I can usually manage my obsessions so that they don’t hijack my life. But, these days, when I walk through the fallen leaves in Montreal’s Carré Saint-Louis park, they hold an exacto knife against my throat, and I think I know why.
Something happened to me the night I presented Finished, a 1997 film by William E Jones, at Montreal’s inaugural Sex, Labour and Smut Film & Video Festival last month.
In this documentary-style “film noir bathed in sunlight,” Jones narrates his research into the life of Quebecker Alain Lebeau, aka the gay porn performer Alan Lambert, who shot and killed himself in Carré Saint-Louis — my park — in 1992.
In the film, we rarely see Lebeau’s face. Instead, Jones unravels his obsession with him in a meditative voice, explaining how he became enraptured with Lebeau when he first saw him in a phone sex ad. Jones recounts detective visits to California’s San Fernando Valley and then Montreal to investigate Lebeau’s death, only to find friends who wouldn’t talk and a cryptic suicide note that made little sense.
My connection to the work is immediate: I’m a former porn performer, and I feel the slant of Jones’s obsession quite intimately. I thanked him by email, and he wrote back “Perhaps this is illusion — after all, how can one understand a dead person based on such slender evidence?”
True. But obsession best serves by taking us places we would otherwise be afraid to go, no matter what we find out.
It’s time to tell you about Syd.
One afternoon, when I was a teenager, I was smoking pot on my bed and listening to the 1967 Pink Floyd album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. I heard original band leader Syd Barrett sing moodily about gnomes and bicycles over a wash of trippy space rock, and I found a new layer of meaning in my life.
In the track Astronomy Domine, I recognized the voice of an explorer. I resolved to find out where he had travelled, wanting to retrace the trail he left, just as Jones did with Lebeau.
Unfortunately, not even Syd’s bandmates could crack the enigma, which included him detuning his guitar during concerts and wandering off-stage. By the time he ebbed from society in 1968 to hide from his fans and quietly watch Pink Floyd grow into a monster, the world knew even less about him. What phantom notes frightened his mind into seclusion? I tried to feed my curiosity, but I was unsatisfied with the scant biographical scraps I found.
I decided that if I wanted to discover a deeper truth — a deeper Syd — I had to hear his music live, even if it were a slightly detached version, performed by his former bandmates.
So I camped out in a mall parking lot, huddled against an ice-covered tire with a mickey of Southern Comfort during a cold snap in February 1994. It was my only chance at getting tickets to Pink Floyd’s upcoming sound and light show at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.
The concert was well worth the frostbite: I spent many pleasurable hours with 68,000 fellow Floyd junkies waiting for the band to take the stage, screaming for the inflatable pigs to fly out and rock our world. I was Comfortably Numb.
The show opened with Astronomy Domine, with lyrics by Syd Barrett, the performance I was convinced would change my life. Here’s the wisdom I found at the end of my journey:
Flicker, flicker, flicker blam. Pow, pow.
Stairway scare, Dan Dare who’s there?
Lime and limpid green, the sounds around the icy waters underground.
The same dumb refrains as on the record, with no additional insight. As crushing a disappointment as Jones’s pilgrimages, I’m sure. I didn’t listen to Pink Floyd for another 12 years, only returning to the music when Syd died in 2006.
The wonderful problem here is that we can never get to the bottom of a human being. They’re too fucking deep. Mental illness only adds another layer, as with both Barrett and Lebeau.
Even though Jones didn’t find all the answers he was looking for when making Finished, he found something better — personal truth — and decided to move on to other projects. “I am done with my investigation,” he told me, but I didn’t believe a word of it.
Can obsessions ever be laid to rest? If so, why couldn’t I resist making “Syd Barrett” my wireless network password, and why do I still stare at grainy paparazzi shots of him on the internet, hoping to find something in his black-hole eyes? If there’s one thing I learned from watching Finished, it’s that closure is an overrated narrative form, and that it can lead us exactly nowhere.
Whatever the case, obsessions are never about the objects of desire; they’re about the obsessor. After reading this, you’ll know far more about me than about Syd Barrett.