Some of rock’s recluses are lucid individuals who don’t care to synch their output to the time clocks of the media and the record industry. This year alone, both Tom Verlaine and Scott Walker are coming out of hiding to end decade-plus silences with new studio albums. Other figures, driven from the spotlight by various combinations of drugs, paranoia, and emotional instability, attempt comebacks that are sometimes triumphant (Brian Wilson’s reconstructed Smile), more often disastrous, as in the case of Sly Stone’s abortive attempt to get through a single song at this year’s Grammy Awards.
PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN: Barrett wasn’t long for this rock world.
Rarest of all is the artist whose public withdrawal is complete, permanent, and apparently irreversible. In this category, Pink Floyd co-founder Syd Barrett (born Roger Keith Barrett) — who died of unstated causes on July 11 in his birthplace of Cambridge, England — has few equals. Without meaning to, Barrett invented one of rock’s enduring archetypes: the visionary who burns brightly just long enough to become a bona fide star before plummeting into introversion and, in this case, a silence lasting more than 30 years. Despite this long absence — or more likely because of it — Barrett has exerted a fascination over several generations of musicians, some massively successful and some resolutely “underground,” as an unwilling symbol of an artistic purity too fragile to thrive for long in the straight world, or even in the alternative culture that rock has long claimed to represent.
His reputation rests on one of the slimmest discographies of any major rock figure. Only the Pink Floyd’s 1967 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (the definite article was dropped from the band’s name around the time of his departure), and the related singles (“See Emily Play”) show him at the height of his powers as a songwriter and guitarist. (There are no recordings of Floyd’s early, free-form performances at the UFO club and other Swinging London flashpoints, only their audiences’ utopian memories.) Barrett contributed just a single song, “Jugband Blues,” to the band’s second album, plus two outtakes, one of them the all-too-revealing, oft-bootlegged “Vegetable Man.”
Ousted for his erratic behavior, on stage and off (the rest of the band simply decided to stop picking him up for rehearsals), Barrett made fitful attempts at a solo career that resulted in The Madcap Laughs and Barrett (both 1970). It’s hard to hear these recordings as anything but documents of a mind coming loose from itself, with flashes of his lyric and melodic gifts emerging from a fog of marginal rhythm guitar and half-hearted vocalizing. Overdubs from various members of Floyd and the Soft Machine give some tracks a semblance of coherence, but just as often, songs that he wouldn’t — or, by this time, couldn’t — play the same way twice are left as hesitant acoustic sketches, complete with false starts.
An attempted third album in 1971 didn’t even get this far; Barrett never added vocals, and the sessions were scrapped. He soon retreated from the rock world entirely, settling in Cambridge with his mother and subsisting on publishing royalties and, according to some obituaries, some form of disability. Floyd biographer Nicholas Schaeffner quotes a statement by a family member, on the occasion of the 1988 release of the outtakes collection Opel: “He doesn’t play musical instruments anymore.” Nothing indicates that this changed in the years since.