Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Remembering the Madcap: Syd Barrett

Syd Barrett, the troubled and reclusive co-founder of Pink Floyd and cautionary tale of the psychedelic 1960s, has died at the age of 60. According to a Pink Floyd spokeswoman, Barrett died several days ago. The exact cause of death is unknown.
Barrett leaves a musical legacy of a couple Pink Floyd albums and a couple solo albums. The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, depending on a listener’s musical preference, is widely considered either one of the greatest albums of the psychedelic era or one of the most childish, illogical albums ever recorded. “I know a mouse, and he hasn't got a house / I don't know why, I call him Gerald / He's getting rather old, but he's a good mouse.”
Take your pick.
Barrett’s time as the lead singer and chief lyricist of Pink Floyd was short-lived, however. Barrett’s heavy drug regimen and increasingly erratic behavior, including catatonia during some of Pink Floyd’s concerts, took its toll. By 1968, Barrett had left the band after a drug-induced mental breakdown.
From that point, Barrett lived a reclusive life, spending his remaining years at his mother’s house in Cambridge, releasing just two more albums in his recording career, both in 1970. An unexpected and disturbing visit by Barrett in 1975 only confirmed his mental instability to his former band mates. His eyebrows were shaved and he had gained a lot of weight; and if the legend is true, he arrived unannounced during the recording of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a song written about him.
And Pink Floyd went on to become one of rock’s most influential bands. Many of their songs and albums dealing with the disintegration of the mind were either directly written about Barrett or influenced by his decline. Pink Floyd would then spend their musical careers answering criticisms that they were cashing in on their founder’s collapse.
With his death, it is likely that Barrett will be remembered more as a musical stereotype than as an actual person: the image of a troubled boy-genius, the poster-child for both the joys and dangers of LSD. And perhaps in the end this is the biggest tragedy of Barrett’s life: in trying to reclaim his sanity by retreating into seclusion and cutting off contact with the world at large, his legacy will be shaped by outsiders. The inevitable result will be that of a shadowy figure, another drug casualty of the psychedelic, na├»ve 1960s.
Much like the music of Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, and Kurt Cobain, Barrett’s music will always be viewed against the backdrop of his eventual mental collapse. Which is probably unavoidable. Piper, released in 1967, will likely remain the most studied and listened to of Barrett’s recordings. Barrett’s lyrics on the album, a blend of drug-addled nursery rhymes, medieval images, and occult philosophy, sound completely haunting and prophetic in light of Barrett’s mental decline. But listen to the lyrics without considering the source, and they sound, at best, playful and humorous, and, at worse, ridiculous and empty.
But put all those notions and ideas aside, and what emerges is a legitimate musical talent whose songs range from whimsical and playful to philosophical and poetic. Barrett’s fragile voice can stand on its own; forget the myth created both by his retreat and Pink Floyd’s later success. In the end, Barrett’s voice is one of beauty, sadness, and regret: “Won’t you miss me / wouldn’t you miss me at all?”

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