According to Barry Miles, our leading social historian of the Sixties' counterculture, Syd Barrett stumbled on the riff for Pink Floyd's 'Interstellar Overdrive' while trying to imitate the guitar part to 'My Little Red Book' by Love. There is a certain poetic symmetry, then, to the deaths on 7 July and 3 August this year of Barrett, aged 60, and Arthur Lee, 61: the eccentric genius of Love's mercurial leader, was just as madcap but altogether more menacing. Lee's long disappearance from public view was, like Syd's, down in part to drug-induced mental health problems, but the violence that simmered beneath his music also informed his life. While Barrett slipped into suburban anonymity and a long battle with mental illness, Arthur Lee ended up in jail serving a 10-year stretch for firearm offences. Each grew legendary in their absence. Syd, for so long a footnote in rock history, was remembered, in death, as a lost icon, perhaps the greatest psychedelic visionary these islands produced. Even as recently as 10 years ago, his death might have warranted a paragraph in the broadsheets; in July he was celebrated across page after page. Somehow, the oddball recluse had metamorphosed into a posthumous celebrity.
At the time of his death, the image of the young and undamaged Barrett had even found its way onto the London stage as a ghostly presence in Tom Stoppard's political drama, Rock'n'Roll. As Stoppard sensed, Syd was the lost boy of English pop, forever young and beautiful in those relatively few images of him that survived from the Sixties. Not even the sight of him as a middle-aged man, bald and bloated, cycling unsteadily to the local shops, dented his aura.
He was, said Stoppard, 'a dark archangel', and that gets close to describing that aura. Who can listen to the faltering voice on 'Dark Globe', and not wonder at the psychic darkness that produced music this raw, this plaintive? 'Please lift a hand,' he sings, 'I'm only a person with Eskimo chain/ I tattooed my brain/ All the way/ wouldn't you miss me, oh, won't you miss me at all?'
Well, we missed you, Syd, and long before you left us for good. Stoppard got that right, too, the sense that Barrett haunted our lost pop dreams just as surely as he haunted the group who left him to his demons. Our fascination, of course, has something to do with what might have been, with the notion of the unfinished, the unrealised, with genius derailed. Listening now to The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, those meandering, often unsettling, solo albums from 1970, one hears so many shadows and omens. Songs almost take shape, then slip away into reverie, or repetition, or end up in some in-between place whose contours seem hazy even to the man who is mapping them out.
Even at his creative peak, though, Barrett made music that disturbed as much as it enthralled. Glimpsed on film, with Pink Floyd, he seems immersed in the high shrill sound emanating from his guitar, a sound that owes nothing to the templates of the time, neither the blues nor the folk traditions. When we mourn Syd Barrett, we are, for once, mourning an actual eccentric genius, a true original, someone whose music, to a degree, seemed to come out of nowhere. The ultimate irony, of course, is that had Barrett's crazy diamond edge remained unblunted, it is difficult to imagine Pink Floyd ever having the success they enjoyed in his absence.
These days, the wayward Pete Doherty passes for a maverick genius, but could you imagine him ever recording a drug song as darkly mysterious as 'Live and Let Live' or, more pertinently, as oddly, emphatically English as 'Arnold Layne'?
When we mourned Syd Barrett, the misfit, the boy-child, we were also mourning pop's long lost innocence and its once seemingly limitless possibility for both experimentalism and cultural impact. In his often intriguing memoir, White Bicycles, the record producer Joe Boyd writes of arriving in England from America, in the mid-Sixties, into a country 'only just emerging from a long class-ridden slumber'. Pop music was the catalyst for that awakening. 'In our glorious optimism,' writes Boyd, 'we believed that "when the modes of the music change, the walls of the city shake". And we achieved a great deal before the authorities learned to capitalise on our self-destructiveness.'
More than any other pop star, Barrett epitomised that glorious optimism and that self-destruction. He briefly shone like the sun, then faded from sight, his singular songs and fey English voice echoing down the years, reminders of what was and what might have been. And, unlike Arthur Lee, who formed a new Love with a young band named after a Barrett song, Baby Lemonade, and toured Forever Changes to rapturous approval, the 'Madcap' never came back. Then again, as our posthumous fascination with him shows, he never really went away.