Shine on, you crazy diamond

Syd Barrett, R.I.P.

Published July 11, 2006 8:30PM (EDT)

News came over the wire today that original Pink Floyd guitarist and songwriter Syd Barrett died from undisclosed causes at the age of 60. Kicked out of the band he founded for erratic behavior long before it achieved gargantuan levels of success, Barrett would remain a cult figure -- as much for his music as for the sad trajectory of his life.

Barrett's songs are marvels of psychedelic whimsy. Full of Lewis Carroll-inspired lyrics, sung in a plain voice and set to wobbly, spacious music, they evince a childlike sensitivity that is equal parts charming and heartbreaking. The first Pink Floyd album, "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn," and the Barrett best-of, "Wouldn't You Miss Me: The Best of Syd Barrett," ably demonstrate his musical gifts. But that gift stopped giving in the early 1970s, when Barrett dropped out of the public eye because of the onset of severe psychological problems. He lived out the rest of his days in Salingerian seclusion at a family home in Cambridge, England.

Most attribute Barrett's withdrawal to being either caused or exacerbated by massive LSD ingestion. Sadly, his drug use and subsequent deterioration quickly became the stuff of bullshit rock 'n' roll romanticism. The reconstituted Pink Floyd addressed the Barrett legend on the smash 1975 album "Wish You Were Here," with Roger Waters singing, "You reached for the secret too soon/ You cried for the moon/ Shine on you crazy diamond," and thus forever fixing Barrett as a kind of Icarus in reverse -- the one who flew so high he couldn't come down. The truth, of course, is much simpler and sadder. Barrett suffered a breakdown and never made music again.

For a more in-depth overview of the Barrett story, see this 2002 Observer (U.K.) piece, which includes a poignant encounter between the author and the recluse. And everyone should read this entry -- written less than a month ago -- from critically acclaimed singer-songwriter John Darnielle's blog, wherein he writes of the sadness he feels upon watching vintage footage of Barrett from back in the Pink Floyd days: "It is almost unbearably sad to hear that young man speak his mind -- to hear, with foreknowledge of what will follow, a uniquely creative mind at work. The loss begs huge questions for me, practically tabling all others, the essential one being 'why,' which opens onto several knottier versions of itself. Good luck."

-- David Marchese

By Salon Staff

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