|Crazy Diamond: Syd Barrett & The Pink Floyd Story|
Title: Crazy Diamond: Syd Barrett & the Dawn of Pink Floyd
Authors: Mike Watkinson and Pete Anderson
Publisher: Omnibus Press
Published: August 2006
Pages: 192 (Paperback)
Laughing Syd Barrett, he of the gypsy eyes, bewitching smile and ghost-like beauty, was Long Gone…
The life of the misunderstood and much harassed Roger Keith (Syd) Barrett was a remarkable journey that would touch more people around the world than Roger first imagined or was prepared for. Although he wanted to be a pop star, and would rehearse with an ever increasing amount of people in his parents living room at 183 Hills Road in Cambridgeshire, he should probably have stuck to painting as his mind may not have then disintegrated as severely and as quickly as it did.
The Crazy Diamond book, first published in 1991 and now re-published in August 2006, draws on extensive exclusive interviews with Barrett’s family and the people who grew up around Syd. This has enabled the authors of the biography Mike Watkinson and Pete Anderson to give accurate and insightful details of the key events in Barrett’s life from his birth right up to his death in the new revised edition. The book also includes several rare photos of Syd from when he was a child of 4, in the Scouts camping, on holiday with girlfriend Libby Gausden and photos from his later life.
The book is a well written account of Barrett’s life and is a gripping read from beginning to end. Barrett died as a “retired musician” according to his death certificate. He did, however, spend much time working on his artwork. Unfortunately, the latter part of his life is not public knowledge and, indeed, he didn’t do much besides exist as a quiet and peaceful man around St Margaret’s Road in the University Town of Cambridge. As such, the book covers quite a few years of his life in not so much detail towards then end. The actual final days of his life are well documented though as the authors were able to speak to his family to obtain the precise details.
Reading the life story of Syd Barrett takes you on an amusing, revealing, frustrating and sometimes upsetting journey: especially at the end. Starting off in Syd’s home town of Cambridge in England we are introduced to Syd and his family: an environment in which he is allowed to flourish and blossom into an attractive flower. Rosemary, his younger sister, recalled her brother conducting an invisible orchestra from under the covers of his bed at age 4. He would go on to conduct audiences the world over with his unique and innovative style of introspective and simple music.
The tributes after his death many years after his magnesium bright success with the band he formed, Pink Floyd, were reflective of his genius and brilliance. Crazy Diamond: Syd Barrett & The Dawn of Pink Floyd is a wonderful book which really transports you into Syd’s journey in a thoughtful, moving and respectful way: dispelling many of the News Of The World style myths about the burnt out star. If you are a fan of the early Floyd, music, life, brilliance, then get yourself a copy of this great book.
The authors were kind enough to share part of the final chapter of the new book which features 1/3 again of the words contained within the original 1991 release. Also has sections re-written and updated. Grab a copy from MusicRoom.com.
Photographs of Syd on his habitual shopping rounds at this time show him looking shockingly gaunt, and for several months leading up to his 60th birthday Rosemary noted with some concern his falling weight. For years Barrett had been plagued by gastric ulcers and was therefore familiar with their unpleasant symptoms including stomach pains, digestive problems and poor appetite. His elder brother Alan – whose sax-playing in a skiffle group first persuaded Syd to take up the ukulele at the age of 12 – believes this long-term, but non life-threatening malaise might have masked the onset of the pancreatic cancer which was to prove terminal with shocking swiftness.
The ailing Barrett, also beset with complications from his long-term diabetes, was eventually admitted to Cambridge’s Addenbrooke’s Hospital at the end of May. Once this particularly virulent form of cancer was diagnosed, the patient’s survival was predicted to be a matter of weeks rather than months. According to Alan, as Syd lay dying in a bed not too far from the room which still bears the name of their beloved father, he seemed quietly accepting of his fate.
Others less sanguine might have reflected bitterly on how history was cruelly repeating itself. Forty-five years after cancer claimed the life of Dr Arthur Barrett at the same hospital, the son with whom he had always enjoyed such a special rapport was now stricken with the same fatal disease. Increasingly sedated during those final weeks at Addenbrooke’s, Syd might have been reminded of those dreadful memories as 1961 drew to a close, culminating in the untimely death of a devoted family man who still had so much to offer the world of medicine.
“Of course Roger was sedated, but he never seemed in any great pain; he remained calm and in good spirits,” says Alan Barrett. “He had been losing weight for a long time and the pain he suffered from his ulcers was not unfamiliar. I suppose it’s possible this might have delayed the ultimate diagnosis, but we can take comfort from the fact he was not in any great pain and didn’t seem to suffer too much.”
The stay in hospital was the longest Syd had been away from St Margaret’s Square since his brief return to Chelsea Cloisters in 1982 when he seems to have taken the decision that increasingly frenetic London life was no longer for him and impulsively decided to walk 50 miles home to his mother. For a man so used to everyday domestic routines such as gardening, cleaning and sporadic visits to the local shops, hospital life must have been seemed quite alien and somewhat disorientating.
As Barrett’s strength faded and the dosage of the drugs he was taking increased, he nevertheless expressed a determination to go back to the humdrum, suburban house which had been his home for the past quarter of a century. As doctors could do no more, the hospital eventually granted his wish and on Tuesday, July 4th, the gravely ill man returned to St Margaret’s Square where professional carers proceeded to give him 24-hour nursing care for what little time was left. Apart from Rosemary, these medics were perhaps among only a handful of people to have crossed the threshold of the Barrett home since Syd became its sole occupant after his mother moved out to live with her youngest daughter in the late 1980s.
“How did Roger react to his final illness? That’s a difficult question to answer because it was very hard to know how he felt about anything,” Paul Breen told the authors. “You must remember that I never knew him as a young man. I only came to know him in mid-life and it was always very hard to gauge his feelings. What was readily obvious was that he wanted to go home and as soon as it was possible for us to arrange it that’s what we were able to do.”
“We all knew he was coming home to end his life. When he left Addenbrooke’s I probably would have given him a week; in the event it was a lot quicker than any of us expected – and probably kinder. It was only on his third day back that the end finally came.”
Extremely drowsy, drifting in and out of sleep and under heavy sedation, Syd remained in a stable condition until the evening of Friday, July 7th when his condition suddenly deteriorated markedly. Alan Barrett speculates that his brother’s heart might have been weakened by his general ill-health and it does not take a medical expert to work out that Syd’s system had been seriously depleted by his assorted ailments. On that fateful Friday evening, following the type of blisteringly hot day that the teenage Barrett might have spent picnicking on the banks of the Cam, the Madcap simply drifted off into a sleep which stretched into eternity. The carer who was with him was taken by surprise. There may not have been sufficient time to summon the Barrett family to his deathbed, but compared with the demise of so many of Syd’s contemporaries from the psychedelic 60s, it was an exceedingly peaceful and dignified end. The death certificate gave Barrett’s occupation as ‘retired musician’.
“He had seemed very content with his life during the last few years,” reflects Breen, who since the early 80s, has grown used to fielding endless press enquiries about his brother-in-law. “He just did what he wanted to do, whether it was painting or doing DIY to what I would term an interesting standard. He didn’t seek conversation with anyone; just seemed content to potter about in his garden. He showed no interest in his old life. For instance, he knew the Live 8 concert was happening, but didn’t get to watch it because he didn’t have a television. The type of life he chose worked for him – I suspect the notion of not working for the last 40 years of your life would seem quite attractive to a lot of people!”
Fittingly for someone who spent so much of his life shrouded in mystery, Barrett’s final illness and death were initially kept secret from all but his immediate family. His fans were therefore totally unprepared for the events of Tuesday, July 11, 2006 when a strong rumour began spreading that Barrett had passed away four days earlier. Although the Pink Floyd office initially denied the reports – it was, after all, not the first time Syd’s demise had been rumoured – by the early afternoon Alan Barrett was confirming the death of the band’s lost leader. Screaming headlines announcing the death of Pink Floyd’s founder quickly appeared on 24-hour television news channels alongside the latest atrocity in the Middle East.
“He died peacefully at home,” said Barrett in a short statement. “There will be a private family funeral in the next few days. Now we just wish to be left alone.” Within an hour of the announcement, bouquets of flowers had been tied to the little wicker fence fronting Syd’s semi which the DIY-loving owner had knocked together himself (to replace the one destroyed shortly after his mother’s death).
“The band are naturally very upset and sad to learn of Syd Barrett’s death,” said the surviving members of Pink Floyd in a statement. “Syd was the guiding light of the early band line-up and leaves a legacy which continues to inspire.”
Waters, in the middle of a tour in which a ghostly image of Barrett was beamed on stage during the performance of ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ said: “It’s very sad. Syd was a lovely guy and a unique talent. He leaves behind a body of work that is both touching and very deep, and which will shine on forever.”
“Everyone has been extremely respectful and we’ve found that very gratifying,” said Paul Breen. “The death notices Roger received in the newspapers were kind and compassionate. We find it quite amazing that someone whose career was so brief should have had such an effect on so many people.”
Fearing Syd’s death might be turned into a media circus, the Floyd stayed away although Alan Barrett says Dave Gilmour sent flowers to the funeral. Over the years, Gilmour’s benevolence towards the man he replaced in Pink Floyd has never been fully acknowledged, but Breen confirms his former bandmate was constantly in Gilmour’s thoughts and he kept in regular touch with Rosemary.
“He’d ring us a couple of times a year just to check on how things were going,” he says. “Unfortunately I’ve never met him – we were invited to his 50th birthday but couldn’t make it – but he’s the one who’s stayed closest over the years. It’s ironic really, if what happened to Roger hadn’t done so, Dave Gilmour’s life wouldn’t have turned out like it has.”
Gilmour’s paternal interest in his old friend is something he has rarely acknowledged, yet as far back as 1985 he quizzed the authors on the state of Barrett’s finances. On learning that Syd had not received a royalties cheque for quite some time, Gilmour made some comment to the effect that he would immediately make enquiries of his own. A few weeks later, Rosemary confirmed that a cheque had indeed arrived. There still remains a widespread belief that Syd was abandoned by the Floyd, yet this is patently not the case.
Famously, Syd’s family took little or no interest in his former existence. The type of professional people whose musical interests were, and continue to be, mainly classical, they never followed popular music and over the years repeatedly expressed incredulity at the extent of his fame. Syd’s brothers and sisters genuinely cannot understand how such a brief career made such a lasting impact or the fanatical following his short body of work continues to attract.
“It constantly surprises us,” Alan told the authors shortly after Syd’s funeral. “Being approached by people asking about the old days was something that didn’t appeal to Roger, but he adapted himself to it. We were all impressed and extremely grateful by the extent of the appreciations expressed following his death. Until then, I do not think of think any of us fully appreciated just what he meant to countless people across the world.”
“Goodbye Syd – we will never forget you” was the poignant tribute paid by the former musician’s neighbours in St Margaret’s Square and pinned on one of three wreaths laid in Barrett’s memory at his funeral at Cambridge Crematorium ten days after his death.
Only 16 members of the Barrett family and a few close friends attended the private service and cremation, the congregation barely half-filling the tiny chapel. As Roger and the Barrett family had wanted, it was a quiet and understated event.
There were no hordes of tearful fans, no police presence to keep the peace, even the national media stayed away with only the local Cambridge Evening News carrying a short article the following day. A sole photographer was spotted lurking among the bushes probably in the hope of snatching a famous face.
But the ex-members of Pink Floyd did not attend and, indeed, were not invited. No Barrett or Pink Floyd tunes were even aired to send the Piper on his way.
One detail which did emerge is that Roger had no religious beliefs – the ceremony being conducted by David Pack of the British Humanist Association whose website claims to represent “the interests of the large and growing population of ethically concerned but non-religious people in the UK.”
Roger’s nephew Ian Barrett later commented on a website: “There was no need to bring God in when he had never made his presence felt before. I was hoping we’d get one of Roger’s songs but I think it could have been a bit too raw for some of the family.
“It was a strange contrast to the energy and flowery prose thrown around in the press the previous week. While it was moving and fitting that the music press had gone overboard with praise – it seemed a world away from the reality of the event the few of us were part of.”
On the front of the simple Order of Service was written: “Roger Keith Barrett, 1946–2006 – A Celebration Of A Creative Life, July 17, 2006”.
Inside it carried an illustration and short extract from the children’s fairytale classic The Little Grey Men by BB, better known as the natural history book illustrator Denys Watkins-Pitchford, a tale often cited as a “story for the young at heart”.
The book, first published in 1942, tells the story of the last four gnomes living in Britain by a Warwickshire brook. When one of them decides to go and explore and doesn’t return, it’s up to the remaining three to build a boat and set out to find him.
The extract reads: “The wonder of the world, the beauty and the power, the shapes of things, their colours lights and shades; these I saw. Look ye also while life lasts.”
As the mourners entered the crematorium, Roger’s niece, Melly Barrett played Haydn’s Andante from Sonata No. 40 in E major on the organ while the end of the service was marked by a rendition of Handel’s Courante from Suite No. IV in E minor.
Roger’s sister Rosemary and another niece, Alan Barrett’s daughter Ginny Swepson, paid tribute to the life of their famous, extraordinary and much-loved relative.
Alan Barrett continued with a reading from The Little Grey Men, one of Roger’s favourite books, before a final selection of his classical favourites, Bach’s Allemande from Partita No. IV in D major, during a short time of reflection and finally the committal.
The unwitting object of such abundant rumour, intrigue and speculation over the preceding three decades, a shy and reclusive prematurely-aged bachelor had finally been laid to rest.
Laughing Syd Barrett, he of the gypsy eyes, bewitching smile and ghost-like beauty, was Long Gone…
© 2006 Omnibus Press. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited. Used with permission from authors.