LONDON—If you tend to believe what you hear, rather than what is, Syd Barrett is either dead, behind bars, or a vegetable. He is in fact alive and as confusing as ever, in the town where he was born, Cambridge.
In 1966–67, Barrett was playing lead guitar with Pink Floyd. He'd named the band and was writing most of their music, including the only two hit singles they ever had. His eerie electronic guitar style and gnome-like stage presence made him an authentic cult figure for the nascent London underground, then just beginning to gather at the UFO club and the Roundhouse. The Floyd were a house band and the music went on into the wee hours.
Cambridge is an hour's train ride from London. Syd doesn't see many people these days. Visiting him is like intruding into a very private world. "I'm disappearing," he says, "avoiding most things." He seems very tense, ill at ease. Hollow-cheeked and pale, his eyes reflect a permanent state of shock. He has a ghostly beauty which one normally associates with poets of old. His hair is short now, uncombed, the wavy locks gone. The velvet pants and new green snake skin boots show some attachment to the way it used to be. "I'm treading the backward path," he smiles. "Mostly, I just waste my time." He walks a lot. "Eight miles a day," he says. "It's bound to show. But I don't know how."
"I'm sorry I can't speak very coherently," he says, "It's rather difficult to think of anybody being really interested in me. But you know, man, I am totally together. I even think I should be." Occasionally, Syd responds directly to a question. Mostly his answers are fragmented, a stream of consciousness (the words of James Joyce's poem "Golden Hair" are in one of his songs). "I'm full of dust and guitars," he says.
"The only work I've done the last two years is interviews. I'm very good at it." In fact, Syd has made three albums in that time, produced by the Floyd. The Madcap Laughs, his second, he says, was pretty good: "Like a painting as big as the cellar." Before the Floyd got off the ground, Barrett attended art school. He still paints. Sometimes crazy jungles of thick blobs. Sometimes simple linear pieces. His favourite is a white semi-circle on a white canvas.
In a cellar where he spends much of his time, he sits surrounded by paintings and records, his amps and guitars. He feels safe there, under the ground. Like a character out of one of his own songs. Syd says his favourite musician is Hendrix. "I toured with him you know, Lindsay (an old girlfriend) and I used to sit on the back of the bus, with him up front; he would film us. But we never spoke really. It was like this. Very polite. He was better than people really knew. But very self-conscious about his consciousness. He'd lock himself in the dressing room with a TV and wouldn't let anyone in."
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