Hang up your net, child

It struck me the other day, after seeing Robyn Hitchcock on Later, that I don’t go out much these days. I was never a really frequent gig-goer, but for many years there were a few people I’d invariably see if they came to Manchester. Robyn was the longest resident in that category; I first saw him in 1980, playing with the Soft Boys at the Great Northern in Cambridge. (The runner-up, for what it’s worth, is Julian Cope – although the first time I saw him was only 20 years ago, at the Haçienda (of all places) in 1987.) More recently there were the Beta Band and GYBE!; more recently still, the Earlies and James Yorkston. I’m older than I was and more hard-up than I have been, but I suspect a lot of it’s down to the general anhedonia of the last couple of years, since my mother died.

Whatever the reason, lately I’ve got into a real habit of not going to gigs. Bands whose gigs I haven’t been to recently include the Shins (twice), King Creosote (twice) and the Deaf School reunion – as well as Robyn Hitchcock. In his case I did at least have a reasonably good excuse for not going; at the time I hadn’t got round to getting either his last album or the one before. After not going to the gig, I took the opportunity to catch up on what he’s been recording lately. I bought Spooked and Olé Tarantula together and listened to them one after the other. They’re both pretty good, but… meh. Hearing them close together I became aware of a certain flatness, a diluted quality to a lot of the writing. A lot of Robyn Hitchcock’s songs always did sound a bit dashed-off, but they used to sound as if they’d been dashed off after waking from a dream (“Furry green atom bowl”, “Victorian squid”), or else dashed off by being played straight onto tape in a trance of concentration (“Love poisoning”, “The ghost ship”). Some of these songs just sound, well, dashed-off (“Everybody needs love”) – or even jammed (“Belltown ramble”). There’s something untroubled about his music lately; a lot of the time he doesn’t sound as if he’s waiting for inspiration of unknown origin to strike, he just sounds like he’s having fun writing songs and playing music.

That appearance on Later reminded me of those albums and indirectly confirmed this impression. Robyn did one song (he only ever seems to get to do one); it was “Sounds great when you’re dead”, accompanied (as it is on record) by skittering, tightly-controlled acoustic guitar and a manically lush piano part. A very fine performance it was too; thanks to the piano part, it’s not a song he plays very often live, and it was great to see it done (particularly that last chorus – Baby, let me assure you…) Apart from anything else, I really got a sense of what that song’s about, which I never really had done in the previous embarrassingly large number of years.

Your mother is a journalist, your father is a creep
They make it in your bedroom when they think you are asleep
The scenes that they’re enacting there beside your little bed
Are never in your consciousness but always in your head

Baby, it might sound dodgy now
But it sounds great when you’re dead

It’s about screwed-up artists, I reckon: your upbringing may have left you with raw emotional wounds, but those very wounds are going to make a poet of you – and think how good that‘ll make you look in a hundred years’ time! Dark, very dark.

The curious thing was how Robyn looked, singing it. Enunciating each syllable, catching the eye of the camera, underlining significant phrases with a sideways look or a twitch of the eyebrow, he looked like someone who’s got something to say, knows people are listening and feels entirely at ease with this situation. Positively cheerful about it, in fact – he looked like a man who enjoyed his work. His facial expressions were somewhere between an upbeat Ronan Keating and a downbeat Rolf Harris. When you took into account the lyrics he was singing – which are funny in a twisted-grin sort of way, but not at all reassuring – the overall effect was distinctly creepy.

It was also a huge change from how I remember him looking, back when he had dark hair. When I saw him with the Soft Boys or the Egyptians he always looked like he had something to tell us, but his manner was nervous, almost haunted; it was as if he suspected there was something essentially shameful or ludicrous about what he was doing, but thought he could get away with it as long as he kept impressing us. (And the earlier the more so. The fluency and rapidity of the between-song patter on the Portland Arms live album is like a hallucinatory version of Just a minute, especially after they screw up “Have a heart, Betty” (“the Modal Minor, the Flattened Tenth, the Squirrel and the Apex”).) By contrast, the other night on Later he looked… well, happy, basically. I guess relocating to America’s been good for him: certainly he’s got a bigger, more regular and more appreciative audience out there than he ever had here. The lower creative temperature of his last few albums could be related to this higher level of acceptance: to put it bluntly, someone who’s got a sneaking suspicion that what they’re doing is absurd is likely to hold their work to higher standards.

What’s really interesting is that the themes and concerns of his work haven’t changed that much. If you set aside a few lightweight numbers, he’s still writing about death, sex, the absence of God and the passage of time, in language that falls somewhere between surrealist poetry and nonsense verse. (Take Basingstoke. Noel Malcolm’s The Origins of English Nonsense finds references to Basingstoke in nonsense poems from the 1630s and 1660s; reviewing the book in the LRB in 1997, Michael Dobson recalled the use of Basingstoke in Ruddigore and commented on “an uncanny kinship between the nonsense writing of different periods”. It’s not a bad tradition to be in.) A wholly healthy Hitchcock – someone who’d wiped the slate of whatever shame or fear it was that used to hang around his neck; someone who was ‘clear’, as the Scientologists put it – would presumably sing nothing but inconsequential stuff like “Belltown ramble” or “English girl”. He certainly wouldn’t do “Sounds great when you’re dead”.

I wouldn’t dream of psychoanalysing Robyn Hitchcock, not least because I’ve never met him[1]. But the impression he’s giving at the moment is of someone who knows there’s enough half-chewed weirdness in his head to last a lifetime, but is quite happy about it. To be more precise, someone who isn’t positively happy about the weirdness itself, but is quite happy to get on with writing and playing and living, and leave it be until its moment comes. In the words of “Red locust frenzy”,

Don’t let the dragon come
And make it worse for you
Don’t let the demon come
Until you want him to

It’s a wise and sensitive thought, although with unsettling overtones. But it’s that sort of attitude – keeping the weirdness in the attic but granting yourself visiting rights – that would make it possible to find a song like “Sounds great when you’re dead” interesting and amusing, rather than alarming or threatening. It sounds like a pretty good way to be. True, the last couple of albums don’t include many songs that rank alongside “Sounds great when you’re dead” (or “Acid bird”, “Railway shoes”, “Queen Elvis”…) but I don’t think it’s a question of an overall lack of edge. The image of dilution is probably the right one: all things being equal, a happier writer with a more supportive audience will tend to write more songs, finish more songs and let more songs get out. In short, if Olé Tarantula is half the album Eye or Respect was, this may just be a sign that Robyn Hitchcock’s in a much better place now than he was then. The earlier albums are the ones with the music that will sound great when he’s dead – but he’s having more fun with it now. You can’t really grudge him that.

[1] I always think of him as ‘Robyn’ & have had to remind myself not to – since, after all, I don’t actually know the guy. I have been buying his records for basically as long as he’s been making them; and I did once eavesdrop on a conversation in a record shop between him and the owner (I remember he told the shop-owner he’d get the point of the cover of Near the Soft Boys[2]); and I did once play on the same bill as him, albeit much further down[3]. But I’ve never met him.

[2] I’ve no idea what this means – unless it’s a Professor Branestawm reference, which I suppose is just about possible.

[3] Off the bottom, in fact. Long story. Another time.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted 24 March 2008 at 20:15 | Permalink | Reply

    That’s a really excellent analysis of the changes Robyn’s been through. I couldn’t agree more.

  2. Posted 25 March 2008 at 12:27 | Permalink | Reply

    I saw Hitchcock once. But only on TV.

  3. Posted 25 March 2008 at 12:42 | Permalink | Reply

    ejh – with your post in mind, here’s the rest of it. I don’t know how well it’ll work without the music, but see what you think.

    No, I don’t remember Guildford.
    Was there something jogged my memory?
    Not the cathedral or the pool – if there’s a pool –
    I’m a little past it
    Just near enough to be scorched, not blasted

    No, I don’t remember Jenner Road
    Even though we lived there
    And things came through the letter-box thick and fast
    It’s in the past
    It’s in the bracken
    Did something happen?
    The sky just blackened

    Now there’s a butterfly on my face
    And I’m a number in a drawer

    Hang up your net, child,
    Show some respect
    To the ghosts that are ruining your life –
    It’s your life

    No, I don’t remember falling
    From a flagpole onto a taxi
    To leave my imprint and my entrails in the morning sun
    For you to kiss…

    No, I don’t remember Guildford.

  4. Posted 26 March 2008 at 01:18 | Permalink | Reply

    He did “Sounds Great When You’re Dead” on tv recently?! Sheesh! The things we don’t get to see on t.v. here in the USofA.

    I listened to Nextdoorland for a week straight in my rented Mazda Miata (MX5) with the top down and the music loud in Tucson one December a few years back. Before I knew that Robyn himself often spent time there and may have been there too at that very moment in time. Dark lyrics in blinding sunlight.

    I finally did get to hear him do “Guildford” live last time he was through town :) Portland. Oregon.

  5. Posted 20 May 2008 at 22:16 | Permalink | Reply

    I met him in the late 1990s and he was extremely nice. Saw him quite a few times (and during the Soft Boys reunion tour earlier this decade, the poster of which is on my wall as I type). That too was a little – meh… I think you’re absolutely right. The last great album he did was probably in the late 1990s, since then he’s too chilled out. That came across in the documentary about him a couple of years back. And yet, as you say I wouldn’t grudge him that. He’s kept at it and still manages to click onto something remarkable… live, that’s perhaps the best way to see him.

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