Syd Barrett was the definition of a tortured genius, one who sadly succumbed to a drug addiction that made him increasingly more erratic during the late 1960s. The result, of course, left his bandmates with no choice but to remove him from Pink Floyd in 1968 and his final interview was a portrait of a shadow of his former self.
Barrett was a founding father of the Floyd. His last ever show with the band would be in Hastings on January, 20th, 1968, one which all involved didn’t know at the time would be his final performance—but the situation soon worsened just as the bandmates had foreseen. The year prior to this moment, the band had already drafted in old school friend Dave Gilmour to provide a helping hand on guitar, a necessity as Barrett’s mental health worsened and he could no longer fulfil the basic demands of playing live.
After this performance, they saw Barrett as more of a hindrance than anything else and, at that point, they all knew that they couldn’t carry on in this state any longer or Floyd would be no more. Given the situation, the band members made the decision to simply not pick him for their next show and Syd would never perform in public again. His life would deteriorate further as the group became even more distant with him as the years went on and, eventually, becoming strangers within a matter of years.
The late Richard Wright was living with Barrett at the time and the situation put him in an awkward position, one that he’d rather have avoided. “Initially it got really embarrassing,” said Wright in the Barrett bio A Very Irregular Head. “I had to say things like, ‘Syd, I’m going out to get a packet of cigarettes’ and then go off and play a gig. Of course, eventually, he worked out what was going on.”
Although the bandmates tried to look after Syd in the immediate following his departure, he soon became a recluse and went off-grid. There remains a strong sense of regret from all members of Pink Floyd that they could, on reflection, have done more to help his situation. However, the awareness around mental health was completely different back then to what it is today.
In 1982, Syd had spent well over a decade almost fully retired from public life and had moved away from the bright lights of London to his mother’s house in Cambridge four years earlier. French journalists Michka Assayas and Thomas Johnson had discovered Barrett’s residence and decided to take the Channel Tunnel in the hope of conducting an interview with the former Pink Floyd man.
They met with Barrett and asked him what he’d recently been up to and, after greeting him with clothes that they picked up from an acquaintance in Chelsea that was waiting for him to pick up, he held a conversation with the writers. “I’ve just had an operation, but nothing too serious,” Barrett said. “I’m trying to go back down there, but I’ve got to wait. There’s a train strike at the moment.”
“No, not really,” Syd said when asked about if he still plays music. “I don’t have time to do very much. I must find myself a flat in London. But it’s difficult, I’ll have to wait,” he added before rummaging through the bag of his old clothes the journalists have given him and flashing a smile.
After Syd then talked about the clothes some more and said how it would have been difficult for him to get them because of having to get the train, the journalist then asked if he could take a photo. Barrett obliged saying, “Yes, sure. Good, that’s enough now. It’s painful for me. Thank you.”
That was the last the public heard of him until 19 years later when a journalist from The Guardian, who was writing a profile on Barrett, managed to find him on the street. The writer initially asked him if he was Syd Barrett, to which he responded “Who?’” before they then repeated their initial question, “Never heard of ‘im. Is he one of them rappers?” he retorted sarcastically. They then proceeded to say: “No. He was a psychedelic genius. Are you Syd Barrett?” — “Leave me alone. I’ve got to get some coleslaw,” he responded defensively.
That would be the last time the public ever heard from Barrett before his death in 2006 and his story remains one of the great travesties of rock music, a tragic one that saw one of the purest talents who was the mastermind behind the formation of the band never got to have the fruitful career he deserved.