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Celebrating the life of Syd Barrett

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Unveiling of the Syd Barrett memorial in the Corn Exchange, his brothers and sisters unveiling the artwork. Picture: Keith Heppell
Unveiling of the Syd Barrett memorial in the Corn Exchange, his brothers and sisters unveiling the artwork. Picture: Keith Heppell

A new work of art has been unveiled at the Corn Exchange dedicated to the memory of Roger “Syd” Barrett, the legendary founder of Pink Floyd

Cambridge Film Festival
Cambridge Film Festival

The life of ‘Crazy Diamond’ Syd Barrett, one of Cambridge’s best known artists, poets and musicians, was celebrated at the Corn Exchange on Thursday, October 27 with the unveiling of a permanent work of art in the foyer at the venue where he performed his last ever gigs in 1972. Members of his family (most notably his beloved sister Rosemary), former bandmates, friends and ex-girlfriends were all present to witness the event.

Roger Keith Barrett was born in Cambridge in 1946 and founded Pink Floyd in the mid-1960s. Increasingly erratic behaviour, exacerbated by drug abuse, saw him leave the group in 1968 and, following a short-lived solo career, the former art student spent the rest of his life living as a semi-recluse in the city of his birth, painting, watching television and living off royalties.

There had been calls for Cambridge to honour one of its most famous sons in the years since his death from pancreatic cancer on July 7, 2006 and now, finally, the city where Barrett was born, lived and died has paid lasting tribute to his creative genius.

Jack Monck and Twink, the last two musicians to appear with Syd Barrett on stage in 1972
Jack Monck and Twink, the last two musicians to appear with Syd Barrett on stage in 1972

The public art installation is called CODA and is a collaboration between Suffolk-based artists Clare Palmier and Spadge Hopkins, with fabrication from Gloucestershire-based Cory Burr. Rather difficult to describe, the colourful work of art constantly spins, intermittently showing images of Barrett.

“Claire invited me to help with this project,” said Hopkins, speaking exclusively to the Cambridge Independent before the unveiling took place. “When we first started, I didn’t realise it was to do with Syd. Claire didn’t realise that I knew about Syd so it was a real bit of luck that we came together, really.”

“At the beginning we had a lot of fun, just sort of bouncing ideas around, looking at Syd’s early music and a lot of film and imagery,” recalled Palmier. “We submitted proposals and were then shortlisted and finally commissioned.”

Commenting on the fact that this lasting memorial to Syd didn’t go down the usual bust or statue route, Palmier continued: “I think Cambridge Live and his family they didn’t want a very traditional monument; they wanted something that would actually celebrate his personality and his approach to life, which was very playful and creative, innovative...

Operations director at Cambridge Live Neil Jones, Jenny Spires and Graham Coxon
Operations director at Cambridge Live Neil Jones, Jenny Spires and Graham Coxon

“He had an interest in surreal ideas and seeing music as patterns and shapes, so that was really good territory for us to work in.”

“He was quirky and unconventional,” added Hopkins, “and we wanted to get that into the piece as well.”

Both artists believe Barrett would have loved their tribute to him. “I think he would have found it funny,” said Hopkins. “The fact that his face appears and disappears every now and again in a mischievous way - I think he’d appreciate that.”

“And the bicycle element, the spinning wheel, relates to his song Bike and Cambridge, with bicycles,” noted Palmier, “and also life really, constantly turning and changing.”

How involved were Syd’s family during the whole process? “I’ve been emailing Rosemary a bit,” said Hopkins, “and she was obviously part of the panel, as was his nephew. They’ve been really supportive and helpful, and were particularly keen on our design.”

Palmier added: “Yeah, his estate was able to provide images that we could use for the animation, so that was really helpful, absolutely.”

As mentioned previously, Syd Barrett’s last ever live performance was at the Corn Exchange in 1972. Joining him on stage that night were drummer John Alder, better known as ‘Twink’, and bass player Jack Monck (the threesome went under the name ‘Stars’), both of whom were present.

“I believe we played on his last public performance,” said Monck, “which was here.” “That’s right,” agreed Twink, who first met Syd in 1967. “He did play with other musicians in the studio subsequently.”

Syd’s last ever gig has gone down in history as being a rather shambolic affair, though as Twink explained, that wasn’t the whole story: “There were two gigs. There was one where we supported the MC5, which was totally shambolic. Two or three days later we played here again, supporting a band called Nectar, which was far more successful. But it was the shambolic gig that got the review, which really upset the whole thing.

“We did about six gigs together, but that one gig was the one that was reviewed, and poorly reviewed. I think because it appeared in a major music magazine - I think it was the New Musical Express - he was called into London by his management and they told him he had to leave the band.

“They’d never come to any of his gigs or rehearsals - they’d shown no interest in the group, but based on that review, I think they told him that he had to leave. So then, after the last gig we did, which was a very good gig, he came round to my house and said, ‘I’m not playing anymore’ and that was it.”

Did Twink see much of Syd in the years that followed? “Not really, a couple of times,” he replied. “I bumped into him in London, in Harrods. He was going up the escalator and I was going down the escalator, so it was just ‘Hello’.”

Jack Monck also saw their former bandmate in the capital. “I remember seeing him just walking down Charing Cross Road... He was very withdrawn and it was sad really because he didn’t really want to acknowledge his previous life, even by then.”

These days Syd Barrett has become something of a cult figure and I wondered what the man himself would have made of the kind of fascination which has built up around him. “I think he would have been embarrassed by all this,” said Twink. “I think he would be here, but he would be somewhere just chatting to close friends.”

Though he didn’t know Barrett as well as Twink, Monck always felt he was in the presence of a unique and talented individual. “Even though I didn’t know him that well, I was aware that he was a really special person; it was obvious somehow, I don’t know why. He just had charisma.”

I also chatted to one of Syd’s former girlfriends, Jenny Spires, who brought her good friend Graham Coxon of Blur along to the event. “Syd was a very humble person; he would have been honoured,” she said. Discussing her friend and former lover, Spires continued: “My fondest memories of him are when he was at art school (in London) and he used to come home every weekend - he was a real Cambridge person, a real homebody. He loved Cambridge.”

Unlike many people who knew him back in the 1960s, Jenny encountered Syd towards the end of his life. “The last time I saw him was not long before he died, actually,” she remembered. “I saw him cycling along, smiling, looking great. I used to see him over the years, here and there.”

“He used to write to me a lot when we were together. He wrote me three or four letters a week - some of them I still have - and he would illustrate them, write songs in them.”

Syd Barrett: A Celebration

Following the unveiling, a concert took place in honour of Barrett featuring Men on the Border, a Swedish group backed by their local orchestra, the Sandviken Symphony Orchestra. The lighting was designed by Peter Wynne-Willson, who worked with Pink Floyd between 1966 and 1968.

Men on the Border, one of the only bands in the world who plays Syd Barrett’s solo material, put together the celebratory concert which premiered in Sandviken on September 24, 2016.

The gig, which lasted over two hours, featured symphonic interpretations of songs from Barrett’s two solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, including songs such as Octopus and Terrapin, as well as a version of Floyd’s High Hopes off 1994’s The Division Bell. Narration was provided by playwright, writer and friend of Syd’s, David Gale.

At the end of the concert, an image of a still-life painting of pink and red flowers, the colours of love and friendship, was shown on the screen behind. It was revealed that this was the last thing Syd Barrett ever painted and was a gift to his sister, Rosemary. Rosemary was then presented with a bunch of flowers the same as those in the painting. An emotional end to an emotional tribute to a much-loved Cambridge icon.

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