Syd Barrett: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

Written by WL Woodward

Yer not! Am too! But we just stopped. Yeah, that was good for you then wernit? But I didn’t have ter go then. Plus that tab is kickin in. So what? It don’t make ya pee fer chrissakes! It doan stop ya from peein either Syd! Alright alright ya Knob, here’s a stop.

As the van turned, headlights showed a petrol stop with an attached store selling regular crap and sugar filled crap. The address over the door, 60 Glisson Road.   Knob hobbled to the pisser and Syd became less and less aware of who was what. Yup, the tab was definitely kicking in.

This night was more than a little weird. Syd realized he could only retrace a few hours and nothing doing before that. In fact, the more he thought about it, the less he could put together. This made him start to giggle. Which he stopped quickly. Can’t crack up here. Look at that sod in the store staring out at him. He looked like Wilford Brimley starting a stroke. A snort escaped and Syd thought he’d better get some gas before he couldn’t remember how.

Knob was in the men’s room trying to remember what he was doing there. You’d think just looking around would remind him, but this was not going to be a night for simplicity. There was no real light, meaning thank God for the skylight with a road light shining through. Then Knob heard a sound. A slight sound. A shuffle. There was someone, a fog of a someone, standing by the wash basin. As Knob turned from the toilet to look closer the fog leapt out through the window grate. Knob gave out a croak and attempted buttoning up his manhood without taking his eyes off the light outside. Which was brightening.

In the shop the attendant watched as the shadow came through the window again. This is not how this night is going to end, he thought. Not again. No more. Slowly, he stooped slightly to pick up the ax he’d started keeping behind the stand. Careful and slow. If it sees the ax there will be hell to pay off. He froze at the sound of a voice behind. Careful with that ax, Eugene. He turned slowly to see his wife standing in the doorway to the stockroom, her arms folded across her chest. With the light behind her Eugene realized she looked just like her mother. Shit.

She stepped further into the room. If you miss the shadow again and kill that boy we’ll never be rid of it. Eugene nodded and headed out the door. Slow now. Raise the ax.

Syd had become transfixed with the reflection of the rolling lights of the petrol machine in the van’s side window. He was just that close to figuring out the significance of backwards numbers in the van window. The numbers appeared to be backwards, but were moving forward. I know what that means, he thought. It’s like relativity. A change in the perception of a number in two directions has biblical relevance, it has to. It’s a metaphor for the weird ebb and flow of the pace in our world. Then the numbers were slowly replaced in the window with a shadow and he knew he was about to die.

Knob stumbled through the knee deep dust of the station, his legs made of rubber, moving so slow he couldn’t breathe. He saw the attendant behind Syd. The ax raised. An hour seemed to pass and then Knob let out a shriek bubbled in plastic wrap.

Eugene brought the ax down towards the shadow hovering over the boy. The shadow fled and Eugene’s heart stopped as he saw the ax descend on the kid’s shoulder, taking the arm completely off as clean as a string through cheese. Syd screamed and fell next to his arm between the van and the curb. Eugene felt something shriek inside that escaped. His wife was screaming, now all four, Eugene, his wife, Syd and Knob, were screeching, with a mad sound of laughter underneath. The shrieks caught the wind and fled into the night.

Roger bolted upright in his bed. The room was dark and the screams from his dream were melting into the corners of his flat. His face and chest were beaded with sweat and his eyes rolled as if searching for images. He swung his legs off the bed, and reached for the cigarettes on the night stand. What in the holy bloody hell was THAT?!

For one album as the true leader of Pink Floyd and throughout subsequent albums as the band’s curious muse and shadow, Syd Barrett remained spiritually a member of the band.  Born to a middle class existence in the university town of Cambridge Syd was drawn to art in many forms, and the arts of delight were drawn to him.  He first met Roger Waters as a schoolmate at 9 when Waters’ mother was his schoolteacher.  Starting at 11 he attended Cambridgeshire High School for Boys.

During this period Barrett started playing ukelele , then banjo, and got his first acoustic guitar at 14.  The following year he bought an electric and built an amplifier.  He took a place at Cambridge Technical College in the art department in September 1962 where he met David Gilmour.  Syd and Gilmour played in gigs around the campus, the usual folk stuff inspired by the Dylans and Guthries of the time and eventually by 1963 the Beatles.

Here Syd would start writing songs, and not in any real pop tradition.  A friend recalls hearing ‘Effervescing Elephant’ during this time, a far cry from ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’.  By 1964 the early parts of the Floyd were gigging under names like The Abdabs, the Screaming Abdabs, and The Meggadeaths.  Syd enrolled full time in art school.  He was 18.

But he was 18, studying art with the fervor of the true acolyte dedicated to the idea, the symbolism and spiritualism of art for its own sake.  Syd must have been skipping a great deal of school because by the autumn of 1965 the band settled into its famous four piece set of Nick Mason on drums, Roger Waters on bass, Richard Wright on keys, and Barrett doing guitar and vocals as well as writing everything the band played.  Richard Wright in an interview with author Barry Miles:

“It was great when Syd joined.  Before him, we’d play the R&B classiscs, because that’s what all groups were supposed to be doing then…With Syd, the direction changed; it became more improvised around the guitar and keyboards..”

The band was becoming more and more important to Syd, as a special canvas to a painter.  By 1966 the Floyd had become the darling of the psychedelic set and virtually the house band for the new London Underground.  The band quickly developed a reputation for songs with freakish improvisation that seemed rooted in formless phantasm followed swiftly and precisely into heart stopping movements.

Then in late 1966 the break came.  EMI signed them to a contract including unlimited time in a studio EMI owned named Abbey Road.  Now here comes the weird part.

During the same period the Floyd were recording their debut album, the Beatles were working up their eighth, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  In the same studio.  Pepper’s was released in June 1967 and the Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn in August.   Flippin 1967 AGAIN.  “Piper’ is not well known except to true Pink fans but Pepper is hailed as the breakthrough album of the psychedelic era.  Pepper was certainly a monumental moment in pop history but Piper was unquestionably more of a true example of what was happening in progressive rock.  Here is a clip from Piper.  Keep in mind, this is the First song from Floyd’s First album.  If you don’t hear the shades of Floydism and the obvious influence Barrett’s work would always have on the band to come you aren’t listening or you hate the band and couldn’t care less.  Right, Johnny Rotten?

Immediately after the release Syd Barrett started losing his cheese.  There was certainly a great deal of drug use at fault, particularly LSD.  Rumor has it friends would slip tabs into his tea without his knowing, but it remains to be seen whether Syd would have protested very harshly.  But stories from late 1967 definitely speak to a certain schizophrenia, or at least some mental illness that could not have been helped by frequent ingestion of hallucinogenics.

It’s ironic to note that one of Syd’s earliest musical buddies was David Gilmour.  After Barrett started slipping brain cells to the devil and getting none back Gilmour would be asked to fill in, first as backup guitar, then full time as Syd slipped into space.  By December 1967 Syd would disappear for days, miss gigs, or when he was at the gigs he’d take to wandering around on stage without an instrument, or playing one chord over and over, or sitting in a semi catatonic state mid stage, in a band that prided themselves with creative discipline.  Barrett’s stage antics were adored by the audience as examples of avant garde, but the band was increasingly unnerved.  David Gilmour would say later “Syd’s story is romanticized by people who don’t know it”.  Finally on the way to a gig in early 1968 someone in the band asked the question “Should we pick up Syd?”  They didn’t.  And that was it.

Of course the subsequent story of Pink Floyd chronicled one the most successful runs in rock history and one of the ugliest.  Barrett’s legacy left a stamp on the Floyd’s music throughout its twists, turns, highs, and shit storms.  I love the fact that the band always took care of Syd during his life and his family after Barrett passed in 2007, making sure they received all royalties from “The Piper”, even keeping Barrett in later restructured deals.  Waters is a miserable crap shoot as a bandmate, but to his credit he always gave Barrett his due and immortalized him in songs like “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” and “Wish You Were Here”.  But he also said Gilmour had no ideas, so his opinion on musical matters is suspect.  What a maroon.

It’s ironic as it is delicious.  Syd Barrett WAS the piper at the gates of dawn.

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