Robyn Hitchcock’s Wild Kingdom
In the land of odds, the leader of The Egyptians rules
By Parke Puterbaugh
Robyn Hitchcock was lurking somewhere in a thicket of aircraft. But where? This celebrated British singer-guitarist with a yen for the unconventional, who currently resides in Washington, D.C., had suggested meeting at a favorite haunt, the National Air and Space Museum. “You’ll find me beneath a wing of the DC-3,” he said cryptically. “If I’m not there, I’ll be by the V-2.” But he wasn’t in either place, nor had he taken refuge inside the cabin of an early commercial passenger plane. He was, as it turned out, furtively surveying the action on the main floor from the second level, up where the prop planes hang suspended from the ceiling.
Lean and willowy, possessing a face whose chiseled features are framed by longish dark hair flecked with just a touch of gray, Hitchcock has a long stride, a keen intellect and a deadly sense of humor. After bounding downstairs and introducing himself, he conducted what amounted to a guided tour of the museum. He waxed erudite and philosophical on subjects ranging from German bombers that strafed London in the Second World War (“Built by slave labor and used on innocent civilians … as if there were any other kind,” he mused) to the Sixties space race. In one corner of the museum an antiquated, foam green Soviet space capsule faced a gleaming American counterpart. The contrast piqued Hitchcock’s interest, and indeed one could find in it a convenient metaphor for his music, in which reclaimed vestiges of Sixties retro pop-psychedelia are arrayed nose to nose with a dazzling, chrome-shiny future.
Since emerging in the late Seventies, Hitchcock has been a band member (the Soft Boys), a bandleader (Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians) and a solo artist, carving a distinct and growing niche for himself within the alternative realm. His new release, Respect, is his 18th full-length album (counting compilations and import-only curios). Although Hitchcock’s status in his British homeland is “murky, at best,” sales of his recent albums on A&M have surpassed six figures in the States. He is a prodigious writer not of garden-variety love songs but of fanciful odes to subjects that range from radiantly evocative (e.g., “Tropical Flesh Mandala,” a celebration of underwater life, from 1988’s Globe of Frogs) to downright macabre (“My Wife and My Dead Wife,” a disarmingly jaunty tune about an unflappable husband who communes with a deceased mate, from 1985’s Fegmania!). Creatures, especially insects, fish and reptiles, frequently slither into his songs’ field of view, and he is fond of grafting bizarre characteristics onto human subjects (“Balloon Man,” “The Man With the Lightbulb Head”). A gifted melodist, Hitchcock nests engaging lyrics in some of the most bracing, rainbow-hued pop this side of Revolver.
He wrests inspiration not from ordinary life but from extraordinary imaginings, frequently drawing on the natural world for ideas. He is an unabashed fan of the animal kingdom but somewhat less enthused about the human race. “There’s something about all those other creatures,” he says, gesturing animatedly while sipping sugar-laced coffee in the museum’s cafeteria. “They kind of know their place, they know what to do with themselves. But I simply like the way things look. Ants and bees and crocodiles and wasps and pigeons, bats, squids and especially reptiles — they just look so good! There’s an eight-foot squid in brine across the mall somewhere, not to mention all those bones. There’s a lot of art in bones. Skeletons are beautiful things. We’re just scared of what they represent.”
Hitchcock is, of course, aware of his richly deserved reputation as an offbeat, acquired taste — more of a fascinating eddy swirling off to the side than a willing and welcome participant in the rock mainstream. “We’re an anomaly,” he admits of himself and the Egyptians — bass player and keyboardist Andy Metcalfe and drummer Morris Windsor. “We are at odds with ourselves, ’cause we use the pop medium with nonpop lyrics. In a way pop is an obsolete concept, a Sixties idea. I’m enough of a realist to know our stuff depicts a parallel world. Had conditions been different, music would sound like this. And I’m very proud of the fact we’ve managed to carry on like that.”
At the same time, in recent years he’s been consciously retreating from what has become an expected display of oddball genius. “A freak show for the intelligentsia” is how he unsentimentally describes his stature. His ambition these days is to communicate in a more forthright, unguarded manner. “I’ve been wanting to write emotionally direct songs for years,” he confesses. “It only occurred to me fairly recently that I wasn’t. I think maybe I just let myself get a bit too wrapped up in my own aesthetic, and that aesthetic didn’t communicate to people. But you know, I’ve done it; I’ve certainly done it inside out. They’re good songs, but I don’t really feel moved to write those kinds of organic celebrations at the moment.”
Hitchcock’s latest work — the just-released Respect, 1991’s Perspex Island and 1990’s largely acoustic, inwardgazing Eye — represents a break with the past. The instantly accessible Perspex Island was, he says, his Beatles record, a largely sunny-sounding, brainy pop bash whose bristling energy in part stems from the fact he’d cleaned up his act. “I was completely sober for a bit more than a year, didn’t drink or anything, and a lot of things changed around that point,” he says. “I was just trying to start again.” On Perspex Island, Hitchcock cut out all the critter songs. “I couldn’t look another squid in the eye,” he cracks. (He did, however, have to be talked into leaving off a number called “Lobster Man.”) R.E.M. fans may be intrigued to learn that Peter Buck played guitar on eight numbers, while Michael Stipe added backup vocals on “She Doesn’t Exist.” The threesome’s friendship dates back to R.E.M.’s earliest U.K. tours.
With Respect, Hitchcock has endeavored to remove musical elements that were, for him, tending toward predictability — the 12-string guitar, the Beatlish harmonies, the nicely flanged bass, the pristine snare sound. Instead of booking a state-of-the-art studio, Hitchcock wanted to cut the record where he wrote the songs: in the kitchen of a six-bedroom home he maintains on the Isle of Wight, off the British coast. Hitchcock and the Egyptians bent the rules to give a unique flavor to the core arrangements. Hitchcock strummed an unamped acoustic guitar, Metcalfe plucked an acoustic bass and overdubbed keyboards, and Windsor rattled pots and pans and shook plastic eggs full of shotgun pellets.
“The point of this whole drive is to try to eliminate clichés,” Hitchcock explains. “When we started the Soft Boys, one thing we reacted against, as young intellectual elitists, was clichés. We soon evolved a set of our own, and by about 1987 that whole Robyn Hitchcock persona had become a cliché in itself.” He recalls with amusement a comic-book-cum-fanzine entitled Peter Buck in which Hitchcock is caricatured in a fictional conversation with his longtime pal in R.E.M. “There’s a bit where I ring him up and start rattling on about larvae in my teacup,” he says, laughing. “And that’s exactly it, really.”
These days, Hitchcock is doing nothing by the numbers, his own or anyone else’s, in his pursuit of “undisguised folk truths drawn from decades of campfire wisdom, nurtured on a diet of records by the Beach Boys, the Band and Billy Bragg.” One song, “Serpent at the Gates of Wisdom,” was inspired by an original painting he christened with that title; he specifically wrote it with the Band’s folkloric blend of voices and the rustic, shambling cast of its music in mind. “The Wreck of the Arthur Lee” salutes another touchstone, the leader of the Sixties band Love. Respect is dedicated to Hitchcock’s father, a prolific author and artist who died of cancer last year, and to John Lennon. The bittersweet specter of death hovers over these songs as surely as it does over R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People and Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss. “In terms of synchronicity, I suppose we’re all slightly different ages, but chances are we’re all getting to the point where we’re losing people,” Hitchcock says. “I don’t know, I think there’s always plenty of death around. Death is your most reliable customer.”
The new album’s prettiest number, the beguiling “Railway Shoes,” was recorded in the kitchen with the group singing in close, intricate harmony around three mikes. Outside, the bewildered denizens of the Isle of Wight, whom Hitchcock describes as “a few elderly people rustling like old tomato plants, waiting for their last fruit to drop off,” would gather to gawk at the mobile recording unit. “It was this huge parasitic monstrosity that looked like it was feeding off the house, sucking the electricity out of the upstairs and pumping it back downstairs,” he recalls.
Comments like this make it clear there’s a limit to how little imagination Hitchcock can put into play when processing reality. Without blinking, he will liken a song of his to “getting lost in a storm of iron filings.” His fiancée, Cynthia Hunt, recalls a tour of New England during which Hitchcock became captivated by the sight of pumpkins glowing in the autumn fields. He’d fill the car’s trunk with the luminous orange globes, hauling them to gigs and carving them into jack-o’-lanterns backstage while pondering his set list. During President Clintons inaugural speech, Hitchcock found himself focused on the odd way in which Clinton’s voice echoed down Pennsylvania Avenue as it passed from one bank of speakers to another. “It was like a 1971 Pink Floyd concert,” he observes. He describes himself — obliquely, but with insight — as “a fast-forward snail — it’s whizzing around, but it hasn’t got any overall perspective.
“Every little thing looms up to me,” Hitchcock says. “Something like going to the post office can be a devastating challenge, or it can be very funny. I don’t just cruise through life. I’m literally crawling over the tufts of grass.”
Hitchcock, who grew up in the south of England, says he was born into “a wealthy, artistic, middleclass bourgeois background; I think I’m quite paranoid about it.” He has two younger sisters, Lal and Fleur, both of whom are artists, one of whom is a professional writer as well. He was by all accounts a precocious child, drawn to art and literature while letting math and sports go by the wayside. Attracted to rock & roll as an act of rebellion, he rejected the stuffy life of an academic, which would have been his career path were it not for the intrusion of Bob Dylan and the anarchic music culture of the mid to late Sixties. From ages thirteen to twenty, Hitchcock listened devoutly to pop and psychedelia and their unlikely conjunction in the music of the Beatles, Captain Beefheart and Syd Barrett.
At sixteen he went on a self-described verbal binge, digesting and emulating the works of Shakespeare, Beef-heart and William S. Burroughs. “I just used words the whole time,” Hitchcock remembers, “incessant streams of words.” He managed only one term in college and a year’s worth of art school, which gave him a foundation in painting and drawing, before forming the Soft Boys with several other disaffected university students. Among the various members of the Soft Boys were bassist Metcalfe and drummer Windsor, who subsequently formed the core of the Egyptians.
The Soft Boys were simultaneously ahead of their time and behind it. Their love of complex, richly textured pop and warped, fun-house-mirror subject matter — combined with an essentially frivolous nature — went against the grain of New Wave-era prerogatives in England. When they’d bend over and shake their hair in unison during a guitar break in “Have a Heart, Betty (I’m Not Fireproof),” mocking a popular dinosaur hard-rock group called Status Quo years before Spinal Tap ambled along to satirize the genre, few appreciated the joke. When they sent pictures of themselves to the British press, appending a different made-up group name to each package, no one was amused.
“Unless you explained all this to these people at great length,” Hitchcock says, sighing, “they just thought you were being retrogressive and juvenile, contravening the great unwritten law of New Wave values and mocking the great gains that had been made over the corpse of Led Zeppelin.”
Alas, it was not the Soft Boys’ destiny to find their niche either in England, where they were unloved, or in America, where they went unheard. “We had no more to do with New Wave than Nancy Reagan,” Hitchcock states dryly. “We were doing the right thing at the wrong time. We were purveying guitar solos, middle eights, harmonies and that kind of thing at a point when everyone else was going, “White Riot.”‘ Fortunately, the world is getting a second crack at the Soft Boys’ brand of delectable weirdness. The Rykodisc label has so far reissued three Soft Boys albums on CD with myriad bonus tracks. In the works is The Soft Boys 1976-81, a double-CD collection of mostly rare and unreleased material.
Hitchcock is equally circumspect about his subsequent body of work with and without the Egyptians. He characterizes his recent albums as “more streamlined . . . homogenized . . . smoother, we’ve gotten a degree blander, I’m sure — the words are less intrusive, but the songs are more coherent, and I think they’re more grown-up.” That’s not to say casual listeners will easily confuse Hitchcock with Michael Bolton, given lines like these from the new album: “When I was dead I wore a strong perfume/When I was dead I never left the room.” Still, such songs as “Arms of Love” and “The Moon Inside” herald a new openness and — dare it be uttered — maturity. “T’ve spent the last five years religiously trying to be human,” he says with nary a trace of put-on.
Having led a transient life for the past four years, Hitchcock and his fiancée share a Spartan, tidy apartment in the Georgetown area of Washington. There’s something very Zen-like about their abode and its contents, which, aside from some borrowed furniture, includes little more than two guitars and an easel. They don’t own a stereo, just a modest boom-box and a collection of cassettes that doesn’t include much of Hitchcock’s own work. The only items to be found in abundance are original artworks: by Hitchcock (including several paintings that have served as album covers); by his late father, Raymond; by one of his sisters, with a piece from the other sister en route; by his sixteen-year-old daughter, Maisie; by a cousin of Hunt’s; and by Hunt herself (she decorates old furniture).
Hitchcock speculates that painting will be the way of the future for him, gradually eclipsing his songwriting output. A self-professed compulsive when he gets going, he zipped off forty songs apiece for Perspex Island and Respect before winnowing each lineup down to a final ten and that, he feels, is a waste of creative energy. “T’ve written far too many songs for my own good,” he says of his castoffs. “They’re just casualties, useless, just big lumps of time. They’re like designing planes that never flew or something. And so now I’m making myself paint more. I’m diverting my goals; so when I have some compulsion, I paint. Eventually, I think there will be a lot less songs, which will be nice.” Part of this desire to shed possessions, work efficiently and travel lightly may have something to do with turning forty, an event that occurred a few weeks after our interview. In keeping with his unpredictable nature, Hitchcock was actually looking forward to it. So does he believe it’s true that life begins at forty?
“Mine hasn’t got much choice!” Hitchcock says, laughing. “Tm going to have a party, ’cause you can either let it sneak by and act like it’s not happening or celebrate the fact you’ve lasted that long. Obviously you’re deteriorating physically, getting fatter, blotchier, slower, more repellent and incapable. You’re apt to become little more than plasma with a series of infantile impulses, desperately clawing at society’s throat, asking for mercy. But in that respect you’re just like everybody else. So what can you do but have a party?”