THERE WAS NO REASON THESE men should ever stand together again. Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason and Rick Wright – the four musicians who carried Pink Floyd forward after Syd Barrett fell from reason in 1968 – had not appeared on a stage together since June 1981, and it hardly seemed possible they ever would again. Waters and Gilmour had famously shown contempt for each other for a quarter-century – each felt the other had tried to dishonor his life’s work and hinder his future. After Waters started a solo career in 1984, he went on to disparage his former bandmates. Guitarist and singer Gilmour, he said, “doesn’t have any ideas,” and drummer Mason “can’t play” (Waters had long before thrown keyboardist Wright out of the band). Gilmour gave as good as he got. When he took his version of the band on tour, he appropriated Waters’ most famous prop, a gigantic pig balloon, and attached testicles to it, which some read as a commentary on how he viewed the band’s former bassist. (“So they put balls on my pig,” Waters said. “Fuck them.”)
The long squabble resulted in the deepest, ugliest split in rock & roll’s history, and almost certainly the most irreparable. On that warm London night in early July 2005 when the four men finally gathered again as Pink Floyd in London’s Hyde Park at the historic Live 8 concert, it’s unlikely that all the past anger and hurt was easily forgotten or healed, but that’s partly what made the moment so moving. They played and sang despite their bitterness, in part because the evening’s cause – to try to persuade the world’s richest countries to forgive the debts of the poorest – was in keeping with belief systems they genuinely shared.
But there was another reason for assembling that night that ran deeper in their history. They had a debt to pay that could never be paid, but it had to be admitted. Syd Barrett, a man who had been mysterious and lonely for decades, had been the heart of Pink Floyd in its earliest days – he wrote their songs, gave them their style, made them a force in the British music scene – but in 1968, Waters, Mason and Wright threw him out of the band after he slipped into mental disintegration. None of them had seen him since a surprise encounter in 1975 that left them stunned and in tears, but over the years he continued to define Pink Floyd, as they evolved the style he had left them, and as they began to think and write about the darkness that had eclipsed him. They owed Barrett something – in a way, everything – and if they failed to honor him that night at Live 8, before the world, they could never meaningfully attempt it again. That’s because they knew Pink Floyd would not exist past this night, and perhaps they sensed that in the much-too-near future, neither would Barrett, the man who gave the band its name and original purpose.
The story of Pink Floyd is the story of the themes that raised and obsessed and tore at the band for almost four decades. That is, it’s a story of madness, alienation, absence, hubris and a self-willed grace. There’s really nothing else quite like it in popular music history. From the time they helped ignite a pop-cultural upheaval in London in the late 1960s to that touching appearance at Live 8, Pink Floyd always meant something in their moment. Indeed, the album that transfigured them in 1973, The Dark Side of the Moon, managed to reflect the doubts and fears of a generation that had to cope with the loss of the ideals of the 1960s, and did it so effectively that it established Pink Floyd as one of the biggest, best-loved bands in rock & roll. Seven years later, the epic and bleak The Wall only made them bigger. But The Wall – a story about a bitter, fucked-up loner rock star who could not bear the world around him – proved even darker than it first seemed, as its author, Waters, increasingly could not bear the band around him. “If one of us was going to be called Pink Floyd, it’s me,” he told ROLLING STONE in 1987, though the rest of Pink Floyd had other ideas.
Despite both triumphs and wounds, the band’s members couldn’t escape a certain bond – not just a hatred for one another, but also a realization that without the community they once had, their music could never have mattered. Most of them were either born in or grew up around Cambridge – a well-off university town that prized a progressive streak – and appeared headed for careers in the arts. But what would bring Waters, Barrett, Mason and Wright together was a passion for the promising sounds of rock & roll, blues and R&B. Like other key British musicians – including John Lennon, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page – Pink Floyd would take the spirit of experimentation that they gained from art school and apply it to the raw form of rock & roll, with results that would transform the culture around them.
Waters left Cambridge in 1962 to take architecture courses at Regent Street Polytechnic in London, where he met fellow student Mason. He was already playing guitar – in fact, he sometimes practiced in class when he didn’t want to study. In 1963, he and Mason joined an existing group, Sigma 6, where they met keyboard player Wright, who loved jazz and classical music. Wright and Mason were still fairly earnest about their possible architectural futures, but not Waters. He was already trying the patience of his lecturers. “I could have been an architect, but I don’t think I’d have been very happy,” he told journalist Caroline Boucher in 1970. “I hated being under the boot.”
Barrett – another young guitarist and art student – arrived in London in September 1964, to study painting. Waters and Barrett had known each other back in Cambridge, where the charismatic Barrett was part of the bohemian set, learning about French existentialism and the 1950s Beat movement, and where he was already studying guitar with his friend David Gilmour. Barrett had a passion for the melodic form of the Beatles’ music and for the blues-steeped pop of the Rolling Stones, but he was also given to unusual guitar tunings and an odd slideguitar technique, and he became interested in finding a looser form of spontaneity when playing rock & roll. By the time Barrett joined up with Waters in London, Sigma 6 had become the Abdabs, then the Tea Set. By the autumn of 1965 they had settled on a four-man lineup: Waters on bass, Wright on keyboards, Mason on drums and Barrett on lead guitar and vocals. Barrett also gave the group a new identity: the Pink Floyd Sound, derived from the first names of two obscure blues musicians, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council (and from the names of his cats). “It was great when Syd joined,” Wright said, according to author Barry Miles, who would also be a witness to the band’s rise. “Before him, we’d play the R&B classics, because that’s what all groups were supposed to be doing then. . . . With Syd, the direction changed; it became more improvised around the guitar and keyboards. Roger started to play the bass as a lead instrument, and I started to introduce more of my classical feel.”
AFTER THAT, THE FIRST PHASE OF THE Pink Floyd story played out quickly – for better and worse. The better part came out of a confluence of the band’s ambitions and the fast-rising movement in London’s youth culture. Experimentation and a daring new sense of social play increasingly became a part of not just popular culture in Britain but also daily life. In London, from 1965 to 1968, this all became enmeshed in a movement known as the London Underground. Whether they intended to or not, Pink Floyd, more than anybody – more than the Beatles, for example – became the sound, the central house band, of the movement. That’s because Pink Floyd, billed sometimes as “London’s farthest-out group,” developed themselves and their music in the midst of it all, live, night after night, at events made up of a participatory audience that included many who were experimenting with marijuana, hashish and psychedelics. There were other acts popular in this circuit, including Soft Machine, Arthur Brown, Procol Harum, Tomorrow and the jazz group AMM, but Pink Floyd set themselves apart with two features: an increasingly complex and resourceful display of light projections that appeared to envelop and react to the band as it played, and their abstract style of improvisation that could appear formless and unruly one moment, then precise, pounding and exhilarating the next. Artist Duggie Fields, who was a close friend of Barrett’s, said that “suddenly they got an enormous following in a very short space of time, shorter than it took for the Rolling Stones to happen.”
By the end of 1966, Pink Floyd had signed a rather lucrative deal for the time with EMI (5,000 British pounds), which allowed them unlimited time to record their first album at the label’s Abbey Road Studios. (They ended up recording during the same early-1967 stretch that the Beatles spent making Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.) EMI assigned the group to Norman Smith, who had been the Beatles’ sound engineer. Smith appeared a strange fit – reportedly he wasn’t initially fond of the band’s instrumental experiments in “Astronomy Domine” and “Interstellar Overdrive” – and in later years he disparaged the group in unnecessarily unkind terms. “I could barely call it music,” he said.
Still, what resulted from those sessions was something wonderful and enduring. With Pink Floyd’s debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the band loomed as a potentially matchless force in British rock, though Barrett was clearly the group’s imaginative center. he wrote Lewis Carroll-indebted wordplay in songs about fantasy and childhood and horror and the I-Ching, all paired with remarkably intuitive melodies. He was the reason Pink Floyd were now the most notable new band in Britain, and he oved being a part of the cultural adventure that surrounded them. Jenny Fabian, who has done some of the best writing about the London scene, later told Mason in his book Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd that Floyd “were the first authentic sound of acid consciousness. . . . They’d be up on stage like supernatural gargoyles playing their spaced-out music, and the same color that was exploding over them was exploding over us. It was like being taken over, mind, body and soul.”
THIS MATTER OF THE BAND’S PSYCHEDELIC effect was about to take on a painful resonance. At the peak of Pink Floyd’s early creative powers, with a remarkable album now finished and set for a summer 1967 release, Syd Barrett began to fall apart. The onset was sudden. As the group’s second single, “See Emily Play,” vaulted into the Top Ten, Pink Floyd were set for three consecutive July appearances on a weekly British program, Top of the Pops. Barrett looked haggard and wary as the weeks progressed, until finally he walked off during the third show, frantic and angry. That was just the start. In the beginning of August, just as The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was being released, Pink Floyd’s managers, Peter Jenner and Andrew King, canceled the band’s English tour due to Barrett’s “nervous exhaustion,” and sent the singer on vacation with a doctor to a Spanish island. While there, Barrett spent some nights sleeping in a graveyard. Come November, during tours in America and Britain with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Barrett only grew worse. At too many shows, he stood on stage staring at some unknown space beyond the heads of the audience, not touching his guitar. Years later Mason told Barry Miles, in Pink Floyd: The Early Years, “You’re trying to be in this band… and things aren’t really working out and you don’t really understand why. You can’t believe that someone’s deliberately trying to screw it up and yet the other half of you is saying, This man’s crazy – he’s trying to destroy me!’ “
There has been a lot of conjecture and mythmaking over the years about what went so terribly wrong for Barrett in such a short amount of time. Many have attributed his disintegration to a steady overconsumption of LSD. He had taken the drug since his days in Cambridge, and in 1966 he lived in an apartment with people who ingested acid regularly and purportedly fed it to Barrett whether he was aware of it or not. (“We never ventured inside,” said Mason. “It was not a world the rest of us frequented.”) Others – including Waters – believe that the psychedelics triggered a dormant schizophrenia in Barrett. However, author Tim Willis, when researching 2002’s Madcap: The Half-Life of Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd’s Lost Genius, discovered that Barrett had never been diagnosed with schizophrenia nor given medications, “on the grounds that he has an ‘odd’ mind rather than a sick one.”
At the beginning of 1968, the band brought in Barrett’s old Cambridge friend David Gilmour to take his place on guitars and vocals. The hope had been that Barrett might continue as a songwriter – similar to the way that Brian Wilson still wrote material for the Beach Boys but no longer toured with them – but even that seemed unfeasible. The band was having difficulty with some of Barrett’s material – “Vegetable Man” and “Scream Thy Last Scream” were songs they thought emanated from madness – and they discarded those recordings. A few days after Gilmour joined, the band minus Barrett was en route to that night’s performance when somebody asked, “Shall we pick up Syd?” The response was: “Fuck it, let’s not bother.” The band drove on and performed his songs that night without him, and never played with him again. As Pink Floyd worked on their next album, Barrett would sit in the studio’s lobby with his guitar, waiting to be called into the sessions. He also stood before the stage one night at a club, glaring as Gilmour sang the songs Barrett had written. The instance unnerved Gilmour so much that he came close to quitting the band.
At the end of Pink Floyd’s second album, A Saucerful of Secrets, the band included only one Barrett song, “Jugband Blues.” It’s doleful, even humorous, but its heartaching lyrics have always been seen as Barrett’s self-diagnosis: “It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here/And I’m almost obliged to you for making it clear that I’m not here. . . . /And I’m wondering who could be writing this song.” Those lines could work on another level, as Barrett’s way of saying to the band, How could anybody so damaged or dispensable write a song this beautiful and original?
WATERS, HAVING SET ASIDE HIS higher education and any other ambitions, now made Pink Floyd his purpose. “He was the one,” Gilmour told Barry Miles, “who had the courage to drive Syd out, because he realized that as long as Syd was in the band, they wouldn’t keep it together, the chaos factor was too great. Roger always looked up to Syd and felt very guilty about the fact that he’d blown out his mate.” Others, though, credited Gilmour – now lead singer as well as lead guitarist – with changing Pink Floyd’s direction. In contrast to Barrett, Gilmour favored a more clearly structural and melodic approach. It was both this collaboration and competition between Waters and Gilmour that would largely drive Pink Floyd toward its triumphs, though it would also make for its troubles. In his early days in the band, Gilmour was already reacting to Waters’ domineering manner, describing him as “a pushy sort of person.”
FOR THE NEXT FEW YEARS, THE BAND made music that was as close to twentieth-century avant-garde methods as it was to rock & roll. “Pink Floyd is about pushing forward and taking risks,” Waters said, and the music they made bore out his boast. Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother featured lengthy experiments in serial atonality and orchestral composition, and EMI may have felt at a loss at times for what to do with such records – especially in America. That Pink Floyd’s albums continued to prove hits in England was testament to a number of things – including that much of the British pop audience at that time was receptive to the postpsychedelic form emerging as progressive rock. It also owed to the band’s matchless sense of stagecraft. “In the future,” Syd Barrett said in a 1967 interview, “groups are going to have to offer more than a pop show. They are going to have to offer a well-presented theater show:” Pink Floyd would pursue that vision tirelessly, with performances that featured increasingly sophisticated light effects and giant props (including a massive octopus that rose from a lake during an outdoor show). In the late 1960s, these theatrics sometimes accompanied thematic suites such as The Man and The Journey, early tastes of Waters’ appetite for conceptual works.
With Pink Floyd, there was a sense that this was a band working toward something – some amalgam of music and ideas that would define its place in modern arts.
I N 1971, THE BAND BEGAN TO HONE IN ON that promise. In December, beginning a new album, Waters – who was by now the band’s main songwriter and in effect the group leader – informed the other members of Pink Floyd that he wanted the band to make a work that focused on one subject: What are the forces in modern life that alienate people from one another and from their hopes? Together they came up with a list of disturbances that included aging, violence, fear of death, religion, war, capitalism (all band members skewed left of center in their politics, Waters more so than the others) and madness. The latter concern, in particular, had gripped Waters recently, as he had begun to reflect on Barrett.
The new album, with the working title Eclipse, would take a long time. Waters wanted to get the lyrics right – he wanted them simple, clear, direct, not laden in obscure metaphors – and Gilmour was intent on fashioning music that would lure listeners into the assembly of dark meditations. The aim was for the music to meld moments and motifs into seamless layers for an interconnected effect. All this deliberation paid off: In March 1973, Pink Floyd released The Dark Side of the Moon, a modern masterwork. Interlaced with spoken passages that addressed the songs’ subjects in candid, sometimes disturbing ways, and held together by the craftiest segues in popular music history, the record set new standards for how an album might sound and play and matter in the lives of a mass of listeners, with an effect that had not been accomplished since the Beatles’ productions. The album also realized its thematic ambitions – it was that genuinely rare creation: a thoughtful and imaginative statement about grim modern realities that managed to soothe you with its nightmares.
Dark Side of the Moon (the title was a tribute to Syd Barrett, an acknowledgment of where his band left him) was – and remains – Pink Floyd’s best-loved, most enduring moment. It captured a wide audience, and not merely in its time: Since its release, Dark Side of the Moon has sold over 35 million copies, and it remained on Billboard‘s charts for 591 straight weeks (the longest run of any work), continuing to appear on and off in the charts ever since. But if the record marked Pink Floyd’s apotheosis, it also put in motion processes that would have an increasingly depressing effect. For all its careful art, Dark Side of the Moon was also a carefully cast product: The music’s explorations had been refined until the end result resembled a polished object with the widest appeal possible. And given Pink Floyd’s earlier methods, the music’s well-mannered effect couldn’t help but seem like something of a compromise. Also, the mass acceptance brought with it a mass audience that now knew the band for this hit, but not for the sensibility that led up to it – which was something Pink Floyd’s members weren’t prepared for. “We were used to all these reverent fans who’d come and you could hear a pin drop,” Gilmour told David Fricke in 1982. “We’d try to get really quiet, especially at the beginning of’Echoes’ or something that has tinkling notes, trying to create a beautiful atmosphere, and all these kids would be there shouting, ‘Money’!”
After Pink Floyd finished their 1973 tours, they gathered in October to start work on the next album. They could now do anything they wanted – the trouble was, they didn’t really want to do anything. “At that point,” Waters later said, “all our ambitions were realized.” At first, the group conceived a different kind of album, Household Objects, in which none of the sounds would be made by musical instruments. After two months of hammering nails and breaking light bulbs, the band had no idea where to take the project. At one point or another during that time, each of the four members talked to the group’s management about leaving. Finally, in the middle of one of the band’s arguments, Waters hit on an idea: Why not make the record about the distance and malaise that was going on between them?
If Dark Side was about social alienation, the new album – Wish You Were Here – was about a more personal form of estrangement: the absence of friends, inspiration, the community they had once found in one another. The effort produced the two best songs the post-Barrett Floyd would ever record: “Wish You Were Here” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” Tellingly, both were about Barrett, whom Waters then thought of as a “symbol of all the extremes of absence some people have to indulge in because it’s the only way they can cope with how fucking sad modern life is – to withdraw completely.” Waters would also later say that “Wish You Were Here” could just as easily have been addressed to the rest of the band members, to whom he was no longer feeling as close. Or it could be about his battle within himself.
One day in early June 1975, while listening to a playback of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” the group spotted an unfamiliar figure in the studio – an overweight bald man – examining their equipment. After several minutes, Waters turned to Wright and said, “Do you know who that guy is? Think, think.” Wright studied the visitor’s face: It was Barrett. Waters later said he was in tears over the Barrett they now encountered, who was no longer a symbol but a flesh-and-blood person. The conversation was awkward. Barrett told the band he was ready to help again with its music. As they spoke, the depiction in “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” of the man now visiting his former band played around them, over and over: “Remember when you were young/You shone like the sun/Shine on, you crazy diamond/Now there’s a look in your eyes/Like black holes in the sky.” If Barrett recognized himself in the song, he made no mention. This was also the day of Gilmour’s wedding. Barrett accompanied the others to the reception, then he disappeared. None of them ever saw him again.
AFTER “WISH YOU WERE HERE,” ALMOST everything about Pink Floyd’s story turns ugly – which isn’t to say unworthy or unrewarding, because there was fascinating work to come – but ugly just the same. In a way, that was the point – Waters was intent on writing about psychological and social ills – but just as often it was an inadvertent result of the band’s internal life.
With 1977’s Animals – a set of dark and funny fables about oppression and revolt –Waters secured his command of the band. He was now writing almost all the songs’ words and music, singing lead vocals increasingly, and telling the others when and what to play. There had been a long-running argument in the band: Gilmour favored more emphasis on the albums’ musical contexts, but Waters increasingly thought the words should be paramount. With Animals, Waters pared back any unessential arrangements or textures, and that gave Gilmour cause to worry about future recordings. Also, the guitarist wasn’t sure that Waters was charismatic enough to carry the band’s new performances onstage. “We didn’t have a Roger Daltrey or Mick Jagger,” Gilmour told Nicholas Schaffner in Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey. “All we had was a bass player that would stomp around scowling and making faces.”
The liabilities of Waters as a frontman became painfully evident soon enough. Animals, like every album Waters would author from this point on, was a decidedly odd work – moralizing, musically repetitive, forbidding, smug – yet it was also daring. The six-month tour that accompanied the album, though, was miscast from start to end. Playing exclusively in stadiums, with immense props – including a ghostly-looking helium balloon in the shape of a pig that floated over audiences and exploded into flames – it was as if Pink Floyd were determined to live out its songs about alienation by implanting an emotional distance between the audience, the music and themselves. The tour wore on Waters. He found the venues dehumanizing, and he began to see much of the audience as inconsistent with his music’s message. It all culminated in an incident at the tour’s last show, in Montreal, when Waters, fed up with a fan who was loudly and repeatedly requesting a song, spat in the fan’s face. Gilmour was so disgusted that he refused to return for an encore. When asked in 1980 what he thought the role was for a rock audience, Waters replied, “Passive. Like they’re in a theater. You bloody well sit there. I hate audience participation.” It was a far cry from the London Underground.
That act of spitting on a fan was another of those pivotal events in Pink Floyd’s history. Waters was so disillusioned after the 1977 tour that he swore Pink Floyd would never perform big concerts again unless the band was behind a wall. In January 1978, he came to the band with the idea of enacting that vision: He had written a draft version of an epic that told the story of a musician cut off from his audience and his feelings and who, in effect, lived behind a wall that he could not overcome. Waters’ writing had grown more personal, and this new project, The Wall, would ante up that investment. The songs about the rock star’s anger pain and loss emerged from Waters’ own experience (his father, Eric Fletcher Waters, was a conscientious objector who had been conscripted in World War II and killed in battle in Italy, like the father in the story).
The Wall occupied Pink Floyd for more than three years. It would find life as the band’s most ambitious album, as a stage extravaganza (which indeed featured a 160-foot-wide, 35-foot-tall wall that was built up during each night’s show, then destroyed at the climax) and as a film. In its essential purpose, The Wall was brilliant: Like Dark Side of the Moon, it examined forces of alienation, though this time Waters focused on the ideologies – such as education, the family, the military – that aimed to manage consciousness. For millions, The Wall succeeded (the RIAA lists it as the fourth-best-selling album of all time), but for many critics it proved too sprawling, agitated and out of balance, whether on record or onstage.
Waters followed The Wall with The Final Cut, and this time he made no bones about who was in charge. The album’s subtitle reads: “a requiem for the postwar dream, by Waters, performed by Pink Floyd.” The album is Waters’ condemnation of Western political, economic and military values in the Cold War era. Gilmour didn’t like the new songs; like the work on Animals, they were partly made up of older tunes that had been discarded, and he thought the lyrics lacked any intricacy. Waters told Gilmour that unless he relented and accepted the work, the album would appear as a Waters solo effort. (Gilmour subsequently removed his name as a producer.) “We were all fighting like cats and dogs,” Waters later said. “We were finally realizing – or accepting, if you like – that there was no band.” Months after The Final Cut‘s release, starting in November 1983, Pink Floyd was slated for live performances, but Waters canceled the dates. “The future of Pink Floyd depends very much on me,” he told ROLLING STONE.
Gilmour and Mason saw it differently. In 1986, they decided to make a new Pink Floyd album without Waters, and brought Wright back for the project. “I haven’t spent twenty years building up my name,” Gilmour said. “I’ve spent twenty years building up Pink Floyd’s name.” Waters erupted at the news. He sued to dissolve the band, but Gilmour and Mason fought back. In the end, Gilmour and Mason got the rights to Pink Floyd’s name, Waters got to keep The Wall – and the rights to the floating pig.
The new Pink Floyd’s first album without Waters, A Momentary Lapse of Reason, was also the first Pink Floyd album that climbed to Number One in both England and the United States, and their 1988–89 tour was the biggest in the band’s history, grossing $135 million. Waters was dismayed at their success. “I was slightly angry that they managed to get away with it,” he said years later, “that the great unwashed couldn’t tell the fucking difference.” For all the ways in which Waters may have been wrong in how he treated the band, he ended up right about one important thing: Pink Floyd’s music didn’t matter the same way without him. A Momentary Lapse of Reason, 1994’s The Division Bell, and the “restored” Pink Floyd’s two live albums, Delicate Sound of Thunder and Pulse, had none of the sense of consequence of he band’s earlier albums. Unfortunately, Waters’ own solo albums – The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking, Radio K.A.O.S. and Amused to Death – had no real life outside the context of his former band. Pink Floyd needed Waters’ acerbic point of view, and Waters needed his former band’s sonic grace.
With all the bad blood, all the ways they tried to demean one another’s abilities and integrity, it was clear they could never work together again. “I have no more respect for them,” Waters said of his ex-bandmates.
That was in 1990.
IN 2005, BOB GELDOF CALLED GILMOUR and asked if Pink Floyd would consider uniting once more with Waters to play the upcoming London Live 8 concert. No, said Gilmour. Word got to Waters, who called Gilmour and said he thought they should do it – that the cause mattered more than their differences. “I think he was surprised to hear from me,” Waters said. Gilmour thought about it for a day and gave in.
Pink Floyd was clearly the most anticipated performance in that long day of anticipated performances – this version of the group had not played together in twenty-four years – and the expectation was remarkably well rewarded. It wasn’t simply that they managed to overcome a history of rancor longer than the history of the original band itself, nor that they sounded so fucking terrific, that made the event so affecting. It was instead the moment that honored their reason for being in the first place. Halfway through their set, Waters said: “It’s actually quite emotional standing up here with these three guys after all these years. Standing to be counted with the rest of you. Anyway, we’re doing this for everyone who’s not here, but particularly, of course, for Syd.”
Then, Pink Floyd played their best song, “Wish You Were Here.” Bringing their voices into harmony for perhaps the last time, Gilmour and Waters sang: “How I wish, how I wish you were here/We’re just two lost souls/Swimming in a fishbowl/Year after year/Running over the same old ground/ What have we found?/The same old fears/Wish you were here.” They could have been singing to each other – speaking across abandoned dreams and lost ground – but they weren’t. Their transcendent event was that they had acknowledged a debt and a loss bigger than their own injuries, and at this late date, that was probably all they could do.
One year later, almost to the day, the man who inspired that moment died. In the years immediately after he was expelled from the band, Barrett had gone on to make two albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, largely produced by his former bandmates. Over the years, these eccentric records have been held up as further proof of Barrett’s madness. To some, that has made them seem dark and appealing. To others, it has made them too painful to bear. “I can’t imagine anyone liking them,” Wright once said. But those records – which in fact shine on, brilliantly – are also proof of something else: that Barrett’s genius had a hard time losing its flame.
The members of Pink Floyd never had any further contact with Barrett after the day in 1975 when he visited their studio. His family wouldn’t allow it – hearing about his former band upset him too much. The band, however, made sure he always received his royalty payments in full and on time; the music he wrote for Pink Floyd still sold considerably. In his last few years, Barrett suffered from diabetes – his vision diminished, and some of his fingers were amputated – and he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer only a short time before his death on July 7th, 2006.
Barrett never returned to making music after the mid-1970s, but according to his sister Rosemary, he did make art again. She told Mike Watkinson and Pete Anderson, authors of a Barrett biography, that he would photograph a flower, make a large painting of the photograph, photograph the painting, then destroy the painting. “Once something was over, it was over,” she said. “He felt no need to revisit it.” It was not unlike what had happened during his time with Pink Floyd: He created things that had a life for a phase, and then, for reasons that may never be known, all that was left of those things were memories that in time had to be lost. Pink Floyd was one of those things that he made, but in time that too had to be lost. It never really belonged to anybody, but nobody understood that better than Syd Barrett, who long ago grew tired of leaving his shadow in the world and had to let it go.