The thick ivy of legend, rumour and fantasy has grown around the story of Roger ‘Syd’ Barrett to such an extent that it’s easy to overlook the human being at the centre of the myth-making. While his misbegotten life adhered to a paradigm of the doomed Romantic artist, Barrett’s writing deserves to be appreciated for its sparkling originality and ineffable Englishness, not merely as a portent of incipient mental collapse. It’s time to put Syd in a wider context, proposes musician, academic and long-standing Barrett fan Pete Astor.
The film is played back: first, the hum of static, then a hand, moving. Next, the face, the eyes, looking to the mid-distance, blinking; then the camera is pulling away and the man in the film leans back and seems to look towards us. He gives what might be the trace of a smile and again he looks away. Now the camera pulls back and we see the blanket over his shoulders: he is ‘ill’. Then a cut, using up more precious black and white seconds – more staring, more looking around. Then another cut, to someone else’s back, sitting with him, caring for him. The sunlight continues to pour through the large glass windows, illuminating the scene as his eyes look out, his hands remain folded, and the long, thin day
continues, as it will long after the minute and half of this film is over. Looking in on madness is always unlikely to provide any useful answers: are there ever any good days? Is there ever smiling, laughing?
When did the lights go out? We get some sense of the daily routine: getting food, washing, being watched over, being taken care of – and no one ever saying “what the hell happened? Couldn’t you just pull out of this?” Because they know, of course, that they can’t, that the person is at the lip of a very deep well, and they are looking in, swaying. And we all know the eyes: dark, distant. The soul they are meant to reveal can’t be seen, might not even be there anymore. The man in the film is Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche who, having descended into madness, was filmed in his final year, 1899, by his sister, who went on to administer his estate, releasing this footage for the benefit of the curious. Now,
another generation can view these scenes on YouTube, trying to unravel the conundrum of the great mind undone, and possibly taking a certain pleasure in the beautiful tragedy of the situation; I know I have. Syd Barrett was the original leader of Pink Floyd, who like many of his generation in the mid-to-late 1960s, began to explore the outer limits of his consciousness. This was partly accomplished by ingesting massive amounts of LSD, which in Barrett’s case either caused him to become unhinged or unlocked the psychic demons that were already there. Either way, he ended his days in a becalmed but parlous mental condition, living in Cambridge, well away from his former life as a pop star. Film of him in his latter years – looking vacant, lost – also exists on YouTube. He was born Roger Keith Barrett into an upper middle class Cambridge family, just after the end of the Second World War (the name Syd was a nickname picked up in reference to a local jazz musician). His father, Arthur Max Barrett, was a respected pathologist and a keen amateur botanist, and both he and Barrett’s mother Winifred encouraged their son’s musical interests. Barrett’s father died a month before his son’s 16th birthday and, according to Barrett’s sister Rosemary, the diary which he completed assiduously each day was left entirely blank on the day of his father’s death – not the most useful way to deal with such a psychologically momentous event and, perhaps, an early augury of later psychological difficulties.
In 1964, Barrett moved to London to take a place at Camberwell School of Art, joining the ranks of a musical generation who honed their creative practices under the auspices of a contemporary art education whose inclusive, maverick approach provided an environment in which all kinds of creative ideas might be developed. While at Camberwell, Barrett formed a band with some architecture students from the Regent Street Polytechnic: Roger Walters, Nick Mason, Richard Wright and the soonto- depart guitarist, Bob Close. Performing under a host of names – The Abdabs, The Sigma 6, The Meggadeaths – the group eventually settled on The Pink Floyd Sound, named after American blues artists Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, exotic sounding musicians who were mentioned in the
sleeve-notes of an album in Barrett’s collection. By late 1966, Pink Floyd had become one of a clutch of British bands on the burgeoning psychedelic scene, playing at clubs such as the UFO (pronounced ‘yoof-oh’) on Tottenham Court Road. Soon signed to EMI, the group’s first single was ‘Arnold Layne’, a Barrett composition centring on the characteristically eccentric subject of a man stealing underwear
from suburban washing lines and set to a typically tuneful, yet lopsided pop form. Barrett went on to develop and expand this style of writing on Pink Floyd’s 1967 debut album, The Piper At The Gates of Dawn, and subsequent singles, ‘See Emily Play’ and ‘Apples and Oranges’. The first flowering of Barrett’s songwriting – from the Duane Eddy-on-acid twang of ‘Astronomy Domine’ to the childhood dreamscapes of ‘Matilda Mother’ – on the debut Pink Floyd album remains both exemplarity and
unique as a blueprint for prime British psychedelia. However, it was at some point during this creative breakthrough that things started to come undone. Those around Barrett started to notice a range of behavioural peculiarities which suggested he was becoming unable to function in a ‘normal’ manner. This could mean anything from answering everyday attempts at communication with silence and a measureless stare, or playing just a single chord throughout the length of a performance. So in 1968, partly to cover this increasingly erratic behaviour, Barrett’s old Cambridge friend Dave Gilmour was drafted into Pink Floyd to cover Syd’s guitar parts and make the band a functioning unit again.
This arrangement continued for a time until, apparently, on the way to one gig, the other four members simply decided not to pick Barrett up, ushering his departure from the group he’d founded. Over the course of the following year, Barrett returned fitfully to the studio to record a solo
album. With Gilmour in the producer’s chair to complete the project, The Madcap Laughs eventually appeared in 1969 and was followed 11 months later by a second, more rapidly recorded album, Barrett, also produced by Gilmour. After this, Barrett slowly disappeared from the public eye, released no more records and continued a twilight existence, making sporadic sojourns to London and otherwise living at his mother’s house in Cambridge. He eventually settled into a house in his hometown in
the 1980s, where he continued his quiet, half-life. He died there, from pancreatic cancer, in 2006.
These are some of the facts of Barrett’s creative and personal life; they are generally well-known and are the subject of a slew of books and articles, the definitive study being Rob Chapman’s 2010 biography A Very Irregular Head (Faber & Faber) which, while telling Barrett’s strange and
sad story in impressive detail and exemplary style, also seeks to place his solo work at the centre of his creative canon and to elevate these albums to their rightful place as key works of English popular music. What is particularly interesting about the Barrett legacy is how the story is always retold as though unique and particular only to itself; the truth is that the Barrett myth is one of many that tell the same tale of madness and creativity – the bright star, gone but forever burning bright. Orrin E. Klapp, writing in Heroes, Villains and Fools (Prentice Hall, 1962), seeking to define a Hollywood star typology, lists the “anomie types” that fulfil the star function that embodies the disconnected and alienated figure (an idea derived from French sociologist Émile Durkheim, in fact) – one that does
not and cannot take part in the normal world. Klapp’s ideas were based on the models found in the Hollywood of the ’40s and ’50s, but at this time, the film industry’s portrayal of anomie lacked the distance from the prevailing cultural norms that would be found in popular music figures from the mid ’60s onwards, Barrett himself being a prime early example. That decade saw popular music beginning to ‘grow up’, to take itself seriously, overturning its primary function as escapist mass entertainment and taking on the attendant features of the worlds of art and literature.
Initially, popular music was seen, even by those producing it, as part of a primarily commercial enterprise, where the job of the artists was to be part of what Theodor Adorno called “the culture industry”, producing standardised fare for the lumpen proletariat. By the late ’60s, musicians
had begun to regard themselves, and were being seen, as Artists, and together with this coming of age came the attendant Romantic myths of madness and creativity that had been sewn into the practice of the established fine arts for centuries.
From about 1800 onwards, the Romantic idea of creativity became (and ostensibly remains) the dominant paradigm for the artistic individual. It was most clearly defined by M.H. Abrams in the title of his study of Romantic writing in the 1950s, The Mirror and the Lamp. This delineated between an older, classical model of the artist who holds up a mirror to the world, and the Romantic mind at the centre of the universe, acting as a beacon and illuminating all around it. This luminescence could take any form, shape or expression, as long as it remained ‘true’ to the vision of the artist at the centre of their own cosmos. If the emotions took place in extremis, then so much the better – this unvarnished rawness of feeling was valued as more authentic.