Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Syd Barrett: A Foundered Genius of Rock and Roll
My memory of Pink Floyd dates back to my early childhood of staring at my dad’s copy of Dark Side of the Moon on vinyl, completely fascinated by the album’s artwork. Of course it would be years later into my adulthood that I would listen to the album in its entirety. One track that remained on repeat during my drives to and from work was Brain Damage with it’s haunting theme of madness echoing through my speakers. I have heard the name of Syd Barrett through conversations with my dad. “Yeah the song Brain Damage is about Syd Barrett,” my dad said, “He was the founding member that went crazy.” Years later, another conversation sparked between my dad and brother about Floyd and I was insisted on giving Piper At the Gates of Dawn a listen. Curious to their recommendation, I purchased the album and the rest is a magical odyssey bound by music. I found Barrett’s songs to be incredibly intriguing to the aural senses and I yearned to learn more about this enigmatic figure.
During the mid sixties Pink Floyd was all the rage amongst the free thinking hipsters of London with the guitarist/front man as their psychedelic messiah. The US had Jim Morrison while the UK had Syd Barrett as its elusive star. Like his American predecessor, Barrett had all the assets of a bonafide rock idol; a keen eye for songwriting, a charismatic stage presence and an exquisite taste in fashion. Another attribute that Barrett possessed that served as a blessing and possible curse was he was physically beautiful. With his stunning model good looks, Barrett was the envy of masculine music seekers and highly desirable amongst fawning women. Just as his star was on the rise; the stress of maintaining his image paired with copious amounts of acid ingestion began to weigh down on Barrett. While on a promotional tour in the US, his mental stability cracked and he left the group shortly thereafter. Barrett would later go on to release two solo albums; The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, both heralded as absolute gems in the music community. The newfound attentions of celebrity proved to be too much pressure for Barrett and after being in the spotlight for only a short period of time, he turned his back and walked away from it all. He moved back with his family in his hometown of Cambridge, changed back to his given name of Roger and spent the rest of his life staying far away from the public eye.
There have been countless sightings of Barrett over the years after his sudden departure, including the infamous story of him showing up at the recording of Wish You Were Here. The ironic twist is that apparently he appeared in the studio while the band was recording Shine on You Crazy Diamond, their grand tribute to the psychologically fragile founder. The tragic part of the situation was Barrett’s physical state, the person that was once regarded as one of the most beautiful men in the world was reduced to a hollowed shell of his former self; bald and overweight. In fact, with his drastically changed appearance, no one in his former band even recognized him. Could it be that the tortured artist resented his own beauty to the extent that he shaved his hair and gained weight as a form of rebellion? Who knows -- but from what Roger Waters and the other band members have said about him, it would seem to be a very Syd-like gesture.
Many people have their theories about Barrett’s mental state. There are those that claimed that he was schizophrenic while others claim that he fried his brain on LSD. While their theories make logical sense, I personally believe that the reason for his behavior -- his retreat into drugs, his eventual breakdown and flight from the limelight -- could be summed up in this simple reason: the man did not want to be a celebrity. For all we know, Barrett would have been perfectly happy with having minimal success as the darlings of the underground. It is clear that his former bandmates desired more than just playing small dive bars in London. Why else would they have wanted to embark on tackling American audiences? Barrett was an artist, someone who was passionate about his craft but became disillusioned by success; it was that disillusionment that would completely taint his desire to express himself musically.
It’s possible that he learned first hand the dangers of rock and roll excess. After Barrett completed his two solo albums, the Rock and Roll community was shaken to its core by the deaths -- in rapid succession -- of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison. Could it be possible that the deaths of so many rock icons finally pushed him over the edge? Many people will vehemently state that Barrett was already out of his mind and completely tuned out from reality by then, but there are those that will disagree about his psychological condition. In an interview with Iggy the Eskimo, the naked woman on the cover of The Madcap Laughs and Barrett’s girlfriend at the time, she claims that he was in a very collected state of mind around her. "People talk about Syd's madness and his dark side, but I never saw it,” she said, "We had a wonderful giggly time. There were no sinister moments.” If this is the case, then there is no doubt that Barrett must have been aware of the senseless tragedies that had befallen his famous predecessors. Therefore he went into a frenzied thought that he would end up just like them if he didn’t escape the business.
If anything, Barrett’s mental breakdown actually saved his life. He was one of rock‘s luckiest men, in that respect. All he wanted was a tranquil life without the burden of being a superstar and that’s exactly what he got. In the end, he outlived many rock icons that would succumb to their own excess (Keith Moon, John Bonham, etc.) He is very lucky that he didn’t end up a casualty like Kurt Cobain -- a man who after less than four years in the spotlight was found dead in his home, with most of his head blown off by a shotgun and a massive dose of heroin in his bloodstream.
Unlike most rock stars that drift from the spotlight and try to make a comeback by plastering their face on reality TV a la Bret Michaels, one thing is for certain: Syd Barrett is a legend whose legacy will never fade. The youth of the new generation, yearning to experience that musical dream, are becoming inspired by Barrett to pick up the guitar and start writing songs. Syd Barrett was a genius who never fully understood the impact that he had on millions of people when he was alive. Sadly, our hope of him coming to terms with his iconic mark on the music world ended when he passed away five years ago -- but although he’s no longer with us, I’m sure his spirit has been given closure on his past and he has his Fender Esquire in his hands playing that great gig in the sky.
* quote from Iggy the Eskimo is from an interview with Mojo magazine. The article and interview can be found here