Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Syd Barrett (1946-2006)

Today is a day of mourning for Pink Floyd fans around the world. Roger "Syd" Barrett, the band's co-founder, has died at the age of 60. For more on the life and death of Syd, as well as on all things Pink Floyd, please visit Brain Damage. (As well, see my old friend Orrie's Pink Floyd site, AllFloyd.) The BBC has an obituary here.

Syd was the soul of Pink Floyd. The early hits, "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play," both written by Syd, brought the band into the mainstream of British pop music, but more experimental songs like "Interstellar Overdrive," a key feature of the band's celebrated live performances, revealed what was possible, and hinted at what was to come. Pink Floyd's first studio album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, recorded at Abbey Road at the same time as The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's, remains a timeless masterpiece that transcends late-'60s psychedelia. It was very much Syd's album.

The story of Pink Floyd is a long and interesting one. David Gilmour eventually replaced Syd, and he, Roger Waters, Richard Wright, and Nick Mason went on to make some of the truly essential albums of rock music: Meddle, Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, The Wall. Waters, the band's main creative force, left in the mid-'80s, but Pink Floyd carried on with Gilmour at the helm. A Momentary Lapse of Reason and Division Bell, the last two albums, are exceptional, however much what preceded them may overshadow them.

And where was Syd? He left the band shortly after A Saucerful of Secrets, the follow-up to Piper, but his spirit remained and he was the inspiration for much of what was to follow: "Brain Damage," "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," "Wish You Were Here." Pink Floyd's music addresses the key themes of the human condition. A lot of it is about Syd.

I saw Pink Floyd live in 1994 in Boston. I saw Gilmour live this past April in Toronto. I'm going to see Waters live this coming September in Pittsburgh. I have every album, every DVD, almost every book. I have magazines and collectables. I have tapes and some original vinyl. I read Pink Floyd websites and stay abreast of the latest news. The reunion at last year's Live8 concert was, as it was for so many of my fellow fans, the incarnation of a long-awaited dream. It was amazing. Pigs had finally flown.

Before the band performed "Wish You Were Here," before thousands upon thousands in London's Hyde Park, before a huge worldwide audience, Waters said the song was for Syd. Throughout its post-Syd years, Pink Floyd has turned to Syd time and time again. Together and apart, they sing his songs, such as "Astronomy Domine," "Terrapin," and "Dominoes," they sing about him, and they pay tribute to him. So much of Pink Floyd is Gilmour and Waters, so much is the four who made those great albums of the '70s, so much is everyone else who has contributed to Pink Floyd along the way: Storm Thorgerson, Alan Parsons, Michael Kamen, Gerald Scarfe, and so many others. But where would any of them have been without Syd? They are all extraordinarily talented, and all would have made their mark in some way, but Pink Floyd would not have been Pink Floyd. Indeed, without Syd there wouldn't have been a Pink Floyd at all.

It was astonishing to see Gilmour, Waters, Wright, and Mason together again at Live8. I imagined Syd up on stage with them. He was, in a way.

After he left the band, Syd made two solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett. A collection of rarities and curiosities, Opel, was also released. A box set, Crazy Diamond, which I recommend highly, appeared in 1993. A "best of," Wouldn't You Miss Me?, also recommended, appeared in 2001. I have it on right now. "Octopus" may be his best solo song. (See also The Radio One Sessions from 1970-71.)

"Isn't it good to be lost in the wood?"

Syd's solo career was short-lived. He returned to Cambridge, his birthplace, to live out his remaining years in quiet obscurity. He remained a public figure only through his former bandmates.

His story has been told, and told well, by Mike Watkinson and Pete Anderson in Crazy Diamond: Syd Barrett and the Dawn of Pink Floyd; Tim Willis in Madcap: The Half-Life of Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd's Lost Genius; and Julian Palacios in Lost in the Woods: Syd Barrett and The Pink Floyd. More generally, Pink Floyd's story has been told by many, including Nicholas Shaffner in Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey. Nick Mason, the band's drummer (and the only member to appear on every album), has also published an autobiographical memoir, Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd. It's a great read -- indeed, a must-read. John Cavanagh has written a good study of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. On DVD, check out The Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd Story and, for some fascinating, mesmerizing concert footage, Pink Floyd -- London 1966/1967.

I am filled with sadness today, but listening to his music lifts me up again. He shall never be eclipsed.

From "Bike" (the last song on Piper):

I know a room full of musical tunes
Some rhyme, some ching, most of them are clockwork.
Let's go into the other room and make them work

From "Jugband Blues" (the last song on Saucerful)

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

Which ends:

And what exactly is a dream?
And what exactly is a joke?

Wish you were (still) here, Syd.

Shine on.

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  • I have become a much bigger fan this year of Pink Floyd than ever before, thanks to Napster To Go. I started from Piper and went through pretty much all their albums. Now, I'm 43, so of course I have Dark Side of the Moon on vinyl. I bought and audiofile edition, probably to test out my new stereo system at the time. And of course, I had the Wall on vinyl. While I have a much higher opinion of Pink Floyd now than my punk/new wave youth allowed, I consider myself a Syd Barrett fan. I loved Bowie's version of See Emily Play when I was a young man, before I ever heard the original. Almost all of Piper fascinates me, especially Bike, Flaming and Matilda Mother. There is a creepy danger about him, belied by the obvious sing song fantasy of the songs. "You can't see me, but I can you." I really love his solo work as well. I find Terrapin hypnotic and the words don't seem nearly so disjointed when he sings them. Crazy Diamond, indeed. And especially beautiful still a little uncut and unpolished. Nice tribute to him.

    By Blogger OutOfContext, at 10:58 PM  

  • Thank you, outofcontext. I first encountered Pink Floyd in high school, just around the time A Momentary Lapse was released. I quickly discovered The Wall, and, well, that was all I needed. I've been a devoted fan ever since.

    Barrett prompts a good deal of nostalgia, and sometimes it's hard to distinguish between Syd and the myth of Syd. But I, too, am a fan. Listening both to Piper and to his solo albums over the past couple of day, I still find them remarkable, both musically and lyrically. His songs require repeat listenings before they can be fully appreciated. For all the mixture of English pastoral traditions, medievalism, and progressive psychedelia, he was nothing if not genuine. His solo work is much more raw than his Pink Floyd stuff, but it's amazing what he could accomplish in both contexts.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 4:52 PM  

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