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(Credit: Syd Barrett/Far Out)


The tragedy of Syd Barrett: Would modern thinking have saved him?


Formed in London in 1965, The Pink Floyd rose to prominence in 1967 with their first hit single ‘Arnold Lane’, establishing the group as one of the hottest bands on the circuit. Until that point, frontman Syd Barrett had been an outgoing, ambitious and flamboyant young man with a clear talent for songwriting and a magnetic personality. But as his bandmates would later observe, things soon started to unravel.

Pink Floyd’s rise to fame coincided with the expansion of London’s experimental music scene, and while Barrett embraced the ‘out there’ textures of the underground, he was also an excellent writer of pop songs. As the group’s chief songsmith, singer and guitarist, he quickly developed a reputation as one of the most talented and charismatic musicians in the city. With each show the group played, more and more of the crowd was made up of young people with long hair and bellbottoms. It finally looked like all their hard work had paid off. But with fame came bad habits.

Barrett quickly fell in with a crowd of friends committed to taking as many drugs as possible. In the BBC Radio documentary The Twilight World of Syd Barett, Richard Wright opined: “I think Syd was with a group of people who firmly believed ‘take loads of acid and you’ll see the truth’ and all that stuff. I believe they were basically spiking him, and I think that’s the main reason for his mental instability.”

To this day, nobody quite knows what LCD did to the musician, but at the time, it was clear that the pressures of fame coupled with a heavy tour schedule and even heavier drug use were leading to the singer’s increasingly erratic behaviour. The band recognised this and took Syd away from his drug-dabbling friends, putting him up in a flat in Richmond. They also informed Barrett’s family back in Cambridge. Syd’s sister Rosemary recalled how concerned their mother was when she heard of her son’s condition. “She was very worried, but what could she do. She did try and get him to see doctors and this sort of thing but to no avail, I think because he knew what was doing was wrong. It was accepted in his world to be addicted to drugs and therefore he withdrew much more from Cambridge and family.”

The 1960s was an era in which the recreational use of drugs wasn’t just accepted it was actively encouraged. At that time, hallucinogens were regarded as an extension of society’s quest towards enlightenment, substances that, thanks to Aldous Huxley’s writings on mescaline in The Doors of Perception, had become imbued with transformative power. Few industries were as infatuated with drug culture as the world of music, and, arguably, it was the industry’s laissez-faire attitude that hastened Barrett’s decline. While his family and bandmates were encouraging him to seek professional help, the fact that drugs were such an accepted part of the culture meant that Barrett was constantly surrounded by people who could provide him with a quick fix.

Equally accepted was the idea that drugs could be used to keep touring musicians on their toes. Today, the idea that anxiety, stress, and burnout are par for the course for musicians is becoming increasingly outdated. Far Out recently spoke to Joe Hastings from a new mental health platform dedicated to supporting positive mental health among musicians. Describing Music Minds Matter, Hastings said: “We’re trying to give people a space where they can interact with difficult subject areas. When we’re inviting people onto the platform, they are able to search based on how they’re feeling. So they input how they’re feeling into a search bar, and people will be linked through to videos on the subject areas that they’ve expressed they want to access. Therefore they can interact with other people who’ve had similar experiences and hear how they navigated their way through that.”

Hastings’ platform indicates how far we’ve come in destigmatising mental health issues and ensuring support is as accessible as possible. One get’s the sense that the last thing a young musician potentially suffering from schizophrenia would want to do is step into a world of sectionings and straight jackets. It’s important to remember that the way the medical community approached mental health was incredibly different in the 1960s. The deinstitutionalisation movement – in which psychiatric hospitals replaced victorian insane asylums – only gained momentum in the mid-1960s, while leucotomy and electro-shock therapy were used to treat certain disorders until the late 1970s. Add to that the lack of research into the psychological effects of LSD, and you can see why Barett may have been hesitant to get professional help.

Indeed the 1960s counterculture tended to idealise insanity. Leading countercultural figures like psychiatrist R.D. Laing went so far as to label schizophrenia a natural LSD trip, a “voyage of discovery” leading to deeper perception. “We can no longer assume that such a voyage (schizophrenia) is an illness that has to be treated” he argued. “Can we not see that it is itself a natural way of healing our own appalling state of alienation called normality? “

This view of mental health as a tool of liberation saw figures like Barrett transformed into embodiments of anti-establishmentism. Their ‘madness’ was precisely the shock the world needed, many maintained. While that attitude remains pervasive, there is a growing sense that musicians shouldn’t be expected to embrace mental illness as part of their craft. The fact that individuals suffering from mental health and addiction challenges can seek help from trained and sympathetic professionals on their own terms may well have proved very helpful for Syd Barett.

It may not have saved him, but it might have helped him realise that he was in no way obliged to work himself into a state of mental collapse and, perhaps most importantly, that he wasn’t alone.