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.


  1. I was going to do a story on this exact same relaization! however I now think I will link it through Syd Barrett with Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here. some great stories on this site though, thanks a lot!

  2. Thanks WA. I was thinking of a Syd/Dark Side story too, but you take a crack at your idea first. Glad you're enjoying Maybe Baby all the way from Belgium (at least that's what your profile says).

  3. i would have loved to be with those guys in the hospital. it must have been cool,and yet frightening at the same time. what a sad waste of what were brilliant musicians.