Although much of the interest in Barrett is focused on his personal trajectory, it would be unfair to leave the music out of the equation. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn remains a touchstone, marking even more decisively than the post–Revolver Beatles the transition from “rock and roll,” with its pronounced roots in British R&B, to “rock” as an autonomous form. (This is also related to the respectable family backgrounds of Pink Floyd’s line-up, Barrett included; they dropped even the Stones’ pretense to being pub-crawling working-class toughs.) Well aware of the non-jazz improvisation of London’s AMM, Barrett and company didn’t invent the kind of free-form experimentation harnessed, most famously, on “Interstellar Overdrive.” And they certainly didn’t invent the mystic, mythic whimsy of the album’s lyrics, which as far as British pop goes extends as far back as Beatrice Lillie’s “There Are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden.” But Pink Floyd synthesized them — on Piper’s best tracks, Barrett’s eccentric but tuneful popcraft and his echo-laced guitar adventures co-exist with little evident tension.
It’s this combination, along with Barrett’s pre-burnout personal charisma, that influenced British rock. David Bowie once said, “When Syd Barrett left, there was no Pink Floyd for me anymore,” and Bowie’s first self-transformation, from polite popster Davy Jones to the scarves-and-flowers groove child of Space Oddity, owes much to Barrett’s example. Marc Bolan was another follower, codifying Barrett’s lyrical concerns and proto-glam image into a hitmaking formula soon after the original had left the scene.
Another wave of Barrett reference came soon after punk, as musicians began to pick through the psychedelic rags that had been dropped into the dustbin. Vocal doppelgänger Robyn Hitchcock has made a career of spinning out the sort of material a less-addled Barrett might have produced. Julian Cope cultivated the persona of a Syd-styled acid-damaged “nutter” after his split from the Teardrop Explodes, especially on his fragmentary 1984 album Fried. Even the resolutely unmystical (but plenty mysterious) Jesus and Mary Chain covered “Vegetable Man” as the flip of their debut single.
Barrett’s spectral presence exercises a current pull on the American lo-fi underground’s latest manifestation as the so-called “freak-folk” movement. Wooden Wand and Animal Collective partake of both Barrett’s any-world-but-this obscurity and early Floyd’s effect-laden dislocations of pastoral melody. What’s oddest, though, is the extent to which the tragic legacy of Barrett’s solo output has itself become a model. Gemlike and meandering by turns, the acoustic noodles and doodles that pepper Devendra Banhart’s career-making releases pursue the incoherence of The Madcap Laughs as an end in itself. The difference is that, for many current artists, this is a choice, as much a matter of self-presentation as æsthetics. Banhart is now accompanied by a band, and output has grown more coherent, not less.
In The Dark Stuff, UK rock writer Nick Kent describes encountering Barrett at the offices of an underground newspaper, during the brief twilight between the golden years with Floyd and his final self-imposed exile. “Less than five years earlier, I’d stood transfixed, watching him in all his retina-scorching, dandified splendor as he’d performed with his group the Pink Floyd, silently praying that one day I might be just like him. Now, as he stood before me with his haunted eyes and fractured countenance, I was having second thoughts.” Who wouldn’t? No one wants to be burdened with Barrett’s disabilities; many have wished to possess what he touched, if only for a moment. But can you have one without the other?