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Syd Barrett

Syd died on July 11, 2006. This appreciation of his life appeared in ‘The Observer’ on July 16

On a summer afternoon in 1965 Syd, Paul, Storm, Imo and myself were sitting in my parents’ pleasant back garden in Cambridge. My parents had gone to Australia for six months and I had turned the dustless house into a hipster hostel. Syd and Paul lived round the corner and we used to smoke dope and talk about Jack Kerouac together. Syd, an art student, was involved with a band called Pink Floyd and their work was just starting to get noticed. He was a man without moods, delighted by everyday absurdities, at all times sunny, chuckling and serene.

Earlier in the day Syd and Paul had each taken a heroic dose, as was the custom, of LSD, on a sugar-lump. Syd had giggled for a while then become contemplative. He had found, in my mother’s kitchen, a plum, an orange and a matchbox. He was sitting cross-legged on the manicured lawn, gently cradling the items in his hands, studying them intently. From time to time he would smile at them in a friendly way.

Syd studied his objects for four hours. Paul Charrier found this unwholesome. He strode over to Syd, seized the plum, the orange and the matchbox and jumped up and down on them, roaring jovially. Syd shouted with laughter and Paul began chasing him round the garden. They rushed into the house and up to the bathroom where Paul yanked the shower from its holder, turned it onto cold and proceeded to soak Syd. They played together like six year olds, wrestling, splashing, tearing their shirts off, throwing open the windows and bellowing merrily into the leafy repose of the afternoon.

Like his song lyrics, Syd’s humour was both subtle and silly. On one occasion we were driving around Cambridge in Storm’s old Studebaker when someone observed that something or other was ‘rancid’. Syd instantly shouted “Well ran, Syd!” and the car swerved across Hills Road as we all cackled with delight. It was the way he said them.
He was also very fond of a catchphrase. We used to go to a fearsome pub called ‘The Criterion’, patronised by Teds, beats, undergrads (largely in disguise), American servicemen and short but psychotic youths from the car breaker’s yard. It was wise to go to the toilet in twos and it was there that we stood next to two quiffed Teds discussing their favoured sexual practices. With a connoisseur’s gravity the larger one announced “Me, I like it in the head”. Although my gaze was firmly fixed on the cluster of white disinfectant cakes beneath me in the rancid trough, I couldn’t help noticing that my companion was shaking helplessly. For months afterwards, when one might, for example, finish buying a round of drinks by asking “What about you, Syd?” he would declaim, in a firm but affectless way “I like it in the head.” Sometimes when a conversation briefly faltered he would nod wisely and, a propos of absolutely nothing, say it again. His own laughter – he laughed at his own jokes with a certain grace – was disarming.

Syd moved up to London and a few months later I joined him. We shared a cold-water flat just off the Tottenham Court Road. The room was about twelve by eight with a mattress running down either wall. At the end of the day Syd and I would lie back and discuss our experiences in the big city. We had devised a points system for evaluating celebrities spotted in the street. I recall my Petula Clark sighting being awarded five out of ten while Syd’s Hank B. Marvin got a seven. On another occasion we went to the Zoo and were much taken with the spectacle of an orang-utang using a hairy fore-finger to prise chunks of shit from its arse then convey them to its mouth. Syd dashed off a sketch of the incident and pinned it to the wall. It had great economy of line and considerable compositional elegance.

All this lightness left him. As the hallucinogens and the downers ploughed through he became morose with his friends and a professional nightmare for the band. He wasn’t helped by the romantic culture of madness that surrounded him- a wilful misreading of the revolutionary but fashionable work of R.D. Laing persuaded many of those around him, myself included, that it was, like, uncool to interfere with Syd’s trip because he was, like, on a journey.

By 1967 Syd Barrett had taken so much acid that his beauty and his cheerfulness were extinguished. He stood on stage arhythmically strumming an untuned guitar, his hair bedraggled, black eye-liner running down his pallid cheeks, confront-ing his fans with a sullen thousand yard stare. Not only Syd but the rest of the band were at their wits’ end. They let him go and, after languishing mute and unapproachable in Earls Court for a while, he walked back home to Cambridge. With the help of his sister, Rosemary, he shunned the world in a small house for several decades.

Before Syd left London I’d see him in the street now and again. He looked straight through me. There seemed to be no whites in his eyes. I never saw him again.

It’s tempting to read the episode in the garden as an early sign of an inwardness that would later consume him. This entails our subscription to the ‘beast in the basement’ analysis, wherein Syd’s sunniness was merely a tissue draped across a psychic disaster waiting to happen. Another view is that the acid ripped up his brain forever. His serotonin reuptake was fucked bigtime. There seem to be no reliable diagnostic tools available here. We describe him as an ‘acid casualty’ and leave it at that.

But then there’s the photo. The iconic unshaven tortured portrait. It’s in all the papers. Clearly Syd serves a purpose. He gives us, for forty years, something very satisfying. The image of escape without death. He is alive but deathly still. Syd is undead. This is terribly appealing. It’s appealing in smacked and doe-eyed Pete Doherty: it is possible to die without having to go. Best of both worlds.

Syd was lovely. There are lovely photos of him. Grinning, gorgeous, giggling. That’s how I will remember him.

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