Why Syd Barrett Came Off His Bike

A talk by William Pryor at Borders, November 2008

Remember when you were young,
You shone like the sun.

My name is William.  I was once an addict.  In 1963 I became addicere (from the Latin ad= “for” and dicere = “speak”) thus “delivered, yielded, devoted or spoken for”  by first opium, then NHS heroin and cocaine, [here] in Cambridge while Syd Barrett was charming songs out of the weeping willow trees. We knew each other well enough to travel to Grantchester in guitar-strumming punts, to drink cappuccinos together from pyrex cups in El Patio, to revel in our very youth, as Wordsworth had it: “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!

The Survival of the Coolest, my memoir and the screenplay I’ve adapted from it: The Survival of Cool (currently emerging from Development Hell) tell the emotional, psychofugal truths of that addiction in that Cambridge at that time: the same compost in which Syd briefly blossomed.  Psychofugal is my word: meaning “spinning out from the psyche”.  Psychofugal creativity spins out, into the world, seeking consecration from that world, from its audience; a projection seeking reality.  Psychopetal creativity spins towards and around the centre; it knows itself.

Antonin Artaud, the Theatre of Cruelty guy, had this to say about creativity: No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modelled, built, or invented except literally to get out of hell. Why would creativity do that, get you out of hell?  Maybe because it gives shape and purpose to the being here, the nub of existence.  A form that can be shown to the world, put up for applauding.  Was Syd in need of an escape ladder from some hell we know little of?

But first let me be clear: it is not my purpose today to moralise about the use of drugs.  I may have abstained from everything but coffee since 1975, but that has been an entirely pragmatic measure.  Changing how I feel about the world and myself by chemical means always became an end in and of itself, a self-defeating Serpent Oroboros eating its own tail, the “outside” act of taking the stuff becoming the inside misery.  An addict is not a human, but a living myth, an acting out of a ritual of pain and its resolution, which leads to more pain and less resolution, and more…

What leads people to say taking drugs is “bad”?  Or that it’s worse than taking alcohol or tobacco?  The strange history of drug and alcohol taking, nothing else.  Suffice it to say that as little as a hundred years ago you could pop down to the corner shop for two penn’orth of Laudanum if the baby was crying or Granma had the gout.  The War on Drugs is an extraordinary political manipulation of a powerful mythology, one that has 80% of the economic activity of the un-nation of Afghanistan produce 75% of the heroin for the world’s un-people addicts.

No, it’s not a moral question, but a pragmatic one.  If we are to be human, not mere stories or myths.  And so it is with psychosomatic, psychofugal creativity.   To appease the dreadful god of creativity, one must always take more.

Addiction is a mysterious, mythical thing, closely related to creativity, which in itself is an addictive state of being.  In 2005 I established the Unhooked Thinking Conference on the simple premise that no one really knows what addiction is.  Academics, doctors, prison and addiction workers from far and wide came and riffed from this raga: because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones? Except perhaps that it IS a story, a myth, an explanation of misery; not an illness.  And its close relation with creativity and inspiration is crucial:  altered states in pursuit of some nirvana, some not here, some other.  Give me some bliss man!

Antonin Artaud: It is not opium which makes me work but its absence, and in order for me to feel its absence it must from time to time be present.

Addiction is I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t stop myself, I am compelled, because once it was so good; I am compelled by something that isn’t me.  Creativity is as elusive, compulsive and temperamental as that first high.  Addicts and artists are gods, for a moment or two – especially musicians like Syd, standing on the stage to have his talents loved.   He couldn’t stop.  His fame was something that wasn’t him.

Shine on you crazy diamond.
Now there’s a look in your eyes,
Like black holes in the sky.

Marcel Duchamp (of urinal fame): To all appearances, the artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing.  Millions of artists create; only a few thousands are discussed or accepted by the spectator and many less again are consecrated by posterity.

Syd has been consecrated; he has become an icon, a myth, a god of youth, innocence and idiosyncrasy.  Forever reconsecrated when David Gilmour sings Shine On.  Just two years in the limelight, but here we are, forty years later, still talking about him.  We were the first teenagers, back then – previously people went straight from childhood to young adulthood in their bowler hats or pinnies – and Syd, authentic, beautiful, witty, musical and idiosyncratic Syd was much more than most teenagers knew how to be.   He embodied what we could all be.  He got paid to be himself, or the leprechaun  he constructed.

The essence of Syd was his creativity. The Gift that the Pink Floyd were to turn into a commodity worth millions.  A gift that flows all the time for all of us, could we but know it, grasp it, ride it.  A gift we lose when it becomes psychofugal, not psychopetal.

Alone in the clouds all blue
Lying on an eiderdown.
Yippee! You can’t see me
But I can you.

We project our intricately woven fabric of self and for some of us this projecting is art.  It is public.  People buy into it.  It is performance.  We then buy into this our own projection ourselves, just as we bought into the fabric from which it was woven. As Syd sang in Jugband Blues: It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here; and I’m much obliged to you for making it clear – that I’m not here.

The projecting, the loving of talent, the glimpses of godhood – all this is addictive – we want more, even though we know it is bad for us, for the central stability of the self.  Syd’s fame gave him permission to transgress, to explore beyond sanity.  He had the authority of one who was making the Gift live in front of our eyes and ears.

Shine on you crazy diamond.
You were caught on the crossfire
Of childhood and stardom,
Blown on the steel breeze.
Come on you target for faraway laughter,
Come on you stranger, you legend, you martyr, and shine!

LSD may not have been the source of Syd’s creativity, but he came to rely on it and, all too soon, he was outcaste, scapegoated by it, by the very visions that had at first inspired him.

As an experience, madness is terrific… and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about (Virginia Woolf).

It may be significant that the lava of Virginia Woolf’s madness and the fluorescence of Syd’s LSD experience, arrived by different routes. Virginia Woolf’s bipolar condition was incipient in her, arose from her history, her genes, from whatever it was she could not bear, while Syd’s outsider art was the result of ingesting a chemical, whether it triggered an instability that was already there or was the only cause of his unbalanced state.

The power, insistence and poetry of both was probably no different, but Woolf’s art arose, in part, from her struggle to acknowledge and absorb her madness as part of herself, while Syd’s short-lived blossoming seemed like revelation visited from a sugar cube, making it hard for him to own it.  Maybe the difference might not be so important – they would both find their uninspired states unbearable.  They had to create to escape hell, as Artaud well understood, and when they couldn’t escape, Virginia Woolf drowned herself and Syd retreated into chemical martyrdom.

My first dalliance with hallucinogens was in 1962.  It was addictive.  It lead to what hindsight shows me clearly to be madness. I didn’t play the guitar. I wasn’t part of a rock band.  So I had nowhere to go but down.  If you’ll indulge me, I’ll read the bit from my book.  There I was in Paris in the Beat Hotel on Rue Git le Couer on the Left Bank. I was an explorer of the bohemian frontiers, a beatnik.

Bruce had heard that the seeds of Morning Glory, a strain of convolvulus, contained LSD 6, a crude form of the LSD 25 that Timothy Leary was just beginning to unleash. Three quarters of the contents of the kind of packet you could then buy from seed merchants was about the right dose. The trouble was that you had to chew the oily seeds, about twice the size of a grape pip, into a pulp for the active ingredients to be released in the stomach. This produced powerful waves of nausea that you had to fight your way through before the trip proper could begin.

Bruce had decided that the best way to ameliorate the nausea, which could last up to half an hour, was to launch out into the metro where the multiplicity of sensory inputs would drown out the urge to puke. We chewed our seeds at nine one evening. The night, with its emptiness, was better for tripping. As soon as we could bear to walk, we set off down the street. Colours. The pavement.

Itself, the pavement, but also the cracks.

Or rather the joins between the textures of solidity, and the foot clomps over it, smashes down. The air, dusky-air, feel it on your exposed eyeballs, the colours; look

at that man, he’s walking, he doesn’t know through or on what.

density.

Into the earth, his earth, nowhere to lay his head, man to travel

his city, into the earth, down

the steps into the metro, the descent is so decorated, the

wrought-iron balustrade

to the underskirts of the city.

The climb down; the climbdown.

“Listen to the Seven,” says Bruce. “The seven clicks, the seven dots. The secret is in how you listen, whether you hear, whether you are taken up.”

Automatic the barrier. The way to pass is closed when a train. The trick. The trick, says Bruce, is to wait till you hear the rumble, wait the wrong side, then at the first whoosh of air, rush. It’s being in tune with machines.

Training to Montmartre, to sex. The left hand path, by indulgence, the senses. Incoherent knowledge that this is magic, or Magick as Crowley had travelled. To be part of earth, to partake in earth, to eat earth, to be lost. To believe the illusion completely, oh Maya.

The Seven: metro motor clicking over. Doors shut, train starts. Click, click and Bruce says, “there, you hear it: Number One.” The motor, the electric motor speeds, switching gear clicks. We get to Number Four and I hear it. What? The elevation in the listening for the Seven. I don’t hear the elevation, but the elevation is in the hearing. More colours, I hear them.

and faces, skulls, blues and reds, skulls, atavistic.

Parisians on their way to or from and I see their skulls. They are no more people, they are their history.

Libido now realisable, or is it the name, the language that excites.

Anticipation anyway. With it, we climb up out up from and into the bowels of the night, into the fire, the neon, the market of bodies, the dealing in mythologies and arousals.

We go to a really French strip show: the art of signs and given conventions. We pay to get in.

RED

PLUSH

VELVET

is what pours in through the holes in the front of our eyeballs. Stunned, I mean, man, pulverised by redness, passion. You sit at a table, little round table, order a drink, a coke, can’t manage alcohol as well. Music starts. Sur le Pont d’Avignon jazzed-up spreads into the velvet fittings. The curtains spread back and there.

And there a blonde woman? No, a blonde lady? A girl, well: seductress and yet she won’t, is unreachable we must be passive in our seats. SHE, anyway, SHE wears a very short dress with little petticoats, the like little girls (don’t) wear at parties, pink and white gingham, bows in her hair, sucks her thumb, holds a doll and dances, hip-bumps, coquettishly. But she is woman, her breasts, her legs, her high heels, the signs to which we pavlov. The doll is not a little girl’s doll, but a man-ikin. She fondles it, plays it, sucks it, rubs it on her frills. Then the image, the little-girl-woman starts to take off, to strip her sign-clothes with stroking, self-caressing as though you, we, the men, as though we could do it that well.

‘This is the pleasure you like to think you can give to the woman you like to think you can have’: the signs she talks with in her language of make-you-believe, or, anyway make-you-forget this is all a sham, a fake, but, but, but we are aroused. Her breasts she fondles, she does it for us. Curtain. Daze. We already have the idea, the force towards completion. What would it be like, when you’ve paid for it?

We stagger back to the open night to put the question to the test. Forty Francs, a grubby hotel and I discover. We have reached a state so high (so low) that all sensory experience is orgasm, therefore no orgasm possible. I warn Bruce before he wastes any money.

“D’you see how it’s all about being amused? Distracted? So that we can avoid the larger questions, the pain.”

“Yes,” replies Bruce, “but isn’t the larger question just that: a way of avoiding what is not a question. We may realise that amusements, what is called ‘entertainment’ and ‘pleasure’, are a way of avoiding the pain of the big question. But isn’t that pain the result of the mind thinking it can solve everything, in other words, of there being a ‘question’ at all?”

“You have it.” I had just crossed five paving stones in three strides. “All we can do is count the number of different ways we can suck the limited number of stones we have to suck.”

“Yes,” says Bruce with great emphasis. “We suck our mind’s stones to give us comfort, but if we can stop being I, stop having a specific identity that needs comfort, then the sky is literally the limit. D’you read me?” This time my left foot landed right on a crack between two paving stones.

“But,” I grabbed his arm. We both agreed with what had not been said. “But, if we can understand each other without saying anything, like we just did then,” I pointed to the position of my left foot, “well, we must, to some degree, have interchangeable identities: I, you and me, or, you, I and you.”

Now late in the night, not a soul as we approach the dawn grey that is expressed with a bowl of onion soup in Les Halles as the vegetable market finishes its night’s work. It is a slow progress. We stop every two yards or so to share the latest revelation. Bleary, but envisioned eyes, colours breaking down to grey, people unaware of the seething whirlpools of light and texture they walk through and on, go to work, fulfil their part in what is called the daily round and round and round.

Mid-morning I get back to my mattress, exhausted, but not able to sleep, the light now disturbs me, the ancient sculptor is hacking away at his bas-reliefs next door, what hope have I, have we? I envy Bruce his warm bed with Leila. At lunch time I go to Sheena’s room and ask her to drop whatever she’s doing and come back with me to give me warmth, both inside and out. She does, she is interested in the trip, she lies on the mattress with me. But…

How to describe, to convey the depths of insight to someone who hasn’t been there. She is compliant, pliant and has affection, even respect for me, but what good is it, she is so tied to the trappings of her identity. I thought. Trappings, I thought.

“Don’t you see, you’ve got to be able to rise above what you are, what makes you Sheena, to be able to see how it really is? We saw it last night, Bruce and I. We rose above what makes us Bruce and William and were able to see.”

“That’s fantastic,” I turned away, “No, I mean it, it really does sound as though the two of you did have some amazing insights. Why on earth don’t you write about it? You keep on about being a writer, but I haven’t seen you write anything.”

“Interesting insights, indeed! It was far more than that; far, far more. But yes, I will write something. Why don’t you go and sit over there.” She went, and after much hesitation I started what was to be the natural successor to the novels of Samuel Beckett. So I thought, I thought. The trappings, anyway.

Her ego at it again and for what gain, thinks she, she wants to put that first gem of back-going sense or nonsense back to the old way of the can where all is smelly or rosy (you can’t have both)

I said I loved her tra la la soon that got left behind cos now I am simply watching her like some offensive acquaintance or something

thinks she love means to be forgiven…this flow of words from inside the evil old spirit that goes on and on talking to the wind.

So it ran for another three pages.

I took it with me when I went that evening to meet up with Bruce. He found it a revelation, the new writing, as I did what he had to show me. We confirmed each other in our sense of being at the edge, the furthest reach of the mind. Everything else became subservient to the lucidity of our shared madness, our vision. If those around us could not understand what we were so excited about, it was their fault, not ours.

We fell into the habit of chewing Morning Glory seeds every four or five days. We could maintain our visionary drive without having to bother with the painful task of relating what we knew and saw with the lumpen, so-called everyday, world.

The lucidity of our shared madness was born of protest, kindled by anger, and kept fresh by fear. For it was madness. We could not communicate the urgency of our visions. But it was also not madness. We were in full control of our actions, however strange they were. We coped with normality.

The next day I had made up my mind. I must go back to Cambridge as soon as possible. I had a duty to tell my friends and parents of my recent discoveries. They really ought to know that their friend and son was a genius.

I managed to get my soaring mind home to Cambridge via train and ferry, clutching my precious writings, my proof. My poor parents; my patient friends!

The extreme limit of wisdom, that’s what the public calls madness. (Jean Cocteau)

My mother damned my vision with faint acknowledgement, saying, “yes dear, I’m sure you’re a genius,” and my father, having read my few pages, said he didn’t understand it, but was sure it was interesting. They were incapable: they could not rise to the challenge that a deranged son posed. If we don’t talk about it, it will go away.

After a few days, my father said he had something for me and took me into his study. There on the desk was a brand new portable typewriter.

“Present for you,” was all he said, and no more was needed. A brave and generous way of telling me to go off and prove it? Or gesture parenting? A few days later I returned to Paris, so that I could get down to the real thing: being a genius with my Olympia portable typewriter in its zip-up carry case.

But Paris had changed. My previous visionary state had evaporated and, what was far worse, Sheena would have nothing to do with me. At her pension, her girlfriend said she was out and wouldn’t be back till the next day. I went on my way to the Café Americaine unsuspecting. A seething sea of unknowing fear and need, I sat at one of the pavement tables to have a coffee with an Austrian acquaintance.

That was a strange creativity, a madness that came from hallucinogenic visions of knowing how it is.  And this confident, but very fragile certainty is one of the underlying features of creativity.  An ability to step outside your circumstances, your locality, your particularity, and find the universal in the detail, the mundane. Creativity has been studied from the perspectives of behavioural psychology, social psychology, psychometrics, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, philosophy, history, economics, design research, business, and management, among others. The studies have covered everyday creativity, exceptional creativity and even artificial creativity. Unlike many phenomena in science, there is no single, authoritative perspective or definition of creativity. And unlike many phenomena in psychology, there is no standardized measurement technique.

Creativity has been attributed variously to divine intervention, cognitive processes, the social environment, personality traits, and chance (“accident”, “serendipity”). It has been associated with genius, mental illness and humour. Some say it is a trait we are born with; others say it can be taught with the application of simple techniques.

I say creativity, the state of being creative, is like that induced by psychosomatic substances, in that it is an altered and enhanced state of consciousness.  A place you want to return to, a precious gift, a flowing and a confidant certainty.  If you are lucky enough to find that flow in your late teens, as was Syd, it is very heaven to be young!  His creativity was a freedom to be playful, beautiful, charming and lovable.  But also to be doubting, cynical, lost and eventually destroyed like a scapegoat.

As Virginia Woolf wrote in a letter to my grandfather: Is your art as chaotic as ours? I feel that for us writers the only chance now is to go out into the desert & peer about, like devoted scapegoats, for some sign of a path. I expect you got through your discoveries sometime earlier.

If psychofugal is the dissipation of the psyche OUT into the world, then psychopetal is the focus and concentration that lies behind (and in front of) what we might call sustainable creativity, creativity that knows, if not where it’s going, then how it’s getting there.  Psychofugal creativity goes out into the desert.  Syd was there, a devoted scapegoat, peering about, in vain it turned out, for some sign of a path.

Sylvia Plath: And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.

Charles Mingus said: Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can plan weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.

But how do we make the complicated simple?  The only enemy to creativity is self-doubt.  The Gift is showering down all the time, kept from us by self-doubt and consequent lack of discrimination. The act of creativity is the act of a god, but the ever-hovering self-doubt wants for it to be consecrated by posterity, for others to applaud, to pay money.  It wants to overcome its scapegoat status by the consecration of fans, critics and customers, by commoditising the Gift of creativity.  But in so doing the artist becomes even more of a scapegoat, taking on both the aspirations and the fears of his audience, literally loaded with their troubles and sacrificed ‘beyond the pale’ of the community.

You reached for the secret too soon,

You cried for the moon.

Shine on you crazy diamond.

The surrealists consulted their dreams for inspiration, Virginia Woolf her Moments of Being, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Burroughs, Alexander Trocchi and Jean Cocteau their opiate reveries while Syd‘s acid let him be “alone in the clouds all blue, lying on an eiderdown. Yippee! You can’t see me; but I can you.

On the surface, not only did William Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi never publicly regret or in any way apologise for their addiction, indeed they both aggressively championed their use of heroin and cocaine as a necessary tool to their particular melding of life and art.  You could say their drug use was an attempt to do away with the need for inspiration – so unpredictable, erratic and unfathomable – to enter a state of creativity at the pierce of a needle.  You could also say Syd’s persistent messing with his brain chemistry by his ingestion of LSD was the same thing – an attempt to enter that nirvana on a sugar cube.

Threatened by shadows at night,
And exposed in the light.
Shine on you crazy diamond.

As Burroughs wrote: Nothing exists until or unless it is observed. An artist is making something exist by observing it. And his hope for other people is that they will also make it exist by observing it. I call it ‘creative observation.’ Creative viewing.” Is this a riposte against those who might wish to judge his writing as mere junky scribling, by linking the junk and his work so closely we can put it at a safe distance.  So with Syd, we can perhaps judge his songs as mere psychedelic ramblings.  But neither works.  Burroughs (maybe not Trocchi) and Syd’s reputations go way beyond such links.

Despite their advocates’ strong defences of the differences in their drugs, all of them, whether narcotic, stimulant or hallucinogenic, offer an escape ladder from ordinary consciousness, from the usual turmoil of existence in time and space.  As did Virginia Woolf’s bipolar condition.  It is on the rungs of those ladders that some of the more reckless artists, film makers, musicians and writers find their creativity; for on those steps to heaven, concentration is found and the will to create is loosened from the constraints of emotion and circumstance; a psychofugal creativity that throws these drug and madness induced visions out into the world.

Well you wore out your welcome
With random precision,
Rode on the steel breeze.
Come on you raver, you seer of visions,
Come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, and shine!

George Bernard Shaw said: “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.”  Everyone seeks to make the world bearable.  If creating art does it for you and you find your creativity by putting some psychosomatic substance in your body, then you are sorely tempted to choose that as your preferred “reality”.  Syd Barrett seems to have made that choice.  He never came back.

“I want the concentration and the romance, and the worlds all glued together, fused, glowing,” said Virginia Woolf.  This concentration, this romance is the real key.  We need psychopetal creativity, not psychofugal; a true, integrated originality that comes from focus, not intoxication.

It is impossible to make moral judgements about the use of this or that substance to generate inspiration, to open the gates of creativity.  There cannot be anything “bad” in putting a chemical in your bloodstream.  The end result of any such moralising is the War on Drugs, the prohibition that causes far more damage to individuals and society than the substances so banned ever do.  But that is not my subject today.

But I am in the grip of a paradox.  While wanting all drugs to be legalised, I also believe that the bliss of creativity is more likely to be sustainable, authentic and loved if reached without chemical assistance.

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