It appears to me that perhaps our misunderstanding of Syd Barrett is symptomatic of our inability to cope with psychiatric issues writ large.

A precocious child, Syd was deeply affected by the sudden death of his father, at the age of 15. Since the age of 11 young Syd (Roger then) was a diary obsessive and never missed a day, until that day his father passed away. But this aspect in Syd’s life is often overlooked, with reviews overwhelmingly presenting a single dimension to his madness: Syd – the acid casualty.

Musically Syd’s tastes were The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Booker T. & the MG’s. These are all obvious now, but in the early 60’s the reputation of each of these artists was not what it is today. Elvis was the biggest name on the pop scene, a scene which hadn’t long emerged from simplistic Rock’n’Roll. Nevertheless, Syd’s Beatle obsession, in particular, meant he too wanted to be a pop star and, with a musical family, playing guitar in a band was a natural progression of that desire.

By mid-’67 Syd’s LSD consumption was ‘awesome[i]’ and it fuelled both his song-writing and instrumental improvisation, as well as the nightmarish backlash. By the time Floyd had released their second single (See Emily Play, the first being Arnold Layne) his own sister could see that acid had already got under his skin: ‘The next time I saw him he’d changed so much that I couldn’t reach him. The brother I knew had disappeared.’[ii]

EMI pressed for an album and the resultant long-player was The Piper At The Gates of Dawn, a title stolen from The Wind in the Willows. A strange album which both starts and practically finishes the brief neon glow of the British psychedelic scene, Piper also perfectly juxtaposes Syd’s penchant for surprisingly listenable child-like English folklore ditties (Scarecrow, Bike and The Gnome) with sonic evocations of the Floyd’s UFO club freak-out appearances. Personally, my favourite is Lucifer Sam with its Bond-like rhythm and powerful drumming pushing along scratchy guitars, but Pete Townsend of The Who was not impressed: ‘I thought it {the album} was fucking awful…it was like bubblegum – Mickey Mouse music – and I thought the guy who produced it was a tosser’.

If the album was confused, it presented Syd perfectly.

Or did it? Syd saw himself primarily as an artist: music had become just another form of media for him – it was the act of creating and improvising which interested him most. He loved freedom and loathed structure. We see this infamously in his inability to cohere in both later live and studio settings. He became obnoxiously impossible to work with and David Gilmour – originally brought in to stand-in for the useless Syd – became the band’s saviour, as well as Syd’s own creative executor/producer, making the barest sense of insanity in Syd’s two moorish solo albums: Barrett and The Madcap Laughs.

You can hear Syd’s world fall apart in the Floyd’s second LP closer (Jugband Blues) but it was swinging sixties pop model Lynsey Korner who felt its wrath, as his trips became increasing violent. His violence was only surpassed by his  reclusiveness and strange behaviour. Clearly, he needed psychiatric help. Yet when Syd died, his family said (see Wikipedia page for Syd for citation) that he had never received treatment or even a programme of therapy for his behaviour, even though he was admitted for respite care on a few occasions. Nevertheless, at the time he needed care and help the most, his actions had already lost him all the friends a person needs to help them through such a traumatic experience as a psychological breakdown. Instead, a steady stream of hangers-on and groupies kept him occupied, frustrated and fuelled with mandrax and LSD.

On the whole, though, Syd’s life is lamented by friends and colleagues in a positive light, remembering the Roger Keith Sydney Barrett who jumped for joy outside EMI on their signing a record deal. Gilmour said in 1982: “It’s just a sad, sad thing; a very nice and talented person who just disintegrated.”[iii] And, for sure, even though we hear him as he was when he was at his most objectionable and unreachable to those friends and colleagues, we also are shaken by a rare fragile musical experience.

His surrealistic stream of consciousness writing – not equalled in my mind until Stephen Malkmus in both his Pavement and solo work – was more than just mere random jumbles. Syd delivered in phrase upon phrase a vulnerability unique to his sadness and failure, despite success.

The desire for that success and fame which Syd originally sought soon turned out to feed only the unrelenting addiction of a record company’s insistence on successive successful singles. Syd wasn’t prepared for that, couldn’t do that, and was still young when his mind gave up on him.

Fans’ desire to seek him out and be part of the myth must, I imagine, have also fed his anxieties. Roger Waters felt that later, resulting in at first Wish You Were Here and then later, in a different way, another kind of alienation in The Wall. Syd retreated to solitude and painting. While they craved Syd’s return to the studio, Syd simply chain-smoked and watched TV, wanting to be forgotten and to forget.

Pete Townsend got it right, I think, when he remarked that the story of Syd should ignore the myths and realise that, in fact, ‘Syd was someone with psychotic tendencies who by using too much LSD pushed himself over the edge.’ – by psychotic tendencies, I think he means personality disorder.

Syd when he turned up to Floyd’s WISH YOU WERE HERE sessions

The human mind is a terribly romantic notion. Only insanity gives us a glimpse of existential freedom so repulsively uncivilised, it enraptures our own, sane, imaginations. Romanticism of psychological breakdown aside, Syd’s story is really quite straightforward, and it is probably all the more tragic because of it.

A story comes out in 1990, published in The Guardian: “One day, not long ago, Syd visited his brother-in-law Paul Breen, who runs a Cambridge hotel. Sitting in the hotel office, Syd’s attention was drawn to his brother-in-law’s guitar lying in a corner of the room. At one point Mr Breen was called away. On his return he found Syd holding the guitar and gently strumming a tune. Realising he’d been caught red-handed, Syd dropped the instrument like a stone and turned away sheepishly…[iv]

This story annoys the shit out of me as the book it featured in Crazy Diamond: Syd Barrett & the Dawn of Pink Floyd (which inspired this blog entry) had set itself the laudable task of restraining Syd-spotters (still alive when it was published) and putting to bed Syd myths.  Instead, passages like the above is in effect a rallying call for them.

Anyone who has ever played even a bit of music will innately know that the instinctive nature of instruments is to lure you in. Playing music is irresistible. What Syd’s actions shows in this story is that the instinct is still there, even if he remained ashamed of his own professional musical career. The two are entirely different things.

Syd died in 2006 at the age of 60 from pancreatic cancer.

We should listen to his music and leave the rest alone.

[i] ‘Crazy Diamond: Syd Barrett & the Dawn of Pink Floyd’ by M. Watkinson & P. Anderson (Omnibus Press, 1991)

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.