Born Roger Keith Barrett, January 6, 1946, in Cambridge, England; died of complications from diabetes, July 7, 2006, in Cambridge, England. Musician. Syd Barrett was one of rock music's legendary names, as both a gifted songwriter and a cautionary tale. One of the founding members of British rock band Pink Floyd, Barrett helped shape their unique sound but plummeted into substance abuse and mental illness as they went on achieve worldwide success. His Times of London obituary called it "one of the most enigmatic and saddest stories in rock'n'roll," and noted that while Barrett vanished from public life after 1970, "he continued to exert an eerie fascination for generations of future musicians—perhaps because his fate reminded them of the slender thread by which creative talent can hang."
Barrett was born in 1946 in Cambridge, England, and became active in the university town's music scene during his teens, joining a band called Geoff Mott and the Mottoes with future Pink Floyd founder member Roger Waters, whom he had known since elementary school. In 1964, Barrett moved to London to attend art school, and a year later, with Waters in London, too, joined a band that the latter had formed with Nick Mason playing drums and a keyboardist named Richard Wright. Barrett came up with their name, the Pink Floyd Blues Band, in homage to two Southern blues guitarists of the early twentieth century, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.
Pink Floyd, as they soon became known, started as a cover band playing R&B tunes, but Barrett began to write music, and the group's first singles, "See Emily Play" and "Arnold Layne" became minor hits. Both were included on their debut LP, Piper at the Gates of Dawn , which was released in August of 1967, and Barrett's sly witticisms, coupled with a unique guitar-playing style, quickly earned the band a cult following in England. As a guitarist, he used an echo machine and various slide techniques, including gliding his Zippo lighter along the strings. When the band traveled to the United States to promote the record, however, Barrett's increasingly odd behavior became problematic. They appeared on the weekly hit-record television showcase American Bandstand , but instead of singing he kept his mouth closed, refusing to lip-sync along. The band also toured with Jimi Hendrix, and on stage Barrett might play the same chord over and over, or simply start detuning his guitar in the middle of a song. His condition seemed linked to overindulgence of LSD, a powerful hallucinogenic drug, which he was reportedly taking daily by then.
Fearing a crisis as their popularity and contractual commitments escalated, the members of Pink Floyd brought in Dave Gilmour, another Cambridge native, as a back-up singer and guitarist. Barrett's condition deteriorated during the recording of their second LP, Saucerful of Secrets , but he did have a brief solo career. With Waters and Gilmour helping out, he recorded enough material for two albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett , both of which were released in 1970. Each went on to achieve enduring cult status among music fans and subsequent generations of musicians, among them Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips. "It was like you were hearing him in the process of losing it," Coyne said of these solo records in an interview with Los Angeles Times writer Geoff Boucher. "He was there in the studio and he was thinking, 'I can't sing like I thought I could sing; I can't play like I thought I could play.' And the music he made was stunningly original."
Barrett, never formally fired from Pink Floyd, drifted away from public view despite the promise of his solo records. At a London gig in October of 1970, he walked off the stage after four songs, and two years later there were rumors that he had put a new band together called Stars, but he failed to turn up for the live shows. He returned to the studio one more time, in 1974, but "it became obvious to all concerned that his muse had finally deserted him," asserted his Times of London obituary. He spent most of the next 32 years living at his mother's home in Cambridge, though he did keep a flat in London for a time. One of the more tragic elements of Barrett's story is the success that Pink Floyd went on to achieve without him; their 1973 release The Dark Side of the Moon became one of the best-selling albums in rock history and spent a record-setting 14 years on the Billboard 200 album chart. Two songs from their next work—the title track "Wish You Were Here" and "Shine On You Crazy Diamond"—are considered the band's tribute to their founding member. At the time of its recording, Barrett shocked his former bandmates when he dropped by the London studio unannounced and they at first failed to recognize him; it marked the last time they were ever in same building together.
Deeply reclusive inhis later years, hiding out from fans who made a sport of seeking him out, Barrett even turned down a large sum of money from Atlantic Records to record just three or four songs entirely from his house. He died on July 12, 2006, from complications from diabetes, at age 60, and is survived by a pair of siblings, Alan and Rosemary. Though he had vanished many years before, news of his death saddened many who had known him at the peak of his creativity, and even those who did not. Rock legend David Bowie issued a statement that lauded Barrett as "so charismatic and such a startlingly original songwriter," according to the Los Angeles Times . "His impact on my thinking was enormous. A major regret is that I never got to know him. A diamond indeed."
Chicago Tribune , July 12, 2006, sec. 3, p. 7; Entertainment Weekly , July 21, 2006, p. 17; Los Angeles Times , July 12, 2006, p. B10; New York Times , July 12, 2006, p. C12; Times (London), July 12, 2006, p. 57; Washington Post , July 12, 2006, p. B6.