Today’s post is about Syd Barrett. It’s not his birthday, or the day he died, or any other notable day (that I know of) in Syd’s history, but he popped up recently, as I heard “Gigolo Aunt” on the radio, and he’s had an interesting place in my self-education in rock music history, so today I’ll share a little of what bounces around in my head with you.
This will not be a documentary style post, full of specific factoids with dates. There are plenty of websites and books out there with that kind of detail. I can’t even promise every memory I have is correct, but for purity of the post, I’m not going to research stuff before posting. It’s also going to have more to do with me than Syd, perhaps.
Syd was, as you can see from the picture above, a gorgeous but troubled young man. As I particularly lean towards guitar and guitarists, his style intrigued me when I started to get into Pink Floyd, which was sadly not until the early days of college, having been very busy listening to 70s punk and 80s new wave in high school. His style of sound manipulation other abnormal guitar tendencies are the same deviations that led Jimmy Page to greatness. But Syd’s path was darker, leading down to madness.
For those who don’t know, Syd was the original lead singer and guitarist with Pink Floyd. His tenure with them was limited, but he influenced the sound and direction of that band immeasurably in my opinion. The walrus may have been Paul, but Syd was the crazy diamond – just one tribute his former Pink Floyd bandmates made to him.
After Syd was dismissed from the band, due to heavy LSD usage and general fuck-up-ness, he assembled and put together a couple albums that were as musically weird as any Zappa album, with flashes of brilliance in lyric and sound, while also letting us bear witness to his mental decline and self-destruction. I had never heard an album so unpolished, where the mistakes were purposely left in. I didn’t know whether to laugh or be embarrassed (or both) listening to “The Madcap Laughs” and “Barrett,” so I got drunk.
My formal Pink Floyd education began when I moved into my dorm the first year of college. The dorm I lived was mostly occupied by Fine & Professional Arts majors, so it could be pretty out there, with theater people, artists of all stripes, writers, and the most studios of the F&PA majors, architects, who never seemed to leave their drawing tables. As I went to Kent State, the smell of pot and patchouli was prevalent, as were Doors posters and poker games – the dorm was co-ed by wing, so you only had to travel down the hall to hang out with the other sex. During a major personal crisis a few months into the year, a guy was apparently summoned from the guys’ wing to come and try to talk to me. I was having a bit of a freak out about some shit, made worse by drugs and booze, and his job was apparently to coach people off the ledge (figuratively, people). He said his name was Syd and I let him in when I wouldn’t let anyone else in, and he stayed pretty much all weekend, cleaning up everything I had broken, calling down to his friends to bring cigarettes and books and food, and telling me funny stories. He was at school on a Journalism scholarship, which he got by telling them, to be funny, at the interview, that he wanted to write for the National Enquirer. He had a Brooklyn accent and was tall and lanky, much like Syd Barrett, and he had a gruff but loving way of running things on the floor. “Look at you,” he said, “All you wear is black. You’re like the Princess of Darkness.” He called his roommates down, Pig and Mahalo (obviously not their real names), and they hung out with me awhile too. “Princess, I call her,” he told them, “Princess of Darkness.” I was sick with mono on top of my personal crisis, and he sort of insisted everyone take care of me. “Deena!” he shouted, calling to the girl across the hall. She appeared instantly, like Fonzie had snapped his fingers. He said, “Take Princess here down the hall to the bathroom, and make her brush her fucking teeth. And don’t give her any cigarettes, she has a sore throat she can’t quit.” And Deena did. And my nickname was cemented.
Syd poured orange juice and toast down me and made me stay in my room until I was better. I missed like 3 days of classes. He would leave for awhile to go to his own classes but would make people check on me to make sure I was “staying fucking put all day” like he said.
I recovered mentally and physically, and began hanging with him and his crew from down the hall. They were obsessed with classic rock, but Pink Floyd was their favorite – their dorm room was a shrine to the band. Turns out his name wasn’t really Syd, it’s just what everyone called him because he was crazy, but nobody ever called him by his real name.
About a month after we fell in together, Floyd was coming to Cleveland Browns stadium. I had never been to a concert that big, and I knew so little about their music. “You’re going, Princess,” he told me, “Forget about it.” They devoted an entire weekend to “cramming” Pink Floyd’s music into me like you would cram for an exam. At the concert, when the gates opened, I was almost crushed in the sea of people. People pushed to get in as soon as they got through the turnstiles and I almost got trampled. I’d never been amongst so many people. Syd grabbed me up from the floor and yelled out, “Mahalo, take the lead!” He got close to my ear and said, “Hold on to his belt loops. Don’t let go. I got you.” So he grabbed my belt loops and I grabbed Mahalo’s, and he led us through the sea. All of a sudden I saw how the people shape-shifted, how crowds ebb and flow and you find space to move quickly and smoothly in between people, like dodging raindrops. I could feel everyone moving as a group and felt safe instead of scared; this ability to see, understand and anticipate the movement of the crowds served me well in my years working concert security many years down the road.
We used to sit around and drink or get high and listen to Barrett’s albums, memorizing the insane banter Syd was having with his producer, everyone drinking when he sang “Please, please, Baby Lemonade.” The false starts and stuttering. The moments of musical brilliance glimpsed through general madness, which, during a very tumultuous time in my life, fit so well.
Syd disintegrated, basically. He became a recluse after being released from a long stay in a mental hospital, focusing on gardening and living with his Mum until she passed. He died in 2006. Shine on, crazy baby.