by David Chiu
Originally published in Spinner, November 9, 2010
If there was ever a Hall of Fame for eccentric rock and roll figures, Syd Barrett would be a first-ballot inductee. A founding member of Pink Floyd, Barrett was the band’s lead singer, guitarist and songwriter from the mid to late ’60s. He was responsible for writing Pink Floyd’s early hit singles and nearly all of their 1967 debut album, ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.’ However, drugs and psychological problems took a toll on Barrett as his behavior became erratic — so much so that the other members of Pink Floyd carried on without him.
Although Barrett forged a solo career in the early ’70s, he drifted away from music and friends. He quietly lived the rest of his life until his death from complications due to diabetes on July 7, 2006, at age 60. Interest in his life continues to flourish with this week’s release of the compilation album ‘An Introduction to Syd Barrett’ and the recently published biography, ‘A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett,’ by Rob Chapman.
Peter Jenner, Pink Floyd’s first manager, tells Spinner that he got along with the Cambridge, England-born Barrett in the band’s early days. “He had a great interest in music and he was very interested in art,” Jenner says. “We talked about music and what the band could be and all the rest of it. He was a really nice bloke. No problem at all.”
Barrett wrote much of Pink Floyd’s early material such as ‘Arnold Layne,’ ‘See Emily Play’ and ‘Bike,’ but as the band’s career was on the rise, his behavior became unreliable. “He became more and more abstract and vague,” says Jenner. “You know, ‘When is he going to turn up for the gig?’ ‘When he got to a gig, would he play the set?’
“We tried all sorts of things, like taking him literally that what he says is what he really means, and maybe the problems are us, not him,” Jenner adds. “In the end, [co-manager] Andrew King and I had to agree that it was really virtually impossible for the band to work with him.”
Chapman believes the Barrett’s behavior was not just due to drugs. “It all points to some deep-rooted aspects of Syd’s personality — aspects that are, I suspect, deeply embedded in his childhood,” he says. “If that is the case — and it is a big ‘if’ — that should be a cause for deep seated sorrow, not callous speculation.”
When the members of Pink Floyd moved on without Barrett in 1968, Jenner and King took on managing Barrett as a solo artist. “‘We will look after Syd, we’ll make records with him and he’ll write us more hits,’” Jenner explains of his rationale at the time. “I felt that Syd was the real talent in the band and, up to that point, he had been.”
Barrett recorded only two solo albums, ‘The Madcap Laughs’ and ‘Barrett,’ both released in 1970. For Jenner, working with Barrett in the studio proved difficult. “It was like trying to pin down something, which you could see you knew within there because you’d seen it in the past,” he recalls. “I think those songs describe sort of a descent into confusion.”
“There are moments of genius on ‘The Madcap Laughs,’” says Chapman. “On one level that album is raw and confessional. On another level, it’s an oblique tangential sprawling masterpiece. He was clearly trying to move on from the juvenilia of ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.’”
An attempt to bring Barrett back into the studio in 1974 yielded unsuccessful results. Jenner would later see Barrett sometime in the late ’70s/early ’80s when the musician stopped by his office.
“There was this guy who was sort of quite portly, balding and wearing an overcoat,” Jenner remembers, “who looked really more like a top club bouncer. ‘Oh, it’s Syd.’ He wanted us to sign a photograph for him to get a passport, which we did. We never saw him again.”
Barrett went back to Cambridge to live with his family and resumed his interest in art until his death. He has not been forgotten by Pink Floyd, who recorded 1975′s ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’ as an homage. A tribute concert was held in 2007 in London that featured members of Pink Floyd, Robyn Hitchcock and Damon Albarn.
“I don’t think there’s any question in my mind there would have never been a Pink Floyd that anyone would have known about had it not been for Syd,” Jenner says.
“Syd’s legacy is precisely that — his music,” Chapman adds. “Not his madness, not the myths, but the sheer unique humanity and joyously skewed perspective of those songs. I’ve had several letters from young people congratulating me on my book and admitting that they knew very little about his past. It’s sentiments like that that makes me realize his music will live on.”