Rock Bottom

Dark Moments In Music Babylon

Pamela Des Barres

St. Martin's Press

Rock Bottom
LAUGHING SYD BARRETT
Scream Thy Last Scream
Nobody seems to be able to pinpoint when Pink Floyd's founder, Syd Barrett, began his slide into legendary madness. Like most poetic, gifted artists, Syd was wildly sensitive, difficult to understand, and headed down a decidedly precarious path that few would dare follow. After his highly creative, tumultuous period with the Floyd, the mischievous twinkle in Syd's eyes got flat and foreboding, then blinked out completely. Over twenty years have passed since Syd graced the rock world with his starlit piper's heart, but his mythic legend continues to grow. His rabid cult following flourishes, his few records are released over and over again, but unlike Hendrix, Lennon, and Morrison, Syd Barrett is still alive.
Roger Keith Barrett was a gorgeous, happy kid with a wicked sense of humor, adored by his parents and siblings, admired by his peers and teachers. Though his father, a prominent doctor, passed away when Syd was fifteen, his mother lavished attention on her talented son, encouraging his keen interest in art and music. At fourteen Syd briefly played guitar in a band he called TheHollerin' Blues, and soon had major status in his hometown of Cambridge, where the local girls were entranced by his dark, wavy bangs and the unique way he decked himself out. (It was during this time that he picked up the nickname Syd at a local pub.) During his two-year stint at Cambridge Technical Art College Syd was so preoccupied with his guitar that his girlfriend Libby Gausden often felt left out. "He was totally lost," she recalled. "I used to loathe that guitar, like every girlfriend did." When Syd took her to see a new, unsigned band, the Rolling Stones, Libby was once again left on the sidelines as Syd had a long musical chat with singer Mick Jagger.
Syd continued to paint and was accepted at a prestigious London art college, but found that playing music with fellow students Nick Mason, Richard Wright, Roger Waters, and Bob Klose held more fascination and promise than the classroom. Syd had started singing and writing songs, setting his sights on pop stardom. A hardcore fan of rhythm and blues, he called the fledgling band Pink Floyd after two Georgia bluesmen, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, and proudly painted the new moniker on their banged-up old van in bright pink letters, though the band did little more than play pubs and parties for the next year and a half. Musical tastes of the band members were diverging, and Syd was getting a little too far out for Bob Klose, so Klose called it quits early in 1965. (Syd was already experimenting with feedback and echo boxes.) Klose recalled Syd as a gifted artist. "He had almost too much talent, if such a thing is possible. But there were definitely no signs of what was to come ... . The music business is so full of cheats and exploiters that a true artist is always going to be vulnerable."
In the summer of '65 nineteen-year-old Syd was getting as far out as possible, gobbling pure LSD and becoming involved in Sant Mat (Path of the Masters), a Sikh sect, with much reverence and excitement. When he was turned down by the Maharaji Charan Singh Ji and told instead to pursue his studies, Syd was crushed and humiliated, and began his own spiritual training by using vast quantities of psychedelics, which he quickly channeled into music.
After garnering a substantial following, in February 1966 Pink Floyd made their debut at London's oh-so-trendy Marquee Club, sending out invitations that read: "Who will be there? Poets, pop singers, hoods, Americans, homosexuals (because they make up ten percent of the population), twenty clowns, jazz musicians, one murderer, sculptors, politicians, and some girls who defy description are among those invited."
Also among those invited was Peter Jenner, one half of a rock managing team, who was impressed enough to promise the group that he would make them "bigger than the Beatles." Jenner and Andrew King bought the band new equipment, and Syd embarked on a staggering period of creativity, combining all his far-reaching influences--the I Ching, Tolkien's Middle Earth tales, Dylan, Chicago blues, the Byrds, English folk ballads, the Beatles, theStones, avant-electronics--into a psychedelic stew uniquely his own. He was the group's leader and inspiration, coming up with bass lines and drum rolls, as well as the motivating vision--a vision that would last for decades. When the Floyd played the Roundhouse in October 1966 in front of a mind-altering light show, it was an "event." Paul McCartney arrived in white robes and a headdress, and Marianne Faithfull won the "Shortest and Barest" prize for her very naughty nun's habit. Soon after, Pink Floyd became the house band at UFO, a dark and damp underground den of iniquity where nothing was forbidden and everything was encouraged. The show revolved around Syd, and the rest of the band were hard pressed to keep up with his "No Rules!!" law, keeping their eyes on their whimsical leader at all times. And he looked so cool in his King's Road popped-out regalia--a disarming, unruly velvet-and-satin showcase.
Syd lived with an attractive model, Lyndsay Korner, in a flat with a purple door, and his days were spent high and productive. He considered himself a "progressive" artist, taking his inspiration from Handel's Messiah, William Blake, and acid guru Timothy Leary. With several labels showing interest, Jenner and King chose EMI for Pink Floyd, and when the band's first single, Syd's outrageous "Arnold Layne" (about a fellow who enjoyed cross-dressing), was released in March 1967, it was banned on London's pirate radio. With the help of the ensuing controversy, the single managed to crack the Top Twenty and is now regarded as a classic of megaproportions. "Arnold Layne just happens to dig dressing up in women's clothing," said Syd. "A lot of people do, so let's face up to reality!"
In that 1967 Spring of Love the original Pink Floyd began their brief period of glory, playing on "Top of the Pops," headlining huge venues in front of flying-high fans, grabbing rave reviews, creating musical and visual milestones for bands to live up to for years to come.
The follow-up single, "See Emily Play," was written by Syd after he "slept under the stars" and encountered a naked girl dancing in the woods. No one knows if this incident truly took place because Syd was almost always in the grip of an intenseacid trip, his eyes glittering from someplace far away and ultimately unreachable. But who wanted to burst the Summer of Love bubble by coming down on somebody's groovy trip? Already quite eccentric, Syd was starting to show signs of extremely bent behavior--he once fried an egg over a small camp stove in the middle of a Floyd set at the UFO club. It was a sure sign of sad things to come, but I certainly wish I could have been there.
In the studio, however, Syd was a miracle. Pink Floyd's album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn--the title of chapter seven in the children's book The Wind in the Willows (one of Syd's favorites)--is a stunning accomplishment, full of innocent fairy-tale imagery gone mad ("Lazing in the boggy dew, sitting on a unicorn"), singsong vocals, and trippy-hippie psycho-delic enchantment. We get to meander through Syd's personal dreamscape, where he was barely balancing on the edge of bewitched, beleaguered reality. Years later Roger Waters told Q magazine, "What enabled Syd to see things the way he did? It's like why is an artist an artist? Artists simply do, see and feel things in a different way than other people. In a way it's a blessing but it can also be a terrible curse." By the time Syd's masterpiece reached number six on the charts, he had more pressing things on his mind.
When gigs had to be canceled, the management labeled Syd's problem as "nervous exhaustion." For weeks at a time the twenty-two-year-old seemed in complete control, and then he would snap--once keeping his girlfriend locked in a room for three days, shoving crackers under the door while she begged to be let out. When the badly shaken girl was discovered by friends and released, Syd promptly locked himself in the same room for an entire week. Besides the blasts of acid that Syd bestowed upon himself, sycophantic friends would dose his drinks just to watch him shatter into interesting fragments.
There was pressure from the rest of the band to conform to some sort of commercial "pop star" ideal that the increasingly fragile Syd couldn't even comprehend. Demands were made for a third Barrett single. It must have been difficult for the band to realize the full extent of how Syd was losing his grip. They didn't spend much time with their elusive leader, and even playing mu-- sic together became virtually impossible. At a gig in July with the Animals, it became excruciatingly clear that Syd was slowly switching off. He just stood onstage with his guitar dangling around his neck, staring at the audience, catatonic. When the Floyd started their first tour of the United States, they soon realized it would be Syd's last. In between brief moments of dissonant brilliance and frenzied sexual encounters with eager, adoring girls, Syd unraveled. The look on his face was one of horrified paranoia. He had gotten a bad perm and his hair frizzed out from his head like a fright wig, the blazingly bright colors he wore giving his ashen features a dreadful glow. In San Francisco Syd bought a pink Cadillac, only to give it away to a total stranger a few days later. During a record-company tour of Hollywood, upon reaching the corner ofSunset and Vine, Syd piped up, "It's great to be in Las Vegas!" On Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" Syd refused to lip-synch to "See Emily Play," and on Pat Boone's TV show he stared blankly as a flustered Pat asked an array of dumb questions. He just walked off the set of a third television show. Finally the disastrous tour was halted, with the East Coast never getting the opportunity to see Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd.
Recording sessions for the second album proved to be madness, with Syd insisting that a Salvation Army band be brought in for "Jugband Blues." The lyrics are telling: "I'm not here/And I'm wondering who could be writing this song." In another tune, "Vegetable Man," Syd describes what he is wearing, tossing in the chorus, "Vegetable man, where are you?" Good question. Onstage he would either not play at all, play an entirely different song than the rest of the band, or strum the same chord endlessly, sitting cross-legged and staring flatly at the audience. When the Floyd toured with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Jimi nicknamed Syd "Laughing Syd Barrett." Maybe the guitar god witnessed something in the dark-ringed eyes that nobody else could see.
Syd let his hair get matted and grungy, beat up his girlfriend (once smashing her repeatedly with a mandolin), and dropped endless tabs of LSD (once tripping for three solid months), becoming more and more withdrawn. The band never knew what would happen when he finally made it to the stage. "We staggered on thinking we couldn't manage without Syd," said Nick Mason, "so we put up with what can only be described as a fucking maniac. We didn't choose to use those words, but I think he was." At this point, an old friend of Syd's, David Gilmour, was brought in to pick up Syd's formidable slack onstage.
The most notorious Syd Barrett tale seems like a verification of Mason's assessment . Weary of waiting for Syd to pull himself out of his backstage mirror-trance, the band went onstage without him. Fifteen minutes later he appeared with a mixture of his favorite downer-drug, Mandrax, and a full jar of greasy Brylcreem rubbed into his frizzed-out hair. The hot lights soon turned Syd's head into an oily, dripping, monstrous display of insanity On a night soon after this fearsome demonstration, the band just didn't pick Syd up for a gig.
Jonathon Green interviewed Syd for Rolling Stone, hoping to share in the Piper's spiritual revelations, but the article was scrapped after the subject spent most of the time staring at the top corner of the room. "Now look up there," an awestruck Syd told Green. "Can you see the people on the ceiling?"
After a harrowing band meeting, it was put to Syd that perhaps he could become to Pink Floyd what Brian Wilson was to the Beach Boys--he could write and record but not perform live. Did Syd realize he was being excised from his own band? The split wasn't announced until April 6, but after more disastrous sessions, a haunted Syd stood around in EMI's Abbey Road lobbywith his guitar for two days, waiting to fulfill his Brian Wilson role. He never got the chance.
A month later the doomed yet still eerily exotic Syd Barrett went back into the studio to attempt a solo record. It was an uneven, chaotic, and ultimately abortive experience that left Syd teetering more precariously than ever. He spent some time in a hospital, moved from place to place, spent days and weeks in bed, and turned up at Floyd gigs, staring a deep, dark hole into the eyes of David Gilmour, his replacement.
March of '69 found Syd back in the studio due to the determination of Malcolm Jones, the youthful boss of EMI's progressive Harvest label. Jones was ecstatic with the first session, in which Syd completed six guitar and vocal tracks. The drummer on The Madcap Laughs sessions was Jerry Shirley. "Syd had a terrible habit of looking at you and laughing in a way that made you feel really stupid," he recalled. "He gave the impression he knew something you didn't." The sessions proved to be maddening and tedious for the musicians. Soft Machine were brought in for overdubs and soon realized the tracks they thought were rehearsal tapes were actually the final takes. Said Robert Wyatt, "We'd say, 'What key is that in, Syd?' and he would simply reply, 'Yeah!' or 'That's funny!'" David Gilmour, who always took a concerned interest in Syd's life, came in to finish the record. (Guilt, perhaps?) But by the time the final session took place, Syd's deterioration was blatant and shocking. Accompanied by the sound of his lyric pages being turned, Syd stops and starts, singing in an agonized, strangled voice. It hurts to listen to it. Melody Maker described The Madcap Laughs as "the mayhem and madness representing the Barrett mind unleashed."
Record sales were respectable, which prompted Gilmour to produce Syd's second album, Barrett, released in November 1970. Though Syd's looming madness was laced with touches of former magic, especially on "Baby Lemonade" and "Gigolo Aunt," the sessions were torture. Syd's directions came out of faraway left field: "Perhaps we could make the middle darker and maybe the end a bit middle afternoonish," he'd tell the confused musicians. "At the moment it's too windy and icy." The lyrics told of a desolate place where Syd was spending most of his time: "Cold iron hands clap the party of clowns outside," and even more revealing, "Inside me I feel so alone and unreal." The Madcap wept.
Syd was still surrounded by doting groupie girls, hangers-on, and drug dealers who haunted his London flat, soaking up the Piper's sad/mad sheen. He continued to paint, locking himself in his room, slowly becoming even more reclusive and incommunicative. In the summer of 1970 Floyd's Roger Waters saw Syd carrying two large bags in Harrods department store, but when Syd spotted Roger, he dropped the bags and ran crazily from the store. Curious, Roger peeked into the abandoned Harrods bags and found several pounds of candy.
Somehow Syd managed an on-again, off--again schizophrenic relationship with a Cambridge girl, Gayla Pinion, and when he tired of London's mayhem, dragged her back to his mother's house in Cambridge with promises of marriage. The release of his second solo album held no interest for Syd, who told friends that he was going back to school to become a doctor. Needless to say, the good Doctor Barrett never materialized.
During a celebratory family meal for Syd and Gayla's engagement, Syd had a coughing fit at the table, disappeared upstairs, and came back with all of his hair chopped off. "No one batted an eyelid," said Gayla. "They just carried on with the meal as if nothing had happened--didn't say a word. I thought, Are they mad, or is it me?" The couple's brief engagement was shattered by Syd's increasing violent jealousy, and Gayla had to give up on life with the Madcap, leaving him alone in his mother's cellar.
In 1971 another Rolling Stone writer and huge Barrett fan, Mick Rock, hunted Syd down, reporting that he looked "hollow-cheeked and pale ... his eyes reflect a permanent state of shock. He has a ghostly beauty which one normally associates with the poets of old." Syd told the reporter that he walked a lot, painted, wasted time, and feared getting old. He said that he felt "full of dust and guitars."
Cajoled out of his musical exile by a drummer called Twink (formerly with the Pink Fairies), Syd gave some appalling performances with a band called "Stars" before crawling back to the comfort of his dark cellar-world. An attempt at a third solo album was a pathetic misfortune. As Pink Floyd found massive success, their founder thrashed around in his cellar, tearing himself and the place apart--an incident that landed him in the hospital once again. But back in the real world, a cult was forming around Syd Barrett. A publication called The Terrapin, sponsored by the "Syd Barrett Appreciation Society," brought together Syd freaks from all over the world. Even the pop weeklies reported "Syd sightings." One such sighting had him trying on three different sizes of trousers at a trendy boutique, announcing that they all fit him perfectly.
In the mid-seventies Syd moved back to London, where he spent the next eight years in two rooms at Chelsea Cloisters watching a TV suspended from the ceiling, drinking Guinness, and making constant treks to his refrigerator (fascinated with televisions, Syd once had half a dozen). Within a year the once-skinny pop star would weigh over two hundred pounds and shave him-- self bald--perhaps Syd's way of remaining in exile.
Due to David Bowie's cover of "See Emily Play" and the repackaging of Pink Floyd's first two LPs, Syd had plenty of money and found assorted eccentric centric ways to rid himself of it. He bought things and threw them away, he bought things and gave them away--clothes, TVs, stereo equipment, guitars. He gave massive tips to porters and delivery people, inviting them in and offering more gifts, which they gladly carried away.
EMI repackaged The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, hoping to cash in on Syd's cult legend, and Peter Jenner gave it one more try in the studio with Floyd's founder. Syd did show up at the studio--with no strings on his guitar--and when somebody gave him some typed lyrics, Syd promptly bit the person's hand, thinking he was being handed a bill. If Syd turned right upon leaving the studio, he would return; if he turned left, he was gone. Jenner gave up after three days, and Syd Barrett never recorded again.
On June 5, 1975, during one of Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here sessions, David Gilmour spotted a chubby fellow with a shaved head toddling around Abbey Road's Studio Three wearing a short-sleeved sport shirt. When he wandered into the control room, nobody knew who he was. "We were all whispering, 'Who the fuck's this funny geezer?'" Gilmour recalled. "I think I was the first to recognize him." Even though Syd said a few words, he wasn't really there. He showed up for Gilmour's wedding reception later that day, chuckling under his breath. No one in Pink Floyd has seen him since.
Disc jockey Nicky Horne turned up at Cloisters, hoping for a Syd Barrett interview, and was greeted by a huge, fat man with shaved eyebrows, wearing only pajama bottoms. "Syd can't talk," the fat man said and closed the door.
In 1988 EMI brought Syd's solo efforts out on CD, which sell consistently. Numerous bootlegs are available. EMI also released a "new" Syd collection called Opel, and had hoped to include "Vegetable Man" and "Scream Thy Last Scream," but Pink Floyd wouldn't grant permission. We can only imagine how the Madcap Piper's last scream might have sounded. In April 1992 Atlantic Records offered half a million dollars for any type of Syd Barrett recording. The family sent a polite refusal.
Syd Barrett is back in Cambridge in his own basement flat at the end of a dead-end street, by all accounts leading a normal life. His brother-in-law Paul Breen says Syd doesn't play music anymore, prefers his own company to the company of others, likes good wine, has started to paint again ("surprisingly traditional, a country cottage, a vase of flowers"), watches a lot of television, and is a reasonably content man--despite rumors reported in News of the World that he has been heard "shrieking like a lunatic" and "barking like a dog."
I met with journalist Mike Watkinson, who cowrote Syd's biography, and he told me about his only encounter with the "increasingly insular" Syd. "The Syd Barrett of '69 is dead," he insists. "I liken it to David Bowie burying Ziggy Stardust. It's that dramatic. I knew what I was going to see but it still gave me a hell of a shock. We had a degree of cooperation with the family; it had been set up. We were driving in the outskirts of Cambridge, it was very tense in the car, and I happened to glance out the window and I saw this familiar figure walking by. One of his old friends had told me about Syd's distinctive walk--limping on the front of his feet. He must have weighed fifteen stone [210 pounds]. He looked straight in my face. It was very disconcerting. I felt like a private detective and just froze. We set out after this retreating figure and he disappeared. I watched him walk down the street in a classic Charlie Chaplin fadeout. We went to the address, knocked on the door, I explained who we were and what we were doing, and a look of such incredible fear crossed his face. I can remember what he said, it was quite peculiar--'No, I'm not Syd Barrett, I'm only staying here. I don't live here.'"
It was once reported that Syd had "expired in a shop doorway," but like the never-ending fascination surrounding him, Syd Barrett is very much alive behind the closed doors of his own madcap design.
ROCK BOTTOM: DARK MOMENTS IN MUSIC BABYLON. Copyright © 1996 by Pamela Des Barres. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.