"Long Gone"--A Tribute to Syd Barrett (1946-2006)
Syd Barrett died last Friday, though it wasn't announced until today. Why am I posting about a rock icon on Poetry Snark? Because Syd Barrett was the true mad poet-genius of the 60s, and I have to say something. His music has meant too much to me to remain silent. If you care about Syd Barrett, please read on.
Syd Barrett was born in 1946 in Cambridge, the son of a famous pathologist who encouraged young Roger's musical inclinations. He acquired the nickname "Syd" at age 15 and kept it until his retirement as a recluse, when he reverted back to Roger to avoid publicity. Barrett's Pink Floyd was a different and far more interesting thing than Roger Waters's. The original Floyd was conceptual and truly experimental, sometimes edging into Duchamp-like challenges to what the art form was and could be. In one infamous session, for example, he brought in a new song called "Have You Got It, Yet?" and asked the band to learn it. Here's what happened (from Wikipedia) :
"The song seemed simple enough when he first presented it to his bandmates, but it soon became impossibly difficult to learn: as they were practicing it, Barrett kept changing the arrangement. He would then play it again, with the arbitrary changes, and sing "Have you got it yet?" After more than an hour of trying to "get it," they realized they never would."
Syd was also a stunningly original guitar player, though few today would know it, because according to those who heard it, his best performances were live (luckily, we hear hints on the albums). According to many, his sonic experiments exceeded even Hendrix's in pure strangeness, as Barrett explored the possibilities of dissonance, distortion, feedback, and the echo machine against the backdrop of light shows that set the standard for psychedelia in their day.
Syd Barrett's passing is currently being memorialized by countless repetitions of "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" on classic rock FM stations across the country, but it is in Barrett's own music--not Pink Floyd's--that we find the most fitting tribute to this great artist. Of course, Barrett did found Pink Floyd and wrote most of the songs on their first album, 1967's Piper at the Gates of Dawn (along with a song on Saucerful of Secrets). Some of these tunes are classics such as the terrific, funny, and ultimately pretty scary song, "Bike." But his greatest achievements were the songs on his two independent releases, Barrett and The Madcap Laughs.
Barrett created these two masterpieces shortly after his first major mental breakdown and subsequent departure from Floyd in 1968. People who are familiar only with Floyd's grandiose post-Meddle era work will be shocked to hear Syd's own music--it's the opposite of the over-produced often pretentious late Floyd. These songs--lyrical, raw, sparsely arranged, and incredibly vulnerable sounding--are immediately recognizable as genius, and have influenced musicians and bands as diverse as David Bowie, Blur, Peter Townsend, This Mortal Coil, Phish, R.E.M., and the Flaming Lips. The songs were recorded in scattershot sessions from '68 to '71, and Barrett--whether through intent or mental illness--never played a song the same way twice. Each version was a completely new experience for him, and this spontaneity surely helps account for the tunes' immediacy and freshness.
His lyrics are among my favorites by any artist ever. Alternately tragic and playful, heavy and childish, Barrett wrote songs of intense nuance and allusiveness. What appears to be a generally happy number like "Wined and Dined" reveals depths of profound sadness and futility upon repeated listening. Some songs, like "Birdy Hop" and "Effervescing Elephant" are pure whimsy, while others, like "Late Night," are heartbreaking in their immediate simplicity:
Inside me I feel
alone and unreal,
and the way you kiss will always be
a very special thing to me...
Although it's never fair to force song lyrics to stand on their own without accompaniment, Barrett's are among the few that hold poetic interest irrespective of melody or sound. I suppose this shouldn't be a surprise, since Barrett was a serious reader, and once even set to music a poem by James Joyce ("Golden Hair").
From "Baby Lemonade":
You're nice to me like ice
in the clock they sent through a washing machine.
Or from the astonishing song, "Dark Globe":
Please lift the hand.
I'm only a person.
With Eskimo chain,
I tattooed my brain all the way...
Won't you miss me?
Wouldn't you miss me at all?
I could go on. Or you can go read all of his lyrics at this site.
Like many artists so ahead of their times, Barrett suffered from mental illness. Although never professionally diagnosed (Barrett shunned psychiatrists), it has been speculated that he suffered from schizophrenia and/or Asperger Syndrome (a form of autism). Others have speculated that the sudden death of his father when Syd was eleven left indelible scars. Many have assumed his excessive use of LSD caused his insanity, but most who knew him agree that the problems with Syd went deeper. David Gilmour said in a 2006 interview: "In my opinion, his breakdown would have happened anyway. It was a deep-rooted thing. But I'll say the psychedelic experience might well have acted as a catalyst."
It's unclear at the time of this writing what caused Barrett's death. I've read that it was due to his diabetes and also that it was cancer-related. Since Barrett has been a complete recluse for over 30 years, living with his mother and spending his time gardening and painting, many have believed he died long ago. A mystery until the end, there is no one who influenced recent music so much about whom we know so little.
Although he has been mythologized by countless fans, there was nothing glamorous about his retreat. It was not a "statement" or a plea for help. According to his own statements, Barrett was someone who couldn't cope with the world as it is and felt incapable of communication with other individuals--someone who both enjoyed and was tortured by his necessary solitude. His madness may have led to some of his artistic triumphs, but it also robbed us of his talent far too soon. He left this world in 2006, but he left his fans in 1971, taking his mystery and genius first to his bedroom--and now to his grave.
(The photograph is of Barrett in 2002.)