Dead Flowers: Syd, Arthur & The Acid-Minded Professor

Chalk it up to karmic coincidence that the deaths of Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett and Love’s Arthur Lee—two of ’60s psychedelia’s most beloved and drug-damaged souls—should bookend the recent publication of Robert Greenfield’s Timothy Leary: A Biography.

Though Leary has been dead 10 years, Greenfield wakes his trippy ghost and, à la A Christmas Carol, forces it to confront the damning facts of his past: his reckless acid-for-all advocacy (Leary never really bothered to point out that, um, maybe children and the mentally unstable should not take LSD); his snake-oil charm and countercultural carpetbagging (from stoner Harvard prof to gun-toting revolutionary in just 10 years!); and the shameful neglect of his children (he died estranged from his son; his equally estranged daughter killed herself in 1990 while facing attempted murder charges).

In fairness to Leary and other neural cosmonauts of the early ’60s, they were venturing into uncharted waters, often navigating under the influence of one of the most powerful drugs known to man.

His mistakes, in many ways, formed the cultural learning curve of drug-taking. Because there was always someone there to clean up his messes—lotus-eating heiresses, a string of soon-to-be ex-wives literally tripping their tits off—he never had to accept responsibility or even learn from them. Which may explain why he never seemed to grasp what was painfully obvious to even the most sympathetic observer of the drug scene: Some people simply should never, ever trip.

Syd Barrett, who died last month from diabetic complications, was one of those people. The van Gogh of early rock music, Barrett cut off his mind to spite his face, still swallowing acid by the handful even as his increasingly deranged behavior dislocated him from his bandmates and, for that matter, everybody else back on planet Earth.

Most of his genius escaped recording, though it did beam directly into the illuminated skulls of the Britpop vanguard, frugging stoned and immaculate at London underground clubs like the UFO where Barrett worked out early Floyd’s deathless outer-space-blues-Hobbit-hole-folk-trot.

By the time Floyd’s debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn came out in 1967, Barrett’s wick was already burnt. By the beginning of 1968 he’d been fired by his own band. There were a couple of hard-to-listen-to but unforgettable solo records, painstakingly pieced together by his former bandmates from the intermittent moments of lucidity and focus they could get out of Barrett by that point. The Madcap Laughs and Barrett still sound as haunted and frayed as the man who mused aloud in his last song for Pink Floyd, “I’m wondering who could be writing this song.” After that he retired to his mother’s basement in Cambridge, never to be heard from again.

Love’s Arthur Lee was another cracked actor who shattered himself in an acid bath. He pushed against the barriers of race (a black man making white pop), convention (an inveterate Sunset Boulevard dandy, his trademark for a time was to wear only one shoe) and art (1967’s Forever Changes remains a 20th-century pop landmark).

But by the end of the ’60s he was pretty much finished as a recording artist, spending the next 25 years drinking and drugging away whatever was left of his tattered reputation. A five-year prison sentence made him sober and humble, and upon his release a few years back he toured Forever Changes, with string and horn sections, to global acclaim.

But soon enough he was back to his old bad self and was eventually fired by his own backing band. Word came in the spring that he was sick. Lee died Aug. 3 of leukemia. Damn.