His screaming could start at any time of night or day, but it often seemed to begin just as I was going to bed. There would be thuds and crashes from next door as furniture was destroyed and an incessant howling, more animal-like than human. This could last for two hours and, as a young child, it terrified me. It was usually just incoherent, angry shrieking but very occasionally words could be distinguished. They were always the same: ‘Fucking Roger Waters! I’m going to fucking kill him.’
It wasn’t much fun, having Syd Barrett as a neighbour. Of course, I didn’t know who he was at the time. It was only later that I realised he was a rock legend, one of the founding members of Pink Floyd, who had numbered Paul McCartney, David Bowie and Pete Townshend among his fans. Recently, it was revealed Syd, who died in July, left £1.2million in his will. He was the songwriting genius behind much of Floyd’s early material, including hit singles See Emily Play and Arnold Layne, but his increasingly bizarre behaviour led to him parting company with the band in 1968, soon after the release of their first album. Pink Floyd – with Roger Waters, Richard Wright, Nick Mason and Syd’s replacement, David Gilmour – went on to become one of the most successful rock acts ever. Syd’s career petered out after a couple of solo albums.
Then he moved in next door to me. I lived with my family at No7 St Margaret’s Square in Cambridge. It was a quiet cul- de- sac of Thirties semidetached houses. Winifred, Syd’s mother, was next door at No6 and in 1981, when I was six, her son returned from London to live with her. The first time I saw him, I was playing on my bike in our driveway. He came out of his house with some garden shears and a saw, a nondescript man in his mid-30s with thinning hair. Wordlessly he set about chopping down the trees and bushes in his front garden. The garden had been beautiful – the previous owners of the house had worked at Cambridge University Botanic Garden – but it looked as if it had been ravaged by a tornado when Syd had finished.
He cut up all the tree trunks, lugged them into his back garden and burnt them on a huge bonfire. My parents were very upset, but there was nothing they could do. We had no idea this was the beginning of a pattern that would be repeated again and again. Every time the bushes grew back, Syd hacked them down and burnt them. He also periodically smashed and burnt his ‘artwork’ – psychedelic paintings, vaguely reminiscent of Jackson Pollock. The bonfires were huge, with flames seven or eight feet high, sending a fog of thick white smoke over the whole street. Syd’s mum, who was friendly with my parents, was always apologetic but she could do nothing to control him.
And we soon learnt it was pointless remonstrating with Syd himself. Any attempt to tackle him over his behaviour would be met, at best, with a blank stare. Sometimes he would unleash a torrent of foul-mouthed and frightening abuse. When Syd was in one of his burning moods, all we could do was retreat into the house and shut all the doors and windows. Syd didn’t really do consideration. But the bonfires were the least of our worries. The peace was frequently shattered by the sound of breaking glass. Whenever the inner demons that tormented Syd got the better of him, he’d hurl things through his windows. This happened at least 100 times.
His lawn was often littered with broken glass, mugs, saucepans and ornaments. Sometimes the window-breaking started in the middle of the night and I would lie in bed too scared to go back to sleep in case he started attacking our house. I was convinced that one day he would run out of his own windows and start on ours. Occasionally a window was fixed and then smashed again the next day. Syd single-handedly kept some of the local glazing firms in business.
But the screaming fits were by far the most disturbing aspect of his behaviour. To hear a grown man wailing and screeching for hours at a time was terrifying for me and my two sisters. We had no understanding of mental illness. As far as we were concerned, we lived next door to an unhinged and possibly dangerous lunatic. Our worst fears were confirmed one night when Syd was taken away in a straitjacket. We had called the police before on a couple of occasions. They would come round and have a word with Syd’s mum and leave without taking any further action.
But on this occasion his outburst had been particularly violent and we later discovered he had attacked his mother. She had called the police. I recall peering out the window and seeing Syd being led away in restraints. His mum was very upset and was pleading with him to calm down but he was spitting out a load of abuse. I hoped he would never come back. But he did come back a few days later and his mother moved out to stay with her daughter, Rosemary. She couldn’t handle Syd any more. After that, Rosemary looked after him. She took him shopping to Sainsbury’s each week. The store was ten minutes away.
She would pick him up, drive him there and walk him round the aisles, as if he were a child, then drive him back again. He would sit in the car until Rosemary opened the door for him and guided him back into the house. He looked as if he didn’t really know where he was or what was going on. With his mother gone, his behaviour continued much the same as before. Our family operated as an early-warning system, ringing his sister when he got out of hand. She’d come round and smooth things over.
It has been said Syd took little interest in Pink Floyd after leaving the band, yet the bonfires and window-breaking peaked in 1986 when Floyd were in the news because of a legal dispute between Waters and the other members. It may have been a coincidence, but Syd seemed to blame Waters for something – it was only ever his name that featured in his screamed threats. I used to worry about how we’d protect ourselves if he went berserk and attacked us. Syd reminded me of Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
Over the years, he never said more than a few words to me at a time. If we passed in the street, he would occasionally manage a mumbled ‘Hello’ but more often than not he would simply hurry past, head down. Sometimes he even crossed the road to avoid me. A fairly steady stream of fans came to pay homage. They often knocked on our door. ‘Does Syd Barrett live there?’ We would tell them he didn’t. We knew he didn’t want to be disturbed and that, if he was, it might ‘send him off on one’.
Fans sometimes wouldn’t take no for an answer and would go and hammer on his door. Usually there would be no response, but occasionally he did open the door, presumably by mistake. He would slam it in their faces as soon as he realized who they were.
He physically deteriorated after his mother’s departure. He wouldn’t bother buttoning up his shirt, if he bothered wearing one at all. He wore trousers that were way too big for him. He looked disheveled. We sometimes saw him walking down the road wearing only his pyjama bottoms.
He seemed to live on fry-ups and frequently set his frying pan on fire. We would see the flames leaping up to the ceiling in his kitchen but there would be no sign of Syd. He had a very relaxed approach to fire safety. He drank heavily, probably getting through a bottle of whiskey a day. Syd was also an enthusiastic smoker. As a teenager I worked in the local newsagent. Syd came in almost every day for his cigarettes. He always bought 60 and sometimes purchased tobacco and snuff as well. He would buy a different selection every time, asking for ‘ 20 Rothmans, 20 B&H, 20 Embassy Number 1’, or ‘ 20 JPS, 20 Embassy Regal, 20 Marlboro’. He’d take the cigarettes and march off without another word. He never handed over cash but ran up large bills on a tab that his sister used to settle. By then, I knew who he was and found it hard to reconcile this middle aged recluse, who had huge problems engaging with the world, with the good-looking musician I saw smiling out of early photographs.
How could the author of poetic lyrics rich in surreal imagery be reduced to someone who could barely string a sentence together? I had read enough to know most critics ascribed his problems to an LSD-induced breakdown at the height of his fame. Syd was a dire warning about the dangers of drugs. On one occasion he came into the shop when a music magazine had a picture of Syd-era Pink Floyd on the front.
I said to Roger – his real name, Syd was a nickname – ‘You’re on the cover of Mojo today, Roger.’ He looked surprised. ‘I’ll have that,’ he said. I got the impression that he was pleased. In the 25 years he lived in St Margaret’s Square, I only ever once saw him smile. It was in the Nineties when I owned a Lancia Delta HF Turbo – a replica of the rally car that Martini had sponsored in the Eighties. I was very proud of it and one day I was washing it, holding a hose over the roof so that the water cascaded down the sides. Syd came into his garden and stood beaming at me with a huge grin on his face. He wasn’t known as a motor enthusiast – the only ‘vehicle’ he owned was a battered old bicycle. I believe the scene tickled him because he thought that I was watering my car, as if it were a plant. Perhaps it took him back to his acid drenched hippy days.
But it wasn’t all bad. When he wasn’t having one of his attacks, he was pretty quiet. I never heard his television. I heard him playing music only a handful of times – and always classical or modern jazz, never pop or any of his own work.
In his later years his behaviour became less erratic and the screaming stopped altogether. There was still the occasional bonfire. We even got a couple of Christmas cards from him. He’d made them himself, beautifully drawn Christmas designs – bells and holly on white card. ‘Have a very Happy Christmas, from Roger,’ the message said. One year, when I saw in the newspaper that it was his birthday, I stuck a card through his letterbox. The next time I saw him he said ‘Hello’ and held my gaze for a couple of seconds. He seemed to be thanking me. I’d long since ceased to fear him. I knew he was a deeply troubled soul, deserving of sympathy more than anything else.
Syd died at home in July of complications arising from diabetes. He was 60 and had been in Addenbrooke’s Hospital for about three weeks beforehand. His sister had told us that when he came home he would have to have a live-in carer. He had been home for just a day and a half when he passed away. His house was recently sold and I went to view it when it was on the market. The colour scheme was best described as interesting – one room is orange, one blue, several are a combination of orange, blue and pink – and the kitchen is testament to Syd’s unsuccessful adventures in DIY: a hotchpotch of flimsy, oddly shaped shelves. One image haunts me. A toy hippo was nailed to one of the door handles. This was typical Syd: inscrutable, bizarre and slightly, well, mad. I’m sorry he’s dead – but I won’t miss him.