Thursday, October 20, 2005

Forgotten Hero IV - Syd Barrett

Syd Barrett is probably the most enigmatic rock icon of our times who has been destroyed by his own ideas. One of the most talented musicians of the late 20th century, Syd was the victim of the free-wheeling lifestyle of 60s and his own inability to control his lifestyle.

Born Roger Keith Barrett (born January 6, 1946 in Cambridge, England) to Arthur Max Barrett and Winefred Flack-Barrett, Syd showed his inclination to music at an early age.

The band Pink Floyd was formed in 1964. Barrett named the band after two obscure bluesmen, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, following a succession of non-Barrett titles (including "The Tea Set," "The Abdabs" and "Leonard's Lodgers") which date even earlier.

Barrett wrote most of the Floyd's early material; he was also an innovative guitarist, being one of the first to fully explore the sonic possibilities of distortion and especially the recently-developed echo machine.

One of Barrett's most beloved trademarks was playing his fender guitar by sliding a Zippo lighter up and down the fretboard to create the mysterious, otherworldly sounds that became forever associated with the name "Pink Floyd." Barrett was also known for his magnetic stage-presence; despite a natural humbleness and an inclination towards shyness, his striking good looks and hypnotic presence gave audiences an immediate impact.

As Pink Floyd were hailed as critical darlings and achieved public acclaim, the pressures placed on the already sensitive Barrett proved untimely and, ultimately, tragic. There are many stories about Barrett's bizarre and intermittently psychotic behaviour, some of these tales undoubtedly apocryphal, although some are known to be true.

On one famous occasion, he displayed signs of catatonia during the taping of an appearance on the Pat Boone TV show, standing stock still, his arms limp by his sides, violet-eyes staring fixedly into the camera.

In another well-known incident, shortly before going on stage, Syd crushed up the entire contents of his bottle of Mandrax tranquilizer tablets, mixing them with a large quantity of pudding; he then placed the mixture on top of his head and as he played under the hot stage lights, the viscous mixture softened and began to ooze down his forehead, giving the appearance that his face was melting, a tragic re-enactment of what Barrett was experiencing internally.

Another oft-repeated tale is that of Barrett appearing at the recording studio one day with a new song which he called "Have You Got It Yet". As he taught the group the song, it soon became obvious that he was changing the chords each time he played it through (hence the title) making it virtually impossible for them to learn it.

It has also frequently been claimed that his overly-exaggerated experience with drugs may not have been entirely of his own making, and that he was given LSD without his knowledge by so-called friends (Nick Kent discusses this in his article "The Cracked Ballad of Syd Barrett" collected in his book The Dark Stuff).

Barrett's vulnerability, trusting nature and inability to say no to the demands placed on him by the record company only served to exacerbate his schizophrenic condition.

When Barrett's childhood friend David Gilmour was asked to join Pink Floyd, the original intention was for him to augment the lineup in a live setting, freeing Barrett from some of the stresses of touring. It was thought that Syd could continue to write and record with the group and, because he was the singer, songwriter, and lead guitarist, it was hoped that he would play a similar role to the Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson, who had also withdrawn from live performances but had continued to write for that group. However, it soon became apparent that such a situation would not be possible as Barrett was becoming increasingly reclusive and was subsequently admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Cambridge. Gilmour's performances lacked the daring experimentalism that Barrett was renowned for, but he was a dependable singer and guitarist and, more importantly, sane. Gilmour became a permanent member, with bassist Roger Waters taking over de facto leadership of the band after Barrett's departure.

Barrett increasingly withdrew from the world of music, although, at the behest of EMI and Harvest Records he did have a brief solo career, releasing two mercurial and highly-regarded solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett. The songs are reliefs of high-art, startling in their use of language and imagery but often haunting in their distress. Much controversy has risen around David Gilmour's production work; he chose to leave Barrett's more vulnerable moments on tape to give the records a more "authentic" feel, but many feel it does Barrett few favours and instead takes advantage of his fragile condition. Much of the material on both albums dates from Barrett's most productive period of songwriting and it is believed that he wrote few new songs after he left Pink Floyd. Regardless, both albums stand as stark reminders of his genius as a songsmith and his enduring appeal as a singer.

Barrett spent many of the subsequent years painting at his mother's home in Cambridge, where he lives to this day. The paintings which he sold or gave away are highly sought after and sell for alarmingly high prices. He continues to paint but seldom listens to music, although it has been reported that he enjoys the classical composers, a love shared by his late father, Dr. Max Barrett; he reportedly paid no attention whatsoever to a Pink Floyd compilation that was given to him, although his sister reported that he had a "spring in his step", after watching a Floyd documentary. He reportedly told her that he enjoyed seeing his "teacher", architect and landlord, Mike Leonard, but found the film "a little noisy." Fans around the world retain a fierce and devout love for Barrett.

It has to be noted that the remaining Pink Floyd members (specially Waters and Gilmour) are not comfortable about all this, pointing out that he is unwell, that the attention of so-called "fans" does him harm, and that what happened to him was not a thing to celebrate, but a sad thing.

There has been much speculation concerning the psychological well-being of Syd Barrett. It has been suggested that he has Asperger's Syndrome, a form of Autism, owing to certain traits in his behaviour. Barrett remains a beloved and mysterious artist, a songwriter of considerable talent and considered by some to adhere to the classic archetype of the romantic genius, fondly remembered by many and an inspiration to future musicians. Although Barrett has not appeared or spoken in public since the mid-1970s, time has done little to diminish interest in his life and work (not to mention the media's fascination with his story); reporters and fans still travel to Cambridge to seek him out, despite his attempts at living a quiet life or, as he sang in Dominoes, "a life that comes of no harm."

In 1988, EMI Records released Opel, an album of Barrett's studio outtakes and previously unreleased material recorded in 1970. EMI also released The Best of Syd Barrett: Wouldn't You Miss Me? in the UK on April 16, 2001, and in the United States on September 11, 2001. Also worthy of mention is the immense bootleg collection Have You Got It Yet?, a 19-disc audio/visual compilation composed of several live performances of both Barrett solo and with the Pink Floyd, with some of the versions (mostly from BBC and live gigs) being considered far superior than those in the official albums. One of the main attractions of the collection are some of the tracks for the never-released third album. There are also interviews with other Pink Floyd members, video footage and covers from other artists.

Many artists have recorded tributes to Barrett throughout the decades. His contemporary Kevin Ayers wrote the song "Oh Wot a Dream" as a tribute (Barrett provided guitar to an early version of Ayer's "Singing a Song in the Morning"). R.E.M.'s made a cover of the haunting "Dark Globe", as has Placebo. The Television Personalities track "I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives" is another well-known tribute, apparently based on fact. At the Drive-In recorded a cover version of "Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk" from Piper (which is, in fact, a Roger Waters song, not Syd's...) and its frontmen (now the main members of The Mars Volta) have claimed that they tried to emulate The Piper at the Gates of Dawn's sound in their music.

Johnny Depp has stated in a June, 2005 interview that "when growing up, he dreamed of being a rock and roll guitar player and thought that a movie based on the story of Syd Barrett would be a great idea."

Syd Barrett now in Cambridge couple of weeks before the Pink Floyd reunion G8 concert.


At 12:03 PM, Anonymous syd seeker said...

thanks for a great piecs about Syd...(who i guess doesn't like to be called that anymore.. and also the fairly recent pic-- where did this pic first trun up? i saw it also on syd archives... and read your piece on wikipedia..
i wonder if Syd has actually ever been diagnosed with a specific mental illness....all the pics i have seen show him always walking/riding around buying stuff-he must be able to at least do regular stuff and he lives alone(supposedly) so he must not be in TOO bad of a shape...
anyway great blog... i ama music ian as well a blues singer(pro) by the way...

At 12:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry for all the typos... here is a funny thought... i just accidentally took too much of my cholesterol meds... and i was having a mini panic attack... and i thought WAIT A MINUTE!!! i bet Syd Barrett has taken plenty overdoses of much more haevy stuff-and lived to ...uh... well not talk about it...

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At 12:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i had an old silvertone guitar('58 or early) given to me 15 years ago by a friend of mine who claimed it was at one time owned by Syd could it be true

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