It’s all personal opinion, not factually based on anything other than my own feelings and perceptions.
REMEMBER WHEN YOU WERE YOUNG? YOU SHONE LIKE THE SUN.
It was 1981 and I was 15 when I started to piece together the jigsaw that was the music that filled my head. I knew Echoes and Dark Side of the Moon intimately, had listened to them in darkened rooms, escaped to them when I needed to flee from the everydayness, or from the self-indulgent turmoil and angst that was my typically teenage life at that time. Like many of my school friends, a couple of years earlier I’d marched up and down the out of bounds main school corridor, outside the staff common room, singing the banned words,
“We don’t need no education. We don’t need no thought control.”
I was a good girl, I didn’t get in to trouble, but I think I may have been hauled in for a detention or two after that. No-one has the right to tell another living soul what they may or may not think, and I transcended that to music. Tell me I can’t sing something and I will. Thought police (or an over-zealous, controlling head teacher) be damned.
We were dance students and one of the English teachers was preparing an assembly for our year. He approached 3 or 4 of us, asked us to put something together for him and gave us the piece of music he wanted us to use. I’d heard it before. I already loved it. It was a poignant, evocatively familiar keyboard and guitar introduction, as always so expressively emotional and soulful, culminating in those four haunting notes that I knew so well, but only then managed to collate with the earlier stuff I’d listened to. I may have loved the intricacy of the music, the expressively affecting melody, the powerfully emotional lyrics, but it wasn’t until later that the poignancy and tragedy of the legend behind Shine On You Crazy Diamond became known to me.
At that time I was still focused on just the music. I’m ashamed to say I missed the hype of who they were and how they’d become. It was only later, while listening more, learning more, researching and finding out who made this music that so filled me, that I started to develop an understanding about their story. I seem to have a penchant for story. A thirst for legend, for narrative that develops characters, the descriptive account that introduces us, leads us to learn about, get to know, understand and fall in love with people we’ve never met.
That’s how I came across the enigma that was Syd. Roger Keith (Syd) Barrett, born 6th Jan 1946. Musician, composer, singer, songwriter, innovator, artist and founding member of one Pink Floyd. Described by those that knew him as beautiful, witty, wonderful, sharp, outgoing, charming, friendly, funny and massively, incredibly talented. As well as music, he was a gifted painter and artist, and, it seems, successful at whatever he put his mind to. I was just a little too young to see it first-hand. I only know what I’ve read and what I’ve seen, and I’ve heard the ruminations of others, some who knew him and many more who didn’t. I make only a very small apology that the rest is romanticised and made up in my head.
Syd grew up in the midst of a Cambridge riddled with friends and associates who would be instrumental in the development of Pink Floyd. He knew Roger Waters from a young age and the fundamental essentials of an artistic, creative and musical future were created. David Gilmour too, was a Cambridge protégé, and it’s clear that his path crossed with Syd’s in those early days and beyond, sharing a love for music and a flair for ingenuity and inventiveness, sometimes jamming and playing together.
Following Roger to London to attend college, it was inevitable that Syd and Roger would fall towards some outlet of creativity, and they, along with Rick and Nick, after various incarnations, became Pink Floyd. Syd is widely accredited as the mastermind behind their early originality and accomplishment, the instigator and initiator of new and unique sounds and experimental composition. They had initial success, foraying into the world of psychedelia and progressive rock with a new record contract, a successful single, See Emily Play, the production of their first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and the establishment of a big, underground following as they became the house band at Joe Boyd’s UFO club. The one time producer of Floyd is recorded as saying that he couldn’t take his eyes off Syd, clearly feeling that the real creative shape of the group emanated from him.
And then it changed. Something happened and there’s no definitive for what was the real truth, just different versions of events, different takes and perspectives. Some speculate that it was a weekend episode with LSD that, quite literally, fried Syd’s brain. Some venture that it was a predilection or pre-disposition towards mental health and emotional well-being issues. Others hazard that it was a combination of many things, a mish mash of over-zealous drug use combined with a susceptibility for breakdown, and a propensity towards anti-establishment, a turning of his back on the sell-out of fame, success and celebrity. That there is no single version of a truth adds to the mythology, rhapsodises the legend. Whatever actually happened, it became clear that Syd could no longer function within the confines of this newly successful band. David was brought in to do what Syd at times couldn’t and other times wouldn’t do,F and Syd took to de-tuning his guitar on stage, refusing to sing or play, dis-engaging from any sort of meaningful conversation or exchange. Eventually, inevitably, the rest of the band simply stopped picking him up for gigs and functions.
But for me, that’s where the story becomes so mesmerising and fascinating and draws me in so completely. From that point, Syd’s imprint remained indelible on Floyd, the influence of both his genius and his demise an inspiration for their music. Without the initial influence of Interstellar Overdrive, Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, and other early compositions, it’s difficult to comprehend where Echoes would have come from. Without Echoes, would there have been a Dark Side, and without Dark Side, Wish You Were Here? It’s not just the musical inspiration and stimulus, but the effect he had on them personally. They knew him, they’d grown up with him. He’d been their friend. They shared both childhood and adult stories and events with him, how could they fail to be shaped by him and the impact of his loss on them, personally, musically and lyrically. The continuous and key themes of their work, absence, loss, madness all point clearly at his hold on them. He’d gone from charismatic, talented genius, to reclusive and mal-functioning in the inexplicable blink of an eye.
That the remaining members of Floyd were the ones to help Syd write, record and produce his solo albums after this, is also a complexity. By all accounts it wasn’t an easy task to take on but surely it was about more than just feelings of guilt at how they’d ousted Syd. They had to have some deal of respect and admiration for his talent and genius to have the patience and understanding to work with him in such difficult and frustrating circumstances. I choose to think it was a hearty mixture of guilt, regret, admiration and love.
For me, Syd is as intrinsic to the later Floyd music as he was the early days. And that sentiment is perpetuated by the bizarre circumstances surrounding the recording of Shine On, many years later, when Syd showed up at Abbey Road studios, on the very day that they were working on the song that embodies him and his memory and is undoubtedly about him. The rational me believes it has to have been planned, that someone has to have known what would be happening in the studio and plotted and schemed to get Syd there after years of self-imposed isolation and estrangement from the band. The idealist romantic strives to see it as a mythological co-incidence, an aligning of the moon and stars, a fluke of epic proportions, that he would be there, on that day, in that studio, with those people. It’s a tragic detail, that no-one recognised their former friend, colleague and collaborator and that the once beautiful, talented prodigy had become an unrecognisable, erratic, distorted version of his early self. It’s the contrast between the two, the absolute ends of the continuum that confound me. From such beauty and potential to such nothingness.
His beauty, his talent, his tortured self is there, in all those Pink Floyd albums, from the start through to the end, sometimes more obvious than others, but there all the same. In saying that, I don’t profess to know what the other band members felt about Syd, what their thoughts were or how much he remained with them through their career. I say this all as a mere listener and a lover of the music. This is the influence he had on me, and my love of Pink Floyd is heightened enormously by the story and the mystery that surrounds him and it. It’s one more place that the mind can wander over, meander around, roam through and unravel against when listening to the sound.
I’m just another person flirting with facts, making up the mythology. He was a very private man, he wanted no limelight. His story has been widely and speculatively documented by many. He and his family chose to distance themselves from the glaring publicity and intrusive complexity of public scrutiny but he and his story will forever be enshrined by paradox and intrigue, puzzle and mystery. I desperately hope he was happy, that he made conscious choices to shy away and live the life he did. For me, I can’t listen to Floyd without thinking of them as a five. He is as intrinsically a part of the music as Roger’s drive and lyrics, Rick’s musicality, Nick’s drumming and David’s God like, soulful strumming. Rest in Peace Syd, you Crazy Diamond. Wish You Were Here.