Ruined by success

Syd Barret

Syd Barret

Thanks to Abhishek for pointing out a life story that fits the theme of my book, which is that success and failure can be impostors, as Kipling would say. Abhishek emailed that

The other day, I downloaded a documentary on Syd Barret [the co-founder of the band Pink Floyd] from You tube. This is a classic story of Hannibal of the 1970’s. A 22 year old Barret was at his peak as the lead singer of Pink Floyd and then he lost it all to LSD. During concerts, he stood on the stage stoned and out of sorts strumming his guitar playing all the wrong notes. His colleagues would somehow cover it up, but one fine day they had to pick up their bags and leave him behind…

Now, this actually not a “story of Hannibal,” because Hannibal’s life trajectory had more twists and turns and was more perplexing. But I do have a chapter where I explore this–ie, Barret’s–sort of life trajectory, which we might call “premature success.”

Contemplating his premature success

Contemplating his success

Contemplating Barret, I think of people like Diego Maradona, who soar to fame, success or some other kind of triumph in their field, but apparently too early in life to be able to cope with it. Then they fall apart. Drugs, alcohol, or less obvious but equally insidious lapses of personal discipline. They become wrecks.

The book in my bibliography in this regard, which I recommend, is Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage : Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West.

Meriwether Lewis, you recall, is the first half of the Lewis & Clark expedition that explored the North American continent west of the Mississippi and to the Pacific after Thomas Jefferson bought those lands from Napoleon. Lewis is, in many ways, an American Hannibal: a young, dashing hero who did what many thought was impossible.

Meriwether Lewis

Meriwether Lewis

But what came next? Whereas his friend William Clark, upon their return, married and lived happily, Lewis fell apart. He couldn’t handle the fame. No luck with women. Booze, later even morphine. He did not publish his famous Journals. Jefferson made him governor of the territory he had explored, but he failed in every respect, defaulting on his debts and drinking himself into oblivion. In his mere thirties, only a few years after his breathtaking success, he killed himself in a dingy Tennessee tavern (although the event remains a bit of a mystery).

Impostor triumph indeed. To me, this sort of tale is not the end of a story but the beginning of one. What happens to these people?

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