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The life of Syd Barrett and the dark side of the swinging sixties

Kathy Kirby was reportedly the highest-paid singer of her generation. She represented the United Kingdom at Eurovision and finished second. She was a beloved and celebrated star in the mid-1960s. Above all, she seems a very strange place to start a profile on the life of Pink Floyd founder, Syd Barrett. However, both of the flower-power phenoms share an unfortunate kinship.

Despite her once celestial stardom Kirby ultimately endured stints in psychiatric wards, bankruptcy, homelessness and for years suffered from undiagnosed schizophrenia. 

There are many more tales of sixties stars succumbing to rapid downfalls; from Danny Kirwan who was sacked from Fleetwood Mac because, as Mick Fleetwood told Men’s Journal, “he was wonderful, but couldn’t handle the life,” eventually ending up homeless on the streets of London; to Jackson C. Frank who likewise went from being the most promising star in a folk scene that included Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon to spending most of his life in institutions or on the streets.

These tales show that, just as every cloud has a silver lining, the obverse is equally true. As the azure blue of the sixties, brilliant music scene contained a few often-overlooked clouds that may have been small but, nevertheless, cast blemishes of darkness on an otherwise perfect day in the sanguine sun of the era. The tale of Syd Barrett is the sad paradigm that encapsulates the great triumphs and underscoring tribulations that defined the golden age of music. 

It would seem that the soundbite retrospective legacy of Syd Barrett is the only narrative there is. He shone like the sun as his former bandmates once sang, and then fizzled out as the effervescent wave of psychedelia was destined to do so — with a bad trip and a lengthy comedown. The story goes that he hauled the world into unexplored pastures then tripped down a rabbit hole of no return, on his way down he crafted two solo records that teeter somewhere between Van Gogh like masterpieces and outsider art, before hitting the bottom and disappearing forevermore. 

Before he disappeared, his moment in the sun was so bright that he actually seemed to be the star at the centre of it all. “Syd was a major inspiration for me,” David Bowie declared in the wake of his death back in 2006. “He was so charismatic and such a startlingly original songwriter. Also, along with Anthony Newley, he was the first guy I’d heard to sing pop or rock with a British accent. His impact on my thinking was enormous. A major regret is that I never got to know him. A diamond indeed.” 

It is high praise from David Bowie, but the alien who would later throw a fair pinch of Barrett into the mix of Ziggy Stardust was far from alone in his adulation. For a time, Barrett was some sort of creative alchemist in a time that simply loved newness. Aside from his scintillating stage performances, his mantra of ‘music-of-the-moment’ had a meta quality to it as though he was seizing the zeitgeist with his own hands. Then at one stage, the moment just got too much for him. 

In 1961 his father passed away a month before his 16th Birthday. The grief this caused often seems underplayed in what followed. It was this moment that encouraged him to perform in the first place as his mother thought it might help him recover from the grief. Within four years, Barrett had found some solace and Pink Floyd formed in 1965. By January 3rd 1968 David Gilmour had accepted a try-out to replace him. And a few weeks later, he was in the front row of a gig at the Imperial College in London, almost motionlessly watching his old college friend play his licks.

What happened in those short three years is hardly better understood than what has followed. There are tales of him being endlessly spiked by hanger-on’s that don’t seem to have any evidence at all. Other stories of him locking a girlfriend in a room for three days and feeding her the occasional biscuit under the door are also contested and seem to be more of an assimilated tale to paint a picture of his outbursts and outsider artist ways. In short, nobody really seems to know, and even the uncorroborated reports just seem to be a way to define his murky narrative. 

What is certain is that, by 1968, he could no longer function in the band. He would sometimes stand on stage without moving a muscle, just standing stock still while the others tried their best to function as a three-piece. All the how’s? Why’s? And what’s? are simply best ascribed to the only befitting narrative that doesn’t require any impossible detective work – it was the sixties, man. In fact, when he departed the band for obvious mental reasons, the main reporting at the time focussed on the impact on the Floyd’s sound, when really it was a double tragedy akin to accidentally killing someone with a champagne cork and bemoaning the waste of bubbly.

Acid, overworking, chronic perfectionism coupled with a label requesting commercialisation, estrangement from the changing scene and a home-bird way beyond the nest, all seem to be factors that played their part, but a thousand others are in the undertow, ultimately, the end is simply listless. What was done to mitigate his self-evident slide, however, can be counted on one hand, and that can accurately be put down to one single aspect: a sign of the times. 

Then as the sixties finally fell, Barrett was a symbol of the loss of innocence. It had been a whirlwind of beauty, teetering on the line between a tragic overture and ecstatic fun, but it stepped one toke over the line and now some of its unlucky heroes were left on the curb. What followed for Barrett was stints sleeping rough, or on couches, stays in institutions, reported violent outbursts and a sad sense of aimlessness.

In the end, he found some sort of stability and contentment. During this time, however, he only kept a few family members and friends in his circle of loved ones and shut himself off from the world in every other sense, seeking solace in his passion for painting and gardening up until he passed away in 2006, aged 60. Barrett’s life is not a question of what could’ve been, he, like Kathy Kirby, Danny Kirwan, Jackson C. Frank and a thousand others gloriously contributed to what is undoubtedly a golden age, it is now more a question of what could’ve been done. 

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