The piper's last call: Pink Floyd founder dead at 60


July 12, 2006


The crazy diamond shines no more.

Syd Barrett, the founder of Pink Floyd and the most legendary acid casualty in rock history, died Friday from complications related to diabetes in the cottage in Cambridge, England, where he lived as a recluse for the past three decades, according to reports quoting family members in the British press. He was 60 years old.

"He died peacefully at home," the star's brother Alan said Tuesday in a brief statement. "There will be a private family funeral in the next few days."

Born Roger Keith Barrett in 1946, the musician adopted the name Syd at age 15. He started the band that would become Pink Floyd in 1965, taking the moniker from two American bluesmen, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, and, in typically whimsical fashion, titling the group's first album after a chapter from his favorite book, Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows.

Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, released at the height of the Summer of Love and driven by Mr. Barrett's songwriting, singing and otherworldly guitar solos, "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" (1967) influenced generations of musicians who followed in its wake; among the many who covered his songs were David Bowie, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, the Smashing Pumpkins, Phish, Widespread Panic and Robyn Hitchcock. With its sonic invention and surreal lyrics, the album surpassed even "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" as an aural evocation of the psychedelic experience, and in England, Mr. Barrett became a superstar who personified the Swinging '60s.

The musician's influence continued to loom large on Pink Floyd's second album, "A Saucerful of Secrets," though by the time it was released in 1968, he was suffering from the onset of what his biographers have characterized as schizophrenia, exacerbated by frequent use of LSD and other drugs. His erratic behavior prompted Roger Waters, Rick Wright and Nick Mason to replace their bandmate with one of his schoolboy chums, David Gilmour, whom Mr. Barrett had taught to play guitar.

What biographer Nicholas Schaffner called "the classic Barrett episode" came during a gig in late 1967 following a tour opening for Jimi Hendrix.

"While Syd lingered before the dressing room mirror, primping up a luxuriant Afro modeled after the American guitar hero's -- 'the obligatory Hendrix perm,' as Waters would call it 12 years later in 'The Wall' -- his exasperated colleagues finally hit the stage without him," Schaffner wrote. "Impulsively crushing the contents of a jar of his beloved barbiturates, he ground the fragments into his hair along with a full tube of Brylcreem.

"Syd then joined the group onstage, where the heat of the spotlights soon turned his unique beauty treatment into a dribbling mess that left the Pink Floyd's star looking, in the eyes of their dumbstruck lighting director, 'like a guttered candle.' "

Pink Floyd would pay tribute to Mr. Barrett on its best and most successful albums, pondering the causes of mental collapse on "The Dark Side of the Moon" (1973) and "The Wall" (1979) and speaking to him directly in the songs "Wish You Were Here" and "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," which featured Waters' lyrics urging, "Come on you raver, you seer of visions/Come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner and shine!"

Mr. Barrett continued to shine for several years: With backing from members of Pink Floyd and other British rock giants, he made two acclaimed solo albums, "The Madcap Laughs" (1970) and "Barrett" (1971), before dropping out of the music scene for good. His absence only fueled fans' fascination, however, and over the years, he became the subject of numerous books, fanzines and Web sites, along with pilgrimages to his home. The attention prompted him to brick up the windows and generally avoid public outings.

The members of Pink Floyd kept Mr. Barrett afloat with regular royalty checks, and they helped keep his memory alive. "I'm not really surprised by [Syd's ongoing popularity] -- he's a very charismatic figure, and he did write some wonderful songs," Gilmour told me in 1992. "But you can say this of anyone whose career is cut off in its prime and died young -- James Dean or anyone else -- they are considered wonderful because they never grew old and showed us all their weaknesses."

But Mr. Barrett's former bandmates were also haunted by the question of whether they could have helped their friend if they'd only been more attuned to his mental problems and drug abuse.

"Could we have saved the day? Could we have prevented Syd from going off the rail? I suppose this is the issue exercising me the most," Mason told me in 1995. "But we are not really talking about four lovable moptops here -- we are talking about a bunch of poised individuals who were so busy pursuing their own ends that they weren't even capable of looking after each other."