Syd Barrett's Obit in the Toronto Star:
Syd Barrett was introduced to me at a very young age not through his music, but through a class photo.
Not explicitly through the photo, mind you. My dad, for some reason or another, had been coaxed during a long car trip or a hike or some other instance of casual father/son bonding onto the subject of a musician friend who'd declined playing keyboards for a young Manfred Mann mere months before "Do Wah Diddy Diddy" hit - foolish from a financial standpoint, perhaps, but a defensible artistic decision. It led into a discussion of other "celebrities" he'd known during his youth. And the list didn't go much farther than that: There was Martin Amis, whose books I'd seen around the house and have since come to cherish as much as life itself. And then there was Barrett - the same Barrett who died a recluse last week at age 60.
Barrett was a question mark. No more than 10 or 11 years old, I knew Pink Floyd - my parents would both sniff that the band was "pretentious" whenever "Another Brick in the Wall" came on the radio - and had read enough withering reviews of The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking (probably because of the naked lady on the cover) to know Roger Waters was the frontman. But Barrett's brief, formative involvement in the band was then a complete mystery.
He was gone from Floyd early on, it was explained. Drugs and madness or madness and drugs; either way, a volatile enough cocktail that he'd lived with his mother and passed his days staring into a pool since his 20s. A peculiarly affecting rock 'n' roll tale, even for a kid. Pink Floyd, it was added, had been even stranger before Barrett left.
"He was always into weird stuff, even back then, " Dad noted.
Soon after, whilst snooping one bored afternoon through several tiers of musty files, clippings, university papers and photos neglected on an upstairs bookshelf, I spotted Syd amidst the rows of fresh, uniformed faces captured in a black-and-white portrait from my father's A-level year at Cambridgeshire High School in England.
I found Dad first, since he was the guy who resembled me. Barrett, however, was second - even though, at the time, I had no real idea what Syd Barrett looked like. He might have been a bit taller than his schoolmates but, as I recall in apologetic cliche, it was something about his eyes that made him stand out. And indeed, the same piercing, thousand-yard stare beaming from beneath a tousle of black curls has anchored almost every photo I have ever seen of him since. So no wonder.
In any case, the photograph had the weird weight of an artifact and I regarded it as such, reading up on Barrett even though the Pink Floyd thing would elude me until a confluence of adolescent heartbreak and early experimentation with intoxicants brought me to The Wall a few years later at 15. Combine that with a concurrent obsession for Quebec metal band Voivod's cover of "Astronomy Domine" and a discount cassette of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and Barrett's strange presence fully entered my life.
How impossibly less cool was Pink Floyd without Syd?
The three early Barrett/Floyd singles (particularly the transvestite ode "Arnold Layne") were careening psych-pop trailblazers and, like his two fractured 1970 solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, are often regarded by the Cult of Syd as somehow more worthy than 1967's Piper. It's this album, though, where Barrett's whimsical, LSD-spiked genius crests, putting a fanciful, lunatic spin on British Invasion pop and English folk without fear of tilting into the avant-garde.
"Interstellar Overdrive" and "Astronomy Domine" - Barrett's lilting verses to which were scrawled reverently on every single one of my high-school scribblers - more or less invented space-rock. "Lucifer Sam" is reverberant proto-punk that would echo through everyone from David Bowie to Adam and the Ants for years to come. "Scarecrow" is durably haunting acid balladry.
And "Bike" ... oh, "Bike." "Bike" is simply the best cracked love song ever written, wherein the author fervently woos a young lady with the bizarre collection of odds and ends at his disposal: a bicycle ("It's got a basket / A bell, it rings / And things to make it look good"), a ripped cloak that's "a bit of a joke, " a homeless mouse called Gerald, a "clan of gingerbread men" and, finally, "a room of musical tunes."
"You're the kind of girl that fits in with my world, " goes the swooning refrain. "I'll give you everything, anything if you want things."
It's one of the loveliest sentiments ever put to tape, and it reveals the sweet side to Barrett - the side that liked to write songs about gnomes and cats - that often gets lost in the stories of his random, hallucinogenic behaviour, onstage breakdowns and his eventual, complete alienation from his music, his fans and the outside world.
There would be no late-career "comeback" appreciation for poor Syd. He received news of his ousting from Floyd, a band he essentially created but was continually sabotaging with erratic stage antics, when the rest of the group simply didn't pick him up on the way to a gig in Southampton in 1968. And while his old bandmates did help out on Madcap Laughs and Barret, and later penned "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" in his honour (David Gilmour has been beaming a photo of Syd behind him during the tune on his current solo tour), he's essentially been relegated over the past 35 years to footnote status in Pink Floyd's degraded legend.
The drugs didn't help, but being pushed aside by his friends likely didn't do much to counteract the looming breakdown that silenced him forever just a couple of years later. And that only deepens the tragedy of Barrett's sad and mysterious existence.
Wherever you are, Syd, maybe you can take posthumous satisfaction from knowing that, during your life, you held sway over some of us born into a world from which you'd already retreated.
And thank you so very, very much for "Bike." I will never, ever stop playing it.
Labels: Syd Barrett