Last few days I’ve been rereading the book called Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe by Julian Palacios, and relishing in its every page. It explores Syd’s life from the early days in Cambridge, to his Swinging London days at the height of his fame as a psychedelic rock star, all the way to his last days spent in seclusion. Each page reveals Syd’s influences in terms of books, artworks (as he was a painter too), films, music and his ideas in general. Even though he is best known for his days with Pink Floyd which resulted in the album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967): a beautiful psychedelic gem, and his subsequent solo albums, it is not his fame or heyday which interests me the most.
Quite the contrary, it is his childhood and teenage years that reveal the true Syd – a creative figure and a true inspiration. What made Syd a psychedelic icon, what made the underground scene thrive wasn’t just LSD, but a great Pandora’s box of different influences. I am fascinated by the 1960s counterculture before it became mainstream. After reading the book, one can truly see all that lay beyond acid trips because psychedelia is so much more.
”The vanguard of London’s latest subculture, driven by LSD and hashish, far removed from the plastic flash of mods and dolly birds, took a sharp turn into the mystic. Drugs prompted many questions, so out came Ouija boards, I Ching, tarot cards, Hindu scriptures, meditation and vegetarianism.” (quote from the book)
Psychedelia or ‘altered consciousness’ doesn’t mean wearing tie dye shirts, listening to Jimi Hendrix and being stoned. That’s almost a disgrace of the original spirit and ideas of the underground scene. For me psychedelia means exploration, daydreams, hedonism and joy, everything that’s opposite of logical and rational. Reality is so bitter, and fantasy worlds so appealing, so why couldn’t we choose fantasy, lead happy lives, and discard reality like a fan after the ball. Sadly, this option is impossible, but infusing one’s life with a dash of psychedelia isn’t.
First of all, as, for me, psychedelia equals almost childlike exploration, the key thing is to delve into all sorts of activities and hobbies. Whole range of interests may be suitable for the spirit of psychedelia. Art, for example. When Syd was studying art in London, he became acquainted with painters from totally different art movements; from Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s whimsical portraits formed with fruits and vegetables, to Gustave Caillebotte’s striped wooden floor to Klimt’s golden, mystical beechwoods – all of which I’ve written about. He was also fascinated with Dali, James Ensor and Chaim Soutine. If Syd stands as a symbol of psychedelia, at least in British rock, then everything that influenced him may be considered psychedelic too, am I right.
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
‘The erudite nonsense of these traditional English children’s stories blends fantasy and sly surrealism. Gnomes, goblins, Hobbits, unicorns, Cheshire cats and hubble-bubble smoking caterpillars. Moles and toads walked, talked, and even drove motor cars. English in eccentricities and mannerism,m the animals wore waistcoats, carried pocket watches, smoked pipes, and were irritable and witty by turns.‘
Syd’s writing in Pink Floyd was described as ‘rock meets Mad Hatter’s tea party’. Now, who wouldn’t like to attend a tea party with acid-laced sugar cubes? David Bowie also liked Syd’s lyrics and even compared him with Peter Pan. This is precisely why the British psychedelia appeals to me strongly, more than American, as much as I like The Doors and Jim Morrison, I could hardly imagine him reading fairy tales or attending a tea party, and I’m afraid that’s a major factor for me. May I also note that I adored the opium smoking caterpillar when I was little, and I do still. Such a great character. I was thrilled when I discovered Pink Floyd because Syd’s lyrics combined everything I loved. Adults read fairy tales, men wore velvet trousers and floral shirts – must have been a lovely era.
”..doll’s house, darkness, old perfume…” (Matilda Mother – Pink Floyd), still from Alice in Wonderland (1966)
Another thing that British psychedelia cherished was nature. Syd had a profound connection with nature which never left him. Even around London he use to walk barefoot. In moments of loneliness at Wetherby Mansion, he remembered the idyllic strolls, and the landscape of his innocent childhood days. ‘Barrett’s powerful connection to nature set him apart from others brought up with the same books. His lyrics evoke the woods, fenlands and rivers of Cambridge shire.‘ Syd defined nature and energy as one. Sculptor Emily Young, and the inspiration for the song See Emily Play, called Syd ‘a little wild Puck figure coming out of the woods.’
Linnie Watt – A Woodland Walk, 1877
Another thing typical for British psychedelia is a certain nostalgia unusual with people so young. In December Syd and his friends attended the annual performance of Handel’s oratorio Messiah at the Albert Hall. Also, a typical evening at the UFO started with Vivaldi’s Four seasons. Girls took fashion inspiration in Arthur Rackham’s illustrations; they dressed in long flowing gowns and adorned their hair with flowers. William Morris’ illustrations and drawings by Beardsley influenced the poster designs for the Underground, as well as the 19th-century Orientalism. Young people were ‘torn between an idealised future and rose-tinted visions of the past‘, quoting the book again.
Syd’s interest in Eastern mysticism grew upon moving to London. He was particularly fascinated with I Ching (esoteric reading) and Chinese board game Go. As the decade progressed, many adapted bright colours and loose cut Eastern-inspired clothes designed by Thea Porter. The Rolling Stones traveled to Morocco. George Harrison admired Indian culture and mysticism, became a vegetarian and admired Lord Krishna.
Maddie Smith, model for Biba, 1967
All in all, British psychedelia is a whimsical and dashing mixture of Alice in Wonderland, LSD, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Jazz, Eastern mysticism, focus on the innocence of childhood, Wind in the Willows, Pre-Raphaelites, and cheerful domesticity.
My recipe for adding a dash of psychedelia in one’s life is: obviously listening to matching music such as Pink Floyd’s album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (magnificent title), Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and even bands like The Stone Roses. Secondly, indulge in fantasy novels, fairy tales and imaginary worlds, Tolkien is the best in my opinion, as well as Romantic poets, explore William Blake’s artworks, the Pre-Raphaelites. Take interest in many things! Quote by Vincent van Gogh ‘It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done.‘
My plans for the following weeks include reading Scandinavian, Persian and Russian fairy tales and reading about (and finally learning) Greek and Roman mythology, and connecting it to art. Thirdly, wear colourful clothes, and earrings, feather boas, floral shirts, velvet trousers, in homage to the glorious days of the flamboyant London scene. And venture into nature, feel its energy. As Heraclitus said: Nature loves to hide itself. Who known what kinds of creatures inhabit the forests. I believe that trees have souls, and different personalities. I’m certain of it. Birch trees look so fragile, while poplars seem so lonely. This is kind of my manifesto for this year. I wish you all a psychedelic 2016.