July 13, 2006

Shine on, you crazy diamond (Syd Barrett, 1946-2006)

Syd Barrett, the legendary original guitarist/vocalist of the progressive rock band Pink Floyd, died on July 7 at the age of 60.

It was Barrett who originally came up with the name The Pink Floyd; the band was originally an R&B cover outfit, so it was fitting that he coined a moniker that combined the given names of bluesmen Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. As songwriter, Barrett turned the band in a more psychedelic direction; songs from this era tend to be whimsical ("Lucifer Sam"), humourous ("Arnold Layne"), or sometimes outright weird ("The Gnome").

However, Barrett's mental health deteriorated in the late 1960s as Pink Floyd's star began to rise. He was a heavy user of LSD and other psychedelic drugs, and some people believe he had a mental disorder, such as schizophrenia or Asperger Syndrome, which might have been aggravated by his chemical abuse. His behaviour became erratic and unpredictable: for example, he would stand on stage with his guitar and stare into space, or strum a single chord for the entire concert, or fiddle with his guitar's tuning. In 1967, the Floyd appeared on American Bandstand but Syd refused to move his lips to the recording of their hit "See Emily Play." He refused to answer questions in interviews, staring blankly instead. Guitarist David Gilmour was hired to replace him, and one day the band just decided not to pick Syd up on the way to a gig.

The lengthy song "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," from the 1975 album Wish You Were Here, was written as a tribute to Syd Barrett. Coincidentally, after several years of seclusion, he showed up at Abbey Road Studios to pay a visit during the recording of that record: having gained weight and shaved off all his hair, the band hardly recognized him and were moved to tears. Some years later, Barrett returned to live with his mother (also deceased), reverted to using his real name (Roger) instead of the nickname "Syd," and took up painting.

Nonetheless, Barrett was an influential musician - artists as diverse as R.E.M., Dream Theater, The Who, and Smashing Pumpkins have either covered his songs or claimed inspiration from him. Syd Barrett is the poster boy for wasted talent as the consequence of a lifestyle of excess.