I was going to blog about something else today, but I learned just five minutes ago that Syd Barrett is dead.
Rock and roll has many casualties, but Syd Barrett is something of a tragedy. I remember thinking, before the magic of google, that he was already dead. But as I mentioned a few weeks earlier, I found photos of him in his Harper Lee-type existence. Although Barrett was not dead, he was left for dead by the music industry...and by his own choice. It's reported that while his band Pink Floyd was still in its infancy, people would put LSD in his food without telling him simply because they wanted to see him high. He became a class clown in the psychedelic movement, and it was degrading. He confused the press constantly, sabotaging a prime-time television performance of his band. His bandmates were embarrassed by him, particularly Roger Waters. By the time Pink Floyd recorded their second album A Saucerfull of Secrets, Barrett was told to sit in the studio waiting room only to find out the band didn't want him anymore.
Fast forward to 1975. Roger Waters decides to dedicate the next Floyd album to Syd Barrett with song titles like "Shine On, You Crazy Diamond" and "Wish You Were Here." Barrett showed up at the sessions, but he is not recognized by his ex-bandmates. He's fat, bald, and has no friends. He'd been living in a basement eating pork chops. Roger Waters admitted that he cried when he saw him.
There were numerous attempts to get a solo career going for Barrett, but his business associates were more enthusiastic about the notion than he was. Songs were left unfinished, making the albums seem like ragtag sessions in which they had to wait for Syd to be "in the moment." In no time at all, the idea of Syd Barrett going solo is abandoned.
Some time in the early 21st century, a Syd Barrett compilation dawns. When asked for a tiny little comment to sneak into the promotional paperwork, Barrett simply said "I suggest you don't go there. I don't do that anymore."
I first heard The Piper at the Gates of Dawn before I was technically considered a teen, and I thought it was the fruitiest music in the world. Who listens to this weirdness? Songs about gnomes? Constellations? Stethoscopes? Scarecrows? What the hell is all this? Well, years later I discover that it was all wasted on me. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a rich tapestry dressed up as Edward Lear nonsense. Every song is just as fascinating and excellent as it is odd and confusing. Given what came later for Pink Floyd, their debut is an island unto itself, and it was all because of Barrett. They recorded the album in Abbey Road studios, where the Beatles were recording Sgt. Pepper next door. From The Piper alone, it's clear that Syd Barrett had a Sgt. Pepper inside of him just waiting to burst out.
But it never happened. Syd's talents were ruined by drugs. Whatever spirit he had left for his music was squashed by the entertainment industry as well as his own apathy. The potential he held in his own two hands vanished, and no one knows where it went. Frequently we hypothetically ask ourselves "What if so-and-so (insert famous musician and/or songwriter) was never discovered by such-and-such records on that fateful day?" Well, cosmically speaking, that's easy to comprehend. We would already have an idea of what we would be missing, seeing that it already exists. But now that Syd Barrett is gone, we'll never know what we missed. And that's the tragedy.