Syd Barrett viewed by Lili Marlene (psychologist)

Syd Barrett (real name Roger Barrett) 1946-2006, English songwriter, singer, guitarist and visual artist, best known as a founding member and songwriter of the psychedelic/progressive rock band Pink Floyd. Barrett’s membership of the band came to an end after repeated failure to perform during concerts. Until this time he had been the main songwriter. Barrett withdrew from public life, but released two solo albums in 1970. In a 1971 Rolling Stone interview Barrett cited Jimi Hendrix as his favourite musician, who is also on this list.

There has been much speculation and theories about why Barrett ceased to be a member of Pink Floyd, withdrew from the public eye and finally disconnected his home’s door bell. Some believe he developed schizophrenia as the result of the use of mind-altering drugs. Barrett used LSD in the 1960s and also used cannabis and the sedative drug Mandrax. I have not found any evidence that Barrett displayed the unique symptoms of schizophrenia. Bipolar has been suggested. Some have argued that he had a breakdown due to stress, and depression is a possibility that has also been mentioned. Former band-mate David Gilmour put forward a theory that a combination of epilepsy induced by strobe stage lighting and drugs might have altered Barrett’s mental health (Geiger 2006).

For a long time there has been speculation that Barrett was autistic (Gallo 2006). Barrett’s biographer Tim Willis has described Barrett’s mind as “…extraordinary… bordering on the autistic or Aspergic.” (Willis 2006). Barrett had talent in the areas of visual art and music, two in a group of talents that are characteristic of the autistic-type mind, and these talents were evident early in life (Barrett learned piano at the age of 8). People who have Asperger syndrome (AS) typically develop a strong and sustained interest in a narrow and unusual subject or interest. Barrett’s sister Rosemary has described his interest in Byzantine art “…it was an enormous interest of his and he said it was going to be a book but it was really just a collection of dates and facts that interested him.” (Titchmarsh 2007). It is also worth noting that his painting from his school years to late in his life was done to please himself (Chapman 2010 p.8). Chapmans’s book Syd Barrett: a very irregular head gives a hint that Barrett might have had the long attention-span that is characteristic of autism – when he visited great art galleries with his girlfriend “he would sit for hours looking at one painting” rather than hang out with interesting people in the cafeteria (Chapman 2010 p. 44).

Two characteristics of Barrett’s that are highly suggestive of autism were his apparently decades-long habit of bouncing, and his toe-walking during adulthood. Barrett bounced on the balls of his feet during his high school years, a habit that persisted into adulthood (Miles 2006) and Willis has described finding Barrett bouncing on the balls of his feet when he answered his door, at some time during the last years of his life (Willis 2002). Numerous mentions of Barrett’s bouncing and odd gait can be found in books about Pink Floyd and Barrett. The first-hand description of Barrett’s strange walking (in a public place) on page 154 of the Watkinson and Anderson biography makes it clear to the reader that Barrett was a fundamentally unusual man. There is some evidence that Barrett’s unusual habit of bouncing on the balls of his feet while walking might have had advantages over the normal way that people walk and run. A study reported in New Scientist in January 2010 has found that running on the balls of the feet instead of the heels has much less physical impact on the feet, and two-thirds of endurance runners who habitually run barefoot run on the balls of their feet. There is some evidence that Barrett was barefoot more often than is usual while growing up, and this would be because shoes do not accommodate toe-walking.

There is no simple way to describe Barrett in relationships. He was socially popular but also independent and choosey about his friends. One source quoted by Rob Chapman in his 2010 book about Barrett described Barrett as kind, generous and sensitive but also in a world of his own. There is much anecdotal evidence that he had trouble tolerating crowds since his school years, but he still went to parties and got around. He was very popular with girls, women and groupies from his teens till his withdrawal from social life. He was attractive and charismatic and had some long-term relationships. He could also be violent towards some of the women in his life.

Although media reports almost always describe Barrett as a case of mental illness, his sister claimed he was never mentally ill, but never fitted the norm either. According to Rosemary he spent some time in an institution (but was given no treatment), and was assessed a number of times by psychiatrists over the years and was found to be unusual but not insane (Titchmarsh 2007). Being labelled as mad by ordinary people but pronounced sane by qualified psychiatrists is an experience reported by adults who have Asperger syndrome. Rosemary quoted in Chapman’s 2010 book about Barrett claimed that “personality disorder” was a label that was given to Barrett after his stay in an institution (Chapman 2010 p. 361). This is the type of label that was given to some autistic adults before Asperger syndrome was recognized. Barrett’s reported outbursts of extreme anger (Willis 2002 book and extract in theObserver) could be consistent with AS or epilepsy of the temporal lobes. Pink Floyd members reportedly claimed Barrett was unusual before he started using drugs heavily (Pareles 2006), undermining the theory that Barrett was a regular guy driven insane by drugs.

Barrett’s sister and biographer Tim Willis have described Barrett as a synaesthete or possible synaesthete “… he would say that a sound was a colour to him.” (Titchmarsh 2007). A report that Barrett described (to Rado Klose, an early Pink Floyd member) a C chord as yellow is given in the biography by Willis (page 21). Much later in Barrett’s career, during the recording of his first solo album, one of Barrett’s comments about the music provides further evidence of synaesthesia; “Perhaps we could make the middle darker and maybe the end a bit more middle-afternoonish [because] at the moment, it’s too windy and icy” (Willis 2002 p. 106). Willis wrote that Barrett “drew” songs (Willis 2002 p.21), representations that could have been based on synaesthesia experiences. Barry Miles’ book about Pink Floyd gives slightly fuller descriptions of Barrett’s visual representations of his songs, in a book of coloured paintings (page 69) and drawings that resembled Venn diagrams (page 83). It would be fascinating to see these creations, if they still exist today. Some types of synaesthesia can be caused by high doses of LSD, so one could dismiss Barrett’s synaesthesia as merely the side-effects of psychedelic drugs, but that could be a careless judgement. Drug-induced and genuine natural synaesthesia are different in a number of ways, so we might be able to tell which type Barrett experienced, based on descriptions of what his synaesthesia was like and how he used or described it. A group of researchers at Hannover Medical School has found that drug-induced synaesthesia does not have the consistency and automaticity that are the hallmarks of genuine synaesthesia (Sinke et al 2010). Because of this there would presumably be no point in making notes about drug-induced synaesthesia as a descriptive record to refer to later for re-creating musical triggers, because there would be no consistency between synaesthetic triggers and synaesthetic experiences. Based on the brief descriptions in Barry Miles’ book, I believe Barrett probably used his coloured representations of songs as working documents during song-writing, recording information about the songs to be referred to later. This means that if the colours represent experiences of musical synaesthesia, it must be genuine synaesthesia. Before we can categorize Barrett as a natural synaesthete with complete confidence, we would need to find evidence that he experienced synaesthesia early in life, before he started taking drugs. As an art school student Barrett had a very well developed sense of colour (Chapman 2010 p.50). One study had found that synaesthetes have an enhanced memory for colour (Yaro and Ward 2007). In his 2010 book Chapman asserted that the imagery in the song Astronomy Dominie by Barrett “conveys a strong sense of synaesthesia” (Chapman 2010 p.156).

Barrett’s synaesthesia was not just an isolated personal oddity. Synaesthesia-like experiences were a part of the psychedelic scene which Barrett and Pink Floyd were a part of at the time. People were inventing various devices and systems of stage lighting for the types of venues that Pink Floyd played in, some of them designed to move in time with music. One 1967 concert by Pink Floyd was given the title “Music in Colour”.

Researchers have reportedly found a possible genetic link between synaesthesia, autism and epilepsy (Robson 2009). It is possible that Barrett had some combination of these conditions. Autistic people have an increased susceptibility to epilepsy and to stress and anxiety. As far as I know, no link has ever been found between synaesthesia and schizophrenia, so evidence of synaesthesia contributes nothing to the case that Barrett was a schizophrenic.

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