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The Role of Drug History in Interdisciplinary Study

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Leanne Horinko, the interim director of the office of graduate admissions at Drew University’s Casperson School of Graduate Studies. Enjoy!

As academic history continues to expand, incorporating interdisciplinarity and meeting the needs of public history, areas of history previously overlooked by scholars are becoming new spaces for exploration. Counter-cultural history is no exception. Scholarly inquiry of these new interdisciplinary subjects can lead to interesting challenges in understanding the subject matter without sacrificing academic rigor. Those interested in contributing original research to interdisciplinary fields like counter-cultural history or alcohol and drug history can find themselves neck deep in historiography from multiple fields and trying to piece together a framework for their work. These challenges are perhaps best illustrated in my own research.


Cover art for the 1973 Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon

One of the bestselling albums of all time is Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. However, relatively few people are familiar with the band’s origins in the late 1960’s London Underground –the cultural scene, not the subway system– or Syd Barrett, who created the group’s early psychedelic sound. Like many of the 1960’s rockers, Barrett was an artist by training. Often his painterly aesthetic is pointed to in assessing his music and lyric composition. The London Underground Consisted of a relatively small group of people and featured a mix of visual, sonic and literary art. From the mid- to late 1960s the London Underground transformed from a beat-inspired social and cultural movement into being a fully-fledged velvet and paisley-clad psychedelic movement. At the time, Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd were in the epicenter of the Underground. They knew the social activists, the event organizers, the club owners, and the creators of International Times. As the scene transformed so did Pink Floyd. The 1965 recordings, which were recently released, resemble the blues-based Bob Dylan-inspired aesthetic of the early movement. By 1967 when “Arnold Layne,” the band’s first single was released, they were a fully formed psychedelic band complete with projected liquid light show. At this time, Pink Floyd’s aesthetic direction was heavily guided by Syd Barrett. Like the psychedelic movement itself, Barrett’s story is multifaceted and contested. At its simplest Barrett’s story goes something like this:

Syd Barrett

Syd Barrett

In 1965 he was considered by his peers to be a bright young talent, or a shining “Crazy Diamond” if you prefer. A short two years later, he had gone off the rails and the band had to find new ways of working with or without him. By 1968 he had been removed from the band completely and retreated into his own world. He returned to the studio and released two solo albums in 1970 which saw little success. During the early and mid-1970s he split his time between London and Cambridge, before ultimately returning home to Cambridge, where he lived the rest of his life.

Woven throughout Barrett’s story are tales of alleged drug abuse and psychosis. It is not an uncommon narrative, especially among artists — substance abuse, untreated mental health issues, and the pressure of early success destroying talented young artists. In some ways Barrett is not that different from Brian Wilson or Peter Green, who were his contemporaries. Yet, whereas Wilson and Green were diagnosed and treated, and in Wilson’s case his story is quite public, Barrett’s behavior was never professionally attributed to any one cause. Additionally, Barrett’s complete withdrawal from the public transformed him into something of a cult figure in music. In the absence of diagnosis or public presence, his story is left to be told entirely by his peers.

Moreover, many of the Barrett accounts are told retrospectively, 20 years or more after the fact. As such, fact, fiction and opinions merge and blend together, anecdotes vary and clash. There is a vast amount of ambiguity to the legend. At times Barrett’s behavior is attributed singularly to drug abuse (mainly LSD but also Methaqualone and excessive marijuana use), schizophrenia, or a combination of drug abuse and schizophrenia. Conversely, he is sometimes described as merely eccentric and the behaviors are attributes to his mystical and quirky nature.

In order to understand Barrett, his art and his character, and in turn understand this small piece of the psychedelic counter-culture, it is important to divine big picture questions about drugs and their role in memory studies. While it seems obvious to contextualize the subject matter within a larger framework, understanding the cultural and clinical history of drugs does not simply provide a framework. Instead, it enlightens the researcher to the challenges, deficiencies and biases inherently present within some of the primary sources. To understand how Barrett’s contemporaries discuss him it is important to understand how drug users’ memories may be effected by substances, but also how current drug biases may be effecting the telling of a story which relates to drugs. Additionally, once the issue of comorbidities is brought into the picture, distinctions between substance abuse and mental health need to be addressed. For the historian this means understanding the historiography of psychiatry as well as a clinical understanding of the impact substances can have on the brain.

Analyzing Barrett and his work takes a vast amount of interdisciplinary knowledge. At face value his lyrics are rambling and disjointed. Sometimes that is used to support the schizophrenic or brain-damaged drug abuser labels. However, a closer look at the psychedelic aesthetic and Barrett’s influences reveal that “cut ups” were an established part of literary and visual art at the time. Many of Barrett’s seemingly random and fantastical lyrics were inspired by authors like A.A. Milne, Kenneth Grahame and Lewis Carol. Often he would lift entire passages, like “Chapter 24” which is from the I-Ching, or “Matilda Mother” which originally featured passages from Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales.

Most importantly, the ties between LSD and schizophrenia as well as LSD and psychedelia run deep. In order to truly understand these connections within Barrett’s legacy, an interdisciplinary approach is required. Contextualizing Barrett and the psychedelic counter-culture means understanding psychedelic drugs and their culture in addition to psychiatry at the cultural and clinical level from a contemporary, historical and transnational standpoint. My current reading list includes everything from literary works by Williams Burroughs; a multitude of memoirs; clinical perspectives of drug abuse and mental illness; and the relationship between commodities and creative personalities, in addition to more straightforward historical works of the counter-cultural, art, and music variety. While wading through the major works in each of these fields is time-consuming, the end result is an incredibly detailed understanding of the subject matter. Like a digital mosaic built of many small images, interdisciplinary study allows us to craft the whole image from a granular understanding of the times.

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