Written on your face

“Looking back on life is such a retrospective thing,” Pete Shelley once wrote (although he probably doesn’t like to be reminded of it). Actually, an awful lot of life is a retrospective thing. We all live in the past to some extent; if you didn’t you’d have terrible trouble finding the stairs.

Popular music is one of the more retrospective things, if you’re old enough not to be discovering it for the first time (and if you’re reading this, what are the chances?). I’ve written about Robyn Hitchcock three times on this blog before now, if you set aside brief references in posts on nonsense verse, dreaming and death (2006, 2017). In 2005 I looked back on a 1993 gig, and how Robyn dealt with hecklers during the introduction to a song about watching his father dying; in 2008 I saw Robyn on TV and looked back at my memories of seeing him live, going back to 1979; in 2009 I mused about a recently-completed paper (which would never be published) and a dream about Barack Obama, while listening to a song from 2003 in which Robyn looked back on 1976.

This really ought to make me feel old, but in practice very few things do that. What it does make me feel is slightly dizzy – not so much “the past inside the present”, more the past inside the past, inside the past, inside the past, inside another past – and all of those pasts inside the present, for now. (Will I be looking back on this post in a year’s time – or ten years’ time – and writing, In 2018 I looked back on...? Let’s hope so.)

And it’s been a lifetime
And with you I celebrate my life

I didn’t feel old when I went to see Robyn Hitchcock the other month (I did later, when I had to run for the bus home, but that’s another story). I was a bit startled by how old everyone else was, though – the venue (“Club Academy”, which turned out to mean the basement of the Students’ Union(!)) seemed to be packed out with grey-haired men, with a scattering of grey-haired couples. There were a lot of more or less smart-looking older men, a smaller number of ageing rockers and folkies and a few people who looked as if life hadn’t been very kind to them; what there wasn’t, as far as I could see, was more than a handful of people under 40. I realised what was going on, and wondered if anyone else had been in the audience the first time I saw Robyn, a Soft Boys gig at the Hope and Anchor in 1979; I tried to edit our over-55 selves into my memory of that pub back room, but we looked very out of place. Noticing the number of people checking their phones, I automatically edited my mental image accordingly – black or beige plastic, rotary dials, wires trailing – but now it just looked silly.

It’s been a lifetime – my adult lifetime, anyway. I first saw the Soft Boys a few weeks before I went up to university and last saw them shortly before I graduated, by which time they were in the process of splitting; in between I saw them another three times, including one gig where a couple of friends of mine had talked themselves onto the very bottom of the bill, as an unofficial (and unpaid) support act. I’d been trying vaguely to get started as a singer, and persuaded them to let me take vocals on one of their songs – the fact that neither of them knew the lyrics was what swung it for me. (No, they couldn’t just look them up. It was 1980.) So it was that I made my performing debut, singing the Stranglers’ “Grip” with the (loosely-defined) band Shovel Robinson, supporting (a couple of other bands who genuinely were supporting) the Soft Boys. There’s glory for you.

The last time I saw the Soft Boys was in 1982, after Kimberley Rew had formally left the band; the other three started the gig without him, and he only joined them on stage for the last few numbers. I only mention this because one of Morris Windsor’s drum pedals malfunctioned mid-gig, leading to a hiatus in which little could be heard apart from intermittent shouts of “Kimberley!” from the back of the room; to this Robyn responded, “I love Kimberley dearly, but he can’t be used for hitting a drum”.

I don’t remember seeing Robyn after that until 1993 (Manchester Academy, with the Egyptians – Morris Windsor and original Soft Boys bassist Andy Metcalfe).

The missing Avenger planes
Will never return to base
Don’t you wait up for them

How often have you boys said
“I ain’t gonna bump no more”?
We ain’t gonna bump no more

Over the subsequent 25 years (steady – touch of vertigo again) I’ve seen him another seven times – solo, with the Venus Three and with other combinations of musicians, including on one occasion Morris and Kimberley, of all people. But that 1993 gig still sticks in my mind: Respect material – still my favourite Hitchcock album – and played by the old gang, or 3/4s of it (supplemented by an additional guitarist). I’ve never seen staging like it, apart from anything else; rather than sit at the back behind a drumkit, Morris Windsor stood at the front of the stage alongside Robyn and Andy Metcalfe, behind a tiny and mostly electronic kit. (And a vocal mic, of course; three-part harmonies were always part of the deal.) The additional guitarist, whose name was Eric, was left to lurk at the back. At one point Robyn, Morris and Andy got into a semi-serious discussion of who’d worked with Robyn longer, who’d been there “at the start”; Robyn wound it up by saying, “Of course, Eric was there all along. Eric’s been there longer than any of us – it’s just that he’s only recently become… apparent.” The Yip Song was amazing (Morris’s ‘kit’ included a real snare), as was its intro; Robyn was on good introductory form generally. Other than that I mainly remember a couple of solo songs mid-set. Robyn did “I’ve got a message for you” and, seemingly irked by the number of people singing every single word back at him, went off-piste in the middle eight:

Though I’m not a piece of veal
Or a piece of beef
The way you sink your teeth in me
Is beyond belief!

I burst out laughing and clapped quite loudly – which Robyn responded to (I was standing right in front of him at the time) by going into an extended drunk-Elvis “Thankyou-ladeez-an-gennelmen-ah-thangyew-so-verr-verr-much” routine. So that was fun, not to mention a bit weird (“Ah felt like I was bein’ fitted with a new artificial arrrm…”).

In the same solo section, Robyn did “She doesn’t exist”, a song which (in 1993) I didn’t know but (at the age of 32) thought was quite pretty and rather sad. After the song I saw Robyn give his eyes a quick dab with a bar towel and thought, “that must really mean a lot to him”; it certainly didn’t mean anything to me. Twenty-five years later, at Club Academy, he did the song – again – as one of a few solo songs mid-set; as soon as I recognised it I thought, you utter bastard. Then stood there for three minutes with a wet face.

They didn’t do “The Wreck of the Arthur Lee” the other night; I don’t remember if they did it that night in 1993, either, although it seems probable. I do know that Arthur Lee was another subject of which I was ignorant, back then. It was three years later that I met the friend who introduced me to the music of Arthur Lee and his psychedelic band Love. That in turn was seven years before she got to meet and hang out with Arthur Lee, which was three years before he died, which is twelve years ago now. The past inside… the past, inside the past, inside the present.

Meanwhile back at the Hope in 1979, Robyn’s switched to bass – a rather striking blue Danelectro ‘longhorn’ bass – and he and Andy are sharing the dense, skittery bassline of “Insanely Jealous”. On guitar, Kimberley is having fun experimenting with feedback and playing with the volume knobs – muting his guitar completely, hitting a chord and then fading it in or wa-wa-ing it in and out. And that’s just the accompaniment. When it’s time for his solo he goes… I wouldn’t say he goes crazy, exactly, not least because that would imply a strong contrast with how he was for the rest of the gig. It’s more that the solo lets him do what he does, only without reining himself in: when it’s time for his solo, he goes. He had – and for all I know still has – an extraordinary sound, reminiscent of Floyd-era Barrett and not really of much else; a kind of lucid, liquid howl. I remember that solo, the best part of 40 years on, and I remember Kimberley’s weird range of ‘psychedelic guitarist’ mannerisms – the gurning, the pouting, the chin-jutting, the Fab Four head-shaking… Kimberley always did have quite an impressive mop of hair, although the last time I saw it I didn’t immediately recognise it, or him (like Robyn, he seems to have more or less skipped ‘grey’ and gone straight for white).

And who is this, on stage with Robyn in 2018 at the rock and roll toilet that is Club Academy, rhythmically jutting his head and pouting, shaking a greying mop of hair as he gets stuck into the solo on “Insanely Jealous”? It’s Luther Russell, of course! Well, of course. And he’s pretty good; seems like a nice guy, too. He doesn’t quite have that sound, though (nobody does). More importantly, there’s never any danger that he’s going to pick the gig up and run off with it; never any question about who’s on stage with whom. It’s odd, though – while he’s no spring chicken himself, Luther would have been only just into secondary school when the Soft Boys broke up (not to mention being located on the wrong continental landmass). He must have watched a lot of videos – and I didn’t think there were any videos.

It was an odd gig; it mostly consisted of 1980s material, although Robyn was also promoting a limited 2011 album which has just had a full(er) release and – almost incidentally – a new album. The new album looks good, sounds excellent (some really nice, gnarly guitar sounds) and includes some of his best material in years; it’s even called Robyn Hitchcock, which might seem to suggest a push into a wider market. There weren’t any copies on sale at the gig, though, which may be why Robyn’s efforts to promote it were fairly perfunctory. That, and the difficulty of selling anything these days. “This is from the new album, which you can’t buy from us, although you can buy it… somewhere. But the music is available everywhere.” (On a side note, I ordered the CD direct from Yep Roc in the States. Postage was reasonable and HMRC didn’t make any trouble.)

Oh God, you were beautiful
Oh God, you were beautiful
Oh God…
Mad Shelley’s letterbox is full of birthday cards

Alternatively, perhaps the passage of time has been weighing on Robyn’s mind as well. (Quick question: why would someone’s letterbox be full of birthday cards? Yes, that, obviously. But why else?) And perhaps Robyn’s opening remarks on reaching retirement age but still being on tour (he turned 65 in March) were more than just rueful banter. The past (“Insanely Jealous”), inside the past (“Chinese Bones”), inside the past (“Madonna of the Wasps”)… inside the past (“Sally was a Legend”), inside the past, (“Goodnight Oslo”), inside the present. You have been listening to: Robyn Hitchcock.

 

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