Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Madcaps Laugh

“Interesting group today, eh, Nurse?”

“I suppose, Doctor,” she replied quizzically. The older nurse didn’t get this new psychiatrist. His shoulder length hair made him look like one of those Woodstock hippies, not a staff doctor at Bellevue in 1970. She had no idea why these particular patients were anything special.

“You suppose? You don’t follow rock and roll, do you?” He smirked. “I know, silly question. You’re more a Perry Como type, I bet.”

Insulted, the gray haired woman smoothed out her gleaming white uniform and straightened her cap. “I do like him, yes.”

“OK, sorry, but these guys are famous rock stars. Legends.” The nurse remained unimpressed.

“Well, let’s go in and see what we can do for them, shall we.” He opened his notebook to refresh himself on the facts.

Alexander “Skip” Spence – born 4/18/46. Former drummer of Jefferson Airplane and guitarist for Moby Grape. Schizophrenia exacerbated by LSD intake. Committed to Bellevue under restraint after attacking a band member with a fire axe. Believes he is the Anti-Christ.

Peter Green (Greenbaum) – born 10/29/46. Former lead guitarist for Fleetwood Mac. Schizophrenia exacerbated by LSD intake. In May 1970, left the band he created in order to follow the teachings of Jesus and to divest himself of all his money.

Syd Barrett – born 1/6/46. Former lead songwriter and guitarist for Pink Floyd. Unknown mental illness coupled with LSD intake. Erratic behavior including near-catatonia during performance, public defecation, prolonged disappearances.

The room was spare, empty save for five metal chairs arranged three facing two. The doctor suppressed his urge to be a fan first, and while he managed to stay professional, inside he was buzzing. Man, he had been at the Fillmore East just two years earlier for a Moby Grape show and it was the best he’d ever seen. Peter Green “The Green God” himself, was his favorite blues guitar player, better than Clapton. And Syd? Only the genius who gave birth to psychedelic music. However, the doctor knew he needed to try to help these men come back to some semblance of normality. Along with medication and talk therapy, the doctor had a backup plan, something he hoped would get to the core of who these men were.

Spence, wearing his hospital uniform, could hardly sit, a fidgety mess with darting eyes, a sly smirk and tangled hair. To Spence’s left sat Green, a Jesus manqué, hands folded below a large dangling cross. To keep Peter calm, he was allowed to wear his own clothes, which included a shiny blouse with lace lapels. Syd sat apart, his Medusa hair nearly covering his dark eyes, so deep in the sockets that they were almost unseen. Perhaps he had looked at himself in the mirror and turned to stone. The doctor and nurse sat in the two seats opposite the troubled trio.

“Gentleman, good morning. I’m Doctor Brown. How are you all today?”

“Fine, my son, fine,” answered Green. “Today is another wonderful day thanks to my father, the Lord God.” He pushed back his long matted hair and stroked his flowing beard.

“Ah, that’s bullshit, man, bullshit. God is a pussy, he can’t do jackshit!” Spence yelled. Since being committed to Bellevue in a straight jacket after attacking fellow Graper Don Stevenson with a fire axe, Skip was a man possessed. Literally. In his mind, he fancied himself the anti-Christ. It was for Don Stevenson’s own good that Spence tried to chop through a hotel room door with an axe. He was only trying to protect Don from the evil that had invaded Skip’s soul.

“Skip, if you could relax, please.” Doctor Brown was interrupted by the screeching of the chair on the hard floor. Green had slowly pushed his chair back and stood up. He attempted to lay his hands on Spence’s head to soothe his troubled soul. “My son, you need to lead a selfless life along Christian principles.” Skip pushed Green’s hands away violently, as if sprinkled with holy water while undergoing an exorcism, then turned to face the window.

It was hard for the psychiatrist to keep his clinical cool. Holy shit, he thought, these guys are fucking crazy. In medical school he was taught to avoid laymen’s generalizations, but, come on, THEY WERE NUTS. Turning away for the religious war waging before him, he turned to Syd, who sat quietly, head down and motionless.
“How are you today Syd?”
“Am I here then?” Syd asked sincerely, almost sweetly. Barrett shared none of the aggressive insanity of the others in the group. “I thought I might be disappearing, treading backward on a path, out of focus.”

“Do you often feel like you’re vanishing?” the Doctor asked.

“I don’t feel it; it’s true. I have photographic evidence of it.”

“Tell me what you mean? Could I see the picture?” A physical manifestation of his psychosis? Intriguing, though impossible.

“When the band was ready to give me the sack, they knew I was evaporating. They saw it in the photos. I knew they were right. From then on, I couldn’t be bothered singing or playing. I couldn’t care less.”

That was hard for the doctor to believe. “Couldn’t care less? Pink Floyd was your group. You weren’t hurt when they fired you?”

“I didn’t think or feel at all. I think even less now,” Syd said almost inaudibly. “It’s better that way.”

“That may be, Syd, but you’re here, in this room, with the rest of us.”

“Who knows for sure? Maybe it’s a dream. Maybe you’re dreaming you’re a doctor.” Syd lifted his head and for the first time looked straight into the doctor’s eyes. “You might be a teenager in your suburban bedroom, dozing off as you listen to your records. Maybe we’re not here at all.”

Out of the corner of his eye the doctor could see Skip taunting Peter, giving the “messiah” the evil eye and waving his hands as if putting a hex on Green, who sat serenely with his hands in prayer, eyes closed.

“Skip, please stop that.” ordered Doctor Brown. Skip obeyed and sat quietly in his chair. “Peter, do you feel like Syd does or do you miss playing guitar and being on stage with your band?”

“I’ve got to do what God would have me do. We should love one another, care for one another. Money is not important. Being a rock star is not important. Giving of one’s self to others is everything.”

Skip let out a loud raspberry, and Peter calmly made the sign of the cross over him. Syd remained apart, statue-like.

Clearly, group therapy was ineffective. There was no interaction between the three, at least no positive exchange. This was going nowhere. It was time for the doctor to roll out his plan, earlier than he had hoped. Calling their bluff, making them play music would, he hoped, get to the heart of who they were and bring out their true selves. Then real therapy could begin.

The doctor stood up, walked over to the door and rapped on the glass window to summon the attendants. Three men, burly hulks immaculately dressed in white, arrived and escorted the deranged musicians to the recreation room. As other patients sat stoically, their attention focused toward the corner of the room where a small black and white television was bolted into the wall, the assistants brought Syd, Skip and Peter to instruments that had been placed in the room. A drum kit was set up and a guitar and bass rested on the tiled floor. A few of the more sane turned in their worn cloth chairs to observe the scene.

Doctor Brown stood before the sick supergroup. “Here’s what I’d like to try. Skip, if you could get behind the drums, Syd, pick up the guitar, and Peter, I read once that you could play bass. Now, there’s no pressure here. I simply want to see if you could find some happiness in what you do best, music.”

They were all skeptical except Skip, who leapt onto the stool and started pounding on the toms. Syd dutifully wrapped the guitar around his neck, his arms hanging down lifelessly. Slowly, Peter strummed a few strings.

Suddenly, a savage sound erupted and, like savants, they were off with a bang. There was not a sign of instability as they launched into Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on my Trail.”

Speculation that Syd Barrett was a daily user of LSD has been disputed over the years, but it is clear that his drug use and unpredictable behavior turned off the rest of Pink Floyd soon after the band broke out in 1967. Though Syd was the group’s main songwriter, it was decided to not call him for a gig at Southampton University in January 1968. Officially, Syd’s expulsion came April 6. He lived at his family’s Cambridge home until his death in July 2006.

Skip Spence, after Moby Grape’s classic debut LP in 1967, had a psychotic episode that led to his attack with a fire-axe on band mate Don Stevenson’s Albert Hotel room door. He was jailed in The Tombs, and then committed to Bellevue. Spence recorded his solo epic, Oar, in 1969. For the next 30 years, Spence would be in and out of treatment, sometimes destitute enough to qualify for public aid. He died in 1999.

Peter Green left Fleetwood Mac in May 1970, his financial success with the band causing him inner turmoil. After an LSD binge in Munich, Green, in his own words, “went on a trip and never came back.” Years of psychiatric hospitalization, which included shock therapy, led a vagabond’s life as a recluse. He has toured in recent years but the fire is gone.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Blue Flashing Light

That’s the kettle. Now where’s the sugar? Can’t have my tea without sugar, can I? Oh, there it is.

That’s hot. Soothing though. Hits the spot. Nothing like a nice cuppa to ease the mind and give one a bit of peace. Everyone needs time to think, that’s for sure.

So, Reg, what’ll it be? Music or marriage? Do you love her?

I don’t know mate, I really don’t. She’s alright, I suppose, but she’s a bit barmy and more than a bit dominating. Not that I’m opposed to the occasional domination, but, really, a man has his limits. Linda is beautiful, if you go for that kind of thing. And she certainly has the grace to hold herself above others. I would like to have that knack.

Well, she is an heiress, right? Even though it’s to a pickle empire. There I’d be, “Mr. Epicure Pickles.” That’s a laugh. A June wedding? That’s not so funny. And pretty soon, too. Fuck’s sake, she already ordered the cake!

But give up music? Linda is adamant that I should pack it in, quit. “You’re going nowhere Reg and if we’re getting married you’ll need a proper job.” She’s just like my dad that way, always putting me down. Mr. RAF, always disapproving of my music. “You’re inadequate, son, strictly mediocre.” That’s encouraging for a boy to hear! That’s what he would say, at least whenever he was around.

And just now when it seems to be getting better. It couldn’t have gotten much worse. Bernie, he’s someone I could do great things with. Brilliant lyricist, brilliant. What luck to have both answered the same ad looking for talent at Liberty Records. When we first met I swear there were sparks. It was electric. Bernie Taupin – 18 years old, dreamy and quite the poet. And now that he’s moved in with Linda and me, we can work together, ‘round the clock.

So, what’ll it be? Me Mum is against the wedding; so is Bernie. And last night at the Bag O’ Nails, John Baldry put it to me straight. “You love Bernie more than you love this girl.” That made me take notice. “If you marry this girl Reg, I swear you’ll destroy two lives – hers AND yours.” He was yelling by then. He loves me; I know that he has only my best interests at heart. And he said all that after I asked him to be my best man! Hah.

When I got home, when was it, around 4 AM, I broke the news to Linda that the wedding was off. She went into complete shock, breaking down. Then she let me have the news. I’ll never forget it. “I’m pregnant Reg, pregnant. What are you going to do about that?” I couldn’t answer. I didn’t know. I suppose my responsibilities are to her and the baby, but I don’t want to put my career on the back burner.

It all leaves me so depressed, about my life, my career. What’s wrong with me? I don’t love Linda, I know that. Do I love Bernie? Maybe, I don’t know. Does he love me? I could just go to his bedroom and ask him; he’s in there. He couldn’t possibly care for me in that way, me at 21 already fat and balding. Not fat. Chubby though.

Ah, now the tea is cold. There’s more water in the kettle.

Forget it. I don’t want any. I don’t want anything, just out. It’s utterly hopeless, all of it, Linda, music, Bernie. I’d be better off dead. What chance would a child of mine have with a father like me? Going nowhere, head in the clouds, dreaming of stardom.

Pilot light’s on, have to blow that out. Don’t want to be cooked. How much gas does one use in this situation? I’ll put it on high. That should do it, I would think.

Ugh, the oven is filthy. I’m not putting my head on that greasy rack. Let me get a pillow.

Oops, almost forgot to take off my glasses. Ah, much better.

What will Linda think when she finds me? “That’s a waste of good gas,” I bet. Practical to the end. And Bernie? Will he be upset?

I’m starting to get very sleepy. Eyes heavy. No pain, no regrets. I hope Bernie isn’t ……

From his room Bernie could smell the gas. Quickly, he leapt from his bed, dropping his notebook and pen mid-sentence. Entering the kitchen, he saw Reg lying on the oven door, his head resting peacefully on a pillow inside the oven. Bernie opened the kitchen windows, startling a butterfly, which flew high away. He was too late.

Reg Dwight met Linda Ann Woodrow, when the American heiress to the Epicure Products fortune came to see his band Bluesology. They were quickly engaged. Reg had met lyricist Bernie Taupin when they both answered an ad searching for talent at Liberty Records. The three lived together in Furlong Road, Islington. Torn between his music and his marriage, Reg heeded the advice of Long John Baldry, a dear friend, that Bluesology was backing. Baldry, a gay man who sensed Reg was of similar taste, advised him to cancel the wedding. Unsure of what to do, Reg attempted suicide by putting his head on a pillow placed inside the oven, gas on low. Bernie, smelling gas from his room, ran into the kitchen where he saw Reg on the floor, windows wide open. He couldn’t stop laughing. Reg cancelled the wedding. Around the same time, he changed his name to Elton John. This period is the subject of his hit song, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”