Many thanks to Ben Sisario for bringing this to my attention - a very touching obituary of Syd Barrett in The Economist.
TO THOSE who were young then, the late 1960s were the best thing since 1789. All that followed paled by comparison. This was the time of the Paris riots, with students hurling cobbles and the flics hurling tear-gas back; the first convulsions over the war in Vietnam; the Prague spring, quickly crushed by Soviet tanks; and everywhere the sense that the young, by sheer numbers, could overthrow the established order and make the world again.
If they failed to remake it, this was largely because they were out of it on one illegal substance or another. For many of them, the drug scene was a quick, soggy spliff behind the bike sheds, or a reverential division of a cake of greenish powder, washed down with a glass of Liebfraumilch and covered up with burning joss sticks. Yet at the highest levels of culture the new gods of rock music tripped on much more dangerous stuff, and sang about it. They did not find truth exactly, as much as yellow walruses, purple fields, kaleidoscopic skies and melting buildings, all of which were evoked in music and light shows so new and peculiar that the best way to appreciate them was by being prone and stoned yourself.
Syd Barrett was the very exemplar of this wild universe. As the leader of Pink Floyd, the highly successful psychedelic band that he christened in 1965, he wrote and sang of “lime and limpid green”, of Dan Dare, of gingerbread men and, in the band's first hit, “Arnold Layne”, of a transvestite who stole underwear from moonlit washing lines. His weird words and odd, simplistic melodies, sent through an echo-machine, seemed sometimes to be coming from outer space.
Yet there was also something quintessentially English and middle class about Mr Barrett. His songs contained the essence of Cambridge, his home town: bicycles, golden robes, meadows and the river. Startlingly, he sang his hallucinations in the perfect, almost prissy enunciation of the Home Counties. He made it possible to do rock in English rather than American, inspiring David Bowie among others. The band's first album, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” (1967), made Mr Barrett central, plaintively calling up the new age from some distant and precarious place.
Yet the songs were already tipping over into chaos, and by January 1968 Mr Barrett was unable to compose or, almost, to function. Dope, LSD and pills, consumed by the fistful, overwhelmed a psyche that was already fragile and could not bear the pressures of success. At concerts he would simply play the same note over and over, or stand still in a trance. If he played, no one knew where he was going, least of all himself. The band did not want to part with him, but could not cope with him; so he was left behind, or left them, enduring drug terrors in a cupboard under the stairs in his London flat. Casualties of “bad trips” usually recovered, with stark warnings for the unwary. Mr Barrett, famously, went on too many and never came back.
Friends, especially his Pink Floyd colleagues, tried to encourage him to resurrect his career. Their attempts were heartbreaking. At various times in 1968 and 1969 microphones were put in front of him and he was persuaded to sing and play. Cruelly, the recordings of his solo efforts, “The Madcap Laughs” and “Barrett” (both 1970), caught everything: the nervous coughs, the desperate riffling of pages, the cries of frustration (“Again? I'll do it again now?”), the numbers of takes. The sleeve of “Madcap” showed a naked girl in attendance—there had been any number of those—but Mr Barrett oblivious to her, his face masked by long hair and mascara, crouched shivering on the floor.
Cambridge, where he had learned to play banjo and had proudly covered his first guitar with mirror-discs, seemed the best place to retreat to. He went back to live in his mother's cellar, boarding up the windows, and returned to the painting for which he had trained at Camberwell School of Art. Ambushing journalists were told that his head was “irregular”, and that he was “full of dust and guitars”.
Mr Barrett was now the most famous recluse in British rock. Slight as his oeuvre had been, it proved impossible to forget. His death, from complications of diabetes, brought an outburst of regret from rock stars and fans who were still following him. Tom Stoppard's play “Rock 'n' Roll”, which was playing at the Royal Court when he died, made him a metaphor for revolutionary music: in 1968 a Pan-figure piping liberation, in the 1990s a tired, grey man spotted in a supermarket.
Shining like the sun
His band last saw him in 1975 as they recorded, in “Shine on you Crazy Diamond”, a tribute to him that sounded like yet more encouragement. (“Come on you raver, you seer of visions/Come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, and shine.”) Mr Barrett wandered in, fat and shaven-headed and hardly recognisable. As his friends sang “You shone like the sun”, he seemed to laugh sarcastically. He stayed a while in the studio, and then went away.
On the recording, a guitar player drifting in space walks through a door and finds himself in a loud cocktail party. Managers and promoters come up and flatter him, cajole him into working for them, but at last he escapes again. This time, nobody can catch him.