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Pink Floyd Frontman Syd Barrett Dies
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 12, 2006; B06
Syd Barrett, 60, the singer-songwriter-guitarist who co-founded the British rock band Pink Floyd and whose drug-fueled mental collapse became a cautionary tale of rock lore, died of complications from diabetes July 7 at his home in Cambridgeshire, England.
Darkly handsome and with brooding, poetic eyes, Mr. Barrett was the charismatic early frontman of Pink Floyd. He wrote several of its psychedelic pop hits of the late 1960s, including "Arnold Layne," about a transvestite who steals women's underwear from clotheslines, "See Emily Play," about a schoolgirl groupie, and "Astronomy Domine," which tried to sonically reproduce an LSD trip.
Mr. Barrett became known for compelling experiments on guitar, including slide and echo effects; extended solos on songs such as "Interstellar Overdrive"; and using the teeth of his Zippo lighter to strum his instrument. This became as much a part of the band's mystique as its mesmerizing visual effects in concert.
With band mates Roger Waters on bass, Rick Wright on keyboard and Nick Mason on drums, Mr. Barrett helped Pink Floyd challenge the Rolling Stones and the Beatles as the most-dynamic English export. Mr. Barrett would not be around when the band had its greatest success in the 1970s with the albums "Dark Side of the Moon," "Wish You Were Here" and "The Wall."
His abundant LSD use, captured in the short 1966 film "Syd Barrett's First Trip," seemed to worsen his fragile grip on reality. His mischievous, sometimes mean backstage behavior and increasingly catatonic onstage presence led to his replacement by David Gilmour, a close friend.
Pink Floyd band mates paid tribute to Mr. Barrett, who retreated to a largely hermetic life, on the recordings "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" and "Wish You Were Here." Other musicians covered his songs, and David Bowie said in a statement yesterday, "His impact on my thinking was enormous."
Peter Jenner, a former Pink Floyd manager-producer, said of Mr. Barrett in a 1990 interview: "The pressures which hit him were the pressures from going from just being another guy on the block to being the spokesman of your generation. Especially during the psychedelic thing, there was a lot of heavy messiah-ism going around. People would come up and ask him the meaning of life -- that put a young person who'd just written a song and played a bit of guitar under enormous pressure."
Roger Keith Barrett was born Jan. 6, 1946, in Cambridge, England, where his father was a university lecturer in pathology. He was drawn to jazz and blues early on, playing ukulele and later switching to guitar, and he hung out in music clubs. He took his nickname from a old Cambridge jazz drummer he knew, Sid Barrett, and used a "y" for effect.
Mr. Barrett was an indifferent art student in London when he joined his high school friend Waters in a rock band that included Mason and Wright. Mr. Barrett wrote many of the group's early songs, inspired mostly by prodigious drug use and an astronomical atlas he carried everywhere.
He also renamed the band, formerly the Screaming Abdabs, after two obscure American bluesmen, Pink Anderson and Floyd "Dipper Boy" Council.
In 1967, Pink Floyd won a contract with EMI and began recording its debut LP, "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn," at London's Abbey Road Studios. The release took its name from a chapter title in Mr. Barrett's favorite children's book, "The Wind in the Willows."
With its hallucinogenic "space-rock" sound effects, "Piper" was meant to compete with the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album, which was being recorded down the hall. Mr. Barrett played a large creative role in the engineering of the Pink Floyd album.
"He wouldn't do anything unless he thought he was doing it in an artistic way," group co-manager Andrew King once said. "He would throw the levers on the board up and down apparently at random, making pretty pictures with his hands."
The Pink Floyd recording was a popular success and led to television appearances, but Mr. Barrett proved an embarrassment. Several times, he stood in silence as the music played or as a host asked him a question. Once, he rubbed a gooey Brylcreem-laced concoction on his hair that, dissolved under studio lights, made his face appear to melt.
He constantly detuned his guitar during performances or strummed the instrument absent-mindedly. His band mates did not find this endearing and eventually dropped him altogether, but not before he sang the track "Jug Band Blues" on "A Saucerful of Secrets" (1968), which many consider his farewell:
It's awfully considerate of you to think of me here
And I'm most obliged to you for making it clear
That I'm not here
Mr. Barrett recorded two solo albums in 1970, "The Madcap Laughs" and "Barrett," which veered between whimsical and rambling. His public appearances became intolerable, with a reviewer for Melody Maker remarking, "The fingers on his left hand met the frets like strangers."
After brief hospitalization, Mr. Barrett was cared for by his mother, and he rarely left home. After his mother died in 1991, his health worsened, and his eyesight began to fail. He enjoyed gardening, however, and was said to be skillful at stuffing peppers.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company