd on antihistamines, more so than on acid.
“Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” the first Pink Floyd album, was released on August 5, 1967, but Barrett’s behavior had been increasingly erratic for months before. According to Joe Boyd, one of their managers at the time: “There was no twinkle left in his eye, no glint. Like somebody had pulled the blinds, nobody home.”
Syd would arrive late to gigs or not at all, and when he did make it he usually stood onstage with his hands at his side, sometimes strumming the same chord over and over on his detuned, mirrored Fender Telecaster. He refused to lip-sync on both Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and the Perry Como Show, and worse, during an appearance on Pat Boone, his response to the aging teen-idol’s questions was a totally blank, mute stare.
For a time, Waters tried to keep Barrett in the band as a sort of Brian Wilson-type figure, inviting him to write material but barring him from participating in live appearances. Syd appeared on three tracks of Pink Floyd’s second album, “Saucerful of Secrets,” before being replaced completely by fellow Cambridge guitarist David Gilmour.
Barrett’s two solo albums,”The Madcap Laughs” and “Barrett,” were released as bookends framing the beginning and end of 1970. The sparse, rough quality to the stripped down tracks would prove to be so influential to the pioneers of the punk rock movement that both the Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McClaren and representatives from America’s own the Ramones were rumored to have approached Barrett to produce their respective projects. Like everyone else attempting to contact the former Syd Barrett, be they fan or otherwise, they were apparently turned away at Roger’s door.
Although there was never an official diagnosis made of Syd Barrett’s condition, there were certainly many attempts to get him help.
Roger Waters placed Syd in a cab and drove him to an appointment with perhaps the most brilliant clinical psychologist of the day, R.D. Laing, who had postulated profoundly that “insanity is a sane reaction to an insane world.” However, when the two arrived at Laing’s offices, Syd refused to budge. The appointment was rescheduled, but when Barrett’s flatmates tried to get him to leave the house, he once again refused.
Barring a short-lived, unsuccessful trio called Stars, and a disastrous return to the studio in 1974 (purportedly funded by David Bowie) that yielded nothing releasable, Syd Barrett would tragically never record or perform live again.