Syd Barrett was undoubtedly a musical genius. Half of the songs even now in the most downloaded charts owe their genesis to him.
There was a certain technique of playing guitar; a turn of lyrical content; a personal style and charisma; all of these things add up to a largely unacknowledged, pervasive musical legacy. The fans of a huge sweep of bands and artists might not even know it; but Syd's fans hear it.
He smashed through a lot of musical norms, then simply handed the baton on and left. The charts have never been the same since. But, of course, I'm biased.
To describe Syd Barrett in a nutshell is impossible. Countless biographers have tried with far more words that I have to play with here. So let's just say this:
Syd was born and raised in Cambridge. He left for London and founded a band named Pink Floyd. For a time, he was the biggest presence in rock - the It Boy, whom everyone else wanted to be. Then drugs took their toll. They may have exacerbated an already underlying mental illness.
The other members of Pink Floyd turned against him and kicked him out. The song Comfortably Numb is almost word for word a conversation which took place in Syd's apartment. He was trying to tell his friends how it felt to be in his head.
Poised on the brink of world stardom, his young friends had no sympathy. They simply stopped picking Syd up for gigs and replaced him with David Gilmour. The rest, for them, is history; but the ghost of Syd never went away. References to him litter their songs.
Syd carried on alone, recording three solo albums. The songs upon them sometimes soar in a heart-rendering brilliance; and sometimes crash into the mire of his disturbed mind. Become a fan and Syd will break your heart. But he will also lead you out of the rabbit hole of your own mentality. It's a very strange journey to undertake and I doubt anyone ever forgets him afterwards.
Eventually he couldn't cope in London, so he walked home to Cambridge. It took days to do it on foot, an epic journey back into his childhood. Then he became a recluse, while his legend slowly grew.
The other members of Pink Floyd are still having to apologize for the behavior of their youth. Their debts to Syd are still being paid in remastered albums and the inclusion of his images in the back-drops of their tours.
Syd's tale is wrapped in mysticism, excess and tragedy. He turns up in surprising places. For example, he inspired David Bowie to take to the stage. More cruelly, he was the artist lampooned in the persona of Sid Vicious. Blur's Graham Coxon is quite open about stealing Syd's guitar riffs. Placebo, Scissor Sisters, R.E.M., Smashing Pumpkins and the Flaming Lips are just some of the bands who have covered his songs. Supergrass have recently fallen under his spell. They even recorded Bike.
In 2006, I had friends break the news of Syd Barrett's death to me. It was done in much the same tone and sensitivity with which they'd tell me that a family member had gone. By then, Syd had stayed personally out of the spotlight for over thirty years.
He was still seen, out and about in Cambridge, but everyone protected him there. Fragile and terrified of fans, neighbors pulled rank to see off any roving reporters or sight-seers.
People have wondered why I left it so late to visit the city, given how long I've been a fan of Syd Barrett. The answer is right there. He's only been dead for a handful of years and, as a fan, I kept my distance before that. It seemed like the least that I could do.