People called Syd Barrett’s music childlike, which it was: A child, unconditioned, can see things adults don’t, and often finds good ways to express his visions. Barrett’s cut-up song structures, jagged guitar rhythms, blindly leaping melodies and flashbulb lyrics sounded as if he was innocent of musical preconceptions. He wasn’t. His band, Pink Floyd, began as an R&B cover group; it was even named after two bluesmen. But Barrett tried to enter the kingdom of heaven by becoming like a little child. Through immoderate use of LSD, he deprogrammed himself.
There were risks, of course. When an adult acts like a child, people call him crazy, a fact Barrett acknowledged in his 1967 hit “See Emily Play”: “You’ll lose your mind and play free games.” Emily, unfortunately, ended up floating “on a river, forever and ever,” and so did the rapidly disintegrating Barrett, who spent the last three decades of his life incommunicado. The risk was an artistic choice.
An acid absurdist? Really, Barrett’s lyrics for Floyd often addressed basic human concerns such as sex: “I’ve got a bike, you can ride it if you like.” He longed for the youthful escape of storybooks: “You only have to read the lines of scribbly black and everything shines.” But he was also canny enough to grok the instability of his position in Floyd, in “Chapter 24” quoting the I Ching about the hexagram Fu (the turning point): “Going and coming without error. Action brings good fortune.” Ready to forgive even when the band finally replaced him in 1968, Barrett sang unironically in his heartbreaking final Floyd entry, “Jugband Blues”: “I’m most obliged to you for making it clear that I’m not here.”
Barrett’s next album was his first solo flight, The Madcap Laughs, produced with love and guilt by Floyd partners David Gilmour and Roger Waters. Sounding nearly out of control, he was nevertheless writing some of his best songs, his chortling/choking vocals showing that, though still a child, he understood everything:
“I tattered my brain.” And “I understand that you’re different from me.” And “Inside me I feel alone and unreal.” And “When I live I die!” And “Won’t you miss me? Wouldn’t you miss me at all?”
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Pink Floyd missed Syd Barrett. Not enough, though, to ditch a career that would make them rich. They were wild pop stars too. They just knew where the artistic line was drawn. He didn’t know there was a line.