It’s sad that these people think he’s such a wonderful subject, that he’s a living legend when, in fact, there is this poor sad man who can’t deal with life or himself. He’s got uncontrollable things in him that he can’t deal with and people think it’s a marvelous, wonderful, romantic thing. It’s just a sad, sad thing, a very nice and talented person who’s just disintegrated”.
– David Gilmour, interview with Musician Magazine, December 1982.
The mad genius of Syd Barrett first addressed by Pink Floyd on Brain Damage from The Dark Side of the Moon in 1973 was further celebrated on Shine On You Crazy Diamond from the 1975 album Wish You Were Here. The recording session for the song is infamous due to the appearance of Barrett wandering into the studio complete with shaved head and eyebrows and having put on a lot of weight since the band had seen him last some years earlier. Because of his drastically changed appearance, the band did not recognise him for some time. Upon finally recognising him, Roger Waters was reduced to tears. Somebody asked to play the suite, followed by Barrett saying a second playback wasn’t needed when they had just heard it. According to Richard Wright in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 2004, when the song Wish You Were Here was played, “He [Barrett] stood up and said, ‘Right, when do I put my guitar on? And of course, he didn’t have a guitar with him. And we said. ‘Sorry, Syd, the guitar’s all done”. When asked what he thought of Wish You Were Here, Barrett said it sounded “a bit old”. He subsequently slipped away during celebrations for Gilmour’s wedding to Ginger Hasenbein, which had taken place earlier that day.
Shine On You Crazy Diamond contains nine parts and was written by Roger Waters, Richard Wright and David Gilmour. As with Brain Damage, Waters was the chief lyricist. The nine parts of Shine On You Crazy Diamond were originally intended to fill an entire side of the Wish You Were Here album, much like the song Atom Heart Mother fills an entire side of Atom Heart Mother (1970) …
… and Echoes fills an entire side of Meddle (1971).
Instead, Shine On You Crazy Diamond was split into two sections and bookends Wish You Were Here, with the other tracks on the album also being tributes to Barrett and telling of the situation which the band found themselves in.
Lyrically, Shine On You Crazy Diamond looks at the life of Syd Barrett, considering the way the artist was before demons such as LSD, fame and mental illness took hold in lines such as “Remember when you were young, You shone like the sun, Shine on you crazy diamond!” before contrasting it with lyrics detailing the effect of these demons in lines such as “Now there’s a look in your eyes, Like black holes in the sky, Shine on you crazy diamond!” The latter lines state the way in which Barrett’s bandmates described him after he had succumbed to mental illness.
The following line, “You were caught on the crossfire of childhood and stardom”, refers to the way in which Barrett was never able to fully engage the transition from underground sensation to mainstream success and the pressure and implications that came with it. The next line, “Blown on the steel breeze” alludes to the sound made by Barrett’s guitar strings. The lines “Come on you target for faraway laugher, Come on you stranger, you legend, you martyr, and shine!” is a reference to the way in which Barrett was ousted from the band in favour of David Gilmour due to his worsening drug use and mental problems rendering him ineffective as a band member.
The lyric “You reached for the secret too soon” refers to the true meaning of life and the mysteries which lay behind it. Barrett used drugs in order to try to unlock the meaning and its mysteries but was not ready to see them, causing him to go insane. The following lines, “You cried for the moon, Shine on you crazy diamond!” are a reference to the band’s previous album The Dark Side of the Moon and its lyrics about Barrett and talk of how Barrett’s life had peaked too soon. “Threatened by shadows at night, And exposed in the light, Shine on you crazy diamond!” refers to the way in which the darker machinations in Barrett’s mind, the “shadows at night” shielded him from the public eye, the exposure to light, which overwhelmed him. These lines express the exposure of himself beneath the outward appearance of the rockstar.
The “random precision” referred to in the lines “You wore out your welcome with random precision, Rode on the steel breeze” is an allusion to the haphazard nature of Barrett’s contributions to the band towards the end of his involvement whilst the following lines, “Come on you raver, you seer of visions, Come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner and shine!”, the word “seer” can be read in two ways. Firstly, a “seer” is a person of supposed supernatural insight who sees visions of the future. Secondly, a “seer” is simply somebody who sees things, i.e. ‘a see-er’. Additionally, the use of the word “piper” alludes to Pink Floyd’s first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967), the only album by the band to feature full involvement from Barrett.
“Well, I’m a painter, I was trained as a painter … I seem to have spent a little less time painting than I might’ve done … but it didn’t transcend the feeling of playing at UFO and those sort of places with the lights and that, the fact that the group was getting bigger and bigger”.
– Syd Barrett, interview with Melody Maker, March 1971.
As Shine On You Crazy Diamond moves into its ‘Parts 6-9’ section, we find the line “Nobody knows where you are, How near of how far”, an insight into the blankness and the madness that hallucinogenic drugs left Barrett with. The title of Shine On You Crazy Diamond itself is interesting as if one were to remove the words ‘on’ and ‘crazy’ from the title, the first letters of the words in ‘Shine You Diamond’ spell out ‘Syd’.
In the lyric “Pile on more layers, And I’ll be joining you there”, the use of the word ‘layers’ perhaps refers to an array of interpretations of one’s surroundings. Waters feels that he must “pile on more layers” in order to attain Barrett’s level of introspection and worrying that, if in the process, he might succumb to the same fate as his former bandmate. These lines are Waters admittance that he is less contemplative than his former bandmate. Following this, “And we’ll bask in the shadow, Of yesterday’s triumph” memorialises the triumphs that the band shared with Barrett, whilst the repetition of the idea of “the steel breeze” in the line “And sail on the steel breeze” in this case refers to the fact that both Waters and Barrett played steel instruments.
The three variations on the idea of “the steel breeze” lyric throughout the song are interesting. The first variation, “Blown on the steel breeze” implies that Barrett was somewhat thown in to musical production in order to meet the demands of the media. The second variation, “Rode on the steel breeze” alludes to the way in which, despite the delusive state of his mind, Barrett still attempted to carry on playing music. Finally, the third variation, “And sail on the steel breeze” finds Waters suggesting that if he were reunited with Barrett, they could take control of the music and take it in any direction they wish.
“That’s all I wanted to do as a kid. Play guitar properly and jump around. But too many people got in the way”.
– Syd Barrett, Rolling Stone, December 1971.
The next line, “Come on you boy child” tells of how the band were very young when they first started and is suggestive that Barrett was impressionable and irresponsible in his lifestyle. The line “You winner and loser” juxtaposes Barrett’s triumphs and failures: Despite the fact that he suffered due to his recklessness and divided opinion as to whether he was a “winner” or a “loser” even amongst his own bandmates and in the public eye, his triumphs included the work he contributed to the band in the early days, his solo work, and his influence on artists such as T-Rex, The Kinks and David Bowie. In 1973, Bowie acknowledged the influence of Syd Barrett by covering the Barrett penned Pink Floyd single See Emily Play (1967) on his album Pin Ups.
The final line of Shine On You Crazy Diamond, “You miner for truth and delusion, and shine!” sees Barrett portrayed as an artist who both dug for truth and meaning and tapped into his drug-induced delusions in order to influence his often deep and penetrating lyrics.
Also from Wish You Were Here, the title track, as well as encompassing Waters’ feelings of alienation from other people, also tells of Barrett’s mental breakdown. The music of Wish You Were Here was a collaboration between Waters and Gilmour, with Waters once again being the primary lyricist. Whilst Shine On You Crazy Diamond is a specific homage to the absence of Barrett, Wish You Were Here can also be read as a more general song about absence, undoubtedly adding to its appeal over the last forty years. The other two tracks from Wish You Were Here, Welcome to the Machine …
… and Have a Cigar express the band’s distaste for the pressures of the music industry which they felt, in part, aided Barrett’s breakdown, therefore tying the album together as a concept album.
In the opening lines of Wish You Were, “So, do you think you can tell, Heaven from hell”, the band introduce the idea that something that may look like heaven, in this case being part of the music industry, may actually be hell, as it turned out to be for Barrett. The following lines of the first verse, starting with the line “Blue skies from pain” are further juxtapositions of emotions and elements, creating a series of metaphors for heaven, “blue skies” and hell, “pain”. The lines “Can you tell a green field, From a cold steel trap” are a reference to the lines “Hold You tighter so close, Yes you are, Please hold on to the steel rail” from Syd Barrett’s solo song If It’s In You, from the album The Madcap Laughs (1970).
By referencing these lines, the band places the listener in no doubt as to the inspiration behind the song and its parent album. The repetition of the line “So you think you can tell” at the end of the first verse emphasises the question put to Barrett as to whether he really wants to be squandering his life on his various addictions.
The “They” mentioned in the lines “Did they get you to trade, Heroes for ghosts” could be interpreted as being the voices in Barrett’s mind which stop him from remaining on the straight and narrow. The “heroes” referred to in these lines are the rock stars, such as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Gram Parsons, who fell prey to the lifestyle which could have also cost Barrett his life.
The second verse of the song continues with the lines “Hot ashes for trees, Hot air for cool breeze”, reinforcing the idea of questioning one’s surroundings and whether change is necessarily the best thing first seen in the first verse. The final highly powerful sentiment of the second verse, “And did you exchange, A walk on part in the war, For a leading role in a cage?” refers to the way in which Barrett chose to forgo his chance to be a small part in something hugely important, instead selfishly insisting on being the main event with his drug-influenced behaviour.
The final verse of Wish You Were Here, “How I wish, I wish you were here, We’re just two lost souls, Swimming in a fishbowl, year after year, Running over the same old ground, What have we found? The same old fears, Wish you were here” could be interpreted in two different ways. Firstly, the “fishbowl” of which Pink Floyd speak could refer to the world of fame and the record industry which the band are so disheartened by on the entire Wish You Were Here. Secondly, this part of the song could simply just be an analogy for life itself, with everybody living the same life, making the same mistakes and going around in endless circles “year after year”. On this verse, Waters covers similar ground to that of Shine On You Crazy Diamond, echoing Shine On You Crazy Diamond’s expression of kinship with Barrett in the line “We’re just two lost souls”.
Additionally, in 1968, Waters also wrote the song Incarceration of a Flower Child, the lyrics of which appear to also tell of the downfall of Syd Barrett, although Waters himself has never confirmed this. Lyrically, Incarceration of a Flower Child covers much the same ground as Shine On You Crazy Diamond and Wish You Were Here, being full of reminiscence about more innocent times in lines such as “Do you remember me? How we used to be helpless and happy and blind?” before discussing the causes of the Flower Child’s downfall in lines such as “Sunk without hope in a haze of good dope and cheap wine?”
The song compares the culture of the flower power movement, with tongue-in-cheek humour directed at its pretentiousness (“Laying on the living-room floor on those Indian tapestry cushions you made, thinking of calling our first born Jasmine or Jade”), with the potential consequences of the movement upon some of those who had got too heavily involved in its drug culture, such as Barrett (“Now in your little white room with no windows and three square sedations a day, You plead with the doctor who’s running the show, “Please don’t take Jasmine away and leave me alone””).
Possibly the most important and indeed chilling line of Incarceration of a Flower Child, bearing in mind that the song was written in 1968, is “It’s gonna get cold in the 1970s”. Incarceration of a Flower Child could be seen as Waters’ veiled warning to Barrett from the time in which Barrett’s mental state was starting to suffer, that things had the potential to get much worse. It would seem that Barrett wasn’t the only “seer of visions” in Pink Floyd.
Incarceration of a Flower Child remained unrecorded for years until Waters offered it to Marianne Faithfull to record for her 1999 album Vagabond Ways. When recorded by Faithfull, the lyrics of Incarceration of a Flower Child took on a whole different dimension. The song was quite probably written about Barrett but it could very easily have been about Faithfull. Faithfull herself had also been a casualty of the flower power era, developing various serious drug addictions from which it would take her years to recover, both in terms of her personal life and her career. However, compared to Barrett’s disintegration, even Faithfull escaped the flower power era relatively unscathed.
“We are very sad to say that Roger Keith Barrett – Syd – has passed away. Do find some time to play some of Syd’s songs and remember him as the madcap genius who made us all smile with his wonderfully eccentric songs about bikes, gnomes and scarecrows. His career was painfully short, yet he touched more people than he could ever know”.
– David Gilmour in response to Syd Barrett’s death, 2006.