Syd Barrett Will Save Your Psychotic Soul

by Merry Mercurial

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

Whether Syd was schizophrenic indeed 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.

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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 has come 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.

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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) 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? Why not try?

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 a spectrum of Pollocked enough states of mind that it’s not like I’ve heard this song only one way. That it’s abstract with bendy but vivid visuals — that the music fights itself and doesn’t give a damn about landing on one 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, those almost spookily in-control (under-control?) vocals.

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

That its imagery comes from a carnival: the world’s number-one setting for comparing and contrasting the thrill of being alive with the chaos and confusion of the same.

That its POV is second person: Syd Barrett singing it the way Jay McInerney wrote Bright Lights, Big City. Subbing in you for 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.

  • satisfied to climb so deep into Floydian history
  • heart-sore from reading about his isolation and inventing what life must have been like in 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 spun from blood of friendships and aborted futures. I mentioned it’s not quite fanhood in this case. It’s the crazy.

Deliver Us From This Silence, Gods of Rock

When I was 19 or 20 and still Mormon, I went on a Ruby Tuesdays 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 clinical 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 khaki-colored terminology — to better live with it in their own heads, to make it more palatable to the masses, etc. Hadn’t it been for the 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, usually say “bipolar” myself.

What rubbed me wrong was the reasoning, which, in context at least, felt like trying to brown-paper wrap a vibrating nightmare-bright disco ball. 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 play the role of Voldemort, not named and better yet stayed the hell away from. As it turns out, I wasn’t entirely right; I also wasn’t wrong enough.

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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 assumptively 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, who sometimes become so afraid of Sister Socialmedia coming for their knuckles with a ruler they effectively stop declaring truths about themselves.

Then we’re treated to personal essays written in the tone of two women bumping shopping carts: I’m so sorry, please excuse me, I’m so clumsy, no no it’s me, let me just get out of your way.

And don’t get me wrong — there’s a time to appreciate how good you have it for a person afflicted with what you’re afflicted with. 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. A time to cool-headedly lobby for more and better for your people. And a time to scream. Like so.

IT’S NOT FUCKING FAIR.

WHAT THE FUCK ELSE AM I SUPPOSED TO DO. I’M HEALTHY. I’M ORGANIZED. IF THE MEDICINE DOESN’T MAKE ME WANT TO JUMP OFF A GODDAMN CLIFF, I AM WILLING TO TRY IT. I DO THE THERAPY. I READ THE BOOKS. I BREATHE IIIINNN AND OOOUUUTTT AND REMIND MYSELF IT’S ONLY THE CONDITION MAKIN YOU FEEL THIS WAY GIRL.

IT’S ONLY THE CONDITION.

ONLY THE CONDITION.

I DON’T ROMANTICIZE DISEASE.

I TELL MYSELF HOW VERY LUCKY YOU ARE TO BE HERE AND THINK OF ALL THAT REALLY MATTERS AND TAKE THE OMEGA 3 AND GET ENOUGH SLEEP AND AND AND AND

And still the times of overwhelming paranoia and fear, the sort of anxiety that can make a person’s spine sweat. Still I can wake up when the power’s flickered out in a storm and think, “I made this happen — but why would I do something so stupid?” then spend the next five hours in the dark trying to think right so it will come back on.

If there’s a boom in in-town traffic, I can still think: I knew this place was never real. I knew it was all some elaborate stage or textured screen, and here’s the production crew turned up for proof.

If something on the daily list doesn’t get checked off, I still sometimes instantly feel I’m losing my family, my home, my tether to life as a human.

Still I sometimes hear things. Not always terrible things. Hell, sometimes playful sprite sounds. But sometimes a slamming-door voice saying the band I’m listening to knows what I’m doing and doesn’t want me listening — their music is not for me.

Still at times worry this disease will keep whittling my experience of life until I’m writing exclusively of interior landscapes and no one, try as they might, will get it.

And it’s not — *excuse me*

AND IT’S NOT FUCKING FAIR.

WHATEVER YOU DO, THIS HAPPENS.

IT WINS.

IT DOES WHAT IT WANTS.

IT’S NO GOOD TRYING.

As with bleeding and running hard and crying, sometimes you gotta scream that life is a fucking nightmare just for release.

If you can’t give the worst case scenario its due — can’t express that duh the vile thing’s made you question whether life is worth the side effects, can’t confess the times you feel you’re Belle and it’s Beast and yeah perhaps it has you hostage but goddamn what a castle, can’t be honest about the secret library in your head stacked with undusty research that validates surrendering — then none of your optimistic thoughts are worth the rainbow ice cream clouds they float in on.

As a one-time white-knuckle idealist, I see blind optimism as that lie you tell yourself because you’re (understandably) afraid, but a lie that cordons you off from a fraction of reality and thereby any such thing as progress.

The era we’re living in is one where mental health is still largely taboo in polite conversation and when it’s addressed is addressed in even-keeled slogan-soaked mediatorspeak. It’s a niche enactment of society’s broader piss-poor communication skills and, perhaps, belief that aspiring to expand the spotless qualities of the human mind means playing down its animal faults.

And if it sounds like bad news, let us all keep in mind that wheresoever there persists repressive politeness, dry jargon, voices with their volume set to library, there too exist the conditions that call good rock and roll out hiding.

Because for all else it is and isn’t, rock and roll captures the exact unsmooth reality of being you within context, within the era, screaming from where you stand. It’s the school of saying it like it is as though you’re hurling rocks through glass.

So this may or may not help anyone else — and may or may not have anything to do with the real woes of Syd Barrett circa 1970 — but my own best-tested balm for living inside a sometimes psychotic head has been listening to this. Your song saved my life man? Maybe not quite. But it’s been company and it’s been my safe place of dancey negativity when I needed one.

And it’s a significant piece of why I realized that the best part of admitting that sometimes, maybe right now and maybe for you, it’s no good trying is coming out the other side. Reaching the thought that has a surprising lot of power for being born on the tongues of teenaged assholes everywhere.

So the fuck what.

Ladies and gentlemen, Syd Barrett:

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