There are two Syd Barretts. The one that many music fans know is the dark-eyed, eccentric cult icon who was immortalized in Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” The second is the real human being, songwriter and multi-faceted visual artist behind that facade.
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Barrett: The Definitive Visual Companion by Russell Beecher and Will Shutes is a lushly-illustrated coffee table book [out December 1st] that acknowledges the first Syd while inviting us into the fascinating world of the second.
“I never really bought into the whole ‘Crazy Diamond’ thing that was put forth in the Pink Floyd song,” author Russell Beecher tells American Songwriter. “It was sensationalism and over-simplification. Syd wasn’t this kind of rock ‘n’ roll animal. I think a lot of that is the product of music journalism in the ’70s, which tended to go down those routes. The picture that emerged of Syd from working on this book over a period of years was one who was very creative, very sensitive and very individual. I don’t think Syd took drugs then went crazy. I think that were some personality traits there already that were possibly exacerbated by that. But what comes through the photos and letters and painting is someone that was very caring, very loving, full of life and humor.”
Barrett was born Roger Keith Barrett in 1946 in Cambridge, England. As a kid, he liked to draw, paint and write poetry. Like John Lennon, David Bowie, Pete Townshend and so many British musicians of the 1960s, Barrett went on to art school then joined a band with some classmates. Though Pink Floyd is often thought of as a ’70s phenomenon, the nucleus – Syd, Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Richard Wright – was already in place by 1965. And in the beginning, Barrett was their leader and main songwriter.
The early sound of Pink Floyd, embodied in songs like “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play,” was playful and slightly off-balance. In the book, Roger Waters says, “Syd had an extraordinary bounce in his step, and the way he walked was sort of the way he lived. It was all a bit sort of bouncy. He was very Tigger-like if one could borrow from A.A. Milne. Obviously, a lot brighter than Tigger, but nevertheless he had that kind of boing to him. And he brought that to the forefront in not just his songwriting but in his general attitude towards pop groups in general, and our pop group in particular.”
But in 1967, with The Beatles pointing the way towards trippier psychedelic horizons, bands like Floyd started changing their sound and their appetites for hallucinogenic drugs. On their classic album A Piper At The Gates of Dawn, Barrett channeled his love of Tolkien, Castaneda and the I-Ching through the lens of experiments with LSD. His songs became longer and less structured. And one in particular, the ten-minute “Interstellar Overdrive,” would become the catalyst for Beecher and Shutes’ book.
Beecher says, “When I was a kid in the late ’70s, I was in a band, and we discovered Relics, which was a collection of singles and weird bits from early Pink Floyd. It had that song of Syd’s and we thought, ‘Hold on, we could pretty much play the beginning and the end. Then we could just knock about for ten minutes in the middle.’ That was my entrée into Syd. Later, when I was an adult, I started producing documentaries. I had the chance to work on a project called Technicolor Dream, all about Syd’s Pink Floyd and their place in London’s underground scene of the late ’60s. When I was researching that, I was in charge of finding photographs of Syd. When the documentary was over, there were so many photos that hadn’t been used that I approached a publisher about doing a coffee table book. It started from there.”
Beecher and Shutes had the cooperation of Barrett’s family, which meant access to photos, artwork and correspondence. But there were still a lot of leads to be chased, some fruitful, some not. “The research for this book has been arduous and sometimes maddening,” Beecher writes in the introduction. “Fading whispers, half-recalled suggestions, numerous red herrings, and mistaken recollections have added intrigue to the quest for materials – occasionally to the point of near despair.”
But it was worth it. The photographs capture Floyd in early gigs at clubs and pubs, as well as early publicity shots of them clowning around around London spots like Piccadilly Circus and Carnaby Street. Syd’s letters – most of them love letters to two girlfriends – are full of the longing of youth and whimsical pen and ink sketches. But its the last section of the book, Artwork, that gives us a look into the depth of Barrett’s talents. Oil paintings, woodblock prints, drawings, landscapes, abstracts, sculpture – he could do it all, and at an astonishing level for such a young man.
Barrett quit Pink Floyd in 1968. His behavior had started to grow erratic and withdrawn (though it was never diagnosed, it’s thought that Syd might have been schizophrenic). His art school friend David Gilmour filled in for him initially, then replaced him.
Beecher says, “Remember, these guys were so young, and album rock was still is in its infancy. They had no experience in the record business. Their fame all happened very quickly. So it must’ve been very tumultuous for all of them, and it didn’t really suit Syd’s personality.”
Barrett made a pair of solo albums in 1970, then left the music business to concentrate on painting and drawing. Famously, he showed up unannounced at a Floyd session in 1975, while the band was recording “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” He’d gained a lot of weight and shaved his head, and was initially unrecognizable to his old friends. He wandered out of the studio and that was the last they saw of him.
Beecher says, “It’s interesting, I once interviewed Roger Waters for a documentary and he said something that was quite telling: ‘Without Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd couldn’t have got to where they were. But with him, they couldn’t have got to where they needed to be.’”
Barrett lived the rest of his life as a relative recluse in Cambridge, painting and drawing. He had numerous health and mental problems, and he died of cancer in 2006 at the age of 60.
Barrett: The Definitive Visual Companion is not only a beautiful tribute, but a much-needed book about a misunderstood artist. Beecher says, “I hope that readers take away that Syd was a real human being, beyond being this legendary figure. I think that he was always quite an original person, before and after Pink Floyd. He was an original, interesting person who took some LSD for a while, and a had a period of being withdrawn. But that shouldn’t define him. He was always doing his own thing. He was a true creative original.”