Tuesday, 22 Jun 2021

Syd Barrett: Genius or Madman?

“Paagol chaara duniya chole na (The world does not work without mad men).”

– Lalon Fakir

Roger Keith Barrett, more famously known as Syd Barrett, is the man credited for bringing psychedelic rock music from cult status to worldwide fame. As the frontman of the extremely eccentric and experimental Pink Floyd, he gave birth to psychedelic delights such as ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, ‘See Emily Play’ and ‘Bike’ among countless others. As is known, his extreme use of drugs, especially the hallucinogen LSD, affected his already fragile mental health, resulting in mental breakdowns and he became “mad”, though actually he was borderline schizophrenic. But there are two sides of a coin always; the madness seemed to have fuelled his creativity to an exponential extent.

Prior to his departure from Floyd, a lot of stories about his madness have been heard. He often just stood onstage without performing; in one concert, he just played a single note throughout; once he went up onstage after emptying a whole tube of Brylcreem gel on his hair, and due to heat of the lights on the stage, the gel started to melt and fall down across his face, making it seem as if his face was melting! All these incidents makes one be sure that he was a mad hatter, but what one fails to realize is that his mind worked in a different way and he lived in his own world. In other words, reality was slightly different for Syd. Though such antics were a hit with the audiences, it did not strike good notes with his bandmates, who were resenting it. Until finally, one fine day in January 1968, when Roger Waters was driving to a show at Southampton University, the band elected not to pick Barrett up. One person in the car said, “Shall we pick Syd up?” and another said, “Let’s not bother.” That’s how Syd Barrett stopped appearing on the pages of history (as a Pink Floyd member) anymore.

Before we delve into the mind of this strange character, we should reflect upon the signs that showed his mental disbalance. Unreleased songs such as ‘Scream Thy Last Scream’ (which was supposedly a last ditch effort for sanity) and ‘Vegatable Man’ are eerie tracks. Most disturbing is the track ‘Jugband Blues’ from Floyd’s second album ‘A Saucerful of Secrets’, the only contribution of Barrett in that album. The fact that he was floating over to the darker side of the moon was evident to him, is clear in the song, as well as his bandmates’ increasingly antagonistic behaviour. The last couple of lines “And what exactly is a dream/ And what exactly is a joke?” is a reflection of his state of mind. He could not differentiate between whether he was dreaming, or whether his mind was playing tricks on him, and he could do nothing about it. Imagine the sheer horror and despair! And comprehend the depth of those words.

The final straw however was a practice session which turned out to be Syd’s last session with the band. He had come in with a new song named “Have You Got It Yet?” The band learned the fairly easy composition, and they started jamming. Barrett however changed the arrangement and melody slightly. They again had to learn it anew. But Barrett kept on changing it with every new practice. This resulted in the band members trying to catch up with Syd, and the music was all helter-skelter! If this wasn’t enough, in the song, Syd would ask “Have got it yet?” and all the other members had to shout “No! No! No!” as a reply to the question. The astounding revelation here is that Syd Barrett had not come up with a song at all. He came up a concept! The song was the concept itself! The song would have an ever-changing structure, and the other members would not get the song correct, or “Have you got it yet?” would not be valid! This was what the schizophrenic mind produced. Now you can call it ‘sheer madness’ or ‘absolute genius’, but it will make you think and wonder. You can marvel at it or dismiss it, but you will appreciate the concept, and respect the fact that he tried to implement it. It however can never be known whether he did this out of spite, or whether it was another honest creation, but this token of his idiosyncratic sense of humour did not bode well with the other members. They finally had enough of him! Roger Waters put down his bass, walked out of the room, and never attempted to play with Barrett again. He called it “a real act of mad genius”.

Now its upto you to decide whether you consider Syd Barrett to be actually mad or a genius, but who are we to judge? Besides, there is a very thin line between madness and genius. As for me, I’ll leave you with a tiny thought: Can you wonder what actually went on in that beautiful mind?