Tag Archive: Syd Barrett


Slinker and Stinker

Gollum, Syd and Pink had something in common – they all had less hair as they went on

The specter of Syd Barrett, amazingly, was still hanging over Pink Floyd more than 11 years after he had left the band. In particular, Syd was still a part of the thought processes of Roger Waters. And since Waters was the primary songwriter and musical demagogue of Pink Floyd, Syd of course shows up in The Wall.

Waters and Barrett have always shared a bit of their ethos, and I think Waters is strangely akin to Barrett mentally. In fact, the character of Pink, in addition to being a twisted reflection of Waters himself, is also an archetype for the self-obsessed, insecure and unstable rock star. Waters’ experience with all those things (other himself, of course) and comes directly from Syd Barrett.

The starkest example of this is in the song “Nobody Home.” Pink, having now retreated completely behind his wall, muses about his own state of mind and body. He looks at the things that immediately surround him – his clothes, the TV, the hotel room – and then examines his own feelings and perceptions – his paranoia, his pessimism. He’s part Howard Hughes, part Holden Caufield, and indeed part Syd Barrett. He’s now resigned to his feelings of isolation and disconnection.

One track earlier, in “Is There Anybody Out There?” Pink gets on the other side of his wall, looks around and finds he’s all alone. The sense you get from the music in “Is There Anybody Out There?” is a vast, inky nothingness, like being lost in space without any planets or stars in a 300 light year radius. Everything just echoes, returning back on itself with nothing added. Instantly, Pink starts feeling for the edges of the wall, trying to get back over to the other side, the human side, to no avail.

And one track before that, we have a little summary of the first half of The Wall with a preview of the second half in “Hey You.” This song is an easy single and music video, and it became one in 1982 with the release of Pink Floyd – The Wall, the feature film. “Hey You” was the only song from The Wall that was not included in the movie, but a music video was made for it culling all the footage from the 1982 film.

In “Hey You” and “Nobody Home,” there is a Bowie-like splitting of the self, but rather than creating two distinct personalities, Pink talks to himself and responds to himself, perhaps more like Gollum’s Slinker and Stinker. Gollum has arguments with himself because for a long time, there’s no one else around with whom to have arguments. Once Frodo and Sam enter his life, the habit continues. It’s exactly the same with Pink. The only person to keep him company in this solipsistic world is himself, but for Pink, he even lets himself down. You only need listen to the first chorus of “Nobody Home” to realize that.

When I try to get through / on the telephone to you / there’ll be nobody home.

And still, there’s Syd. The “obligatory Hendrix perm” line from “Nobody Home” is a direct nod to Syd, and as many parallels as I pick out between Pink and Gollum, the reality of this character is based on Syd. There have been all sorts of theories about what was wrong with him, so I won’t go into that, but a pretty consistent symptom of mental illness is talking to oneself. Who knows? Syd might have had conversations with himself like his very own personal Slinker and Stinker.

Next: “I know we’ll meet again some sunny day…”

Syd Barrett

Syd Barrett

On June 5th 1975, the members of Pink Floyd were happily churning away at Abbey Road Studios in London, recording parts for “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” the central piece for their next album. On this particular day, though, they had a visitor. He showed up unannounced. He had no hair, no beard, no eyebrows, had a dead look on his face, and mystified everyone in the sessions as to why he was there. Even though they didn’t recognize him at first, they knew him – it was none other than Syd Barrett himself.

He looked completely different than the guy they all knew years before. He had put on weight, for one thing, and he was dressed differently, but the biggest thing was his lack of hair. Roger Waters in particular must have this burned into his memory; in his fullest exploration of madness and its effects, The Wall, the main character Pink shaves off all the hair on his body, signifying the completion of his descent into insanity.

Syd’s behavior that day was predictably unpredictable. At one point, he stood in the studio control booth brushing his teeth. The timing of this visit is particularly interesting, since Pink Floyd was recording “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a song Waters had penned specifically about Barrett. When Waters asked him what he thought of the song, Barrett just said “sounds a bit old.” Waters had so much to say about Syd, his personality, his psychoses, and madness in general. He wrote two albums about it (Dark Side and The Wall), as well as a grand 26-minute magna carta specifically about him, and all Syd could find to say was “sounds a bit old.”

Syd at Abbey Road, June 5th 1975

Syd at Abbey Road, June 5th 1975

If you want my opinion, Syd didn’t really understand that the song was about him. I’m guessing there wasn’t a lot at that time Syd did understand. For some geniuses like Syd, the rest of the world is speaking a foreign language. It’s not just in the words they say – it’s in their actions, their mindset, their perceptions, the entirety of how they interact with the world.

Some have speculated that Syd was schizophrenic – a rather easy and unsatisfying answer. Some say he had some sort of autism spectrum disorder, like Asperger’s. Others point to his copious use of mind-altering drugs in his younger years. But whatever the diagnosis of what the hell was wrong with him, what remains is that Syd Barrett was both blessed and cursed, and both by nature and by circumstance. Syd was born into a particular arrangement of events, or the stars aligned, or God stretched out his holy hand, or whatever – Syd was different; he was blessed (or cursed, depending on your perspective) with a kind of understanding that is granted to extremely few people. He also did a lot of LSD, another contributing factor. But however it came to pass, his story ends in a sputtering incoherency, one that we can only understand through the flagrantly inadequate lens of “well, he’s just crazy.”

But Roger Waters knew better. He knew what very few people knew about Syd – that there’s a little piece of Syd inside all of us.

Pink Floyd with Syd, pre-David Gilmore

Pink Floyd with Syd, pre-David Gilmour

“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is really a collection of a bunch of different musical ideas Pink Floyd had hatched over the course of two years. Originally, it was supposed to be a side-long composition, much like “Echoes” from Meddle and “Atom Heart Mother” from the album of the same name. The lyrics serve as the backbone of the entire song, but they only appear in 2 of the 9 sections. In the lyrics, it’s Roger talking directly to Syd directly, calling him all manner of things, like stranger, legend, martyr, painter, piper, prisoner, boy child, winner and loser. He details in poetic terms Syd’s history with the band, and reveals that he, more than anyone else, understood what Syd was going through. He also understood that Syd had to go through it completely alone; the other members of Pink Floyd would not follow.

Next: But if that salt has lost its flavor, it ain’t got much in its favor…

Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here - 9/12/1975

Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here – 9/12/1975

Two years after their brilliant explosion of success, Pink Floyd made the best song of their career. Not a lot of people agree with me, and with good reason. The title track from their 1975 question mark album Wish You Were Here really doesn’t make a whole lot of waves. Most albums worth their salt have a track like “Wish You Were Here”; it’s a breath inward, a break in the action that usually comes before one final push. Led Zep’s “Going to California”; Black Sabbath’s “Solitude”; R.E.M. with “Hairshirt” and “Country Feedback”; even the Beatles with “Yesterday.” And as to Pink Floyd’s best song, most people would point to “Another Brick In the Wall Pt. 2,” “Time,” See Emily Play,” “Comfortably Numb” or “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” as their greatest defining single. But “Wish You Were Here,” in my mind, surpasses them all.

There’s more than one reason, too. First is that it contains some of the BEST lyrics EVER penned, and certainly the greatest turn of phrase of the entire ‘70s. The whole song is great, but this is the best:

Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?

Second, the song’s grasp far exceeds its reach, which is opposite of how most songs come out. It’s little more than a lazily strummed acoustic guitar, a drunken piano, and light and airy drums. The final coda has a bluesy guitar solo on top of it that makes the song float away. But the ecstasy the song possesses while it’s playing and the impact it leaves have a size and scope that simply defies logic.

Third and most importantly, “Wish You Were Here” succinctly and beautifully captures the essence and message of the album which lends it its name. Wish You Were Here is about the alienation and emptiness felt by someone who has been given all this world has to offer. The Dark Side of the Moon brought Pink Floyd success on every level. Money, girls, drugs, and hordes of adoring fans – all the things you presumably get into the music business for, aside from actual music – all of this had come Pink Floyd’s way. They had definitely paid their dues; Dark Side was their 8th studio outing, and they had been together for over 10 years by the time that things started settling back down in 1974. They had scaled the heights of rock and roll stardom – now what?

“Wish You Were Here” is in second person, addressing someone directly in the present tense. What passes for a chorus in this little-engine-that-could goes like this:

How I wish you were here / We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year / Running over the same old ground / Have we found the same old fears? / Wish you were here

Who is the “you” in this song? Who is the lyricist addressing? Some say it’s Syd Barrett; that’s because Syd is the focus of the song “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a 26+ minute opus split into two halves which open and close the album (and the reason most people buy the album anyway). Some say the “you” is musical purity, the elemental material of music unencumbered by corporate greed and financial motivation. That’s what the other two songs on Wish You Were Here are about: “Welcome to the Machine” is a disturbing exploration of how innocent rock and roll dreams are corrupted by money, and “Have a Cigar” paints a clear portrait of a greedy record executive (more on both of those later).

But I think the “You” in “Wish You Were Here” is Pink Floyd itself. Their 9th album finds them completely empty, wondering how they got to this crazy place and desperately wanting to return to a simpler time. In the process of getting bigger, more popular and more successful, they lost who they were. And with Wish You Were Here, they are finally asking the question, “Who are we?” It’s their most existential album yet; Søren Kirkegaard would be proud.

And the title track has all the existential wanderings of the entire album rolled into a naked singularity. Pink Floyd’s desire to strip away all the complications and fallacies the music business imposes on them is reflected in the musical simplicity of the track. It’s not a complicated song – more often than not, a good piece of art is defined by what the artist takes away instead of by what he adds. But since I make my existence on words, the thing I remember the most is the poetic method Pink Floyd uses to work out its angst. The lyrics are simply stunning, and leave me dumbstruck. “Wish You Were Here” is a true poem, right up there with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “She Walks In Beauty.” The mark: it leaves me with nothing to say, because I can find no words better than the ones it uses.

Next: Syd Barrett, the crazy diamond.

The Quarrymen (later The Beatles), with Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best

Pink Floyd didn’t start with The Dark Side of the Moon. Their beginnings actually date back to the early 60s, right around when the Beatles hit the scene. After the Fab Four, every punk kid with a guitar and a chip on his shoulder thought he could have a band. One of the biggest effects the Beatles had on the music scene was opening up the floodgates of possibility; if these four hoodrats from Liverpool could make it big in the music biz, anyone could.

The band that would become Pink Floyd started as just another group of teenagers with dreams of stardom. The group initially orbited around the nucleus of Roger Waters, Richard Wright and Nick Mason. Other people circulated through, but they found their direction when Syd Barrett randomly introduced himself to Mason.

The newly gelled four-piece band went through a great many name changes (some of them pretty ridiculous – my favorites are the Meggadeaths and the Screaming Abdabs) before finally settling on the Tea Set. In 1965 at one of their gigs, there was another band named the Tea Set on the bill, so Syd made up another name on the spot. It was derived from two blues musicians, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. And like that, Pink Floyd was born.

Syd Barrett

In 1967 Pink Floyd’s debut album came out, whimsically titled The Piper At the Gates of Dawn. Syd had taken the role of band leader, a natural position being the lead singer and guitarist, as well as a very out-going personality. But soon thereafter, Syd started to unravel. There are many theories about what was actually wrong with him; some say schizophrenia (a rather easy answer), others say bipolar disorder, and still others Asperger’s. Psychology has developed to 3,000% what it was in the late 60s, though, so they didn’t have language like that back then. But perhaps the biggest contributor to Syd’s insanity was LSD. The drug was extremely poorly understood back then, as were its long-term effects.

Various biographies have been written about both Syd and Pink Floyd, and the stories about Syd’s behavior seem like they can’t be real. “Antics” seems like too mild a word to describe some of the crap he did. Nevertheless, his “antics” proved too much for the band. Roger Waters relates one story of Syd coming into a practice session with a song he had just written called “Have You Got It Yet?” They tried playing it, but in the middle of the first run-thru, Syd made changes to the arrangement. That pattern repeated for long time, each time the band singing the lyric “have you got it yet?” The band eventually realized that they never would “get it,” and that they were instead the victims of a very strange joke Syd was playing.

David Gilmour

Enter David Gilmour. He was a childhood friend of Syd’s, and in 1967 the other three brought him in as a second guitarist. His real purpose was to provide reliable guitar. During shows, Syd often stood there doing absolutely nothing, or he wandered around the stage aimlessly while the rest of the band played. Occasionally, he would join in the song, but there was no way for them to predict what Syd would do. They needed Gilmour to add some surety.

On their way to one gig, the four completely sane members said to each other, “Shall we pick Syd up?” The response was, “Let’s not bother.” It was just easier as a four-piece than a five, or rather a four+crazy.

Syd’s genius, disintegration and departure from the band had a lasting impact on the rest of Pink Floyd’s career. Roger Waters, who became the Floyd’s primary songwriter after Syd’s ousting, spent over a decade contemplating the nature of madness, writing music that had it as its centerpiece. Not only is The Dark Side of the Moon solely about things that drive people to madness, but Floyd’s 1979 album The Wall is a rock opera about one man’s descent into the depths of insanity, brought on by rock and roll stardom.

“Brian Damage” from Dark Side is like the whole of Pink Floyd’s career in miniature. It could be said that all the entire Dark Side album could be summed with this one song. In it, Roger Waters is talking specifically about Syd Barrett, but the application to more general terms of madness is clearer than on any other song. When Roger sings, “the lunatic is on the grass,” he’s singing about Syd. But it’s more than just simple symbolic representation; Roger shares some of the idiosyncratic methods of Syd’s logic, or lack thereof. It’s clear from “Brain Damage” and other songs (as well as the very existence of The Wall) that Roger and Syd shared a sort of kinship – not just musically, but mentally.

Roger Waters

Roger spotted something that’s kinda been gnawing at me, too. Maybe Syd wasn’t really crazy – maybe the rest of us are. The sign says KEEP OFF THE GRASS, but why? What possible consequence could come from stepping on the grass? Isn’t grass meant to be stepped on? Isn’t that its purpose? Yet any logical and “sane” person would obey the sign and keep off the grass. But, according to Roger Waters, “the lunatic” wouldn’t. “The lunatic is ON the grass.” And if Syd were still alive, he’d be one of those “lunatics.” That’s the spirit of punk rock – the spirit of defiance.

I’ve already stated that in order for defiance against something to be good, the something needs to be bad. Grass doesn’t really qualify. But for other things, rock and roll has the right idea. In some cases, defiance is the holiest and most righteous thing you can do.

Next: Dark Side, The Wizard of Oz, and synchronicity.