ast Thursday, Roger Keith “Syd” Barrett was a 60-year-old man living quietly in Cambridge, England. On Friday, he died peacefully. He hadn’t made a record in over thirty years and no one expected him to.
He joined a band called the Abdabs in 1965 and renamed them Pink Floyd. Piper at the Gates of Dawn and the band’s early singles wrote at least half of psychedelic rock’s lexicon; they were brash, dissonant, and frightening, but they were also playful. Syd closes “Bike” with the lines “I know a room full of musical tunes, some rhyme some ching, most of them are clockwork / Let’s go into the other room and make them work.” The door moans; the invitation as promising as it is ominous.
Watch him here on the BBC. His words are thoughtful and measured. But something went wrong with Syd and nobody knew exactly what to call it—LSD? Schizophrenia? Asperger syndrome? A fragile, creative mind under pressure. Syd Barrett climbed onstage with Pink Floyd in 1968, struck one long chord, and turned to stone. By 1969, he was living in a portion of his mother’s house; he had boarded up his windows.
It’s always hard to tell whether Syd’s leading the song around or the song’s leading him. By Barrett, his second solo album, he was falling off his stool during recording sessions; listening to David Gilmour and Rick Wright try to make a proper rock song with him is a pretty dark joke, like asking a kid to make a sculpture of a dinosaur out of mercury.
But the flipside of his chemical volatility was a unique, unhurried tenderness. Take a song like “Here I Go”—it’s stupid and don’t try to talk around it. Barrett shows up to play a song to impress an overly critical girl; she’s not there but her sister is, and that’s fine enough. Because why not? Because life is, and so it goes. And Syd’s happy. It’s a dash of sloppy vaudeville and “Love the One You’re With” sans bullshit. On Barrett’s “Love Song,” he’s so loose that his syntax ruptures: “I knew a girl and I like her still she said she knew she would trust me and I her will.”
Of course, “Dark Globe,” from 1970’s The Madcap Laughs, is still the definitive Barrett song and probably always will be. It pulls and pushes against the same weird force that hovered over all his work; he speeds up, he slows down. Words get crammed in as he sees fit; if a passage needs to stretch a bar and a half longer, so be it. Every wound in his body opens as he reaches for “Won’t you miss me, wouldn’t you miss me at all?” but it’s not the key line in the song. The key line is, of course, “Please lift a hand, I'm only a person / With Eskimo chain, I tattooed my brain all the way,” which is to say that he’s like nothing else alive on Earth.
Syd Barrett is, thank heavens, not Jim Morrison and our weary spirits won’t be plugged with too many vague celebrity eulogies and “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” on every 5 o’clock rock block for the next two weeks and teenagers will not scuttle down their fire escapes to scrawl the lyrics from “Jugband Blues” on the side of the Pulaski Bridge in front of night, unflinching. Syd Barrett passed with grace. Syd Barrett has been dead for thirty years; in grainy tabloid photos, he’s appeared vacant and chubby, but content. He picked up royalty checks and fresh vegetables and nobody should have bothered him.