Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Syd Barrett, silence and fan contracts

Even though he had been in seclusion for over 30 years now, the death of Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett was still a shock to many rock fans. He had been off the radar for so long that any news about him was a surprise. Unfortnate then that this had to be the news we would hear now. While many obits will rightly toast his wonderfully unique songwriting style that spawned many imitators, I’ve actually been more fascinated by what he did after his musical career. To many people, he said nothing but they couldn’t be more wrong.

Barrett’s reputation essentially rests on three albums: Pink Floyd’s debut Piper at the Gates of Dawn and his two solo albums, Barrett and the Madcap Laughs (other recordings were later collected in a box set, Crazy Diamond). Especially on the Floyd album, he carved out an unique place in English songsmithing, making something primarily British, child-like yet cosmic. One of his best pupils was/is no doubt Robyn Hitchcock but it was also David Bowie who covered his work and said that he considered the post-Barrett Floyd a fraud (he also penned a touching tribute to Syd on his website). When his four usually contentious ex-bandmates miraculously reunited one year ago this month, they gave a shout-out to their old leader. If a monemental event like that could happen, would it be possible to maybe even hear from Barrett himself?

Alas, no. His hibernation from the world began in the mid-70’s, attributed to a combination of the aftermath of his drug use and assorted psychological problems. Ever since then, there was always speculation about what he was doing. Fans would try to chase him down and there were little tidbits about him painting and only listening to classical music. Barrett himself was unconcerned about the hoo-ha over him, preferring just to lead a quiet life by himself. The problem is that when you’ve been such a public figure before, it’s not easy to leave it all behind.

It’s not as if Barrett was the first or only artist to make such a decision. Clarinetist/bandleader Artie Shaw quit the biz many times, finally doing it permanently in the mid-50’s. Around the same time as Barrett, John Lennon retired to become a family man for the rest of the 70’s. Patti Smith did the same thing during most of the 80’s and the early 90’s. In the early ’80’s, Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart gave up on the music biz to concentrate on painting instead.

(That’s not even mentioning the hundreds of one-hit wonders who perhaps wisely hung up their music career after a brief taste of glory)

What’s fascinating about decisions like this is that it represents a broken implied contract that an artist has made with their fans, willingly or unwillingly. The artist provides music/entertainment/fascination and the fans appreciate and adore them for this. An artist or group who decides that their career is over breaks this contract with their fans, rightly thinking that their own sense of well-being trumps the grieving hoards who’ll miss them: this is true for stadium bands and cult bands alike. To carry on just to please the audience is insane in da membrane, like the parents who hate each other but stay together for the sake of the children.

The fans might feel betrayed or perplexed or crest-fallen that their line to the divine has been cut. “How could they do that?” They might hoard up bootlegs, unreleased studio material or shows or such to satisfy their appetite. If the band/performer was more than a cult phenom, there’ll undoubtedly be cover bands to also fill the void, not to mention articles and books for them to delve into and fanclubs to share their obsession.

But what about the object of their adoration? In an extreme case like Barrett, it was even more difficult for fans because he didn’t just stop making music but also disappeared from any public context. No formal interviews or appearances and the odd photo catching him at a corner store was all the world would glimpse of him. And yet, you know that fans held out hope against hope that magically one day, he would some how come out of hiding and maybe sing a few of his old songs or pick up where he left off. Given his unbalanced history, it was obvious that this wasn’t realistic at all.

Or was it? After all, Roky Erickson and Peter Green also snapped out of years of drug-induced isolation to pick up on their careers recently. Not Barrett though. As much as his fans didn’t want to know or understand it, he did have something to say to them for the last thirty years about his music and work even if he never came out and publicly said it: “I’ve had enough.”

As much as people would have loved him to re-emerge and make music again, he likely made the right decision for himself. As incapacitated as he was, he knew that he was in no shape to appear before an audience (just as Andy Partridge of XTC about this) or continue to make music. It would have been a sad, pathetic exercise.

As a lot of these thoughts raced through my mind, I remembered Susan Sontag’s The Aethestics of Silence essay (from 1967). There she discusses not only how Beckett and Cage carried out a recurring impulse for artists to revert to or seek silence but also the reasoning behind an artist who packs it in. The 2nd section in particular is instructive as she lists writers and philosophers who gave up their vocation:

… each man has declared that he considers his previous achievements in poetry. philosophy, or art as trifling, of no importance.

But the choice of permanent silence doesn’t negate their work. On the contrary, it imparts retroactively an added power and authority to what was broken off; disavowal of the work becoming a new source of its validity, a certificate of unchallengeable seriousness. That seriousness consists in not regarding art… as something whose seriousness lasts forever, an “end,” a permanent vehicle for spiritual ambition. The truly serious attitude is one that regards art as a “means” to something that can perhaps be achieved only by abandoning art; judged more impatiently, art is a false way or (the word of the Dada artist Jacques Vaché) a stupidity.

Though no longer a confession, art is more than ever a deliverance, an exercise in asceticism. Through it, the artist becomes purified — of himself and, eventually, of his art, The artist (if not art itself) is still engaged in a progress toward “the good.” But formerly, the artist’s good was mastery of and fulfillment in his art. Now it’s suggested that the highest good for the artist is to reach that point where those goals of excellence become insignificant to him, emotionally and ethically, and he is more satisfied by being silent than by finding a voice in art…

So far as he is serious, the artist is continually tempted to sever the dialogue he has with an audience. Silence is the furthest extension of that reluctance to communicate, that ambivalence about making contact with the audience which is a leading motif of modern art, with its tireless commitment to the “new” and/or the “esoteric” Silence is the artist’s ultimate other-worldly gesture; by silence, he frees himself from servile bondage to the world, which appears as patron, client, audience, antagonist, arbiter, and distorter of his work.

As Sontag goes on to theorize that the artist who ends their own career does so out of superiority (they’ve already proved themselves), she makes a stronger case earlier in the essay that the true artist is also repelled by the commercial aspect of the field they’ve chosen. This doesn’t just mean “selling out” but also how mind-numbing and frustrating a business like the music industry can become and how little true comfort it offers to most artists. Barrett found himself there and also lacked not just the confidence but also the will to step into a recording studio or onto a stage.

After crafting such a brilliant catalog in a matter of years, any admirer finds it frustrating that Barrett decided that he had already said all he had to say and was through with his music career. Then again, we can still enjoy what he left behind and maybe even also admire his decision to stop and try to honorably tend to his own life as best he could.