Syd Barrett barely figured on my musical horizon until I began making regular visits to Cambridge a couple of years ago. Like many listeners, my first encounter with Pink Floyd was Dark Side of the Moon, long after he’d departed the group he co-founded, and my knowledge of their Syd era was restricted to Bowie’s cover of ‘See Emily Play’ and a tabloid story from the 1990s bearing a blurred snap of a backyard recluse who looked like Eddy Yates from Coronation Street.
With no delving involved, I skimmed through The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and some of Syd’s solo material from 1970’s The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, and was shown a TV documentary by a fan whose knowledge and opinion made a difference. I could see the attraction of Barrett’s story. If ever someone was born and raised to be a young tortured artist (visually as well as musically and lyrically) it was Syd. Obsessed with his favourite childhood books like Alice in Wonderland and Wind in the Willows, and fuelled by the late-Sixties music-biz drugs craze, his lyrics conjured a skewed world of seasonally affected nostalgia in the great English tradition, set to sparse, off-kilter tunes from the fretboard of a troubadour on the edge. By some accounts, Barrett’s personality, his mind, had been blown by acid even prior to his split from Floyd, and it’s a wonder we have these last two albums at all. By the early Seventies, musically, he was gone, back to Cambridge (he walked back from London, a heroic swansong in itself) and a media-silent retirement until his death in 2006.
This year his home town is marking his 70 birthday with much civic pride in one of the more unusual figures ever to be made into a local hero. The main event starts with a couple of hundred people in the bar of the Corn Exchange, the venue for Syd’s final live performance in 1972 (he played in a local band called Stars, some of whom are here tonight). Stories of Syd fill out the conversation, old friends recalling their school days together or spotting Syd around town in his final years of quiet, completed celebrity, and smouldering images of the star in his youthful heyday drift across TV screens. A band in a corner called Punk Floyd perform spirited covers of Pink Floyd numbers. Then there are speeches, including a moving, understated one by his sister Rosemary. Altogether, thirty-two of his relatives are on the guest list.
I speak with a buzzy, cheerful guy in a red top hat called Fonz Chamberlain, one of the campaigners who spent five years lobbying the city council to stage these celebrations. In his opinion, Cambridge had started to forget Syd, to let him slip away. ‘If Liverpool can remember The Beatles, then Cambridge should remember Syd Barrett,’ he told me. And it dawned on me that he was right. Pink Floyd were massive and influential, and that could only reflect favourably on a small town like Cambridge, notwithstanding that its tourist industry could hardly be any more boosted than it already is.
A new site is added to that tourist trail tonight, a memorial sculpture in the foyer of the Corn Exchange. Its main feature is a spinning bicycle wheel of multi-coloured light in which Syd’s face in various aspects coalesces out of the chaos every few seconds, an effect that plays up the ‘ethereal’ tag evoked by the guy’s ‘idiosyncratic’ compositions (another tag). The reference is made explicit in the speech at the unveiling, linking the Floyd song ‘Bike’ to the 50,000 of them terrorising Cambridge’s narrow streets.
In the auditorium, the fifty-piece Sandviken Symphony Orchestra, flown in from Sweden, is waiting quietly, all tuned up already with Nordic efficiency, and Peter Wynne-Willson’s museum-piece lights kept from the very early Pink Floyd shows are painting the walls in shifting psychedelic pools and bubbles of brightly coloured oil. What we’re about to see is a performance of some of Syd’s works woven into a narrative of his life. The electric band fronting the show are Men on the Border, also Swedish, five guys even older than me. Evidently, the crazy Swedes are crazy for Syd. The songs are well picked from Syd’s oeuvre, pinpointing the biographical, but the orchestral arrangements, wonderful as they are, impose a uniformity on songs that stood sparsely apart from one another in their original forms.
It seems to chime with a prevailing mood of gentility and inclusivity towards the man’s memory, an appropriate appropriation. The family don’t want to talk about Syd’s alleged or documented dark days, and why should they? He went through all that and came back to them. And tonight is about celebrating his achievements and bringing a bit of rock and roll glamour to a town normally seen in a quite different light. It’s as much about Roger Barrett, the local lad who bloomed into one of England’s most original songwriters, as it is about Syd, the troubled star he became.
Special shout out to Neil Jones and Cambridge Live, who staged tonight.