Syd Barrett: the crazy diamond of psychedelic rock and life out of the showbiz

“Retired Musician”. This is what was written in the death certificate, on the box about the subject’s occupation. Syd died on July 7th, 2006, in his home, where the week before he returned after a month in the hospital because of his pancreatic cancer. Despite his health problems (also derived from diabetes and ulcer), he managed to protect his privacy, that he understandably was jealous of.

His last concert dates back to 1972, when in Cambridge he tried to set up a band named “Stars” who, despite the moniker, actually proved  to be a meteor. Whereas his last residual attempts of music productions belongs to the sessions in 1974, when Peter Jenner persuaded the guitarist to return to Abbey Road Studios and start again his solo career. The (very) optimistic project was designed to complete everything in three days: guitar in the first one, the other instruments the second day, vocals in the third day. Realistically, they didn’t go beyond some bass and guitar recording, Syd arrived late on the second day, with an acoustic guitar which had no strings. When they fixed the problem (thanks to the contribution of The Pretty Things’ Phil May), Barrett began to give signs of impatience, leaving the producer Peter and the sound technician John Leckie with no chance but to assemble what they had so far. Emi, still the formal holder of his rights, was interested in obtaining material to be offered to the audience, considering the success that Pink Floyd were having in the meantime, but everything they had was this Bootleg of 11 demos, absolutely vague. The music critic Phil Smee, among the few to have heard additional material from that session, siad it was a bit like hearing a child who plays the guitar for the first time and touches some random strings while murmuring.

SYD-Barret

The description is actually not far from the rest of his fascinating solo career, with the only difference that this time, probably, we are listening to a performer who didn’t want to be there, or wasn’t even aware of it. With his muse, any musical will was probably gone already. In the same summer, Storm Thorgerson (the king of rock album covers) tried to persuade Syd to take some pictures and promote his solo discography, but he refused even to open the door. And when later on, some punk formations asked for his contribution as a guide (like Sex Pistols’ debut and The Damned’s second album), the answer was the same. Apart from the historical visit to his former musical companions in the sessions of Wish You Were Here, there was no way to bring him back to work. He just wanted to stay on his own, and this didn’t really have much to do with related psychological problems. The musician’s sister remembered that Syd showed progress and was more serene, compared to the instability of the last periods with his band. He just didn’t want to have anything to do with the showbiz.

The most recent contact with music world happened in 2002, when he signed 320 copies of the deluxe edition (cost 800 euros, sold out immediately) of Psychedelic Renegades, Mick Rck’s wonderful photographic book that portrayed him in numerous shots. The photographer was perhaps the last person of that media sphere to meet him. While the orbit of psychedelic music continued to partly gravitate around his notes of few decades before, he just didn’t care. He barely saw the documentary that BBC2 dedicated to him in November 2001, finding it “a little noisy”. At least this is what Rosemary said: His sister was probably the closest figure to that Barrett, immersed in gardening activities and painting. Creations that he often burned after photographing them. Because what was was important to him was just being able to bring himself on canvas, the product was secondary, tracked from time to time just to show it to his relative and that’s all. He stopped with concerts because, for him, performing looked a bit like being commissioned for a painting. He also didn’t listen to much Rock. He was more into Jazz, and he had a particular passion especially for Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker.

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The cover of Psychedelic Renegades

At The Mirror, Rosemary told the typical day of her brother: “He was getting up late, having breakfast with eggs and bacon, going up on a bike and taking a ride at the supermarkets. He was buying a lot of things he didn’t need, maybe hit by their colors or glittering.” Someone could think that he was somehow obscure or introversed, basing on the image we crystallized decades before, but actually the story continues with him engaged in reading bricolage articles or buy large quantities of paint. Considering also that he was never watching TV, we could start thinking about how “stranger” than us he really was. In fact, although the legendary figure of Syd remains anchored to his “Crazy Diamond” nickname, to the unregulated attitudes with Pink Floyd and to his lo-fi excellent compositions, it would also be nice to ventilate the hypothesis that the last Barrett brought back to his control part of his life and enjoyed his existence in a free manner, as was his music.

In this regard, we may think differently the phrase “Have You Got It Yet?”, title of a beautiful free box created by fans, which includes a generous series of gems from his short but intense career. A humble alternative to theThe Early Years 1965-1972 box, in order to enjoy small, pleasant and ephemeral clouds of music. Simple, like his autograph in the aforementioned copies of Mick Rock’s book, where he just wrote “Barrett”. Seven light letters and nothing else.

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