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.
Barrett, who was anything but “ordinary,” very nearly joined them. The 19-year-old traveled to a London hotel to become admitted by the sect’s leader, a guru called Maharaj Charan Singh Ji – known as “the Master” by devotees. “He asked the Master and the Master said, ‘I will not take an emotional request,'” says friend Andrew Rawlinson, a devout follower. “At that time it was very unusual for the Master to turn anybody down, but he did turn Syd down. He told him that his request to be initiated was emotional and not based on genuine spiritual research.”
By all accounts, the rejection crushed the young artist. Given Barrett’s future mental health struggles, a simple drug-free life of structure and meditation might have been the best thing for him. But regardless of whether such a conversion would have saved the man’s mind, it more than likely would have put a premature end to Syd Barrett: Rock Star.
2. Barrett wrote Pink Floyd’s first single about a real-life underwear thief.
While the track “Arnold Layne” is chiefly remembered as the world’s introduction to Pink Floyd, it’s also notable as the only ode to an underwear bandit to ever hit the pop charts. The lyrics were inspired by an unknown fetishist who briefly ran amok in Cambridge, snatching women’s undergarments from clothing lines – including the one in Roger Waters’ backyard.
“My mother and Syd’s mother had students as lodgers,” Waters said in a 1967 interview. “There was a girls’ college up the road. So there were constantly great lines of bras and knickers on our washing lines and ‘Arnold,’ or whoever he was, had bits and pieces off our washing lines. They never caught him. He stopped doing it after things got too hot for him.”
Waters relayed the unusual story to Barrett, who was moved to immortalize the local eccentric in song. “I thought Arnold Layne was a nice name and fitted well into the music I had already composed,” Barrett told Melody Maker in 1967. “Then I thought, ‘Arnold must have a hobby,’ and it went from there.”
Arnold’s “strange hobby” of transvestitism proved too much for some, and the song was banned on the popular offshore radio station, Radio London. “‘Arnold Layne’ just happens to dig dressing up in women’s clothing. A lot of people do – so let’s face up to reality,” said a defiant Barrett at the time.
3. One of Barrett’s Pink Floyd singles remains unreleased.
Considering Barrett’s relatively slight musical output, the absence of “Vegetable Man” and “Scream Thy Last Scream” leaves a sizable hole in his canon. The former was penned in 1967 as a spontaneous response to manager Peter Jenner’s request for a follow up to Pink Floyd’s then-recent single, “See Emily Play.” Though often interpreted as a self-portrait of his own mental disintegration, it actually vents his contempt for the vapid nature of fame and his own role as a pop star. Delivered with a sarcastic sneer, it’s disturbingly direct in its anger.
According to Jenner, the song was written in his apartment moments before leaving for the recording session. “On ‘Vegetable Man,’ the description of the person in there is him,” he told author Rob Chapman. “What he was wearing, what he was becoming. I was with him in the room when he was writing it. He was in one corner and I was in the other. Then he read it out and it was a description of him and what was going on in his head.”
The track was recorded in the second week of October 1967 and earmarked as the band’s third single, backed by another Barrett composition, “Scream Thy Last Scream.” Promotional videos were recorded for both songs, but their release was canceled at the last minute for fear that they were too dark. Uncomfortable with the pointed lyrics and troubling imagery, the band also decided to leave both songs off their second album, 1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets.
Though Jenner admits that the songs expose Barrett’s fragile psyche (“It’s like psychological flashing,” he once said), he’s quick to argue in favor of their artistic merit. “I always thought they should be put out, so I let my copies be heard,” he said in 2005. “I knew that Roger [Waters] would never let them out, or Dave [Gilmour]. They somehow felt they were a bit indecent, like putting out nude pictures of a famous actress. … But I thought they were good songs and great pieces of art. They’re disturbing, and not a lot of fun, but they’re some of Syd’s finest work – though God knows, I wouldn’t wish anyone to go through what he’s gone through to get to those songs.”
Both tracks were slated for release on 1988’s Opel, a collection of Syd Barrett’s studio outtakes, but the band blocked their inclusion. To date, they remain unavailable.
4. The last song he wrote for Pink Floyd is impossible to play.
By late 1967, Barrett’s erratic behavior and general unreliability had made him a serious liability to the band. He spent many concerts strumming a single chord, slowly detuning his guitar until the strings went slack, or merely staring out of the crowd – if he bothered to show up at all. Given his increasingly tenuous mental state, the rest of the band deemed it necessary to hire David Gilmour, their longtime Cambridge friend, to fill in for Barrett onstage. Much as the Beach Boys had done with their similarly disturbed leader, Brian Wilson, Barrett was to be kept on as a studio member and primary composer.
When Pink Floyd gathered in January 1968 for one of their first rehearsals as a quintet, Barrett shared a new composition he called “Have You Got It Yet?” The song sounded straightforward, but the band became confused as they tried to join in and learn the number. The melody and structure seemed to shift on each run-through, with Barrett gleefully singing a chorus of “Have you got it yet? Have you got it yet?” at them.
Eventually they realized that Barrett was changing the arrangement each time, deliberately making the song impossible to learn. “We didn’t get it for quite a long time,” says Gilmour in Rob Chapman’s book A Very Irregular Head. “I remember the moment and the song well. It was really just a 12-bar, but the responses were always in the wrong places according to Syd. Some parts of his brain were perfectly intact – his sense of humor being one of them.”
Roger Waters also appreciated the humor. “I actually thought there was something rather brilliant about it, like some kind of clever comedy. But eventually I just said, ‘Oh, I’ve got it now,’ and walked away.” It would be Barrett’s last practice session with Pink Floyd. The song was never recorded.
5. He played in a short-lived band after Pink Floyd.
After parting with Pink Floyd, Barrett recorded two albums – The Madcap Laughs and Barrett – and made several brief attempts at returning to the concert stage. His first solo performance took place on June 6th, 1970 at London’s Olympia Exhibition Hall as part of the four-day Extravaganza ’70 Music and Fashion Festival. Backed by his Pink Floyd replacement David Gilmour on bass and Jerry Shirley on drums (both of whom assisted in recording his solo albums), the gig was marred by PA problems that rendered his vocals inaudible. Barrett performed just four songs before laying down his guitar and abruptly exiting the stage.
He would not perform in public again until January 26th, 1972, when he was pulled from the audience while attending a concert by American blues musician Eddie “Guitar” Burns. A 30-minute jam session with Burns’ backing group, the Last Minute Put Together Boogie Band, proved pleasant enough, and he joined them onstage the next day as a special guest for three songs.
Boogie Band drummer Twink Adler and bassist Jack Monck called on Barrett to form a group, and the Pink Floyd co-founder agreed. Calling themselves Stars, the band made their debut on February 5th, 1972 with an impromptu performance at the Dandelion Coffee Bar in Cambridge. They would perform there a handful of times over the coming weeks, in addition to an open-air performance in a local market square. The quality of these shows has been debated, but they were good enough to earn Stars two bookings at the cavernous Cambridge Corn Exchange. The first, on February 24th, saw the band sharing a bill with proto punks MC5 and the prog-rock combo Skin Alley. It was the nadir of the band’s short life.
The set was plagued by sound problems and Barrett struggled to be heard. He sliced his finger on a guitar string, and Monck’s broken down bass amp brought the set to a premature close. According to Twink, it was a merciful end. “I remember looking across at Syd, and just thinking, ‘You don’t want to be here, do you?'” he said in a 2001 BBC documentary. “He was kind of, like, going through the motions … and everybody just knew that the wheels had come off. You were just witnessing the breakdown of someone in performance. Some gigs are good and some are bad. Some are really bad, and that was probably the worst.”
A repeat performance two days later with the band Nektar reportedly went better, but Barrett’s spirit was crushed when he read a scathing review by Roy Hollingworth of Melody Maker. “Syd was really hung up about it,” Twink told author Mark Blake. “He said he didn’t want to play anymore.” Stars were over after barely a month together.
6. He had a poignant final encounter with Roger Waters.
According to rock lore, Pink Floyd saw Syd Barrett for the last time on June 5th, 1975, when the now bald and bloated 29-year-old dropped in on a recording session for the album Wish You Were Here. Remarkably, the band was in the midst of working on “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” – a track that paid tribute to their fallen musical leader. While certain elements of the story may be apocryphal (Nick Mason, for one, can’t confirm the precise song they were working on), the remarkable scenario is largely true. While it would be the last reunion for the five members of Pink Floyd, Roger Waters would have one final encounter. Though less dramatic, it was equally troubling.
“The last time I saw him was a couple of years after he turned up at the Wish You Were Here sessions,” he told the Mirror in 2008. “I bumped into him in [British department store] Harrods where he used to go to buy sweets, but we didn’t speak – he sort of scuttled away.” Not wishing to upset his old friend, Waters made no further attempt to communicate.
7. Leaving London for good, he traveled 50 miles to his mother’s house – on foot.
Syd Barrett’s personal history can be hazy at the best of times, but the second half of the Seventies is a particularly dark period about which little is known. He bounced around several posh London hotels before ultimately establishing primarily residence at the upscale Chelsea Cloisters apartment complex. While there, he filled his days purchasing and discarding an enormous number of expensive items from Harrods.
“The stuff he used to throw away was unbelievable,” Ronnie Salmon, a caretaker at the Chelsea Cloisters, revealed to Rob Chapman. “One day from Harrods they delivered a Dynatron TV. It was worth about 800 pounds. He had it for two days and then called me up and said, ‘Ronnie, can you take this away?’ I said, ‘What do you want me to do with it, Syd?’ He said, ‘Take it, keep it.’ I had a guitar off him. Two Marshall amplifiers. The other porters got a bit jealous because he was giving me so much stuff.”
Eventually Barrett’s money ran out and he retreated to his mother’s home in Cambridge. A brief return to London for several weeks in 1982 allowed him to tie up loose ends before making his final exodus. He gave away furniture, televisions, guitars and even session tapes before packing a select few belongings into a small carrier bag. Leaving behind only a hamper of dirty laundry, the onetime pop star once again set out for his mother’s house in Cambridge.
This time, he made the 50-mile trek on foot. “I was not surprised at the time about him walking, he was capable of anything,” his sister Rosemary Breen told Chapman. “I do remember he had some huge blisters on his feet that took a while to heal!” He reverted to using his birth name, Roger Barrett, effectively killing his rocker alter-ego for good.
8. Barrett authored an unpublished book on the history of art.
“Well, I think of me being a painter eventually,” Barrett said in a 1971 Melody Maker interview. In contrast to his limited musical output, Barrett was a prolific visual artist for the remainder of his life, finishing his final canvas just days before he died. “I’ve seen various different styles of work,” brother Ian Barrett told author Julian Palacios. “He’s been interested in geometric patterns and repeated shapes you might see on tiles or weaving. I’ve seen abstracts in oils, naturalistic watercolors and woodblock work.” In a characteristically self-immolating process, Barrett photographed his completed works before burning the canvases.
Barrett’s interest in art also extended into the academic. “He used to take himself up to London on the train and visit art galleries so this whole recluse thing is inaccurate,” his brother asserts. The Tate Gallery was a particular favorite, as well as the National and British Museums.
Pages of art-history notes were found in his personal effects after his death, and Breen claims that he penned an entire book on the subject. “He has written more than a hundred pages, typed on both sides, going back to drawings in caves and through all periods, up to our days, century after century,” she told Palacios. Using the textbook Gardener’s Art Through the Ages as his primary source, he compiled “complicated details, one endless list of names and dates taken from other books. There is little of him in it, some comments here and there.” Like the rest of the projects he undertook during this period, the manuscript was strictly for his own enjoyment and never intended to be published.
9. He was an active – if eccentric – home handyman.
When he wasn’t indulging his artistic pursuits, the retired rock icon could often be found hard at work on a variety of DIY projects. His semi-detached home, once shared with his late mother, became filled with alterations and makeshift furnishings that reflected the fractured mind of its sole inhabitant. Doorknobs were replaced with plastic toy hippos or pieces of square wood, and flimsy plywood shelves lined each room. Furniture was haphazardly painted garish hues, and floor tiles were a clashing mosaic of textures.
“The house, he wrecked,” his sister told Chapman. “Every wall would be painted a different color. The idea of painting a room with the same color was just nonsensical to him. I used to say to him, ‘Do two walls the same color.’ ‘But why?’ he’d say. ‘They’re all different walls.’ The house was very colorful and anybody else would say it was a disaster. But that’s how he liked it. We used to go to [hardware stores] B&Q and Homebase and get all this wood endlessly and do lots of DIY projects, which were very funny. He used to laugh at them because they never worked at all.”
The projects all possess a charmingly childlike simplicity. End tables, walking-stick stands, letter racks and workboxes were roughly nailed together with chipboard. Bits of wood were glued to legs of a stool in an aesthetically displeasing but functional attempt to add height. The effect is both goofy and poignant.
Following Barrett’s death in 2006, most of these items were auctioned off, fetching prices on par with relics. A homemade bread bin, described in the Cheffins auction-house catalogue as “crudely constructed from sheets of plywood, screwed and glued together, the gaps filled with wood filler, with hinged fall front,” netted 1,400 pounds. The auction raised 121,000 pounds in all, which the Barrett family donated to a scholarship for local art students.
10. He watched a documentary about his own life – and didn’t like it.
Barrett didn’t like to revisit his pop-star past, and often became extremely upset by reminders of the period. But one notable exception took place in November 2001, when the BBC aired an Omnibus television special about his own life. Intrigued, he decided to tune in.
“I was very surprised that he did watch,” remembered Breen, who quietly assisted the documentary producers without her brother’s knowledge. “He came to watch it with me. He didn’t enjoy it. He didn’t like it – he didn’t quite know what was going on, I don’t think. He just said, ‘It’s very noisy. The music’s very noisy.'”
While he apparently enjoyed hearing the early Pink Floyd hit “See Emily Play” and seeing his old mentor, onetime landlord Mike Leonard, it was not a pleasant experience for Barrett. “He didn’t enjoy it, no,” says Breen. “Another life, another person.”