Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A Quiet Death: R. K. "Syd" Barrett

Syd Barrett is dead. Of course, the papers all mean Roger Keith Barrett, aged 60, who died at his Cambridge home on Friday or thereabouts of diabetes or cancer or stomach ulcers.

Syd Barrett has, after all, been dead for thirty years or more. The former Floyd frontman retired from the stage in the early seventies; his last appearance in a recording studio was apparently the day he dropped in on his old mates in ’75 whilst they were in the middle of recording their tribute to him. Syd wasn’t impressed enough with “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” to stick around, and he passed from that surreal incident into misty legend. Oh, the legend was interrupted by crusty bits of truth—snapshots taken by stalker fans, interviews with relatives who knew their brother, their uncle, as “Roger”—but it endured for thirty years, and was alternately built up and chipped at by his own ex-bandmates, Dave, Rick, Nick, and that other Roger.

It’s a funny thing to witness the death of this particular star. All the pictures accompanying his obits are of that handsome young man with dark eyes and elf-curls. This isn’t just because it’s how people want to remember him, the way that Rolling Stone graced its George Harrison memorial issue with a pic of the Quiet Moptop from nearly forty years back. The pictures aren’t merely a selective filter, they’re a weird expression of truth. That is Syd. That is why anyone cares. The aging, balding man captured walking the streets of Cambridge—that’s Roger Keith Barrett, but it’s not Syd. Roger Keith chose not to be Syd anymore, after a point.

Yet, people have kept “Syd” in a weird suspension state for three decades. Sure, fans knew that the painter and gardener puttering around Cambridge was the same biological entity as the boy in the black-and-white snapshots from 1967. But I don’t think too many people fantasized about the very mundane Roger Barrett strapping a guitar on and joining the Floyd for a post-Live8 reunion. People wanted Syd, the sweet, cute youth who struck a nerve with those who knew him “before,” who possessed a charisma that enchanted and haunted people so many years down the line.

Well, Roger Barrett didn’t want Syd and doesn’t seem to have wanted his fans or his ex-bandmates. “Syd” has been a construct, a figure for everyone from Roger Waters to Cliff Jones to the fan in the street with his @#$%ing camera to project onto, an image of fantasy. Maybe the lovely boy in the picture still existed somewhere, growing mushrooms in his basement or painting the floorboards green. Maybe Barrett would snap out of his lull, get that twinkle back in his eye, grow out his hair and make music—and magic—again.

Syd, eternally young, defined by a few albums’ worth of songs and a few years’ span of pictures, may seem like something of a Peter Pan figure. It’s worse than that, though—he’s rock music’s Terri Schiavo, kept “alive” through other people’s fantasy all down the years. And plainly, he didn’t want to be.

Well, enough of that. Roger K. Barrett, who pulled the plug on Syd a very long time ago, has passed away and is to be buried in a private service, by his family, like any ordinary denizen of Cambridge. And Syd… he’s dead, too. Those few years’ worth of pictures—adorable, appealing, edgy, disquieting, and finally bleak—they end. And anyone who doubted—rather, who hoped—can admit that Syd ended as well, ended long before the man who rejected his stage self died a quiet death in Cambridge last Friday.

Roger Keith Barrett, 1947-2006

Syd Barrett, 1962(?)- 1975(?)