Shine on

Syd Barrett and the Saints

Syd Barrett, co-founder of the legendary rock band Pink Floyd, recently passed away at the age of 60. Barrett was a troubled soul, an amalgamation of genius and lunacy who, in the 60’s, ingested LSD like Pez candy and wrote narcotic-inspired songs that influenced thousands of musicians. Barrett’s tenure in Pink Floyd was short—he lasted only one album after which his band mates dismissed him for his crazy, erratic behavior, and replaced him with guitarist and vocalist David Gilmour. Syd spent the past 3 decades living in anonymity in England, avoiding the press and staying far away from the music business.

Despite, or perhaps due to his quasi-monastic seclusion, many rock bands continued to cite Barrett as an influence decades after writing his last song. I recall first hearing about Barrett from one of my first band mates in the late eighties. We were playing in a band called the Stonemasons in Ann Arbor, MI and, as guys in bands do, we discussed our musical influences as often as possible. “Check this out,” exclaimed our bass player Bob, who put on Floyd’s first album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, “You’ve GOT to hear this!” The whimsical but catchy song “Bike” blasted out of his stereo speakers, shaking the dormitory walls. The song impressed me for quite some time—I can still recall its melody and quirky lyrics. Almost a dozen years later, a band I played with in Chicago covered Barrett’s tune “Matilda Mother,” another track from Piper. Barrett’s music, similar to that of cult favorites, The Velvet Underground, never sold millions of records, but, as one music critic exaggeratedly quipped, everyone who bought a copy started a band.

Stories of Strange Behavior

To be honest, what intrigued me about Syd Barrett was not so much the bizarre chord progressions in his songs, it was his strange behavior and the near-mythic stories that emerged about him. I heard stories from fellow musicians—I have subsequently dubbed them “musical legends,” very akin to the “urban legend” stories that teenagers trade during sleepover parties. Barrett’s LSD use, they claimed, brought his mind to a place beyond genius and into lunacy. This is why he spent time interned in a sanitarium—he saw what human beings should never see. Did he see God? Did he have a vision that altered his perception forever or was he simply a unique variation on the sad “live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse” cliché: live fast, die old(er) and hold a private funeral? Who knows? I admit that I was fascinated by these musical legends, and what’s more, I believed I could discern a kernel of truth within them.

The ambiguous and narrow space between holiness, genius and insanity is where all of these figures, Barrett included, find common ground. Is it not possible that God could work through a person’s mental illness, odd behavior or alleged visions?

In his Autobiography, Ignatius Loyola describes a vision he had of three musical notes that he discerned symbolized the Trinity. St. Teresa of Avila experienced “Intellectual visions and locutions,” according to the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia. Often, these fascinating experiences of the divine are what attract people to the saints. When it comes to saints’ life activities, going to daily mass never holds the same panache as touching a leper’s sores, bi-locating, or hearing the Virgin Mary deliver a message to the world. These instances of strange behaviors are attractive to us—they are far from ordinary and most of us will never experience anything close to them. Some of their contemporaries assumed that many of these saints were insane. Apologists, however, proclaim that their bizarre visions and behavior were the result of their hearts and minds being totally infused with God’s love.

Holiness, Genius and Insanity

Who is correct? Could it be that both parties have a partial grasp of the truth? The ambiguous and narrow space between holiness, genius and insanity is a place where all of these figures, Barrett included, find common ground. Is it not possible that God could work through a person’s mental illness, odd behavior or alleged visions? Millions of people flock to supposed Marian apparition sites every year, yet only a small minority has reported actually seeing the Virgin Mary appear. Whether or not these are “legitimate” visions is an issue about which not even the Catholic Church has given a final word. What cannot be denied, however, is that millions of faithful people have found strength, grace and have come closer to God as a result of visiting these places.

I am not saying that Syd Barrett is a contemporary saint. But why have Barrett’s music and life remained so attractive years after he disappeared from the public eye? There’s no doubt that, despite his faults and addictions, Barrett left an indelible mark on rock and roll music and influenced generations of listeners and musicians with his creative writing and beguiling guitar playing. His music was his gift to the world, and just perhaps, it was also the way God worked through him.