Syd Barrett’s sister shares memories of Pink Floyd visionary

Exclusive by Beth Neil 18/08/2008

Syd Barrett

The original Crazy Diamond is about to shine on even brighter – with an exhibition celebrating the creative genius of rock enigma Syd Barrett.

Titled The City Wakes, it will premiere in the Pink Floyd founder’s hometown of Cambridge, before a transfer to London. It will feature artwork, previously unseen photos and letters written by Syd, who died, aged 60, in July 2006.

Ahead of the exhibition – organised by arts and mental health charity Escape Artists – Syd’s sister, Rosemary Breen, 60, gives us exclusive access to her family album and shares memories of the brother she called her best friend.

My brother was two people. He was "Roger" when we were children. "Syd", as most people knew him, was a nickname for just a few years.

After that, he was Roger again for the rest of his life. So if I’m talking about the child I knew or the man I looked after, I say "Roger".

The person everybody is interested in, I prefer to call "Syd". It’s easier that way.

People have many ideas of what my brother was like. But he didn’t have a dark side. He was just lovely and unique, and so attractive.

They say some people walk into a room and you know they are there – he was like that. Things became livelier when he was around. I suppose it’s what you call charisma.

My earliest memory of Roger is on a seaside holiday, turning in front of me, looking back at me from between his legs and giggling.

His letters, which will be on display as part of The City Wakes, show just how funny he was. He always had everybody in stitches.

My mother’s friends would come to the house just to see him. He was a witty, bright, attractive child with a great presence.

He was always going to be special. He had that sparkle.

He loved children’s books and was fascinated by Alice In Wonderland. Fantasy was always more interesting to him than reality.

He hadn’t got a lot of time for reality.

People first realised there was something exceptional about him when they saw his childhood paintings. He just had what it took to draw what he saw.

As children we played piano duets together. Roger would play a banjo, a ukulele and later a guitar. But he always considered himself an artist rather than a musician. Music was fun but art was his real love.

He started his first band, Jokers Wild, at 16. Sunday afternoons would see Cambridge chaps and girls coming over for a jamming session. The members of Pink Floyd were just people I knew. Roger Waters was a boy who lived around the corner and Dave Gilmour went to school over the road.

The first time I saw them perform my brother seemed to think it was all a bit of a joke and didn’t take it very seriously.

Jazz was his big passion – he admired Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker the most. The psychedelia thing was just his version of it.

The first time I heard Pink Floyd on the radio I was out with a boyfriend and Arnold Layne came on the car radio.

Another time I was on a late shift at the hospital and Top Of The Pops came on. I told a patient: "That’s my brother." She said: "No it isn’t, dear."

Syd still saw music in a light-hearted way. It was never serious until it all went wrong. Then it was very serious.

Fame was the last thing he wanted. He never needed it because from when he was a child he was surrounded by people who adored him.

I was doing my nurse’s training in Tooting, South London, when Pink Floyd took off. That first year they worked so hard, travelling every night and performing – it was a killer. It contributed a lot to his trouble because they were all exhausted, physically and mentally.

People ask me why Syd withdrew and I think it was a combination of too much LSD and a very eccentric, creative brain. If you’re very tired and put a load of acid into the mix you’ve got chaos, an explosion.

It was all very nasty but also inevitable.

He was exhausted and confused about where he was going with Pink Floyd. I think he took drugs in search of an alternative. He probably did have a nervous breakdown, although it was never diagnosed. I think he just mentally collapsed.

After leaving Pink Floyd he lived in Chelsea cloisters, coming home occasionally.

But he was still chaotic. When he came home in 1981, he lived with our mother for a year. She found it a bit much and moved in with my husband and I, leaving Roger in the house He stayed there until he died.

After he came back to Cambridge he was very shy and reclusive because he had withdrawn. If he was in a good mood, he would be funny again. But it would be rare.

He showed no interest in Pink Floyd at all. If anyone called him Syd he wouldn’t answer – Syd was Pink Floyd. He wasn’t being clever by being reclusive, just being himself. He tried hard to disappear but that made some fans want to know about him even more.

Roger was assessed by quite a few psychiatrists and they always said, yes, he’s unusual, but there is no mental illness.

People would ask him to do paintings but if he did anything it was because he wanted to do it. He could never do a commission – performing on stage is like being commissioned and doing what you’re told to creatively. He found that very difficult.

He had an obsession with the new, so everything had to be replaced all the time.

I’d say: "You’ve only had this mattress six months." He’d say: "It’s old, it’s old," and get rid of it.

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There would be new hi-fis and stereos chucked out on a regular basis.

Having people coming to the door upset him and he’d say to me: "What do they want?"

Some more extreme fans would stalk him. One even wrote to all his neighbours in an effort to get in contact with him. In the end he just disconnected his door bell.

For him, a typical day would consist of getting up late and trundling downstairs for breakfast, which was always bacon and eggs. Then he’d get on his bike and go to Sainsbury’s where he would buy a lot of things that he didn’t need, especially if they had nice colours or were sparkly. He might even chat with the checkout girls.

He’d have lunch on his lap and in the afternoon we’d go to B&Q where he’d buy endless amounts of plywood, nails and paint. He never watched TV – he had enough going on in his head – but he’d do some gardening.

Roger had an unusual habit of making paintings, taking a picture of them and then destroying the canvas – 30 or so photos of his art will be shown in the exhibition.

I think Roger would have found the idea of a tribute very funny. I can picture him in his armchair, reading the paper and giggling.

I will always remember my brother as a clown who attracted people. In many ways this has never stopped. He was just a magnet and everybody could feel it.

The prospect of The City Wakes exhibition really excites me. I’m looking forward to all his old friends getting together, having a good laugh and a lot of fun while raising money for Escape Artists, who are wonderful.

And it will be great to have Syd there in the background.

The City Wakes runs from October 22 to November 1, more info at: http://www.thecitywakes.org.uk

He didn’t have a dark side .. he was just lovely and unique and so attractive

Floyd by numbers

200m Number of albums Pink Floyd have sold.

25 Total number of years Dark Side Of The Moon was in the Billboard top 200 Album Charts.

87 The Wall’s position in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 greatest albums of all time. Roger Waters performed the album in Berlin in July 1990 to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall.

40ft The size of the inflatable pig on the cover of their 1977 album, Animals. The helium pig escaped during a photo shoot, flew into flight lanes at Heathrow and later landed at a farm in Kent.

4 Number of Grammy nominations for Pink Floyd.

1996 The year Pink Floyd were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Life and times of a legend

1946 January 6: He is born Roger Keith Barrett in Cambridge, the son of a pathologist.

1964 August: Moves to London to attend Camberwell Art College, joins band The Tea Set with Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Rick Wright. Band is soon renamed The Pink Floyd after bluesmen Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.

1965 September: Syd’s first acid trip, in Cambridge.

1966 January: Pink Floyd’s debut gig – at the Countdown Club in London’s Palace Gate.

1967 June 24: For the band’s Top Of The Pops debut, Syd is resplendent in velvet and satin.

August: Syd is the creative force behind debut album The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn

December 22: Syd freezes during Christmas on Earth Revisited show in London’s Olympia.

1968 March 2: Band ask him to stop touring and contributing material.

April 6: A statement says Syd has left the band.

1969 December: He releases The Madcap Laughs LP.

1975 June 5: As Floyd record Wish You Were Here LP (including Syd tribute track Shine On You Crazy Diamond) he turns up, bald and fat – they don’t recognise him.

1981 After an apparent breakdown Syd walked to his mother’s Cambridge semi where he lived as a recluse for the rest of his life.

1992 April: Atlantic Records offer Barrett’s family £75,000 for new material. They decline.

2006 July 7: Aged 60, Syd dies from pancreatic cancer and diabetes-related complications.

Syd Barrett’s sister shares memories of Pink Floyd visionary – mirror.co.uk

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