Thursday, 20 February 2014

Syd Barrett

After reading lots of stuff about Pink Floyd over the holidays, I've spent the last couple of weeks reading about their founder and muse Syd Barrett.  His death in 2006 released a new wave of writing and re-evaluation of his life and legacy.  I've just read two quite detailed and thoroughly researched examples - Julian Palacios' Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe and Rob Chapman's A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett. 

Pink Floyd had a rapid rise to fame.  In early 1966 they were playing R&B covers at university socials.  By the end of 1967 they had a top 10 hit and successful first album, were playing concerts in USA and Europe and were at the forefront of the new wave of psychedelic music that was sweeping the Western world.  Most of this success was down to Barrett.  He played lead guitar, operated as the main singer and wrote most of the songs.  The creative vision that made them so successful was almost totally his.

Floyd were the darlings of the British underground.  Their improvised music and lurid light shows featured regularly at the UFO Club and large chaotic events at the London Roundhouse.  As 1967 progressed and their first recordings came out, they began to make the transition to the mainstream, appearing on BBC radio, miming 'See Emily Play' on Top of the Pops and touring the UK circuit of clubs and dancehalls.

Yet by the end of 1967 all was not well with Syd.  As summer progressed through autumn and into winter he became increasingly unhappy, his performances and behaviour increasingly erratic and at times even bizarre.  By early 1968 he and Pink Floyd had parted company.  In the next few years he recorded two intriguing but slightly shambolic solo albums and made a handful of public appearances. By the end of 1974 he had effectively given up on music, and from then until his death in 2006 he lived in as much seclusion as a famous person can manage, first in a series of hotel rooms in London and then, from 1982 onwards, in his native Cambridge. 

In the absence of the man himself, myth took over.  After a brief eclipse, the rise of punk led to a re-evaluation of his legacy.  The later Pink Floyd were seen as examples of everything that was wrong with 70s rock music.  Syd, on the other hand, was seen as a proto-punk.  The simplicity, directness and rough edges of his solo work, dismissed as poor production when the albums were first released, seemed a forerunner to the type of directness, simplicity and even amateurism the punks delighted in.  His refusal to play the pop music game made him a hero.  For better or worse, there was no looking back after that.  Syd was regularly hounded by devoted and sometimes crazy fans.  His family's pleas that he was a sick man and needed to be left alone fell on deaf ears. 

So what went wrong for Syd?  Despite pages of biographical material, in print and on the internet, there's a lot we just don't know.  Here's a few questions.

1. What exactly was Syd's illness?
There are some who have suggested Syd's behaviour in his last days with Pink Floyd was not a result of mental illness at all.  Some of his actions are open to interpretation.  For instance, sometimes he would stand on stage without playing or singing, leaving the rest of the band to play around him.  Even more annoying would be the times when he just played the same note, or the same figure of three notes, over and over again ad nauseum.  Some of his friends are inclined to interpret these actions as artistic statements, in the nihilist deconstructionist fashion popular in the underground of the 1960s.  They were Syd's protest against the commodification of his music, in much the same way as his running away from an appearance on 'Top of the Pops' was a completely rational response to the farcical idea of miming a song he didn't even particularly like.

This is plausible, but unlikely.  When Syd recorded his solo albums after parting ways with Pink Floyd, they were not 40 minutes of ambient noise and industrial machinery.  They were collections of quirky three minute songs with sparse, often acoustic backing.  His days of sonic exploration were long gone. 

Syd's personality changed markedly between 1967 and 1972.  The decline was gradual, but its outlines clear.  He went from being a friendly, charismatic, slightly introverted person to someone who would spend days locked in his room and greet close friends with a "thousand yard stare".  His self-care deteriorated and he became first gaunt and hollow-eyed then, a few years later, markedly overweight.  He changed from a gentle, generous hearted young man to someone prone to fits of violent rage.  He lost his ability to focus and often seemed not to know where he was, or what year it was. 

No formal diagnosis has ever been published.  In the early 1980s he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Cambridge and released three days later with the label "gross borderline personality disorder".  At the time this was the psychiatry profession's non-diagnosis of choice - a disease whose causes were unknown and for which there was no effective treatment.  His family were unimpressed, feeling like they had been given the brush-off.  Welcome to the mental health system.

In the absence of a diagnosis, there is plenty of room for speculation.  Was he an LSD casualty?  Opinions differ widely - some say he took LSD almost every day for two years, along with large quantities of Mandrax, and fried his brain.  Others maintain he may have only taken it a dozen times in his life.  This seems unlikely, but is it enough to fry your brain anyway?  It is hard for anyone to be objective - those who gave him drugs would like to exonerate themselves, those who did not - like his fellow Pink Floyd members, none of whom went further than the odd experiment - are keen to deflect blame from their own actions.  Everyone feels a little guilty that they couldn't stop his decline but no-one is 100% sure what caused it.

Other possibilities abound.  Julian Palacios seems to think he may have had temporal lobe epilepsy, his periodic silences and fade-outs explained as petit mal seizures and his gradual decline the result of accumulating brain damage.  Others suggest that he had a psychotic illness which he would have had anyway, the early 20s being the most common age for the onset of this illness.  The stress of constant touring, sleep deprivation, artistic compromise and the pressure to produce another hit would all make him more vulnerable, not to mention the drugs, but the physiological predisposition may just have been there all along, waiting to strike.  We will never know, really, unless someone releases his medical records, and even then....

2. Was Syd shafted by Pink Floyd?
In later life it seems likely Syd had a lot of resentment towards Roger Waters in particular.  For Syd's loyal fans, Pink Floyd went downhill when he left and his expulsion was due to Waters being a bastard and the others going along with it.  This seems to me to be unfair.  Although it's true that the other members did end up ejecting Syd from the band, they did so as a last resort, after other solutions had been tried. 

For a start, they tried to get him help.  They were never going to go to the mainstream mental health system, viewed with intense suspicion by the underground of which they were a part.  Roger Waters' lines in Brain Damage, written at least partly about Syd, express this view succinctly.

You raise the blade, you make the change
You rearrange me till I'm sane
You lock the door and throw away the key
There's someone in my head but it's not me.

They were never going to subject their friend to that, but they tried to get him to see anti-psychiatry guru RD Laing.  They made the appointment, but Syd refused to walk through the door.  Waters also rang Syd's older brother and asked him to intervene, perhaps to take Syd back to Cambridge for treatment and recuperation.  The brother came to London, spent some time with Syd who managed to appear lucid and in control, pronounced there was not much wrong and left.

They cancelled a number of gigs as they tried to sort the situation out.  They thought for a while that if they hired a second guitarist this would take pressure off him.  They were big enough names to go for an established musician but instead they recruited Syd's good friend and Cambridge confrere David Gilmour. They also discussed the idea of keeping him involved as a songwriter and in the studio without needing to perform live, in much the same way the Beach Boys worked with Brian Wilson during the worst periods of his illness.  Syd would at times agree to these things, only to change his mind or forget he had agreed.  In the end, they just stopped picking him up on the way to gigs.

Even that didn't end it.  In mid 1969, when EMI threatened to pull the plug on Syd's first solo album if he didn't finish it pronto, he appealed to his former band-mates for help.  David Gilmour and Roger Waters stepped in as producers, cajoling a shambolic Syd through two quick-fire, intense recording sessions and the mixing process which produced The Madcap Laughs.  A year later Gilmour was back at the mixing desk, this time with Rick Wright, to produce Barrett.  By this time Syd needed plenty of help.  His songs were often only half-formed, his first demo would sound rough and when they asked him to do it again the performance would go downhill with each successive take.  Somehow Gilmour and Wright managed to extract enough material for a passable record, but it was the last Syd would ever make.

From the early 1970s onwards Barrett had very little contact with the other Floyd members, but then he had virtually no contact with anyone except his family, and even that was limited.  They continued to look out for him from a distance.  Every Pink Floyd compilation included some of his songs.  In 2001 their heavily promoted retrospective Echoes included five of them, and he earned over two million pounds.  Gilmour made regular calls to Rosemary, Syd's sister and main carer, to make sure the royalties were being paid properly. Good thing he did, given Syd's propensity to throw his mail straight into the fire, cheques and all.

3. Who killed Syd Barrett?
Syd Barrett died, to all intents and purposes, sometime in the mid-1970s.  He was killed by a man named Roger.  Not, as you might think, Roger Waters (Waters was an angry man, but able to channel his anger into music and lawsuits) but by Roger Keith Barrett.  Roger acquired the nickname Syd sometime during his school years and it followed him into adulthood, and down to London, because his young adulthood was spent with people he had grown up with.  He happily adopted the name and the persona that went with it.

After he left the music business for good, he also abandoned the name and doggedly referred to himself as "Roger" or "Rog" for the rest of his life.  Mail addressed to "Syd Barrett" was thrown straight into the fire unopened.  No matter if it contained royalty cheques, his only source of income.  On the odd occasions he agreed to sign something he would sign "R. Barrett" or simply "Barrett".  Syd was well and truly dead. 

The neighbourhood children and even his own nephews and nieces had no idea he was "Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd", he was just mad Rog, another eccentric Cambridge resident riding about on his bicycle and keeping to himself.  In later life he returned to painting (he was an art college student before Pink Floyd took over his life), although exclusively for his own enjoyment.  After completing a canvas he would photograph it, then destroy it.  When he died in 2006 there were perhaps half a dozen works around the house and a large collection of photos. 

He was farewelled at a humanist ceremony in Cambridge Crematorium by 16 family members.  They read from his favourite book, The Little Grey Men by "B.B.".  His niece played his favourite music on the organ - extracts from Haydn, Handel and Bach.  His neighbours sent flowers, as did David Gilmour.  There was no gravestone.  His ashes were given to his family.  Roger was well and truly gone.  Syd had disappeared years before.

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