Since I was quite young, I’ve been a big Syd Barrett fan. For those who don’t know, he was for all intents and purposes the founder of Pink Floyd. And with all due respect to the other members of the band and all the great work they did, it was Barrett who put them on the psychedelic music road that they pursued. Most people just know his work from the first Pink Floyd album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and the single “See Emily Play.” If you haven’t heard it, you owe it to yourself to. I think it has the seeds of everything good that Pink Floyd would become without the ponderous Roger Waters lyrics that would eventually destroy the band:
Last night, I listened to all four of the other members of the band discuss what Syd Barrett is mostly remembered for: his mental illness. The folklore is that Barrett was an “acid casualty.” He took so much LSD that he went insane. This certainly seems to be what the band members think. But I don’t buy it. No doubt the drugs made his condition worse. But Barrett began showing signs of schizophrenia at exactly the age that the disease manifests. What’s more, schizophrenics tend to gravitate toward drugs such as LSD and amphetamines. So I think it works the other way around. (I just found a good Wikipedia page on the subject: LSD and Schizophrenia that largely agrees with me.)
What was most interesting in the interviews is how much guilt the band members feel about not getting Barrett help. I think that’s valid in the sense that they let him fall in with a bad group who did him harm. But I seriously doubt that professional help would have been beneficial. Even today, I think treatments for schizophrenia are of marginal value. Forty-five years ago it would have been a total waste. The best thing for Barrett was what eventually happened: he returned home and lived with his mother where he lived a quiet life painting, gardening, and writing.
In between his time with Pink Floyd and his retirement, he released two albums The Madcap Laughs and Barrett. I think they are both masterpieces in different ways, although it seems even today that people jeer at the later album. Here is a taste of it, “Golden Hair” with lyrics by James Joyce
But contrast it with the last song on Barrett, the wonderfully silly “Effervescing Elephant”:
But finally, I want to present to you something really special. “Terrapin” is the first song on Barrett’s first album. For those who don’t know, a terrapin is a fresh water turtle. The song has only the vaguest of connections to these wonderful creatures. But it does make a certain intuitive sense. What makes this video special is that David Gilmour is performing it. The guitar work is just perfect; I’m sure that Syd would have appreciated it. His singing is a bit muddy (Syd was always a better singer), but it is still a delight: