A little bit of rock mythology died with Syd Barrett, the psychically damaged founding member of Pink Floyd who apparently succumbed to complications from diabetes last Friday at age 60.Every creative discipline has its unstable geniuses – poets, painters, actors. Some of them play the role to the hilt, with a mad leer and an arched eyebrow. Others, like Barrett, aren’t acting at all. Rock music, with its crazy energy and relentless search for the new, has always been an especially apt breeding ground for wayward types. Syd Barrett, a true manchild tuned to another frequency, created the mold.
There were, to be sure, earlier examples of beguiling, irrational behavior in rock. Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis both earned their reputations by playing as if possessed. The British producer Joe Meek (“Telstar”) literally tried to record voices from beyond the grave, in cemeteries. Keith Richards was well on his way to being Keith Richards when Barrett’s band debuted.
But the psychedelic era brought a new strangeness to popular music, and Barrett was one of the most prominent early acid casualties. A key founding member of Pink Floyd, who gave the group its name (borrowed from the bluesmen Pink Anderson and Floyd Council) and wrote most of the band’s debut album, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” Barrett was forced to quit by early 1968.
After cobbling together two fragile but enduring solo albums, “The Madcap Laughs” and “Barrett” (both released in 1970), the frequently incoherent singer frittered away the rest of his years in his mum’s house in Cambridge, England. Occasionally spotted on long walks or errands to the corner store, he was the subject of much armchair speculation: Was he an undiagnosed schizophrenic? Autistic? Did the drugs trigger a latent mental illness, or were they the sole cause of his incapacity?
Whatever the case, Barrett — once, however briefly, a leading luminary on the London scene and a confidante of Jimi Hendrix — dropped out of the public eye completely. He lived on mainly in the imagination of his many fans, who cherished his unique combination of childlike wonderment and nightmarish exploration.
Inspiring new musicThe recipe has become a familiar one in the shadowy world of cult stardom in rock, from Moby Grape’s Skip Spence, another hippie-era casualty whose solo albums sold little but spawned multiple generations of admirers, to the prolific “outsider” songwriter Daniel Johnston, unapologetic acidheaded acts such as the Flaming Lips and freak-folkies like Devendra Banhart.
Whole careers have been made in Barrett’s likeness. The eccentric Englishman Robyn Hitchcock is an avowed fan. The groups Baby Lemonade and the Gigolo Aunts both took their names from his songs. And Barrett’s music has been covered by a who’s who of latter-day rock bands, from R.E.M. and Smashing Pumpkins to Soundgarden and Phish.
For that matter, Pink Floyd itself would never have attained such monumental heights if the band wasn’t continually haunted and inspired by his memory: Many of the band’s cornerstone songs, including “Brain Damage” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” were overt tributes to their lost band mate.
“His impact on my thinking was enormous,” said David Bowie, a lifelong fan, upon learning of Barrett’s death. Bowie recorded a version of Barrett’s “See Emily Play” way back in 1973, and he performed another early Floyd single (the band’s first), “Arnold Layne,” just last month at Floyd guitarist David Gilmour’s concert at the Royal Albert Hall.
It’s hard to fathom now, but when Pink Floyd was making its first inroads in America, the band actually appeared on “American Bandstand,” singing “See Emily Play.” In an infamous bit of rock trivia, Barrett refused (or was unable to) lip-synch the words to his own song.
He may have been wiser than he ever let on.