Is it too simple to speak of sixties psychedelia as a counter-culture to the traditional values of Anglo-American societies? A pro-drugs, pro-group sex,anti-war, anti-capitalistic agenda evolving from the Haight-Ashbury region of San Francisco around 1965. Of course, the art and music industries soon incorporated the new wave of change and grasped the opportunity for re-bottling this ‘kulture’ and selling it back to the young rebels who were, supposedly, rejecting their heavy marketing methods. Was this dialectical? Thesis, antithesis, synthesis in action? But not, perhaps, in the way Marx had imagined.
It was from this heady mix of psychedelia and experimentation that a young Syd Barrett and his underground band Pink Floyd emerged. Smart, well-informed journalists have told us that the name came from Syd’s record collection and the union of two blues’ artists Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. Such incidentals, however, tell us little about the sad decline and mental deterioration of someone who once promised so much.
Barrett was born in Cambridge 1946, the son of a hospital pathologist. He attended Cambridge High School for Boys where he first met Roger Waters, and later moved to London to study at Camberwell School of Art. It was while he was in the capital that he was re-united with Waters and Floyd were formed.
From the outset the band were a vehicle for Barrett’s childlike genious, experimental musings and enormous innovative creativity. Syd was the driving force behind the early success of the band, the launchpad that made the others multi-millionaires and ‘rock legends’. The band’s first two singles Arnold Layne and See Emily Play, and almost the whole of Pink Floyd’s critically acclaimed debut album Piper At The Gates of Dawn were down to Syd.
The signs, however, were not good. Within 36 months of touching stardom Syd Barrett had disintegrated as a person. Performances on stage by the Floyd included Syd detuning his guitar or staring lifelessly out at the audience as the others tried to work their way through the set. It was clear that something had gone seriously wrong with group’s main creative inspiration.
Yet while he slipped into the darkness of mental illness, and Roger Waters lamented that his demise might mean the end of the band, his ousting, in the end, was callous. The other members of the band simply decided not to pick him up for a gig one night and the five man Floyd (David Gilmour having been brought in to understudy the sick Syd) reverted to a quartet. To be fair they had thought that an arrangement similar to The Beach Boys, where Brian Wilson wote the material but didn’t tour with the band, might have been the answer. But it was never going to happen with Syd and the idea was dismissed. He simply tumbled out of the Pink Floyd sky, and disappeared from their lives.
It was a long way back for Barrett, and though a couple of attempts at solo projects brought mixed results it seemed the fleeting glimpse of greatness had gone. He retreated to the relative obscurity of London’s Chelsea Cloisters and once turned up at a recording session some six years after severing contact with the others. In the middle of recording the band’s own tribute to Syd, ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, a man appeared in the studio. A shaven headed 18 stone person who none of the others recognised, jumping up and down and holding a toothbrush in a bizarre attempt to clean his teeth. When told it was Syd, Roger Waters openly wept.
In 1978,after the money kachinged to empty, the broke and fallen pop star walked all the way home to his mother’s house in Cambrige. He was 32.
Within the parameters of his self-imposed exile any mention of the Floyd seemed to upset him. His family, therefore, avoided any mention of his former life and especially the band. It seems possible that Syd settled into another life in Cambridge away from the nightmare that was ‘Syd’, in fact he went back to his birth name of Roger.
He was popular with the local workmen, tended his garden and returned to his first love of painting,. He shunned publicity, gave no interviews and when his mother died, lived alone in the family home. And maybe there was more significance in his return from the inferno that was London and the hollowness of pop fame, than many have given credence to.
To the media Syd Barrett was simply a freaky pop curio providing them with mystery and sensationalistic print. It was the preferred diet of the overbloated, self-indulgent and congratulatory rat goon journalists. But Barrett was always more than the drug-addled tragic figure he is often portrayed as. After all many of Barrett’s contemporaries, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and none more so than Neil Young, took drugs and continued to function as viable ‘pop stars’. What no one has sought is an understanding of the mental health issues which robbed us off one of the brightest shining stars of his generation. Barrett demanded understanding, not songs sung as elegies to him, or the crazy ‘crazy diamond’ logo.