Syd Barret: A Crazy Diamond

Roger Keith “Syd” Barrett (January 6, 1946 – July 7, 2006) was an English singer, songwriter, and musician. As a founding member of the band Pink Floyd, Barrett was the lead singer, guitarist and principal songwriter in its early years and is credited with naming the band.

He was the only member of Pink Floyd who had been trained in art. He had a graduate of arts degree from Cambridge Technical College, where he met David Gilmour, who studied philology, and they played guitar together. Barrett later enrolled in the painting department at Camberwell College of Arts.

Barrett’s friendship with Roger Waters started in high school, but Roger Waters continued his education in engineering at the University of Westminster, where he met Mason and Wright.

A painter, a philologist, three engineers … an incredible composition.

Barrett’s perspective is that of an  artist and he gave the artistic approach of progressive direction to the band. Others remained faithful to the technical aspect of the work. Although Barrett was three years younger than the other members of Pink Floyd, he became the leader of the group and ensured that the group captured the spirit of the time.

The Piper At The Gates of Dawn is a truly amazing album. If you haven’t listened to it yet, you should. When Pink Floyd released this masterpiece, they were all in their early twenties. Barrett was 21 years old, the others 23-24. It was obvious that they had enormous potential even in the early days of Pink Floyd, and everyone who smelled this potential gathered around the group.

Syd Barrett’s personality was very complex and is deserving of serious investigation. It cannot be understood simply in terms of schizophrenia or acid abuse.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

When the group was established, its members were interested in attaining money and fame. Who wasn’t? At that time, young people who played on the underground scene wanted to achieve the same level of fame as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Pink Floyd achieved this goal at the outset. But was that what they really wanted? Just like the cliché says, everyone cannot handle fame. Experimental guitar strumming in London’s underground bars is one thing; attaining commercial value or a brand is something else. Concerts, tours, interviews, parties, managers, studios masses of fans, rivalries, expectations, etc. This is not a life in which you can act as you please. From the outside it may seem to us perfect, but it’s not easy and is often stressful.

For an artist who has to deal with this at only 21, it’s even harder. When adolescence gives way to maturity, people often begin to question their lives more deeply. I can think of many 15-16 years old geniuses who achieved fame but couldn’t handle it for the same reasons. Yes, you have talent, but can you sustain that talent while maintaining that lifestyle? I think Barrett had conflicts with the group because of this. The affects of acid were also, undoubtedly, a contributing factor.

After their first album, Barrett was unquestionably not the same person His gaze became blank, there was no excitement in his eyes. He wasn’t happy to be performing. There appeared to be a deep indifference, an indifference inside of him.

On their way to a concert, Barrett left his guitar on the plane. During  the concert, he played the same chords over and over again. After the concert, the group had to return to the hotel from the plane because Barrett had forgotten a bag full of money in his hotel room.

He wasn’t the in the place he wanted to be. He became forgetful, pensive, and isolated.

Maybe he went crazy, since all these are signs of the developmental phase of schizophrenia. But they are also signs of depression. Therefore, it requires very broad psychoanalysis to delve into Barrett’s complex situation. While it may seem easy to understand and empathize, perhaps it’s not as easy as it seems.

The Saucerful of Secrets

The Saucerful of Secrets was released when the band was in the middle of these discussions concerning Barrett’s mental health. There’s a song on this album, though, in which Barrett was the main vocalist. It’s the last song on the album, Jugband Blues, and I recommend that you listen to it. This song is Barrett’s final jubilee in Pink Floyd, and everyone was aware of that. When the band played this song, they fulfilled Barret’s will in a sense. Barret had asked that a huge orchestra play in the middle of the song and that every musician in the group play something in his own way. This potentially chaotic song would be a single and not appear on the album. At the other band members’ insistence, Barrett’s idea of an orchestra was abandoned, and this song was made with the options at hand.

The lyrics are really thought provoking:

It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here

And I’m much obliged to you for making it clear that I’m not here

And I never knew the moon could be so big

And I never knew the moon could be so blue

And I’m grateful that you threw away my old shoes

And brought me here instead dressed in red

And I’m wondering who could be writing this song

I don’t care if the sun don’t shine

And I don’t care if nothing is mine

And I don’t care if I’m nervous with you

I’ll do my loving in the winter

And the sea isn’t green

And I love the queen

And what exactly is a dream?

And what exactly is a joke?

Barrett thanked his friends in one sense. His musical fame was due to them and because of them he realized how big and how blue the moon could be. Thanks to them, he took out his old shoes and wrote songs in beautiful costumes. That was why he had to tell his friends that he wasn’t actually there, couldn’t be there. Pink Floyd was a group with giant dreams. But to Barrett it was a joke.  Barrett asked what made these ‘giant dreams’ any different from jokes.

Pink Floyd performed with Syd Barret

Barrett’s place in the group was actually so great when he left the band that all the back up musicians, editors, managers left as well. They thought the potential was in Barrett, not in Pink Floyd.

The Madcap Laughs was Barrett’s first solo album and it definitely carried his vision. Instead of the long, instrumental arrangements for which he criticized Pink Floyd pieces, he wrote short and meaningful songs. The cover of the album already reflected this. Barrett sat on an empty, striped patterned floor and next to him stood a flower vase. On the back cover there was added a naked woman leaning on a stool, her face indiscernible.

Barrett was a minimalist surrealist. His album reflects this. If you haven’t listened to it, I recommend that you do.

Barrett played his acoustic guitar and told his poems. The next Barrett album was in the same minimalist, surrealist style and very beautiful.

Barrett’s solo songs were good. But there was a nuance. Pink Floyd albums after Barrett were simply masterpieces and all became popular. Barrett’s solo albums were just good. They were far from being masterpieces. There were minimal commercial concerns and the commercial returns were minimal as well.

A picture of Syd Barrett when he visited Abbey Road during the production of Wish You Were Here

In these albums, Barrett displayed his poetic side rather than his musical side. At the end of an interview with the Rolling Stones Magazine when he was 25, Barret came over and said to show his song album. He was writing poems and vocalizing them. Maybe his disease had exhausted his musical ability. We don’t know. Maybe it was the direction in which he wanted to go. He wanted to be a minimalist and surrealist poet. It’s hard to know.

Many years later, Pink Floyd members invited Barrett to their studio and played Shine On You Crazy Diamond, which they had composed for Barrett. The lyrics of this song, which had a 30 minute instrumental, were meant to be an intense depiction of Syd Barret. Barrett, however, didn’t like the song and found it old fashioned. He didn’t find it out of the spirit of time, though. What was spirit of time? That remains unknown.

The last known photo of Syd Barrett

Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett are like apples and pears. Barrett was just an artist and he remained so. He jumped on the train of fame and landed at the first stop. His friends stayed on the train and waved goodbye to his shrinking silhouette.

Author: Ahmet Bhattacharji Avsar

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