I haven’t had much time for posting lately, but I just had to comment on the demise of former rock star Syd Barrett, who died of cancer last Friday, according to a report in the Guardian.
Barrett was the founder of Pink Floyd, the group’s original singer-songwriter-guitarist. He penned the early singles and most of the group’s first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn. After these early forays into ’60s psychedelia, Barrett succumbed to mental illness and was replaced by David Gilmour. The band, up to then an “underground” phenomenon, went on to record Dark Side of the Moon, and the rest is history.
Despite his absence, Barrett continued to exert a strong influence on the band, particularly Roger Waters, who gradually took over most of the songwriting duties. Waters often wrote depressing tales of madness and death, which often seemed to be thinly vieled references to Barrett. In particular, the twenty-minute epic “Shine on you Crazy Diamond” from the album Wish You Were Here has been acknowledged as an ode to the former bandmate.
Besides composing, Barrett’s guitar solos also established the band’s early penchant for extended instrumental improvisation during live shows. That, plus songs like “Astronimie Dominie” engendered the group’s reputation for being space rockers — a reputation that the rest of the group would continue to build, with “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Childhood’s End” (named after an Arthur C. Clark science fiction novel), ultimately leading to rumors that they crafted their song “Echoes” as an alternate soundtrack to the Stargate sequence from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (which I explore – and debunk – here).
After becoming unreliable due to his deteriorating mental condition, the other band members asked him to stick around and write songs but not play live with them. Barrett opted instead to leave the band entirely. He put out two solo albums, then retired into obscurity, reportedly suffering for years from diabetes and living in the basement of his mother’s house. In effect, he became a reclusive cult legend, a rock-and-roll version of Garbo, who only wanted to be left alone. In fact, I hadn’t heard any news of him in so long, that I assumed he had died a few years back without my hearing of it.
Since he had not recorded or performed in so long, it would be an exaggeration to say that his death marks the end of an era. Perhaps, it would be better to say that it closes the final page on an era that ended long ago. Barrett launched one of the best and most important musical groups in rock-and-roll history, and his influence continues to be felt today. His legacy will, I hope live on.
UPDATE: I just wanted to add one thing regarding the report in The Guardian. The article takes it for granted that Barrett was an early casualty of LSD, but I’m not sure that was actually his drug of choice. More important, the symptoms he displayed before leaving the band may have seemed drug-induced at the time, but in retrospect they suggest some sort of congenital disease, like schizophrenia, which sometimes does not manifest until victim reaches his early 20s.