Pink Floyd themselves wrote the most fitting epitaph for their former singer and guitarist, Roger “Syd” Barrett, 31 years ago: “Wish You Were Here.” Never has a departed musician weighed so heavily on his former bandmates—chunks of post-Syd Floyd classics Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall also bear his influence. No one could’ve imagined that the Pink Floyd Barrett ruled in the Cambridge band’s early days would’ve become one of the most successful and enduring rock acts of all time. Barrett was arguably the first British pop star who fully refused to fake an obligatory American accent, and though the English public gave their immediate approval to some of the most radical pop records of that radical year 1967, in America those same records flopped.
Barrett’s psychedelia was as particularly English as Harry Potter, and similarly magical. A lover of eyeliner and whimsy, the singer spewed some of the era’s most savage guitar noise over and around his deceptively childlike lyrics: The BBC-banned first Floyd single “Arnold Layne” dared to celebrate a mischievous cross-dresser who stole his drag from washing lines, while the enchanting follow-up hit, “See Emily Play”—as well as “The Gnome,” “Scarecrow,” and other tracks from Floyd’s first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn—similarly mixed innocence and subversion. For Barrett, the retreat from adulthood that psychedelia offered was particularly enticing: It’s been speculated that the unexpected passing of his father when the future frontman was only 11 may have not only encouraged Barrett to seek lyrical refuge in the memories of happier days, but in part also inspired the mental illness that fully claimed him. “You were caught in the crossfire of childhood and stardom,” Pink Floyd sang of him on “Shine on You Crazy Diamond.”
Whether it was emotional fragility, LSD, schizophrenia, seizures induced by the band’s trademark strobes, pressures induced by sudden stardom, or a more likely a combination thereof, Barrett, as many biographers have documented, soon lost the plot, and a year into the band’s success was replaced by his close friend David Gilmour. Because he retreated from the spotlight so thoroughly so soon after the release of his 1970 solo albums The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, because Pink Floyd so routinely paid him homage in song, and because his small body of work so acutely documents a mind that occupies an alternative reality, Barrett has lived with the kind of legend befitting only the most celebrated of dead rock stars. And though he still lived, unlike kindred beleaguered soul Brian Wilson, he never bounced back: Until his July 7 death at age 60 from diabetes complications, Barrett lived in seclusion at his mother’s Cambridge house with the windows boarded up to discourage curious fans.
Syd had many of those. If the first Nuggets collection documents an American generation of garage bands who wanted to be the Rolling Stones, then the second, UK-dominated Nuggets box erects a shrine to Barrett and his wannabes. Just as Gilmour’s stadium-filling Pink Floyd inspired the original punks as a negative example, Barrett’s example positively shined on the postpunks, and his much quieter but even more uneasy and unpolished solo work spurred subsequent indie followers. Although his own output is slim, his jagged rhythm guitar and detached bray spread like a psychedelic virus onto thousands of records. Barrett enchanted outcast souls much like Arnold Layne snapped up see-through baby-blue ladies’ garments in the moonlight. They suit him fine.