Syd Barrett, who died several days ago (no one is sure exactly when) at age 60, was, to say the least, a mess. The wire services are remembering the co-founder and first lead singer of Pink Floyd as a “troubled genius”—obit-speak for lunatic—and indeed his life was a lurid tragedy that seemed scripted for a VH-1 Behind the Music special: Gifted psychedelic-rock pioneer streaks like a comet across the Swinging London music scene, sears his mind on drugs, descends into madness, and disappears. He became something more horrifying than a rock martyr like Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix; he became a kind of living dead man. The most famous episode in the Barrett legend was his 1975 reunion with Pink Floyd, when he turned up unannounced at Abbey Road Studios just as the band was recording their Barrett elegy, “Shine On, You Crazy Diamond.” He was a gruesome apparition—bloated, with a shaved head and shaved eyebrows—and none of his ex-bandmates recognized him.
And yet this epic mess of a man made art that was anything but. Listening to Barrett’s songs—to the first Pink Floyd singles, to the band’s 1967 debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and to Barrett’s early ‘70s solo records—one is struck by the formal rigor, the wit, the satisfying symmetries of his music and words. Barrett was a terrific craftsman, and neither the dissonance and clatter of his soundscapes nor the cheery freakiness of his lyrics could hide the songs’ essential classicism. Had Barrett been born 30 years earlier, and done several thousand fewer hits of LSD, he could have made a fine living on Tin Pan Alley. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is probably the great ‘60s psychedelic rock album, and it reminds us that psychedelic rock wasn’t an atonal maelstrom, but pop gone a little fuzzy and acid-fried around the edges: catchy songs tricked out with weird noises. Barrett’s lyrics similarly mixed old-fashioned rigor with drug-fueled surreality, nonsense with wry, funny, haunting sense. “Arnold Layne,” Pink Floyd’s first single, sounds like doggerel, but listen closer and you hear the tale of a transvestite who steals his wardrobe from clotheslines: “Arnold Layne/ Had a strange hobby/ Collecting clothes/ Moonshine, washing line/ They suit him fine.”
Barrett delivers those lines in a nasal southern English whine, which was something of an innovation for the time. Most British bands, including the Stones and early Beatles, sang in ersatz-American accents, but Barrett proclaimed his Englishness and not just by refusing to Yankee-up his singing voice. His songs are steeped in a pastoral fairy-tale Englishness—enchanted forests and gnomes in tunics and mice romping through barley fields—which is what you get, I guess, when you mix hard drugs with Victorian children’s literature. (Barrett took the phrase “piper at the gates of dawn” from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows.) It’s a deeply quaint and provincial worldview, perfect for Barrett’s twisty little pop songs but miles from the space-rock grandeur that Pink Floyd would achieve on post-Barrett classics like Dark Side of the Moon. Rock snobs like to say that Pink Floyd lost it when Barrett freaked out and left the band, but the truth is Floyd would probably have gone down in history as a curio had Barrett stuck around—and what’s more, there wouldn’t be any such thing as Radiohead.
For decades, Barrett was rock’s great romantic-tragic recluse, and now that there will definitely be no second act to his sad story, the Byronic myth surrounding him is bound to inflate. (I’m sure we’ll be hearing lots of his 1970 ballad “Dark Globe,” a terrifying farewell from a man slipping into madness: “Please, please, please lift the hand/ I’m only a person with Eskimo chain/ I tattooed my brain all the way/ Won’t you miss me?/ Wouldn’t you miss me at all?”*) But it would be nice if Barrett was recalled not just as an acid casualty or as a legendary “rock madman” but as an English eccentric in the surreal-comic tradition that extends from Lewis Carroll to Monty Python and, via Barrett, onto the weirdo-pop specialist Robyn Hitchcock. Barrett spent his final years in his mother’s house in Cambridge, England, living comfortably off the royalties that his former bandmates made sure he collected. Reportedly, his pastimes were painting and gardening, and he was often seen by neighbors on his bicycle. It sounds like a pretty nice life, actually, and it’s pleasant to think of Barrett ending his days as a vaguely Victorian figure—an odd old Englishman who’d made quite a splash in his youth, tottering through town on two wheels.