Disappearances can be deceptive
Tom Cox – Sunday April 22, 2001 – The Observer
Pink Floyd’s founding genius Syd Barrett has kept a 30-year silence – and now he is the most wanted man in music
Sunday April 22, 2001
There are probably better places in the world to go to become invisible than Cambridge, but perhaps not if you are an ex-rock star with arty inclinations, dubious mental stability and a fragile, relationship with the past. If you happen to be bald and overweight into the bargain, it’s virtually made for you. With a population of only 109,000, it combines Olde English charm with sophistication, and has students that actually look like students. But, amid the academia, greenery and gentility, what you really can’t help but notice are the big bald blokes – hundreds of them, all heading into late middle age, all in the region of 15 stone, all wandering the streets mumbling to themselves.
I’m here on the spiritual trail of one of rock’s most enigmatic figures, Syd Barrett, the former leader of Pink Floyd, who went into hiding in the early Seventies after several drug-related breakdowns and never came out. But like most Barrett fans, I’ve made the mistake of picturing Barrett still as he was in the late Sixties – slim, tousled, kaftanned, tassled. The reality couldn’t be more different: paparazzi shots snatched outside his house in 1980 depict a rotund, receding figure staring vacantly at something at least 3,000 miles behind the camera lens. And that was 21 years ago – which leaves me searching for some nebulous amalgam of Benny from Crossroads , Marlon Brando and the Michael Jackson impersonator from The Simpsons .
And here he is! ‘Excuse me!’ I ask the spherical figure who’s just ambled past me, head down, chuntering. ‘I’m writing a piece about Syd Barrett.’
‘Syd Barrett. He used to be in Pink Floyd.’
‘Never heard of ‘im. Is he one of them rappers?’
‘No – he was a psychedelic genius. Are you Syd Barrett?’
‘Leave me alone. I’ve got to get some coleslaw.’
I take this as a no.
For a brief, glittering moment, Barrett (real name: Roger) was one of psychedelia’s most productive, kaleidoscopic minds. But at some point between 1967 and 1969 something (some say acid, some say Mandrax, some say sherbet lemons) went very badly wrong. He left Pink Floyd, the band he founded, in April 1969 after his fellow musicians ran out of patience with his propensity for massaging Brylcreem into his hair, and his decreasing ability to communicate or perform. He released two solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, both in 1970, then retreated to the cellar of his mother’s house in Cambridge.
For sheer cult recluse intrigue, his only living competitors are Sly Stone and Brian Wilson – both of whom also had breakdowns in rock’s big breakdown era (1967-75) but neither of whom has shown the self-discipline of the bona fide hermit. No living musician generates so many rumours. Syd is married. Syd hangs around in my local pub. Syd has secret parties with Brian Eno and Jimmy Page. Syd hasn’t seen daylight for 30 years. Syd is a painter, a gardener. Syd still thinks he’s leader of Pink Floyd. Syd is diabetic. Syd is in Coldplay. All or none might be true, apart from the last.
I’m not the first to go snooping for Syd. Between my trip to Cambridge and the completion of this piece, the Mail On Sunday publish a new snap of Barrett. But Barrett remains silent.
Even his former bandmates seem to be in the dark. ‘Over the years vague bits of information would filter back to me via my mum, who still lives in Cambridge – that Syd had moved house, or that he had moved back in with his mum, or that he was in the local sanatorium,’ says ex-Floyd bassist Roger Waters. ‘But I haven’t actually spoken to him since 1975 when he came to one of our recording sessions uninvited.’
Did he look different? ‘None of us recognised him. He’d put on about four stone, shaved off all his body hair, and he was eating a big bag of sweets. He’d changed from this beautiful curly haired youth into something resembling the bloke who keeps the scores on that Vic Reeves show.’
I tell Waters about a website that has an interview with Syd’s nephew Ian, who says Syd ‘still talks in fragments’ and is uncomfortable about the past but that he’s writing a book on art history. ‘Really?’exclaims Waters, sounding thrilled. ‘That’s extraordinary. He must be a lot better. Maybe I will go and see him at some point.’
‘I think the Floyd have looked after him financially,’ says Peter Jenner, ex-Floyd and Barrett manager. ‘Dave [Gilmour] in a personable way and Roger in a conscience way. They’ve never denied their debt to Syd’s original vision. But I’m sure they’re all really pissed off by his continuing cool status.’
Does it piss Waters off? ‘Not at all,’ Waters claims. ‘But I remember seeing an early R.E.M. gig at the Hammersmith Odeon. I went backstage and they were all very warm and welcoming, apart from Michael Stipe who just sat in the corner with his back to me. Then he went on for the encore and did an a cappella version of [Syd’s] ‘Black Globe’, which might have been his way of saying, “Syd was all right but you’re an arsehole.”‘
What really seems to intrigue Waters and Jenner, like everyone else, is whether Barrett is aware of the vast cult acclaim he commands. They both talk of him turning up to Floyd events long after his departure and referring to them as ‘his band’. But his nephew claims ‘any talk of the past upsets him’. Is Barrett aware that modern rock bands (The Gigolo Aunts, Baby Lemonade) name themselves after his songs? That no album by any vaguely tortured, eccentric songwriter is reviewed without a reference to his own debut?
Barrett’s actual output is far outweighed by his aura, his musical history interesting but nowhere near as interesting as the blanks we fill in ourselves. His Floyd period brilliance – ‘See Emily Play’, ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ – is fleeting and tinged with the promise of better musicianship to come. His solo work is sparse, as grating as it is highfalutin. (‘It was like seeing a bus coming out of the fog, then immediately seeing it disappear back into the fog again,’ remembers Jenner.) There are glimpses of brilliance everywhere, then Barrett is gone – forever, before anything has the chance to be packaged. Is this why we can’t leave him alone?
It’s not too hard to find Syd, if you ask a friend of a friend. Someone who knows someone who knows someone I know claims to have once arranged an interview over the phone on behalf of a Cambridge student paper, then turned up, only for Syd to greet his questions with silence and stare right through him.
‘You hear all sorts of stories,’ says Max Rees, proprietor of Hot Numbers record shop in Cambridge. Who from? ‘Oh – people. People in bands. People who know people.’ Max directs me to the Mill Pond, a grassy area near King’s and Queens’ Colleges, where Syd hung out in the Sixties, and, according to Max’s source, ‘still goes for picnics’.
But, in the end, for all my complaints about armies of Sydalikes, I walk around Cambridge terrified at the prospect of finding him. A group of students claim to have a friend who’s seen him in the pub near their halls of residence. The assistants in the independently owned record shops I visit speak of Syd proudly, but have no first-hand evidence of his existence. I approach another big wandering bald man: he mumbles violently about fish.
I finish the day beside the Mill Pond, not so much scanning for Syd as putting myself in his shoes: I am 55. I am perhaps the one genuinely untainted living cult rock star in a tainted world. I have enough royalties to spend afternoons watching scantily-clad students having picnics. I live in a beautiful, cultured city where no one recognises me. I don’t have my looks any more, but my public do.
I click out of the reverie, and think of something Jenner said: ‘I can’t help feeling Syd sussed it all out and said let’s leave it, my work’s done. He’s never done tacky reunion tours. He’s got the status of someone who died young. You wonder whether he knows exactly what he is doing… and I have a sneaky feeling he might.’ The Real Syd Barrett could be laughing at us as we speak.
The Best of Syd Barrett: Wouldn’t You Miss Me is out now on EMI