Syd Barrett Will Save Your Psychotic Soul

It’s no good trying to say what went wrong with him.

By all appearances, Syd Barrett — original frontman of Pink Floyd — lost his mind. But whether he was schizophrenic as rumored or on the schizo spectrum or otherwise porous to effects of the psychoactive buffet of the day or once got hold of some diabolical drug in hippie drag or had a mood disorder with psychosis-mimicking features or was just a genius and fuck you if you can’t keep up, none of us know.

Hell, I don’t know and it wasn’t so long ago I saw the guy in Starbucks. Though — and here’s an important caveat to that and future notes — we do know about me.

Syd Barrett, photographed by Mick Rock (1969)

My own beast of brain (schizoaffective disorder) doesn’t result in full-scale visions left and right, but when it crests, its sweet spot is intrusive daytime images roughly the clarity of hypnagogic hallucinations. Graphics of dialed-down opacity that last about as long as a John Irving double-semicolon sentence. So it isn’t only when one takes the form of a resurrected rock star that they tend to be distinguishable from the flesh-and-blood set.

To contextualize, then: I don’t mean I saw Syd Barrett but he said nothing illuminating because there was so much else to discuss (Roger Waters touring solo, the fickle zephyrs of Bitcoin, etc.) so not even I know. I mean I saw Syd Barrett recently so I’m a fucking loon, and not even that qualifies me to say what was what with him.

The data available on what was eating Syd Barrett at this point is vulnerable to compiler’s bias; my own information comes from qualified and unqualified corners of the web along with the biography Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd by Mark Blake.

Even sidelining the popular notion that Syd had, at minimum, a psychological predisposition that LSD acted on like a bank-vault explosive, madness is a good lens through which to review his album The Madcap Laughs and, specifically, “No Good Trying.”

The Madcap Laughs

Released January 3, 1970, The Madcap Laughs is that scrapbook under your bed with several pages done and the rest of its plastic sleeves glutted with mementos that never will culminate in a finished anthology, no matter how good your intentions. I have wept listening to the goddamn thing. Its stops and starts and retreads. The sense that you might be listening to the losing-it process captured live.

Sony Music Entertainment/Legacy

An eight-page booklet accompanying the 2016 issue of The Madcap Laughs suggests that the hodgepodge result owed mostly to (a) a time crunch — Roger Waters and David Gilmour (eventual/final producers) had a short window of time thanks to obligations of mixing Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma album and touring Holland, and (b) the fact that Syd was still experimenting with songs as they were being recorded.

While the book Comfortably Numb doesn’t exactly contest that, it colors the scene to suggest Waters and Gilmour battling Syd’s candle-in-the-wind attention — and growing frustrated. The book floats the theory that their decision to include the “mistakes” was their version of grabbing him — and his little audience too — by the lapels. Shaking him and them. Shouting into his face and theirs: DO YOU SEE HOW BAD IT’S GOTTEN. “We wanted to inject some honesty into it” is how Gilmour put it.

Malcolm Jones — the album’s previous producer, who stepped aside (or threw up his hands) when Waters and Gilmour got involved — called this decision, whatever its motive, “unnecessary, and unkind.”

That it was difficult to make seems to be the one thing everyone involved agreed on, and the struggle shows in the output. Comfortably Numb writer Mark Blake referred to The Madcap Laughs as surprisingly “earthbound,” and without listening hard, you can hear that too. “Earthbound struggle,” in fact, is an accurate a summation as you’re likely to hear of this album — and maybe of whatever was going on in Syd Barrett’s head as well.

What Do You Mean “It’s No Good Trying”?

“No Good Trying” makes the short list of songs I sometimes need to hear, whether or not I like the fucking things. I do like “No Good Trying.” But fanhood isn’t exactly the part of me snapping its jaws for this one.

There’s debate (no shock here) as to what the song means. Some think it’s a withering side-eye to former band mates. Others that it’s pure acid drivel. Or a hymn for the choirs of Wonderland.

Because Syd Barrett was laconic while living and now is gone, prospecting for the One True Meaning is like the amedical community of YouTube commentors conferring on his diagnosis. It’s no good trying.

But as long as that’s understood . . . what the hell, right. Why not speculate?

Here’s an abbreviated version of the lyrics.

It’s no good trying to place your hand
Where I can’t see because I understand
That you’re different from me
Yes I can tell
That you can’t be what you pretend…
It’s no good trying to hold your love
Where I can’t see because I understand
That you’re different from me…
The caterpillar hood won’t cover the head of you
Know you should be home in bed.
It’s no good holding your sequin fan
Where I can’t see because I understand
That you’re different from me…
(Universal Music Publishing Group; lyrics by Syd Barrett)

I’ve listened enough times across Pollocked enough states of mind that it’s not like I’ve heard the song only one way. That it’s abstract with bendy but vivid visuals — that the music fights itself and doesn’t even feign trying to land on a mood — makes it a sort of echo chamber. Listen and hear your own head. Come back tomorrow and find a different you projected in those pained musical highs, the almost spookily in-control (under-control?) vocals.

Still, there are a couple prevailing impressions I get from it.

First, that its imagery comes from a carnival: the world’s number-one setting for comparing the thrill of being alive with the color-smearing confusion of the same.

Second, and more importantly, that its POV is second person: Syd Barrett singing it the way Jay McInerney wrote Bright Lights, Big City. Subbing in you for I so a better-than-casual reading exposes a schism.

For what it’s worth, dull tools could poke holes in that theory. Unlike your average second-person high lit novel, “No Good Trying” has an I. It’s all over the place. (“Because I understand . . .”) The identity behind the I just doesn’t strike me as a straightforward.

Sometimes I imagine it represents a quote-unquote normal person — the beigest of all god’s unicorns — or the entire class of the unpsychotic, all making it known to the song’s you that your abnormalities are showing. No good trying to hide ’em. Other times I imagine it’s one part of him addressing another, the parts untouched communicating to the crazy.

It’s known that over time his songwriting focused increasingly on an internal landscape; for him to lyrically hone in on a forked experience of self isn’t a stretch. And while outside of expired comedy, schizophrenia doesn’t mean a personality axed in two — or possession by a puppet master whose strings trace straight to hell — it can mean refereeing parts of a whole. It can mean plenty.

Maybe I imagine him writing the song as a man in pieces because it’s how I listen.

  • happy with myself for crawling so deep into Floydian history
  • heart-sore from reading about his isolation and inventing what life must have been like through those long shuttered decades
  • as scared as I always get when recognizing my parallels with somebody shot down from the inside
  • interested in the sound because it’s taunting poetry set to pots-and-pans music that shouldn’t work

But none of that quite accounts for the rioting to hear, over and over and over, this little-known song on an album built atop aborted friendships and futures. I mentioned it’s not quite fanhood in this case. It’s the crazy.

White Flag Victories

When I was 19 or 20 and still Mormon, I went on a Ruby Tuesday lunch date with a guy who’d come back early from his church mission, honorably discharged because he’d been diagnosed bipolar. Back in these days, I was misdiagnosed with it myself. It seemed there were coming to be legions of us in fact — we Gen X mood-disordered Mormons — which I suspect had less to do with mind warp in the water and more to do with how many of us saw the same also-Mormon psychologist. I happily offer the whole scenario as fodder for The Book of Mormon musical sequel.

Here’s what I remember from this chaste wineless afternoon:

  1. Him trashing Christina Aguilera for her worldliness/midriff baring while pardoning Britney Spears of kin offenses, explaining that the latter seemed like the sort of person who would have been modest had modesty’s spiritual significance been impressed upon her while the former, she just rubbed him the wrong way. (You’d hope he was making a funny off “Genie in a Bottle” but no.)
  2. Him saying the term manic depression made him cringe because it just was so dramatic. Bipolar disorder was clean and honest and it got the job done. Subject closed.

And hey, with mental illness even more than with most things in life: to each. There are plenty of reasons people may prefer clinical terms — to better live with it in their own heads, to make it more palatable to the masses, because they just do. Hadn’t it been for his Christina-Britney showdown, I might have heard this as a more valid point of view. On the rare occasions I now have reason to mention it, I usually say “bipolar” myself.

What rubbed me wrong was the reasoning. I remember thinking, but it is dramatic.

I have always been a slippery-slope thinker, so it’s on me that I took this as a harbinger of future interactions in which mental illness would be downplayed — spoken of with a politeness bordering on ceremony — even among those of us affected. I’ve seen in the time since that while my doomsaying wasn’t entirely right, it wasn’t as wrong as I’d like.

By AK Rockefeller [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

The era we’re living in is one where even those with psychotic disorders are much more tolerated/empathized with/not drowned for being witches than were those who came before.

It’s also an era in which the embargo on declaring truths about people you’re connected to by tenuous demographics, nothing more (a worthily intentioned embargo, to be sure), is sometimes stretched into a hyperbole of itself by nervous web writers and even humans offline, who sometimes become so cautious that even when it comes to themselves, they don’t declare; they equivocate. Outside of rallies and comments sections, we all really have become so terribly polite.

And don’t get me wrong — there’s a time to appreciate how good you have it for a person afflicted with what afflicts you. A time to praise modern medicine and doctors who don’t lobotomize. A time to reflect on how much worse you could have it — you could have zero support system, you could have the storm of symptoms but no calm eye. A time to rejoice in the fact that many times either your efforts for better health work or your disease is in a low tide of remission or midtide of manageability. A time to acknowledge that for how much better informed a world it is, there are still many of your brothers and sisters, with psyches like the inside heels of pro ballers’ tennis shoes, who are harshly judged and deprived of opportunities because label. A time to write cautiously and optimistically because god knows the last thing you want is to give the unmerciful “loved ones” of some poor soul more ammunition to use against them. And a time to cool-headedly lobby for more and better for your people. But a time also to whine and thrash and scream.

Like so.

And still the times of overwhelming paranoia and fear. Still the waking up when the power’s flickered out in a storm thinking, “I made this happen — but why would I do something so stupid?” then spending the next five hours in the dark trying to think right to force the lights back on.
Still the hearing things. Not always terrible things. Hell, sometimes playful sounds. But sometimes a voice like a door slamming hard enough to splinter the frame, sometimes issuing stupid warnings that whatever band I’m listening to knows I’m listening and doesn’t want me listening — their music is not for me.
Still the worrying that the disease will whittle my experience of life until I’m writing exclusively of interior landscapes and not even the sharpest of readers will be able to penetrate that chaotic abstraction.
Because I know it well enough now to know it does what it wants.
And it always wins.
And it’s no —

Mental illness is dramatic. Even lukewarm psychosis is, on occasion, godmotherfuckingawful.

And as kind-souled (or petrified) as it is of people to gauze the subject in soft vocabulary, this belies how valuable it can be to give the worst-case scenario its due. To stare it in its black-hole eyes and whisper in vinegared tones, I see you, you futureless carcass-sucking junkyard rat. Seeing and confronting it but not pressuring yourself to win. To overcome. Recognizing instead that this isn’t necessarily a victory for rah-rahism.

This is a white flag victory. A moment to stomp the what if off the most hideous of your fears and accept that it is real and true and now — all of it. All of the potential not-okayness come home to roost and reign. Things aren’t okay because why in Satan’s asshole would they be.

It’s a tall order to talk clearly about salvation when the thing being saved and the thing from which it needs saving seem to be moieties of one organic problem. Also when salvation is a nontransferable commodity. So I have no idea if the thought — out of the near-constant internal chatter of self-help slogans balanced by snarling disgust and rage — that’s actually been helpful to me has application beyond myself but here goes.

Remember in The Watchmen when Dr. Manhattan talks about the way that frangible, unpromised moments line up to lead to everything worth anything in this world? Apart from being masterful in its own right, it’s proof Billy Crudup is wiser when blue and naked (noteworthy speech from when he’s caucasian and clothed: I AM A GOLDEN GOD. I AM A GOLDEN GOD).

The core notion there is that incalculable odds were stacked against each of us existing exactly the way we do. And the same odds seem to favor, for plenty of people, young extinction.

For nearly anyone, reaching adulthood is synonymous with having cheated death; there’s at least the once you coulda shoulda died and yet. When you’re allergic to your own brain, to survive long-term — and to at least occasionally feel stupid in love with life — feels like a heist you couldn’t have pulled off with all the planning in the world and all George Clooney’s men.

Not only should you never have existed in the first place — you shouldn’t have survived once arrived. You shouldn’t be here. It may sound like self-flagellation but it’s the linchpin to a narrative of beating the odds, often while trying your goddamnedest but sometimes, too, in weakness, in surrender. Sometimes maybe your antagonist side played hero for a day — the crazy was why you survived. Sometimes it was raw kinetic biology. And plenty more times, who could fucking say.

Just as the beautiful side of a universe without fate is real sui generis miracles of circumstance, there’s a beautiful thought on the other side of admitting that sometimes — but really — it is no good trying. The thought that it never has been.

As a species, we’re pretty sharp even when bonkers and we inherently register when we’re leaving something out of the stories we tell ourselves. And when our brains register sly self-protection from ugliness and hopelessness, inherently we know our optimistic thoughts cannot be worth the glitter rainbow ice cream clouds they floated in on. Behind external defenses we feel certain we are vincible by light breezes.

So much of pop self-help boils down to promising dessert for honesty — let go and let god, admit the shit to flush it away — and this isn’t what I mean. Sometimes the closest thing to a reward is feeling narrowly less crazy for having acknowledged your own fears. But then this isn’t about mustering ten seconds of courage so you won’t need to ever again; it’s about recognizing that, by all accounts, existence is a cold mother with a math-graph heart who’s never cared whether you were or weren’t or liked metal jungle disco music. But you have been some combination of scrappy and weird and lucky enough to survive.

If you yourself are an exhibit for defiance of clobbering odds — if none of this was foretold or even likely and you’re reasonably sure you should have burst into flames several years ago — then you are your own living proof of the value in trying. Even when it’s insane to.