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Shine On You Crazy Diamond: Syd Barrett and the “Mad Genius” Trope

On June 5th, 1975, British progressive rock band Pink Floyd were in the midst of recording Wish You Were Here, their ninth album, at Abbey Road Studios. The project was bookended by a nine-part composition, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” dedicated to their former frontman, lead guitarist, and founder Syd Barrett. As they recorded the tribute to their departed old friend, a stranger appeared in the studio whom the band took to be part of the recording crew. The man sat listlessly, watching the band work, before guitarist David Gilmour came to a startling realization. The stranger sitting in the studio was Syd Barrett himself, ravaged by time and incomprehensible trauma. The whimsical boy they had once known, with his wild eyes and unruly brown hair, was gone; in his place was a bloated and bald man with shaved eyebrows and a vacant expression. While Pink Floyd continued recording the haunting elegy in his name, their lovingly nicknamed ‘Madcap Genius’ quietly watched on. 

The trope of the tortured artist speaks to our longtime fascination with the relationship between creativity and madness. Syd Barrett's story is one of many highly recognizable “mad genius” legends, stretching from Beethoven and Van Gogh to Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. Although several scientific studies have pointed to a genuine connection between mental health issues and artistic output, I want to focus instead on the way we understand and perceive that relationship and those who live it. Despite the very real stories of tragedy and trauma involving many of these “mad genius” artists, they have become a spectacle for fans and the media alike to gawk at for our own entertainment. We lose sight of the person at the heart of the work, their ups and downs, their wants and needs, ultimately reducing them to an immutable “madness” and to the mere value of their creations. In elegizing the “mad geniuses” of art, we raise them to a pedestal of martyrdom and strip away their fragile humanity. 

Photo Credit: Michael Ochs Archives

Pink Floyd was created in 1965 by guitarist and songwriter Syd Barrett, bassist Roger Waters, drummer Nick Mason, and keyboardist Richard Wright. They rode the wave of mid-to-late 1960s artistic transformation and played in the burgeoning underground London psychedelic scene, turbocharged by the Beatles’ Revolver and the countercultural revolution of the Summer of Love. They quickly caught the attention of the music industry, in part due to the charisma and talent of their whimsically wild-haired frontman, and signed with the British multimedia conglomerate EMI in 1967. Over the course of that year, Barrett was said to have begun regularly using hallucinogens, especially LSD, and drummer Nick Mason described him as  “completely detached from everything that was going on.” However, the band successfully recorded their debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn under his leadership and released it to positive reception. Barrett’s mental health began to decline rapidly during and after the album’s release, resulting in erratic behavior during the band’s infamously disastrous 1967 U.S. tour. Faced with the worsening state of their frontman and friend, the band were forced to hire guitarist David Gilmour, initially to cover for Barrett during live performances, but later as a full member. While they originally planned to keep Barrett on as a non-performing songwriter, the relationship quickly became untenable due to his schizophrenia. His relationship with the band was unceremoniously severed in January 1968 as they drove to a performance: one person asked, “Shall we pick Syd up?” and another answered, “Nah, let’s not bother.” 

The band forced Barrett out to save face and their burgeoning career, but his retirement and retreat into seclusion only intensified public interest in the artist. For some years in the early 1970s, multiple musicians attempted to get Barrett back into the recording studio, in recognition of his “unfulfilled potential” and outstanding contractual obligations to EMI. By all accounts, Syd Barrett wanted nothing to do with the music industry, with Pink Floyd, and with public life. Rather than offering him humanity and privacy, the recluse was hounded by those who wanted to commercialize his legend and artistic output. Barrett died in 2006 after years in self-imposed isolation, living out his days painting and gardening. Very late in his life, when ambushed by an inquisitive reporter asking whether he was indeed Syd Barrett, he responded simply: “Leave me alone.” 

A sharp-eyed reader might worry that, by including these details, I am simply adding to the problem I claim to criticize. In some ways, I believe there is merit to this claim and I debated how best to write this article. By bringing Syd Barrett’s story to a new audience, I inevitably run the risk of further publicizing his personal struggles. However, it is not my intention to simply retell his story masked as a critique for the sake of a good piece. Rather, I want to illustrate a portrait of a man who, when faced with mental health struggles, was turned into a spectacle rather than being treated as a human being. Syd Barrett’s mental health is not the point of this story, but rather the way in which fans and the press alike created the myth of a reclusive “mad genius.”

Many contemporary and historical artists have dealt with similar media myth-making as Barrett. One contemporary example is Amy Winehouse, who rose from the London jazz scene to international stardom in the early 2000s and was inextricably tied to her substance abuse and mental health issues. Her untimely death in 2011 only added to the media spectacle, who lauded her career and mystified her rise and fall. When artists struggle publicly today, it is obscenely glorified in public consciousness. Every bad day is published in newspaper headlines. Their needs, wants, and right to be fragile is entirely ignored by a society that loves a tortured artist. Through this, we deny the personhood of the creator and come to focus entirely on their work and “madness.” When we listen to Back to Black or ponder Wheatfield with Crows, we do not see the human who produced it, rather, only the martyr that we created out of them. 

In our attempts to avoid glorifying mental health struggles, we must also avoid ignoring or stigmatizing those struggles. Indeed, one might argue that it is impossible to suppress the human flair for the dramatic and our voyeuristic curiosity about severe mental illnesses. That might be true, and is unfalsifiable as a deterministic argument. However, rather than frame Barrett, Winehouse, Van Gogh, and artists like them as mad geniuses who inevitably succumbed to their struggles, I propose a different perspective. Syd Barrett was an outgoing, whimsical, deeply funny man who was by all accounts beloved by those around him. He valued his privacy and, yes, struggled deeply with mental health, especially his battle with schizophrenia. He liked to make music, to paint, to garden. He loved to laugh. He was more than his struggles, more than his brief career as a musician, and more than the mad genius of legend. He was a human being, in all its fragility and wonder. 


James Weld is a Junior in the SFS majoring in Culture & Politics and Minoring in French. His favorite Pink Floyd song is a 23-minute long composition called ‘Echoes.’ It’s, like, really good.


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