Interview: Alan Bissett – 'If you go through your entire life without any mental health problems, there's something wrong with you'
Writer on his latest commission: a play about the life of Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett
'Can I ask you something?' Alan Bissett says to the barista, as he brings the coffee to our table. 'Do you know who Syd Barrett is?' The answer is no, he doesn't, and Bissett nods his head. 'But have you heard of Pink Floyd?'
As you would expect, this time, the answer was quite a bit different. Of course he'd heard of Pink Floyd: most people with ears and even the vaguest interest in music have. 'That kind of proves my point,' Bissett says: the point being that though Pink Floyd are one of the most famous bands in history, their founding member and one-time frontman Syd Barrett is not necessarily a household name.
Barrett was at the helm of Pink Floyd when they released their debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. He has been credited with naming the band, and in the early days was their lead singer, principal songwriter and lead guitarist. When fame knocked on the band's door however, he was ready to latch the bolt, turn off the lights and wait for fame to move on to the next house.
Barrett wanted to make good art, and he did, but he struggled. He struggled with poor mental health, the pressure of being in the public eye, and ultimately it affected him and his performance. He was excluded from Pink Floyd in 1968, and while they went on to achieve unimaginable fame, he kept himself well out of the limelight, staying that way until his death in 2006.
It's an interesting, harrowing story, and Bissett is ready to tell it. His new play, One Thinks of It All as a Dream, is the first theatre commission from the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. In 45 minutes, the play explores the artist's life, from his mindset to his music.
'Andrew [Eaton-Lewis, the festival's arts lead] knew I was a playwright, but also a huge Pink Floyd fan,' Bissett says, explaining how the project came about. 'I've been researching that play every day for half an hour on the toilet because I've got a stack of Pink Floyd books in there.'
His research led him back to the late 60s, when Barrett was beginning to struggle with the lifestyle fame had dumped on his doorstep. 'It was 1967,' Bisset explains. 'He was taking a phenomenal amount of LSD, and if you've already got underlying mental health problems, then LSD isn't really the drug for you. He just had a complete breakdown and the band suddenly found themselves with this problem: their main singer, songwriter, frontman was incapable of performing on stage.
'He was this darling of the underground. He was beautiful, he had this corkscrew hair, and as a songwriter, singer, and guitarist was incredibly talented. He was a brilliant mind, unique in all sorts of ways. When Pink Floyd found themselves in the UK top ten albums charts, he just completely retreated from it. He hated it, he was in it for the music. After that he had this slow decline. Recorded scratchy solo albums, and then disappeared.
'He went back to Cambridge, moved in with his mum and lived there until his death in 2006. The world never heard from him again. He completely checked out, and there's no other story like that in rock history. You've got suicides and early deaths, but nobody who just checks out from fame completely. He just said, "no" to it all, and that in itself is fascinating.'
Barrett continued to make art though, because for him that's what it was about.
'When he checked out and went back to live in Cambridge, he painted. He painted every day, and when he'd finished the painting he took a picture of it and then set fire to it. You can say that's an incidental detail, but for me that's key to who he is as an artist.
'He probably realised that those paintings would have commercial value because of who he is – he could have made a fortune selling those paintings. But the commercial aspect of art disgusted him. He expressed himself, made that painting, took a picture of it to remember it existed and then set fire to it.'
Barrett's mental health is at the forefront of the play, which is in turn at the forefront of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. The full programme will be announced on 6 September, but includes theatre, film, talks, workshops and more.
'It's good because first of all you can explore mental health creatively', says Bissett, explaining why SMHAFF is important. 'If people see art work about any kind of theme they think about it in a different way. It very visibly gets people talking about it.'
'The way I've always thought about it is, if you go through your entire life without any mental health problems, there's something wrong with you. It's more normal to experience feelings like "what am I doing here, I don't understand the world?" than "I'm the fucking man".'
In many ways, that epitomises the spirit of the festival and the play: if anyone could have been viewed as the fucking man, it's Barrett, but mental health is not something to ignore. It's something to take seriously and discuss carefully and openly, and that's exactly what SMHAFF and Bissett are doing.
Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, various venues, 10–31 Oct.