Syd Barrett, 60; As Drugs Took Toll, Key Figure in Pink Floyd Was Exiled From BandBy Geoff Boucher
Times Staff Writer
July 12, 2006
Syd Barrett, an enigmatic figure in rock history as the founding frontman of Pink Floyd and a young drug casualty who was exiled from the band on the brink of its staggering stardom, died Friday after years in seclusion. He was 60.
Barrett died of complications from diabetes, according to news reports in London.
There are only a few bands in rock history that have had the longevity and singular imprint of Pink Floyd. Barrett fits into that legacy in a curious way: The band's defining music, from such albums as "Dark Side of the Moon" in 1973 and "The Wall" in 1979, was recorded well after Barrett's departure, but his status as a shaper of the group's unique persona endured.
The band's 1975 album, "Wish You Were Here," and its title track are generally accepted as melancholy valentines to Barrett, who by then was a recluse on the order of Howard Hughes.
The band came together in 1965, with chief songwriter and singer Barrett, bass player Roger Waters, drummer Nick Mason and keyboardist Richard Wright performing under a collective nickname that Barrett conjured up as a tribute to two gritty blues guitarists from the Carolinas, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, both born in the early 1900s.
Barrett penned the band's early singles "See Emily Play" and "Arnold Layne," and he was the chief architect of its first album, the trippy 1967 classic "Piper at the Gates of Dawn." The music was as edgy as the drug-laced London underground scene in that year of the Summer of Love, but even as the psychedelic sound made its way into the mainstream, Barrett found himself blinking into the intense spotlight of big-time pop music.
Late in 1967, Pink Floyd found its way to the stage of "American Bandstand," where the television audience heard Barrett singing "See Emily Play" but, on the screen, saw the sullen rocker boycotting the show's lip-sync format by keeping his lips sealed. That was followed by a painfully awkward appearance on "The Pat Boone Show."
In 1968, Floyd toured with Jimi Hendrix, but Barrett's voracious drug use made him a less and less reliable presence in the band. David Gilmour was brought in to be a second singer and guitarist behind the increasingly erratic Barrett. In short order, though, Gilmour, an old friend of Barrett's, would become his substitute instead of his second.
Barrett finished the decade on his own, not so much fired from the band as increasingly left behind. In 1970, as reports pinged through the rock world that Barrett was suffering from profound mental illness, his previously recorded studio sessions yielded enough material for two solo albums, "The Madcap Laughs" and "Barrett," which have become cult classics. Waters and Gilmour played on some of the sessions, a nod to their enduring goodwill toward their former bandmate.
Wayne Coyne — lead singer of the Flaming Lips, one of the most successful American psychedelic bands of the last two decades — said those two caches of desperate and experimental music still have a profound echo.
"There was a sense of this fractured guy, very innocent and very cool, who was losing himself," Coyne told The Times. "It was like you were hearing him in the process of losing it. He was there in the studio and he was thinking, 'I can't sing like I thought I could sing; I can't play like I thought I could play.' And the music he made was stunningly original."
Pink Floyd would go on to historic global success, playing stadium tours, making chart history with the unmatched sales longevity of "Dark Side of the Moon" and lending its music to film in Alan Parker's 1982 opera of the surreal, "Pink Floyd: The Wall." Barrett would go deeper into a life of quiet separation from the microphone.
During the sessions for "Wish You Were Here," Barrett — bald and heavier than he had been in his Pink Floyd days — reportedly went by the historic Abbey Road Studios in London to see his old mates, who were attempting to follow up their incredible "Dark Side" success with an album that put to music their devotion to their old friend. The surprise visit, according to accounts published in later years, was awkward, with Barrett appearing disheveled and brushing his teeth as he wandered the corridors.
The album included the track "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," a clear reference to Barrett with the affectionate line: "Remember when you were young? You shone like the sun." Those sessions at Abbey Road would mark the last time the original members of Pink Floyd were in the same building.
The band, without Barrett, went on to a surly middle age; Waters and Gilmour became archrivals in matters both legal and creative. They did reunite at the Live 8 charity concerts earlier this year. Waters, reputedly one of rock's most prickly characters, seemed on the verge of tears while commenting from the stage about the band's legacy and then singing "Wish You Were Here." His connection to Barrett had been the longest — they had been schoolmates and had the shared experience of losing their fathers at an early age.
Barrett's strange and stunted trip through music made a major mark on a generation of avant-garde musicians, especially in England. David Bowie said in a statement Tuesday that as a fan he watched Barrett perform with Floyd at London hotspots that set a rhythm for his own musical aspirations.
"Syd was a major inspiration for me. The few times I saw him perform in London at UFO and the Marquee clubs during the '60s will forever be etched in my mind," Bowie said. "He was so charismatic and such a startlingly original songwriter…. His impact on my thinking was enormous. A major regret is that I never got to know him. A diamond indeed."