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Among the most beloved, enigmatic and perhaps misunderstood musicians to come from the 1960s psychedelic era was Pink Floyd co-founder Syd Barrett, who was born on this date in 1946. Barrett, who died in 2006 at age 60, left an indelible mark on not just his band, but on the culture as a whole, becoming both a mythical and sympathetic figure to the countless admirers he inspired.
Born Roger Keith Barrett on January 6, 1946, in Cambridge, England, his nickname “Syd” developed over time. According to the official Syd Barrett website:
From age 10-16, Roger went to the Cambridgeshire High School for Boys on Hills Road, aka “The County.” The school had its own Scout troop, which Roger attended with great interest. He was a natural mimic and would amuse his friends with impersonations of famous people including comedy actor Sid James. Fellow scout Brian Boydell remembers that this was when he gave Roger the nickname of “Sid,” at an age of 12.
Some 3-4 years later the spelling would change after seeing a bassist in the Riverside Seven, a traditional jazz band, named Sid Barrett. Brian “Freddy” Foskett, formerly a jazz drummer with the Riverside Seven, took Roger to the YMCA in Alexandra Street to hear the band play and Roger decided to put the “y” into his nickname to avoid confusion with the bass player.
From then on Sid was Syd – until in the 1970s, when he reverted to his original Roger. “Syd doesn’t live here anymore” is how he answered the door to visiting strangers.
Barrett’s history and legacy as it relates to his three years spent in Pink Floyd have been examined many times over. His break from the band and well-scrutinized retreat from making music has been a source of speculation and analysis ever since he removed himself from the public eye.
Barrett’s bandmates – Roger Waters, Nick Mason, Richard Wright and essentially his replacement, David Gilmour – carried on after his mental health issues led to his departure. Barrett’s legend grew with tales such as when he (barely recognizable) showed up to the recording studio during the sessions for the song written about him with an all-too-specific title, “Wish You Were Here.”
With “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” Pink Floyd seemingly acknowledged the loss and love they had for their reclusive former bandmate and more importantly, friend.
Barrett was Pink Floyd’s primary songwriter when the band’s 1967 psychedelic masterpiece, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, was released. Barrett was credited either wholly or partially with writing all but one song on the debut album.
However, Pink Floyd’s follow-up 1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets had only one song credited to Barrett, and having left the band prior to its release, he contributed to just three of its seven tracks. His signature songwriting can be heard on his two subsequent solo albums, 1970’s The Madcap Laughs and Barrett.
One of the songs solely credited to Barrett was “Bike,” which appeared as the final track on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn U.K. release but was dropped from the U.S. pressing of the debut LP. Barrett was notably a lifelong bike enthusiast. The Barrett site states his one-time girlfriend Libby Gausden recalled the Pink Witch model bicycle as one of his early bikes. Produced in pink and turquoise colors and ridden mostly by girls, Gaudsen’s recollection was that Barrett’s Pink Witch bike was actually turquoise.
“Bike” is constructed of verses that take on an almost nursery rhyme effect and detail a bike, a cloak, a mouse named Gerald, a clan of gingerbread men and a room full of musical tunes that are perhaps better described as musique concrète. Between verses, the narrator professes to a “girl that fits in with my world” and offers to give her “anything, everything” if it’s “things” that she wants.
Barrett was in a romantic relationship with Jenny Spires around the time he wrote “Bike” and other Pink Floyd songs. “Bike” was referenced in a letter Barrett sent Spires at that time.
While Spires is the “girl that fits into” Barrett’s world mentioned in “Bike,” she was also referenced in the Barrett-written “Lucifer Sam,” which was the second song on Piper At The Gates Of Dawn and contains the lyric “Jennifer Gentle.”
In an interview with Loudersound, Spires spoke about her relationship with Barrett that began after they met in Cambridge in December 1964. Spires recalled meeting the 18-year-old Barrett:
“[Syd] came up and introduced himself. Unbeknown to me he had sketched a picture of me standing at the bar. He said, ‘Hi I’m Roger, I’ve got my own band, we’ve just done some recording and are changing our name to Pink Floyd’.”
“[Syd was] very together, always confident, always with some project on the go, some painting or song idea. Syd would always be writing songs in a notebook, which he’d tell me were written for or about me, like ‘Bike.’ He was very loving and wrote me letters all the time. His main thing was always painting. He’d write and tell me what paintings he was doing. He played at my 16th birthday party in Summer 1965 …
“We listened to blues, Dylan, the Kinks and Animals. People always say he was into The Beatles but he was more into the Stones. We listened to some jazz; Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, and things like Dave Van Ronk, Jesse Fuller and Bo Diddley. His musical tastes were very eclectic.”
By 1966, Spires moved from Cambridge to London to begin a modeling career bringing an end to their youthful romance. Spires was back in Cambridge by 1972 and married bassist Jack Monck. She reconnected with Barrett in Cambridge and after a meeting with Monck and a drummer known as Twink the three musicians formed a short-lived trio called Stars, performing a few gigs in coffee houses in Cambridge and later opening for MC5 and Hawkwind.
Following his retreat from music and the public, Barrett’s fondness for bicycle riding continued for the rest of his life. Spires continued to see Barrett in Cambridge occasionally over the years. In an interview Spires conducted in October 2016 for The Eclectic Light Show, she shared this anecdote about the last time she saw Syd:
“I did see him, not long before he died, cycling along Radegund Road. He looked slim. He had chinos on and a white shirt and it wasn’t tucked in and it was billowing out behind him. He was cycling along and he was smiling. And that’s how I remember seeing him. I was in my car, and I couldn’t stop and pull over, but I saw him and watched and thought he’s looking great.”
The last known photograph taken of Barrett was of him riding his bike in Cambridge in 2006, shortly before his death in July of that year.
While some may be familiar with Phish’s live covers of “Bike” sung by their drummer/Barrett devotee Jon Fishman featuring his signature vacuum solos, there is only one known live performance of “Bike” by Pink Floyd while Barrett was in the group. A description of that instance is described by Göran Nyström on the official Barrett website:
We only know of one live performance of the song [“Bike”]. It was included in the pivotal concert Games For May on May 12, 1967. Possibly this was the only time. Disc & Music Echo heralded Pink Floyd as “the first pop group to appear at London’s swank new Queen Elizabeth Hall, which opened a couple of months ago beside the Festival Hall on the Thames South Bank.” Peter Jenner explained at the time that they “hoped to present a show of completely new material with tapes and films.”
For “Bike,” Julian Palacios writes that a bicycle was “mounted with contact microphones to pick up the sounds of its rotating gears and ringing bell. Two mechanical toy ducks, mounted atop Plexiglas cabinets stage-front, quacked during the song’s coda.”
Syd Barrett was a one-of-a-kind figure who should be remembered for many things. He will forever be rightly first remembered as a co-founding and extremely influential member of one of the most influential rock bands of all time, and his two solo albums are a further insight into his musical genius.
Roger Keith Barrett was more than that though, and he spent much of his life pursuing other passions, particularly a lifelong interest in painting — for which he was quite talented — and of course, riding his bike.