2010-04-24

We are all made of stars

Ponji in India (1967)
Ponji in India (1967).

History, as we know it, is the story of royalty and generals and does not contain the memory of the millions who succumbed or who tried to build a normal life.

This also applies to modern popular history. Pink Floyd & Syd Barrett biographies and the so-called Sixties counter-culture studies that have appeared all repeat the memories of a small, nearly incestuous, circle of people who made it, one way or another. You always stumble upon those who have become the royalty and generals of the Underground. Others are less known, the lower rank officers, but still officers.

Other people had less luck, but at least we know some of their stories. Syd Barrett, although a millionaire in pounds, still is the prototype of the drug-burned psychedelic rock star. But there are other members of the Sixties Cambridge mafia, a term coined by David Gilmour, who didn’t make it and whose stories are less known.

Pip

Ian Pip Carter, whose career started in Cambridge in the early Sixties as pill pusher, had to fight a heroine addiction for most of his life. After a visit to his friend (and employer) David Gilmour in Greece Pip was imprisoned for drug possession where he was forced to go cold turkey but he fell again for the drug once released, despite the fact that the Pink Floyd guitarist send him to (and paid for) several rehab sessions. “The needle had dug so far; searching relentlessly for a vein, (that it) had decimated the nervous system in his left arm”, writes Matthew Scurfield in his account of the Cantabrigian London mob.

Described by Nick Mason as 'one of the world's most spectacularly inept roadies' the Floyd eventually had to let Pip go. He was the one who accidentally destroyed a giant jelly installation at the Roundhouse on the 15th October 1966 by parking the Pink Floyd van in the middle of it or, different witnesses tell different stories, by removing the wooden boards that supported the bath that kept the jelly. (You can read the story, taken from Julian Palacios 1988 Lost In The Woods biography here.)

In 1988 Carter was killed during a pub brawl in Cambridge. Mark Blake writes how David Gilmour used to help his old Cambridge friends whenever they were in financial trouble and Pip had been no exception.

People familiar with the finer layers of the Syd Barrett history know how Maharaj Charan Singh, the Master of the Sant Mat sect, rejected the rock star for obvious reasons. The religion was strictly vegetarian, absolutely forbid the use of alcohol and drugs and didn’t allow sex outside marriage. Syd 'I've got some pork chops in the fridge' Barrett hopelessly failed on all those points.

Ponji

It is believed that John Paul Robinson, nicknamed Ponji, a very ardent follower of the Path, tried to lure Syd into the sect after he had visited India in 1967. And probably it had been another Cantabrigian, Paul Charrier who converted Ponji first. (Paul Charrier was one of the people present at Syd's trip in 1965 where he was intrigued for hours by a matchbox, a plum and an orange. This event later inspired Storm Thorgerson for the Syd Barrett (compilation album) record cover and an impressive and moving Pink Floyd backdrop movie.)

John Paul Robinson had his own demons to deal with and in the Sixties he visited a progressive therapist who administered him LSD to open his doors of perception. Only after he had returned from India he ‘literally seemed to be shining with abundance’, passing the message to all his friends that he had been reborn. Ponji gave up his job, wanted to lead the life of a beggar monk, but his internal demons would take over once in every while.

He'd sit on the stairs with his elbows on his knees and forehead placed carefully at the tips of his fingers, reeling out the same old mantra proclaiming how he was just a tramp, that his body was an illusion, a mere prison, a temporary holding place for his soul.

The story goes that he shouted ‘I refuse to be a coward for the rest of my life’ just before he jumped in front of an oncoming train (1979?).

Kaleidoscope

We only happen to know these people in function of their relationship with Syd Barrett. Their paths crossed for a couple of months and we, the anoraks, are only interested in that one small event as if for the rest of these peoples lives nothing further of interest has really happened.

But the truth is that their encounter with Barrett is just one small glittering diamond out of a kaleidoscope of encounters, adventures, joys, grieves, moments of happiness and sadness. It is the kaleidoscope of life: falling in love and making babies that eventually will make babies on their own. A granddaughter's smile today is of much more importance than the faint remembrance of a dead rock star's smile from over 40 years ago.

The Church should be probing for the kaleidoscope world and not for that one single shiny stone. Syd may have been a star, but our daily universe carries millions of those.

Dedicated to those special ones whose story we will never know.


Thanks to: Paro नियत (where are you now?)

Sources (other than the above internet links):
Blake, Mark: Pigs Might Fly, Aurum Press, London, 2007, p. 47, p. 337.
Palacios, Julian: Lost In The Woods, Boxtree, London, 1998, p. 85.
Scurfield, Matthew: I Could Be Anyone, Monticello Malta 2009, p. 151, p. 208, p. 265-266. Photo courtesy of William Pryor, p. 192.

Update 2016: In the 2015 coming of age novel Life Is Just..., Nigel Lesmoir-Gordon describes early sixties Cambridge and the submersion into eastern religions.