Syd Barrett was really only an active participant on one Pink Floyd album, their enchanting 1967 debut The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, before drug abuse exacerbated pre-existing mental problems and forced the band to fire him. Yet his influence and inspiration on the four members of the group lasted well into the next decade as they became perhaps the most successful band of the 70’s.
Their 1973 mega-seller, Dark Side Of The Moon, was largely a meditation on all the things in life that will drive you to the precipice of madness. On the 1979 double-album The Wall, lead songwriter Roger Waters created a burned-out rock star named Pink who bore more than a passing resemblance to his former bandmate.
Nowhere was the connection to Barrett stronger than on 1975’s Wish You Were Here. It’s the album where Waters, feeling the weight of fame and expectations brought about by Floyd’s success, started to identify with Syd and composed the stunning tribute “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” to bookend the album.
“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is composed of nine parts, with each member of the band given a chance for their own spotlight along the way: David Glimour’s icy four-note guitar riff sets the tone for the whole song, Rick Wright’s bed of keyboards and synths bathe the proceedings in emotions ranging from comfort to fear, while Waters on bass and Nick Mason on drums keep the whole thing from floating off into the ether.
Waters’ lyrics may be the best in his career. “Remember when you were young,” he starts. “You shined like the sun.” He alludes to Barrett’s removal from the band (“Well you wore out your welcome with random precision”) but also mentions the pressures that heightened the situation (“You were caught in the crossfire of childhood and stardom.”)
What’s touching about the song is the way that Waters imagines his old friend somehow rising above his former problems, exhorting his friend to “shine” at the end of each refrain. Maybe that’s because Roger could see the sudden similarities between Syd and himself: “Pile on many more layers/And I’ll be joining you there.”
That sense of kinship between Barrett and his former band exhibited itself in an almost mystical way when a practically unrecognizable Syd, who hadn’t seen the members of Floyd in years, randomly showed up in the studio as the band was recording “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” Waters was quoted in Nicholas Schaffner’s Floyd biography Saucerful Of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Story as being in tears at the appearance of “this great, fat, bald, mad person.”
Syd Barrett died in 2006 at age 60. Yet he will live on forever in “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” the song where Pink Floyd came to terms with his absence by acknowledging that he had never really left.