High Times Greats: Syd Barrett

The psychedelic fall of Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett
High Times Greats: Syd Barrett
Syd Barrett by Mick Rock/ ©Mick Rock

Pink Floyd co-founder Syd Barrett (1946-2006) would have been 75 years old on January 6. To commemorate his birthday, we’re republishing the following except from Nicholas Schaffner’s book Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey, printed in the September, 1991 issue of High Times—complete with an intro from John Hood.

Pink Floyd. The name is legend. For decades, they’ve been turning out in one crazy incarnation or another, some of the most otherworldly sounds to be heard in rock. Peaking with The Dark Side of the MoonBillboard’s long-charting LP—and through such post-psychedelic gems as Wish You Were Here and The Wall, they’ve carved out an arena-sized niche for themselves as the unmitigated powers of what was once called “progressive rock.” But few know the real history of this publicity-shy band and their psycho-genius founder, Syd Barrett, who went off the deep end as The Pink Floyd—as they then were called—began to move the world. Flashback now to the Summer of Love, when the Floyd held out-there court with the Move and the Who at ’round-the-clock blasts like the “Great Freak-Out All-Night Rave,” “The International Love-In,” and the “Pop-Op Costume Masque Drag Ball” in Notting Hill, London’s Haight-Ashbury. It was a trippy time, two years after The Pink Floyd Sound’s Spontaneous Underground debut, and their rapid ascendancy as the hippie movement’s “house orchestra.” This chapter, from Floyd-freak Nicholas Schaffner’s Saucerful of Secrets captures the last manic laughs of that crazy diamond, Syd Barrett.

It was all so easy then,” says Peter Jenner of Syd Barrett’s artistic flowering and The Pink Floyd’s initial success. “The question is why it then became so hard. Money? Fame? People coming up and asking Syd the meaning of life—and giving him loads of acid? I blame the acid, but I think it would have been something else if it hadn’t been the acid.”

“Certainly acid had something to do with it,” says Floyd keyboardist Rick Wright. “The point is, you don’t know whether the acid accelerated this process that was happening in his brain, or was the cause of it. No one knows. I’m sure the drugs had a lot to do with it.”

In this regard, Barrett’s next move—to the most notorious “underground” address in South Kensington—was stepping from the frying pan into the fire. One Cambridge friend remembers 101 Cromwell Road—already home to much of their old crowd—as “an extraordinary building full of extraordinary people—very talented and high-flying painters and musicians. It was heavily drug-oriented; international acid dealers would stop off there for three days.”

“Cromwell Road, man,” as Donovan warbled on “Sunny South Kensington,” “gotta spread your wings….”

Syd Barrett proceeded to give every indication of having been launched into a permanent LSD orbit. Back at Earlham Street, says a close friend, Barrett “would take acid in very protected circumstances—with people we knew very well. In familiar surroundings. But Syd began taking it on his own—and getting well freaked-out.”

In this he was now constantly (if unwittingly) aided and abetted by another roommate, named Scotty, characterized by Floyd underling John Marsh as “one of the original acid-in-the-reservoir, change-the-face-of-the-world acid missionaries”—and “a desperately twisted freak” to boot. According to Marsh, Syd’s more earthbound visitors would decline all sorts of refreshments at 101 Cromwell Road, down to and including a glass of water—“unless you got it yourself from the tap, and even then [they’d] be desperately worried, because Scotty’s thing was spiking everything.”

Not that Barrett’s lapses could yet be perceived as symptoms of an irreversible metamorphosis—or even of anything that went beyond the general insanity of the times. For June Bolan, the alarm bells began to sound only when Syd kept his girlfriend, Lindsay, under lock and key for three days, occasionally shoving a ration of biscuits under the door. After Juliette Wright and June succeeded in rescuing the badly-bruised and shaken prisoner, Barrett locked himself in the room and refused to show his face for another week.

And yet, June stresses, there was no overnight change from “Syd as we’d all known and loved him, into Syd the lunatic. Because it didn’t work like that. It was very gradual. One day he’d be freaked out, for no apparent reason—but then none of us lived with him, so we don’t know what went on at home. Then maybe he’d be alright for a couple of weeks, and then he’d be funny for a couple of days—and it would transpire that he was taking a lot of acid. He knew the volume of the acid, the tabs he was taking himself. But then, when he’d have a cup of tea, ‘friends’ would drop one in and not tell him, so that halfway through a trip he’d be on another trip. And perhaps they’d do that a couple of times a day, for two or three weeks. And that’s when his hold on reality became very tenuous—and very, very difficult to deal with for people that didn’t live around him.”

Syd’s year-long acid trip began to go haywire just when the Floyd’s career was shifting into overdrive. Some of his friends attribute part of his deterioration to the pressures of “pop stardom” and the attitudes of the rest of the Floyd; others, conversely, maintain that the personality conflicts within the band, along with Syd’s inability to handle his success, essentially arose from his own acid-fueled derangement. A fair conclusion might be that all these factors—the drugs, the fame, personal and artistic differences, and some long-dormant disorder within Barrett’s psyche—interacted with one another to increasingly nightmarish effect.

As for the artistic differences, June Bolan fingers LSD as the main culprit: “The more acid one takes, in one’s mind the music sounds tremendous—but outwardly it sounds like a heap of shit. People who aren’t taking the same stuff as you aren’t hearing the same thing you’re hearing in your head. That’s when all the bones of contention came, because it wasn’t working as a whole. That’s when it all started to fragment.” As Barrett’s behavior on the road turned increasingly erratic, the other Floyds took to needling him with a vengeance. June Bolan affirms that ‘“once Syd lost his grip—in the sense that he was a very volatile member of the band—they were really wicked to him. Perhaps had they been kinder, in those early days of his breakdown or cracking up or whatever you want to call it, he may not have been so hard hit by it all. But that is speculation. It may have happened anyway, in exactly the same way, or it may not have happened so badly—but I do feel that they were horrider to him than they need to have been.”

On July 29, The Pink Floyd appeared at an Alexandra Palace extravaganza, second-billed only to Eric “San Franciscan Nights” Burdon and his new set of psychedelic Animals. But this so-called International Love-In was not quite the triumphal return Peter Jenner and Andrew King had hoped for.

As the Floyd’s big moment approached, June Bolan remembers, Barrett was nowhere to be seen. She finally located him in a dressing room, “absolutely gaga, just totally switched off, sitting rigid like a stone.” She tried to shake him out of his trance while the other Floyds changed into their stage gear—which was unnecessary in Barrett’s case, because he was already so flamboyantly attired. “Syd!” she cried. “It’s June! Look at me!” His blank stare registered not a flicker of recognition.

As the milling audience grew restless, the stage manager kept knocking at the door with his increasingly urgent summons: “Time to go! Time to go!” “And we’re trying to get Syd up,” June recalls, “and get him together to go and play. He couldn’t speak; he was absolutely catatonic. [Floyd bassist] Roger [Waters] and I hoofed him onto the stage, and en route put his guitar around his neck, and stood him in front of the vocal mike.”

“That’s when you have to give Roger credit for what he actually did—he actually got the other two together and made a sort of half-arsed version of the set. Peter and Andrew were frantic: they were pulling out their hair.”

The two managers’ relief when Syd at last let loose with his white Stratocaster proved short-lived; according to June, the discordant, yowling notes bore little connection to what the other three were playing. Mostly, Barrett “just stood there, tripping out of his mind.”

Fortunately for the Floyd, June had the foresight to collect their fee from the Love-In’s promoter before he sussed out what was going on.

Upon ascertaining that she had the money in her handbag, Peter Jenner shouted at her through the din: “Go out to the car—now! Leg it!”

“They all ran out with their guitars—and we just shot off, and went ‘Whew!’”

The next issue of Melody Maker announced that “Syd Barrett is suffering from ‘nervous exhaustion’ and the group have withdrawn from all engagements booked for the month of August.” In keeping with the hand’s new-found prominence, this report appeared on page one—under the banner headline: PINK FLOYD FLAKE OUT!

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