How Holden Got His Name Pt. II
In the summer of 1990, my friend Rich and I went backpacking through Europe, a pre-college rite of passage, at least for white suburban kids. In the fall Rich would attend Trinity College in Hartford, a tough school he'd worked hard to get into, applying himself at all levels and working a variety of jobs to afford the tuition. I'd be going to State, because they were the only school that would take me. Not that I applied to any others. I was lazy and shiftless. As a student, I was a slacker before the term was en vogue. I rarely did homework, seldom read assignments, and had no concern for my future, academic or otherwise. My plan was to be a drifter.
We'd start out in England, where we'd get jobs for a couple months, save money to fund the rest of our trip, buy our Eurorail pass and be on our way.
If if wasn't for Rich, I certainly wouldn't have found a job. I was a terrible worker, with no ethic whatsoever. Leading up to our trip, Rich and I had worked for Rich's uncle, Donny, who owned an ice cream truck. I remember when Donny hired a new driver. He said, "You do the job like Rich. Not like Joe."
My "problem"--and I did have a problem--was a worm had snuck into my brain, boring and wriggling, and it had started to eat away at the fat. Somewhere around sixteen, a switch tripped. Up until then, I'd had friends, gotten along OK. Not the most popular kid, but I was relatively normal. OK, a little weird, artsy and whatnot. I spent a lot of time alone, too. Made up a lot of complicated narrative arcs and storylines acted out by GI Joes. But all in all, I was a kindasorta regular kid. That changed around the time of my 16th birthday. Everything got much darker, heavier, sadder for me. I isolated much more. The one girlfriend I managed to get, I smothered. And when she was gone, I moped and brooded, subjected to terrible thoughts. And I listened to a lot of Pink Floyd.
I started seeing my first shrink around this time, and I remember her asking me what kind of music I listened to. When I said Pink Floyd, she nodded. "A lot of troubled kids like that band."
I more than "liked" Pink Floyd. Like most of my pursuits, I obsessed. I didn't just buy every record and memorize every lyric; I bought every solo record from every member of the band, even the crappy offerings by the drummer (Nick Mason), as well as tracked down hard-to-find efforts like the out-of-print (and very underrated) Wet Dream by Rick Wright, who I considered the unheralded, George Harrison of the band. Of course I had Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking and About Face by co-leaders Roger Waters and Dave Gilmour, and in the break-up I took the less popular Gimour's side, even though Waters was the primary songwriter. I picked up books about the band, watched Live at Pompeii and The Wall non-stop. I was fascinated by all of them, and none more than original lead singer and songwriter, the madcap Syd Barrett.
Maybe it was because I felt the onset of my own mental illness around this time that I felt a kinship with Barrett. I knew something was "wrong" with me, my anxiety and mini-nervous breakdowns, where I'd sort of shut off and begin an embarrassing shaking fit, which could be brought about by just about anything. I'd cry and shake at the most inopportune times. Later, in rehabs and psyche hospitals, doctors would explain it was a response to my father's temper. I don't know. Maybe I just liked to romanticize that the sadness I felt was indicative of genius within. I was an artist. Or rather, I'd been recognized as such by classmates who'd voted me so in the yearbook. I did draw a lot of pictures. It was the thing I was good at. I needed an identity. Artists were often mad. Or so I'd read. It seemed a pretty cool way to be, y'know, like for a career. If that is what was happening to me, that this thing I felt in my head was...madness, which did run in my family, aunts and grandfolk reprimanded to institutions, I could use a role model.
Syd Barrett was only in the band for one album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, contributing a single track to A Saucerful of Secrets, having been replaced by then by Gilmour, who was, honestly, a far superior singer and guitarist (and, yes, even songwriter). Syd Barrett's music sort of sucked, to tell you the truth. I didn't admit it at the time, of course. But in retrospect, the guy had one or two good songs, "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play" with Pink Floyd, and his solo records had flashes of brilliance, but most of his tunes were an exercise in descent and self-absorption. The Madcap Laughs, Barrett, and the cobbled-together Opel succeed only in the fact that they were actually finished (and Opel really stretches that concept). Really, Pink Floyd became the band they did after Barrett was kicked out for his increasingly bizarre, drug-induced (acid, primarily) behavior. Still, there is no denying his influence. From Dark Side of the Moon to The Wall, with their best effort (in my humble opinion), Wish You Were Here, sandwiched in between--all dealt with Barrett's illness, either directly or indirectly, chronicling the allure of drugs and insanity, with Waters's pointed and pained lyrics about being imprisoned by one's one sick, depraved mind at the forefront.
Hell, I was 18. What the fuck did I know? I was sad, fucked up, and looking for answers. So in the summer of 1990, I found my answer in Pink Floyd, and specifically Syd Barrett.
Rich and I got jobs working as porters for the Royal Air Force Club. Pretty cool gig, since we usually got tipped in pounds, which was like $2 US a pop, even if we had to wear these goofy red and white get-ups. You know the Brits and their formality. I wrote my first short story in England, which was actually pretty good for a first effort. Wish I still had it. It was about three eccentric people in a town with one road, who band together to oust four butchers trying to open shop. Pretty funny stuff, if I recall. Y'know, for a first try. I didn't read much in those days. Sort of hated books. Had probably read less than fifty my whole life, including kid books and school. Because teachers told you to read books, and I didn't like to be told what to do.
We had a room near Seven Sister's Station, a stop along the London Tube, in a house belonging to an Englishman named Pat Heaney, which was in the middle of a strict Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. We were sitting in our room one night after work, eating Safeway cookies. Never seen them again, those cookies. Only in England. But these fuckers were awesome. Vanilla sandwich cookies We could go through a box a night. Anyway, Rich asked me if I ever read Catcher in the Rye. I told him no.
"I think you'd like it," he said. "It's not one of my favorites, but, you, you'd probably like it." Then he went on to describe the plot about a kid who hated everything, which vaguely sounded like me. And by "vaguely," I mean exactly.
All through high school they'd tried to get me to read that damn book. But Rich's suggestion had weight, and now that I was out of school...and well, I needed something to read on the train anyway.
Because I was going to find Syd Barrett.
After Syd Barrett was kicked out of Pink Floyd, he went to live with him mum in Cambridge, only to emerge on the rare occasion to talk about pork chops. At least that's what I read. I did read some books, like ones about Pink Floyd and the Yankees, stuff I liked.
So on an off day from the Club, I bought a train ticket from London to Cambridge. There was a bookstore nearby and I grabbed a copy of Catcher in the Rye.
The ride to Cambridge wasn't long, but I had no idea where Syd Barrett lived or anything, so when I stepped onto the platform, I just started walking around town. It was a lovely summer's day, with big English clock towers and high skies, universities and wide open green quads.
In a year, the Hartford Courant would write a feature article about me and my band, Something Like Paisley, which I'd start when I'd return to the States. And even though by then I'd be much more into the Replacements and the Smiths, they'd print the story of how I met Syd Barrett by listening to a song on the London airwaves called "I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives." There is such a song, and I'd tell the reporter that that's what happened, because I already knew Rule #1 of writing non-fiction: never let the facts get in the way of a good story. But that's not really what happened, the truth far less exciting.
I sat half the afternoon on a cobblestone bridge, with a blank page torn from my book, on which I'd scribbled in big letters: Does Anyone Know Where Syd Barrett Lives? Eventually some kids on bicycles told me.
"Yeah, mate," they said. "He lives at #4 Cherry Hinton Lane, Margaret Square." They then cautioned me from knocking on his door. "He's a mad bugger. He'll yell and curse and probably throw things at you."
I got directions and found Syd's street, looked up #4, which wasn't really necessary, since all the houses on the quiet residential block were well maintained, with tiny tidy lawns and fences, pretty drapes over the windows, little colorful flowerpots. Except one. #4 Cherry Hinton Lane. The house was decrepit, no lawn, just dirt. An ugly, unsightly house. With big blankets draped askew.
So I knock on the door, and this great big fat bald man opens up, and I keep thinking of that line in "Shine On You Crazy Diamond": Now there's a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky...
I mumble something, socially awkward fuck that I am, and Syd says, very politely I might add, "No callers, mate." And he shuts the door.
I contemplate banging for him to let me in, knowing full well that I'll never get the chance again, but what's the point? What's he going to do? Invite me in? We'll become lifelong friends? So instead I sit down on his steps and I crack open Catcher in the Rye.
And I keep reading until the the sun sets. I can't stop. I buy into Holden, hook through sinker. He is me, and Salinger's writing, that voice, was art, everything I believed art could be. It took me somewhere. Gripping doesn't come close. It was funny and sad, and I got it, like that book had been written just for me. I know a lot of people like that book, but they don't get it like I get it. And I sit there, eating a chocolate bar with biscuits inside, because this is England and they sell things like chocolate bars with biscuits inside, and it feels like England, y'know, with bells and whistles and bicycles and chimney sweepers and whimsy, and even if there were no whimsical bells, that is what I remember because that's what memory does with time, so that you can't say for sure what happened and what didn't happen, even though you can swear to certain details, like when I swear I heard from deep within the hollow walls of a madman's home the out-of-key lilt of Beethoven's Fifth...
So that's how my kid got his name. Holden Caulfield. In no small part, shaped because the first time I read Catcher in the Rye was on Syd Barrett's doorstep. But I think more it's because that book opened up a world to me and got me reading, got me writing, and for as much as I fucking hate both of those things at times, it became a part of who I am, and that's a good thing.