As the spark that launched Pink Floyd into orbit, Syd Barrett left behind a small but unbelievably potent body of work. He was the principal songwriter behind the band’s debut – 1967 masterpiece The Piper at the Gates of Dawn – and a handful of strong early singles that helped define the psychedelic age. His creative genius was derailed by a drug-fueled psychological collapse, forcing his 1968 removal from the group he helped form. Though Barrett helmed Pink Floyd for barely two years out of their three-decade career, his specter haunted the band for the remainder of their existence and his presence is felt in some of their finest work.
“I don’t think I’m easy to talk about,” Barrett confessed to Rolling Stone in 1971, three years into his shaky solo career. “I’ve got a very irregular head. And I’m not anything that you think I am anyway.” Shortly after uttering this assessment, he was to abandon his musical career completely and withdraw from public life, allowing misconceptions and rumors to flourish. To some, he’s a guitar-wielding Icarus: a cautionary tale of fame, drugs and excess. To others, he’s the ultimate romantic ideal of a reclusive artist. Once he retreated into his private world, he left it to fans to solve the riddle that is Syd Barrett.
By the end of his life, he had reverted to his birth name, Roger, and settled into his role as an amateur painter and local eccentric in his native Cambridge, England. Syd Barrett, the rock icon, died long before pancreatic cancer claimed his physical body on July 7th, 2006. Ten years after his death, here are some little-known facts about one of music’s most unique figures.
1. Barrett tried to join a religious sect before achieving success as a musician.
In the summer of 1965, as Barrett took his first steps into the music world with an embryonic Pink Floyd, he also began using psychedelic drugs with friends in the Cambridge intellectual coterie. The introspection induced by LSD and other consciousness-expanding substances led many in his circle to convert to a sect of Sikhism known as Sant Mat (literally “Path of the Saints”). Dating back to 13th-century India, the religion follows a strict moral code and principles of abstinence. “A lot of people of Syd’s acquaintance were drawn quite hysterically, with massive enthusiasm, into it,” recalled David Gale, a close friend of Barrett’s, when interviewed by author Rob Chapman.
One by one, young bohemians of Cambridge made pilgrimages to India and returned profoundly changed. “[They] came back home, cut their hair off, threw away their hippie clothes, got suits, got a job, became vegetarians, stopped drinking, smoking and taking drugs, married women of the same persuasion as them, only had sex for procreative purposes, were advised to be ‘ordinary’ and to keep their heads down,” Gale continued.