Was Syd Barrett, the original frontman of Pink Floyd, mentally ill? It’s a question I’ve spent a lot of time pondering since I asked Alan Bissett to write a play about him for the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival (SMHAFF). The result, One Thinks Of It All As A Dream, premieres in Glasgow next week, and even now I don’t feel as if I have a clear answer. Nor will you get one from Bissett’s play, for all its wit, insight and poignancy. The fact is, 70 years after Barrett’s birth and ten years after his death, nobody really knows what was going on in his head, or why he ended up withdrawing entirely from the music industry, and the public eye, for the last three decades of his life.
In purely medical terms, this is because he was never diagnosed, and so various experts – and non-experts – have been left to speculate as to whether he was schizophrenic, autistic, bipolar or none of the above. It seems obvious that he was not well for much of his life. Interviewed by Rob Chapman for his biography A Very Irregular Head, Barrett’s sister Rosemary describes him as “a very unhappy person, and a very damaged person” in his later years; others have described a man capable of violent rage.
Less clear is how much of his unusual or destructive behaviour can be attributed to any medical condition. For example, was the way he began to behave on stage with Pink Floyd – refusing to perform, detuning his guitar, facing away from the audience – a symptom of mental illness or an act of rebellion by a maverick who couldn’t bear the banal and repetitive commercial rituals of the music industry? And when he went back to live in his mother’s home in Cambridge, was it because he was mentally ill or because he was tired of being hounded by journalists and fans who just wanted to ask him about a famous band he had left years ago?
At a Syd Barrett discussion I programmed earlier this year, the broadcaster John Cavanagh (who has written a book about Pink Floyd’s first album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn) leaned towards the latter explanation, questioning whether Barrett was any more of a “recluse” than Stanley Kubrick. “Here was this recluse but he was a regular down the pub and would chat to people if they weren’t talking the same old rubbish to him,” Cavanagh says of Barrett.
Cavanagh also suggested Barrett was “passionate about the art but didn’t like the machinery”. Indeed, he didn’t stop being an artist in his later years; he had been a gifted painter before he became a musician, and continued to paint right up until the year he died. Perhaps music, in the end, had been a distraction from his true calling? “He appears to have wanted to get back to a place where he could be a visual artist again,” says Cavanagh, “but he appears to have realised that anything he did was going to be viewed through the lens of Pink Floyd.” This, rather than mental illness, may help explain why Barrett destroyed many of his paintings after he finished them.
All of this raises interesting questions about how we define mental health. In one of my favourite scenes in Bissett’s play – which is an imagined version of a real incident – Pink Floyd try to take Barrett to see the famous psychiatrist RD Laing, despairing that they “can’t get him to function as a professional pop musician”. Laing responds: “How do you know it’s Syd who has the problem?” In other words, the play invites us to ponder, why hold up being a professional pop musician as a normal, healthy thing to do with your life?
One of the things SMHAFF has tried to do over its first ten years is establish the idea that mental health affects and concerns everybody, which is still something mainstream society seems to have difficulty accepting. Why? Because, I think, it would force us to confront the fact that so many aspects of our daily lives are damaging to our mental health. Instead, we are encouraged to think that there are people who are well – these being the people who are, on the whole, willing to accept society as they find it – and other people who are unwell because they’ve gone through some sort of specific trauma. In Barrett’s case, a lot – possibly too much – has been made of the fact that he lost his father at 16. But what if a lot of what we call mental illness is a reasonable response to an unreasonable society? For me, one of the reasons why Syd Barrett’s story is important is that, in not allowing us a convenient “explanation”, it forces us to confront all kinds of possibilities.
This is an idea that may – or may not – come up at Dream And Reality, a special SMHAFF event on 20 October at Oran Mor in Glasgow, just upstairs from the space where One Thinks Of It All As A Dream will premiere earlier that week. Like the play, Dream And Reality will not attempt any definitive account of Barrett’s life – we’d be foolish to try – but it will offer three informed perspectives on it. Alongside Alan Bissett and John Cavanagh, Barrett’s nephew Ian will be travelling up from Manchester to talk about his relationship with Syd (or Roger, as he knew him) and his uncle’s artwork, some of which has now been collected on a new website, sydbarrett.com. The evening is hosted by the music broadcaster and writer Nicola Meighan. Will we understand Syd Barrett any better at the end of it? Possibly not, but it seemed like a respectful way to mark his 70th birthday. We hope you’ll join us.
*Andrew Eaton-Lewis is Arts Lead (Scotland) for the Mental Health Foundation. One Thinks Of It All As A Dream is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, 17-22 October, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 25-29 October, and the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 1-5 November. Syd Barrett: Dream And Reality, Oran Mor, 20 October. The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival runs from tomorrow until 31 October. Full programme at www.mhfestival.com