You shone like the sun
Syd Barrett was the prodigiously talented founder of Pink Floyd, but after just two years at the centre of the 60s psychedelic scene, he suffered a massive breakdown and has lived as a recluse ever since. In this extract from his candid new book, Tim Willis tracks him down and pieces together the story of rock’s lost icon
Sunday October 6, 2002
Remember when you were young, You shone like the sun. Shine on you crazy diamond. Now there’s a look in your eyes, Like black holes in the sky. Shine on you crazy diamond.
Pink Floyd’s tribute to Syd Barrett on Wish You Were Here, 1975
The received wisdom is that you don’t disturb him.The last interview he gave was in 1971, and from then until now, there are only about 20 recorded encounters of any kind. His family says it upsets him to discuss the days when he was the spirit of psychedelia, beautiful Syd Barrett, the leader of Pink Floyd. He doesn’t recognise himself as the shambling visionary who, during an extended nervous breakdown exacerbated by his drug intake, made two solos LPs, Madcap and Barrett , which are as eternally eloquent as Van Gogh’s cornfields. He doesn’t answer to his 60s nickname now. He’s called Roger Barrett, as he was born in 1946.
On a blistering hot day, pacing the cracked tarmac pavement in this suburban Cambridge street, I wonder if I can act honourably by him. When the DJ Nicky Horne doorstepped him in the 80s, Barrett said, ‘Syd can’t talk to you now.’ Perhaps, in his own way, he was telling the truth. But I could talk to him as Roger; ask him if he was still painting, as reported. I could pass on regards from friends he knew before he became Syd.
Two housewives in the street say he ignores their ‘Good mornings’ when he goes out to buy his Daily Mail and changing brands of fags. Apart from his sister, they don’t think he has any visitors – not even workmen. But they don’t see why I shouldn’t take my chances. It’s been a few years since backpackers camped by his gate. ‘He didn’t open the door for them, and he probably won’t for you.’
So I walk up the concrete path of his grey pebble-dashed semi, try the bell and discover that it’s disconnected. At the front of the house, all the curtains are open. The side passage is closed to prying eyes by a high gate. I knock on the front door and, after a minute or two, look through the downstairs bay window. Where you might expect a television and a three-piece suite, Barrett has constructed a bare, white-walled workshop. Pushed against the window is a tattered pink sofa. On the hardboard tops, toolboxes are neatly stacked, flexes coiled, pens put away in a white mug.
Then, a sound in the hall. Has he come in from the back garden? Perhaps it needs mowing, like the front lawn – although, judging by the mound of weeds by the path, he’s been tidying the beds today.
I knock again, and hear three heavy steps. The door flies open and he’s standing there. He’s stark naked except for a small, tight pair of bright-blue Y-fronts; bouncing, like the books say he always did, on the balls of his feet.
He bars the doorway with one hand on the jamb, the other on the catch. His resemblance to Aleister Crowley in his Cefalu period is uncanny; his stare about as welcoming…
(Read on below)
In 1988, the News of the World quoted the writer Jonathan Meades who, 20 years before had visited a South Kensington flat that Barrett shared with a bright, druggie clique from his home town of Cambridge. ‘This rather weird, exotic and mildly famous creature was living in this flat with these people who to some extent were pimping off him, both professionally and privately,’ said Meades. ‘There was this terrible noise. It sounded like the heating pipes shaking. I said, “What’s that?” and [they] sort of giggled and said, “That’s Syd having a bad trip. We put him in the linen cupboard.”‘
It’s a common motif in the Barrett legend: the genius mistreated, forced to endure unspeakable mental anguish for the fun of his fairweather friends. But it’s not necessarily true. There are some terrible tales from that flat in Egerton Court. But on this occasion, as flatmate Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell remembers it, ‘Pete Townshend used to come there, and Mick and Marianne. It was an incredibly cool scene. Jonty Meades was a hanger-on, a straight cat just out of school. I’m sure we told him that version of events – but only to wind him up.’
Similarly, Barrett’s lover and flatmate at the time, Lindsay Corner, denies the stories that he locked her in her room for three days, feeding her biscuits under the door, then smashed a guitar over her head. This time, however, three other residents swear he did: ‘I remember pulling Syd off her,’ says Po. And that’s the trouble with the whole Barrett business. There are witness accounts by people who weren’t there, those who were there disagree – half of them, being as totally off their faces as Barrett was, must have a question mark over their evidence. If you can remember the 60s, as they say…
By October 1966, Barrett was already well on the way to stardom. Pink Floyd supported the Soft Machine’s experimental jazz-rock at the IT magazine launch party, a 2,000-strong happening in the disused Roundhouse theatre, featuring acid aplenty, Marianne Faithfull dressed as a nun in a pussy-pelmet, and Paul McCartney disguised as an Arab. There was a giant jelly and a Pop Art-painted Cadillac, a mini-cinema and a performance piece by Yoko Ono.
‘All apparently very psychedelic,’ sniffed The Sunday Times of the Floyd, thus encouraging hundreds of difficult teenagers to check out their new residency at the All Saints Hall in Ladbroke Grove.
Now once- or twice-weekly, the shows took time to take off. Barrett’s friend Juliet Wright remembers an occasion when there were so few punters that Barrett movingly recited Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy onstage. But soon ravers were crossing London for the lights and the weirdness, titillated by music-press adverts using Timothy Leary’s phrase of ‘Turn on, Tune in, Drop out’. With Barrett’s nursery-rhyme freak-outs lasting 40 minutes each, the Floyd become known as Britain’s first ‘psychedelic’ band.
Apart from playing a packed live schedule, the Floyd were in pursuit of a recording contract, rehearsing and making rough demos. Floyd gig promoter Joe Boyd, who had production experience, took them into a studio in late January. Barrett had written ‘Arnold Layne’ by then, and perfected the relentless riff of ‘Interstellar Overdrive’. EMI – the same label as the Beatles – signed them up on the basis of these demos, nominating ‘Arnold’ as the first single. Barrett was delighted. ‘We want to be pop stars,’ he said, gladly grinning for cheesy publicity shots of the band high-kicking on the street. However, by the beginning of April, he was already railing in the music papers against record-company executives who were pressing him for more commercial material.
He was even less cheery by the end of the month. Six weeks before, ‘Arnold Layne’ had been released. This jolly tale of Barrett’s childhood pal and later Pink Floyd member Roger Waters’s mum’s washing-line raider was helped up the charts by a ban from Radio London, due to its lyrics about transvestism. But Barrett had grown to hate playing note-perfect, three-minute renditions on stage. On 22 April it reached number 20, its highest position. On 29 April, Barrett was still playing it, at Joe Boyd’s UFO club at dawn and on a TV show in Holland that evening. The band then drove back to London to headline at 3am in Britain’s biggest happening ever, the ’14 Hour Technicolor Dream’ at the cavernous Alexandra Palace.
It was a druggy affair. Floyd’s co-manager Peter Jenner was certainly tripping that night, and Barrett is said to have been. John Lennon, Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix were among those who played to a 10,000-strong audience. There were 40 bands, dancers in strobe shows, a helter-skelter and a noticeboard made of lightbulbs which displayed messages like ‘Vietnam Is A Sad Trip’. The Floyd came on as the sun’s pink fingers touched the huge eastern window. Barry Miles, the 60s chronicler, reported: ‘Syd’s eyes blazed as his notes soared up into the strengthening light, as the dawn was reflected in his famous mirror-disc Telecaster [or rather, Esquire].’ The truth was less rosy. Barrett was tired, so terribly tired.
There’s a horrible ring of truth to Barrett’s old college friend Sue Kingsford’s contention that, in 1967, Barrett would regularly visit her in Beaufort Street, to score from a heavy acid dealer in the basement called ‘Captain Bob’. It certainly sounds more likely than the rumours that Barrett’s camp-followers were lacing his tea with LSD. Kingsford’s boyfriend Jock says: ‘Spiking was a heinous crime. You just wouldn’t do it. There was a ritual to acid-taking those days – a peaceful scene, good sounds.’
Cambridge pal and future Floyd member David Gilmour reckons: ‘Syd didn’t need encouraging. If drugs were going, he’d take them by the shovelful.’ Gilmour tends to agree with something fellow Camridgian and Floyd’s bassist Waters once said that ‘Syd was being fed acid.’ But Sue Kingsford giggles: ‘We were all feeding it to each other… It was a crazy time.’ Despite her attachment to Jock, she had a one-night stand with Barrett. ‘We were tripping,’ she explains.
Ah, but what does she mean by tripping? Another of Barrett’s Cambridge friends, Andrew Rawlinson, comments: ‘Acid in those days was five times stronger than today’s stuff. On a proper trip, you might take 250 micrograms. But a faction believed in taking 50mcg every day. [There was even a popular hippy-handbook on the subject.] On that, you could function – you might even appear normal – but you couldn’t initiate much.’
Perhaps that was Barrett’s way. But if he had actually taken a proper dose of acid at the Technicolor Dream then it was a fairly rare event. He simply didn’t have the time for anything stronger than dope – which he did smoke in copious quantities. And maybe for a few Mandrax, the hypnotic tranquillisers which, if one can ride the first wave of tiredness, induced an opiate-like buzz when swallowed with alcohol. In legend, ‘Mandies make you randy.’ They may have appealed to Barrett because they were fashionable in the late 60s – or because they stopped his mind from spinning.
The band weren’t worried by his behaviour, yet Syd was Syd. And if, by the end of May, people who hadn’t seen Barrett for a while thought he had changed, his month had started well. On 12 May 1967 the band played the ‘Games for May’ concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Barrett wrote an early version of ‘See Emily Play’ for the event, which was essentially a normal concert bookended by some pretentious bits. The Floyd introduced a rudimentary quad sound-system, played taped noises from nature and had a liquid red light show. Mason was amplified sawing a log. Waters threw potatoes at a gong. The roadies pumped out thousands of soap bubbles and one of them, dressed as an admiral, threw daffodils into the stalls. The mess earnt the Floyd a ban from the hall and a favourable review from The Financial Times.
On 2 June, the Floyd played Joe Boyd’s UFO after a two-month absence. Though the other band members were friendly, Boyd said Barrett ‘just looked at me. I looked right in his eye and there was no twinkle, no glint… you know, nobody home.’ Visiting London from France, David Gilmour dropped in on the recording of ‘Emily’: ‘Syd didn’t seem to recognise me and he just stared back,’ he says. ‘He was a different person from the one I’d last seen in October.’ Was he on drugs, though? ‘I’d done plenty of acid and dope – often with Syd – and that was different from how he had become.’
Touring the provinces in July, like the rest of the band, Barrett resented the beery mob baying for ‘Arnold’ and ‘Emily’. The Floyd even wrote a white-noise number called ‘Reaction in G’ to express their feelings. But Barrett’s inner reaction was harder to fathom. With his echo-machines on full tilt, he might detune his Fender until its strings were flapping, and hit one note all night. He might stand with his arms by his side, the guitar hanging from his neck, staring straight ahead, while the others performed as a three-piece.
Perhaps Barrett was making a statement. Perhaps he was pushing his experimental notions of ‘music-of-the-moment’ to new boundaries. Whatever else, he was now seriously mentally ill. And almost certainly he suspected it himself.
After a couple of further concert debacles, Jenner and his partner Andrew King were forced to act. Though their debut LP Piper at the Gates of Dawn was released on 4 August, Blackhill cancelled the next three weeks’ gigs and arranged a holiday for Barrett and Corner on the Balearic island of Formentera. Hutt and Rick Wright would be chaperones, accompanied by their partners and Hutt’s baby son. Waters and his wife would be in Ibiza. When Melody Maker learnt of this, their front-page splash read: ‘Pink Floyd Flake Out’.
2 November 1967, US mini-tour. Pink Floyd were not prepared for the American way. They had expected the San Francisco scene to be similar to Britain’s. Instead, they found themselves in humungous venues like the Winterland, supporting such blues bands as Big Brother and the Holding Company (led by Janis Joplin). The three nights they played with Joplin, they borrowed her lighting because their own seemed too weedy. The crowd weren’t into feedback or English whimsy – acid-inspired or not. Barrett was off the map, and when he did play, it was to a different tune.
At the beginning of the week his hair had been badly permed at Vidal Sassoon, and he was distraught. The greased-up ‘punk’ style with which he’d been experimenting would be better. Waters remembers that in the dressing-room at the Cheetah Club in Santa Monica, Barrett suddenly called for a tin of Brylcreem and tipped the whole lot on his head. As the gunk melted, it slipped down his face until Barrett resembled ‘a gutted candle’. Producing a bottle of Mandrax, he crushed them into the mess before taking the stage. David Gilmour says he ‘still can’t believe that Syd would waste good Mandies’. But a lighting man called John Marsh, who was also there, confirms the story. Girls in the front row, seeing his lips and nostrils bubbling with Brylcreem, screamed. He looked like he was decomposing onstage. Faced with this farce, some of the band and crew abandoned themselves to drink, drugs, groupies and the sights. When they arrived in Los Angeles, Barrett had forgotten his guitar, which caused much cost and fuss. ‘It’s great to be in Las Vegas,’ he said to a record company man in Hollywood. He fell into a swimming-pool and left his wet clothes behind.
The Floyd survived the tour by the skin of their teeth. On TV’s Pat Boone Show, where they did ‘Apples and Oranges’, Barrett was happy to mime in rehearsals – but live he ignored the call to ‘Action’ four or five times, leaving Waters to fill in. Asked what he liked in the after-show chat, Barrett replied… after a dreadful pause… ‘America!’, which made the audience whoop. On American Bandstand and the Perry Como Show, he did not move his lips, to speak or mime.
Finishing their commitments on the West Coast, the band began thinking of how to replace or augment him. The next day, they were in Holland, handing Barrett notes in the hope that he would talk to them. The day after, they were bus-bound on a British package tour with Hendrix, the Move, Amen Corner, the Nice and others, playing two 17-minute sets a night for three weeks, with three days off in middle.Though he had worked harder, the schedule was too much for Barrett. Onstage, he was unable to function. Sometimes he failed to show up and the Nice’s Dave O’List stood in for him. Once, Jenner had to stop him escaping by train.
Barrett did play occasional blinders through out the autumn of 1967, but these instances were as unpredictable as spring showers, and the band’s hopes that he might ‘return’ dimmed. The Floyd stumbled through to Christmas, while the three other band members hatched a plan: they would ask David Gilmour to join the group to cover lead guitar and vocals while their sick colleague could do what he wanted, so long as he stood onstage.
Barrett couldn’t care less, and Gilmour, broke, bandless and driving a van for a living – was known to be not only a terrific guitarist but also a wonderful mimic of musical parts. Drummer Nick Mason had already sounded him out when they ran into each other at a gig in Soho. On 3 January 1968, Gilmour accepted a try-out. The band had a week booked in a north London rehearsal hall before going back on the road.
Four gigs followed in the next fortnight, with Barrett contributing little. He looks happy enough in a cine-clip from the time, joining in with the lads for a tap-dance in a dressing-room. ‘But in reality,’ says Gilmour, ‘he was rather pathetic.’ On the day of the fifth gig the others were driving south from a business meeting in central London. As they drove, one of them – no one remembers who – asked, ‘Shall we pick up Syd?’ ‘Fuck it,’ said the others. ‘Let’s not bother.’ Barrett, who probably didn’t notice that night, would never work again with the band that he had crafted in his image. And they never quite put him out of their minds.
Not that their minds were made up. Though the Floyd would go on to huge fame and fortune, at the time they believed they probably had a few months left of milking psychedelia before ignominious disbandment. Barrett, as Waters says, was the ‘goose that had laid the golden egg’. Now their frontman had become such a liability on tour, they would rather appear without their main attraction than risk his involvement.
However, Barrett still had the band’s schedule. Waters remembers him turning up with his guitar at ‘an Imperial College gig, I think, and he had to be very firmly told that he wasn’t coming on stage with us’. At the Middle Earth, wearing all his Chelsea threads, he positioned himself in front of the low stage and stared at Gilmour throughout his performance. Now he had to watch his old college friend playing his licks. Undoubtedly, he felt hurt by this treatment.
Though the money from Piper came rolling in, Barrett’s work went completely to pot. Jenner took him into the Abbey Road studios several times between May and July 1968, bringing various musicians and musical friends to help out, but achieved next to nothing.
Barrett was all over the place – forgetting to bring his guitar to sessions, breaking equipment to EMI’s displeasure. Sometimes he couldn’t even hold his plectrum. He was in a state, and had little new material. Jenner had the experience neither as a person not as a producer to coax anything out of him. By August, he and King were having less and less to do with Barrett – which could equally be said of the other lodgers in Egerton Court.
According to flatmate Po, ‘Syd could still be very funny and lucid, but he could also be uncommunicative. Staring. Heavy, you know?’
In the spring of 1968, Roger Walters had talked to the hip psychiatrist RD Laing. He had even dri ven Barrett to an appointment: ‘Syd wouldn’t get out. What can you do?’ In the intervening months, however, Barrett became less hostile to the idea of treatment. So Gale placed a call to Laing and Po booked a cab. But with the taxi-meter ticking outside, Barrett refused to leave the flat.
By the autumn of 68, he was homeless. Periodically he returned to Cambridge, where his mother Win fretted, urged him to see a doctor, and blindly hoped for the best. In London, he crashed on friends’ floors – and began the midnight ramblings which would continue for two years.
By the mid 70s, the Syd Barrett Appreciation Society had folded, due to ‘lack of Syd’. But he wasn’t quite invisible. In 1977, ex-girlfriend Gala Pinion was in a supermarket on the Fulham Road. ‘Where are you going, then?’ he said. ‘I’m going to buy you a drink.’ They went for a drink, and he invited her back to his flat. Once there, ‘He dropped his trousers and pulled out his cheque book,’ says Pinion. ‘How much do you want?’ he asked. ‘Come on, get your knickers down.’
Gala made her excuses and left, never to see him again. However, even as an invisible presence, he loomed large. The previous year, punk rock had appeared and the King’s Road had become heartland. Without success, the Sex Pistols, their manager Malcolm McLaren and their art director Jamie Reid tried to contact Barrett, to ask him to produce their first album. The Damned hoped he would produce their second, realised it was impossible and settled for the Floyd’s Nick Mason (‘Who didn’t have a clue’, according to the band’s bassist Captain Sensible).
Barrett continued to do as little and spend as much as ever. Bankrupt, he left London for Win’s new Cambridge home in 1981.
From then until now, only a handful of encounters with Barrett have been reported first-hand, but some facts have come to light. An operation on his ulcer meant that Barrett lost much of his excess weight. Win thought he should keep himself occupied, so Roger Waters’s mother Mary found him a gardening job with some wealthy friends. At first he prospered but, during a thunderstorm, he threw down his tools and left.
By this time, he was just calling himself ‘Roger’. In 1982, his finances restored, he booked into the Chelsea Cloisters for a few weeks, but found he disliked London. He heard the voice of freedom and he followed – walking back to Cambridge, where he was found on Win’s doorstep – and leaving his dirty laundry behind.
The circumstances of his final return to Cambridge were rightly interpreted by his family as a ‘cry for help’ and he agreed to spend a spell in Fulbourne psychiatric hospital. (It has often been said, on the grounds that he has an ‘odd’ mind, rather than a sick one.) He continued for a while as an outpatient at Fulbourne, with no trouble.
Barrett has never been sectioned. He has never had to take drugs for his mental health, except after one or two uncontrollable fits of anger, when he was admitted to Fulbourne and administered Largactyl. However, he has received other treatments. In the early 80s, he spent two years in a charitable institution, Greenwoods, in Essex. At this halfway house for lost souls, he joined in group and other forms of therapy, and was very content. But after an imagined slight, he walked out – again all the way to Win’s house. The increasingly frail Win moved in with her daughter Roe and her husband Paul Breen, according to Mary Waters, ‘because she was so scared of his outbursts’.
Some people think Barrett suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. It certainly seems he can’t be bothered to think about anything that doesn’t directly affect him. He kept rabbits and cats for a while but forgot to feed them, so they had to be sent to more caring homes. Thereafter, the only intimate contacts he maintained were with Win and Roe. Otherwise, he seems to have lost the habit – and become wary – of human interaction, limiting himself to encounters with shop assistants and his sympathetic GP, whose surgery has become a second home. He was – and is still – in and out of hospital for his ulcers.
Paul Breen revealed that his brother-in-law was ‘painting again’, and meeting his mother in town for shopping trips. It was a ‘very, very ordinary lifestyle,’ said Breen, but not reclusive: ‘I think the word “recluse” is probably emotive. It would be truer to say that he enjoys his own company now, rather than that of others.’
As more years went by, other news leaked out. Barrett was collecting coins. He was learning to cook, and could stuff a mean pepper. On the death of Win in 1991, he destroyed all his old diaries and art books – and also chopped down the front garden’s fence and tree, and burnt them (though more in a spirit of renewal than grief). He had been a great support to Roe in her mourning, but hadn’t attended the funeral because he ‘wouldn’t know what to do’. He still wrote down his thoughts all the time. He still painted – big works, six foot by four – but destroyed any that he didn’t consider perfect, and stacked the rest against the wall. And sometimes he was unable to finish them, because obsessive fans had climbed over his back fence, and stolen the brushes from the table outside, where he worked.
A few titbits, to finish. In 1998, Barrett was diagnosed as a B-type diabetic – a genetic condition – and was prescribed a regime of medication and diet to which he is sporadically faithful. His eyesight will inevitably become ‘tunnelled’ as a result – sooner, rather than later, unless he regularly takes his tablets. However, he is far from ‘blind’, as reported on the more excitable websites.
For Christmas 2001, Barrett gave his sister a painting. For his birthday in January 2002, she brought him a new stereo, because he likes to listen to the Stones, Booker-T and the classical composers. However, he evinced no interest in the recent Echoes: The Best of Pink Floyd (on which nearly a fifth of the tracks are written by him, despite the fact that he only recorded with the band for less than a 30th of its lifespan). To coincide with the album’s release, the BBC screened an Omnibus documentary about him, which he watched round at Roe’s house. He is reported to have liked hearing ‘Emily’ and, particularly, seeing his old landlord Mike Leonard – who he called his ‘teacher’. Otherwise, he thought the film ‘a bit noisy’.
His voice is deeper than on any recordings, more cockneyfied than on the TV interviews he gave in 67. Behind him, the hall is clean but bare, the floorboards mostly covered in linoleum. I mention someone dear to him, from his childhood. She’d be coming to Cambridge in a couple of weeks, and wondered if Barrett might like a visit?
He stands and stares, less embarrassed than me by the vision of him in his underpants.
‘So is everything all right?’
‘You’re still painting?’
‘No, I’m not doing anything,’ he says (which is true – he’s talking to me). ‘I’m just looking after this place for the moment.’
‘For the moment? Are you thinking of moving on?’
‘Well, I’m not going to stay here for ever.’ He pauses a split second, delivers an unexpected ‘Bye-bye’, and slams the door.
I’m left like others before me, trying to work out just what he meant. ‘I’m not going to stay here for ever.’ Does he just mean, ‘One day, I might move house.’ Or is it a nod to the fate that awaits us all? A coded message that he may re-emerge into the world – perhaps show new work or perform? And is opening the door in your underpants an unwitting demonstration of self-confidence, or an eccentricity, or worse? I retrace my steps, cross the main road to my car where I write a note that I hope is tactful: ‘Dear Mr Barrett, I’m sorry to have disturbed your sunbathing. I didn’t have time to mention that I’m writing a book on you…’ I plead my case, give my telephone number, and return down the cracked pavement.
As I reach the gate, I see him weeding in the front corner of the garden, on his knees.
‘Hi,’ I say. ‘I’ve written you a note.’
‘Huh,’ he says, not looking up, throwing roots behind him.
‘May I leave it?’ He straightens and stares into my eyes, but doesn’t answer. He’s wearing khaki shorts now, and gardening gloves, which aren’t really suited to receiving the note – and I would be tempting fate to rest it on the side of the wheelbarrow which he has bought with him.
‘Shall I put it through the letterbox?’
‘It’s nothing to do with me,’ he says. So I do.
‘Nice day,’ I say, on leaving. ‘Goodbye.’
He doesn’t reply, and I never hear from him.
Syd Barrett : R.I.P.
You shone like the sun