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Genius of the lost romantic poet of rock

When Syd Barrett was ousted from Pink Floyd because of his erratic behaviour, he became a recluse. Now the late songwriter's collected lyrics are to be published, writes Barry Egan


Visionary lyricist and guitarist Syd Barrett

Visionary lyricist and guitarist Syd Barrett

Syd with Pink Floyd, the band he founded in 1965. From left to right, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, Syd Barrett and Rick Wright

Syd with Pink Floyd, the band he founded in 1965. From left to right, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, Syd Barrett and Rick Wright


Visionary lyricist and guitarist Syd Barrett

The diary entry for the day his father, Max, died read: "Dear Dad died today." Syd Barrett was 15. In a letter to his girlfriend Libby three days later, he said: "I could write a book about his merits. Perhaps I will some time." He never got to write it.

Later this month, Omnibus Press, in collaboration with Barrett's estate, will publish the late genius's collected lyrics in an authorised form for the first time.

But who was Syd Barrett? He was the young visionary who wrote eight of the 11 tracks on Pink Floyd's debut, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. Released in 1967, the album is the apogee of English psychedelic music along with The Beatles' Sgt Pepper. It was also the last album Syd ever recorded with the band he founded in 1965.

His state of mind had been damaged by LSD. He was rock's original doomed romantic poet, an acid-casualty Icarus. Tom Stoppard would later use Syd as a metaphor for beautiful lost youth in his play Rock 'n' Roll.


Syd with Pink Floyd, the band he founded in 1965. From left to right, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, Syd Barrett and Rick Wright

Syd with Pink Floyd, the band he founded in 1965. From left to right, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, Syd Barrett and Rick Wright

Syd with Pink Floyd, the band he founded in 1965. From left to right, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, Syd Barrett and Rick Wright

There is the awful story in 1967 of the writer Jonathan Meades calling to Syd's flat in Egerton Court opposite South Kensington tube station in London. He didn't seem to be in. Hearing "this terrible noise", Jonathan asked the people in the house what the scary sound was.

"They sort of giggled and said, 'That's Syd having a bad trip. We put him in the linen cupboard'."

In August 1967, Roger Waters, the band's bassist, and Syd's childhood friend, brought him to an appointment with RD Laing, the most forward-thinking psychiatrist in London at that time. Syd wouldn't get out of the taxi. Legend has it that Laing was later played an interview of Syd by the band. Laing felt that he was incurable. Waters believed Syd suffered from schizophrenia. On July 28, 1967, Syd walked out of a BBC pop show called Saturday Club. The band's manager Peter Jenner told the BBC that he had suffered a "nervous collapse".

Later that night at Pink Floyd's show at the UFO club on Tottenham Court Road in London, he barely sang or played a note.

His deterioration continued. At the band's show two nights later at the Alexandra Palace, his condition was described as "near-catatonic". He had to be carried onstage. In the dressing room of a show in November 1967 at the Cheetah Club in Santa Monica, Syd poured a tin of Brylcreem on his head, letting it go down his face. He resembled a "guttered candle", remembered Waters. He then crushed the contents of a bottle of the tranquilliser Mandrax into his hair and took the stage. Back in England, he didn't show up for a gig and was replaced at the last minute by Davy O'List of the Nice. On January 3, 1968, Syd's school friend Dave Gilmour was asked to join the band, although Syd hadn't yet left.

In early 1968, when the band were all living together in Richmond, Waters recalled how Syd was contributing zero to the group. They didn't have the heart to tell him. "So, when I went off to play gigs, I'd tell Syd I was going out to get cigarettes. It was awful."

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He played his last show with Pink Floyd on January 20, 1968 in Hastings. On April 6, 1969, his departure from Pink Floyd was announced in the music press and he was officially out of the band he had founded.

After his exit, he released two solo albums in 1970, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, both produced by Gilmour. "Eternally eloquent as Van Gogh's cornfields" was how one of Syd's many biographers Tim Willis described the albums. The last interview he gave was in 1971. "I work in a cellar, down in a cellar," he said, referring to the basement of his mother Winifred's house in Cambridge. "I think of me being a painter eventually."

He played two or three short shows in Cambridge with a band called Stars. After one show in the Corn Exchange in 1972, the band's bassist Jack Monck recalled how "it was obvious to everyone present that the wheels had come off. You were just witnessing the breakdown of someone in performance".

Syd was rarely seen again. His last public appearance was in the summer of 1973 at a public hall in Cambridge. He turned up uninvited and briefly jammed onstage with Jack Bruce of Cream, before disappearing into the audience during the poetry readings; one of which was by Pete Brown. The latter recognised his face in the crowd and said, "I'd like to dedicate this next poem to Syd Barrett, because he's a native of Cambridge who I consider to be one of the great poets and songwriters of his generation."

"No, I'm not!" Syd said and shuffled off.

From then on, he retreated into the shadows. He lived between his mother's house in Cambridge and a flat in Chelsea, where he slept on a mattress on the bare floorboards that he had painted green and red, ate eggs which he boiled in a kettle and lived on royalty cheques from his former band. There was a brief attempt to make a third solo album in 1974 that came to nothing.

On June 5, 1975, he arrived at Pink Floyd's sessions for the Wish You Were Here album in Abbey Road. He entered the studio at the moment they were recording 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' - a song the band had written about him. But when he walked into the studio, no one knew who he was. Waters had assumed he was someone with Gilmour. Gilmour assumed he was with the rest of the band. It was 45 minutes before they realised who the shaven-headed, dishevelled-looking man was. At one point, so the story goes, Syd decided he wanted to clean his teeth. He attempted to do this by holding a toothbrush and jumping up and down on the spot. Almost as strangely, Syd then asked the band, who hadn't seen him in years: "When do I put my guitar on?"

In 1977, Malcolm McLaren, manager of The Sex Pistols, allegedly tried to get Syd to produce his band's Never Mind The Bollocks album. In 1982, he left the flat in Chelsea and decided to return home to Cambridge. He walked the entire 50 miles. He lived in that house until his death of pancreatic cancer on July 7, 2006, aged 60.

The man who influenced Bowie, Brit Pop, Blur and Paul Weller - the very English-sounding vocals and a lyrical style that owed much to Lewis Carroll - as well as the likes of My Bloody Valentine, Jesus & Mary Chain and Radiohead, lived like a hermit. He never left the house. Syd, whose mother died in 1991, was indifferent to - or unaware of - the outside world's obsession with him because of a moment from his distant past.

In 2008, his younger sister Rosemary said: "He just tried to put that whole thing away. If anyone called him Syd he wouldn't answer [his real name was Roger]. He wasn't Syd because Syd was Pink Floyd. He wasn't being clever by being reclusive, he was just being himself. Roger was never mentally ill. He was assessed by quite a few psychiatrists over the years and they always said he's unusual but there is no illness. There was no cure because there was no illness. He never fitted into the norm but that's what made him so special."

Shine on.

'The Lyrics of Syd Barrett' will be published by Omnibus Press, £14.99 on February 18

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