Pretty Vacant

The first murky reports of Syd Barrett's quiet death came a good four days after his passing. Barrett, who founded Pink Floyd four decades ago before being kicked out of the band after two years of increasingly erratic behavior, died June 7, supposedly of cancer, complications from diabetes, or both. The delay and lack of a clear diagnosis in death perfectly mirrored the mystery of Barrett's mental illness and solitude in life.

While Floyd went on to become one of the most profitable rock acts in history, most people on the planet still know nothing about the crazy genius who started it all. Which is too bad, because Barrett's brief tenure as the lead vocalist, guitarist and songwriter for Pink Floyd produced by far the band's most creative music, which unlike later hits like “Money,” “Dark Side of the Moon” or “Another Brick in the Wall,” remain musically relevant today.

Barrett formed the band with his former schoolmate, bassist Roger Waters, in 1965. After a year of playing standard rhythm and blues sets at small clubs, Pink Floyd—originally “The Pink Floyd Sound” and then “The Pink Floyd”—suddenly transformed itself into the most awe-inspiring act in England's burgeoning underground psychedelic scene. Songs like “Astronomy Domine” and “Interstellar Overdrive” showcased Barrett's amazing, frenetic guitar work.

The band's first single, “Arnold Layne,” featured his classically British singing voice—think a cockney Mick Jagger with a cold—and the lyrics, celebrating the exploits of a thieving cross-dresser, revealed his penchant for the poetically perverse. “Arnold Layne had a strange hobby,” it begins. “Collecting clothes/Moonshine washing line/They suit him fine/On the wall hung a tall mirror/Distorted view/See through, baby blue/He dug it!”

Barrett's heavy experimentation with LSD was the catalyst for Pink Floyd's breakout success, but it apparently accelerated his legendary mental deterioration. By August 1967, when the band's first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, was released, Barrett had all but lost his mind. During performances, he'd stagger in circles, seemingly lost in thought. The band had to hire another guitarist, Dave Gilmour, to fill in for Barrett on stage—Gilmour permanently replaced him only a few months later.

Pink Floyd's second album, A Saucerful of Secrets, featured only one song by Barrett, “Jugband Blues,” the opening lines of which seemed to acknowledge both his illness and his isolation from Pink Floyd. “It's awfully considerate of you to think of me here/And I'm most obliged to you for making it clear/That I'm not here.”

After a short-lived solo career in the early 1970s, Barrett secluded himself in his mother's house in Cambridge, England, where he reportedly passed the time gardening, lighting fires and strolling aimlessly about town. Meanwhile, Pink Floyd grew rich off Barrett, writing some of their most depressively successful songs about him. In 1975, when they were recording Wish You Were Here—both the title track and the song “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” were dedicated to him—Barrett showed up unannounced at the studio, bald, eyebrows shaved and overweight, and stood in the corner for hours before anyone recognized him.

Pink Floyd's 1982 rock opera The Wallincludes an eerie scene in which the main character shaves his eyebrows and body hair. By then, Pink Floyd had become the epitome of overblown, self-indulgent, drugged-out rock music. Perhaps more than any other band, Floyd stood for everything terrible that had happened to rock music, thus providing the creative impetus for the birth of punk rock (and Johnny Rotten's infamous “I HATE PINK FLOYD” T-shirt). Without Pink Floyd, there would be no reason, musically speaking at least, for the Ramones, the Sex Pistols or the Clash. Barrett paid the ultimate price for his madness. The rest of us got off easy. In the end, “Money” is a small price to pay.

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