So I have been thinking a lot about Syd Barrett lately as Pink Floyd has been a hyper focus for me as of late. Now, this article is meant to be speculative, respectful and works off conjecture. I hope I do not offend any of his surviving family with this and more importantly, don’t expect this to be armchair psychology. But it is something worth discussion as I have noticed many analogs between him, myself and other autistic people I know in person.
In case you didn’t know, Barrett was the original lead singer and guitarist of Pink Floyd and wrote much of Piper at the Gates of Dawn, their first album. If you watch the documentary Which One’s Pink, they talk about Syd as someone who didn’t think on the same frequency as other people. He apparently use o walk around on his toes all the time – something my son does. It is actually a form of sensory regulation. The members of Pink Floyd have also said that he was strange long before his heavy drug use.
Barrett’s story is a tragic one. His behavior began to come erratic as the band’s popularity grew and he became increasingly withdrawn. Inevitably, the band let him go without so much as a notice. They just didn’t pick him up one day. Despite this, David Gilmour and Roger Waters both remained close with Barrett and even helped him produce his later solo efforts. Barrett was having trouble focusing however, with Gilmour even lecturing him at one point to let him know his career was on the line. Sounds a lot like executive functioning to me, which many autistics struggle with.
During a taping of American Bandstand, Barrett struggled to mime the words to Apples and Oranges for a performance. While many have said that he was under influence at the time, this terrified glare does not look inebriated to me. It looks like a shutdown. I have been told I have the same cold expression during a stressful conversation.
Barrett would often hide behind light shows with his band. He was a painter by trade but somehow became a songwriter overnight. His academics where often overshadowed by his creativity, and he took Pink Floyd into intriguing psychedelic territory. Waters has said that Syd played the guitar and did things with instruments that no one else had done.
But during the recording of Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd found a familiar face in a not so familiar state entering the studio. It was Barrett, who had shaved off all his body hair and had gained weight in a short amount of time. The band is said to have been near tears upon seeing him and not recognizing him. Barrett would vanish inevitably, but his breakdown would become a frequent theme of Pink Floyd’s music from then on. He continued to collect royalties from the band for his early work, but shunned any sort of attention from then on, even as reporters hassled him and people would try to visit him. Syd died of cancer in Cambridge in 2006.
Barrett was considered a genius by many but his family has denied he had any sort of mental condition. The most common myth on the internet is that he had schizophrenia. It has also been documented that he was a frequent user of LSD.
Of course, everyone did back then. It was a par for the psychedelic course. And not everyone went crazy. In fact, a study in 2015 by the Journal of Psychopharmacology found no link between the use of such controlled substances and mental illness. Zero. Even David Gilmour has said that he does not believe the drugs were the perpetrator of his breakdown – he thinks they may have been a catalyst (and probably didn’t help things.)
One doctor who heard a tape of Barrett talking called him incurable. From a tape. If a doctor did that these days you would be sure he would lose his license. I feel it’s another line in the long history of misdiagnosed mental states. My sister who is nonverbal, when my mother took her to a doctor and asked him what was wrong, he answered:
“Well ma’am, if I could cut open her head and see, I could tell you.”
That is verbatim folks.
I myself was in bad scenes when I was younger, trying to make it as a musician. If you listen to Ghost Mouse Ball Riders by Future Eater on Chiptunes 4 Autism Volume 1, you can read autist Andrew Sargent’s liners about how he suffered from drug abuse when trying to camouflage into society.
This is the danger of camoflauge when we try to make someone hide or disguise their Autism. They breakdown, fade or disappear. Empowering these people and shining those differences to a sparkle in part of our goal.
Syd Barrett was a diamond to be sure. There is much speculation over his fall, but the discussion should continue.