By: Dennis Cook
I feel it coming on again
Just like it did before
They feed your pride with boredom
And they lead you on to war
Some songs open up whole universes to us - only a few chords wrapped around words yet we find ourselves stirred and delighted in ways that defy this surface simplicity. In 1981, fresh from junior high school, I stumbled upon "I Wanna Destroy You" by The Soft Boys, a wildly giddy, nihilistic chant, crooned sweetly by what sounded like Graham Nash's dark cousin. By the time I tracked down Underwater Moonlight, the glorious 1980 release where "Destroy" first appeared, I found out the Soft Boys were no more but their lead singer, a severely English chap named Robyn Hitchcock, was busily releasing heaps of inspired strangeness. From that random encounter has bloomed a 25-year love affair with the poet laureate of weird rock.
Hitchcock is a musician's musician, rubbing shoulders with the likes of R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Gillian Welch, The Damned's Captain Sensible, and The Sadies. Stop Making Sense director Jonathan Demme made a fun documentary about him in 1998 called Storefront Hitchcock. Often painted as a pop eccentric, Hitchcock is really a child of the '60s out of time, an endlessly gifted songwriter who picked up the gauntlet tossed down by Bob Dylan, Syd Barrett, and The Byrds and managed to find his own way after setting out in their footsteps. His work has both the electric jangle of Roger McGuinn and the creeping intimacy of Nick Drake's finest. Only Steely Dan and Dylan [who Hitchcock saluted on 2002's Robyn Sings, which recreated Bob's legendary 1966 Royal Albert Hall electric set] rival his gift for memorable, peculiar characters. Multicolored worlds froth and wriggle in his verses, populated by balloon men and amorous specters whose initial oddness ultimately reveals a perverse, poetic understanding of the human condition rivaled only by the giants who first inspired him.
Robyn Hitchcock & The Minus 3 by Carina Jirsch
His latest release is Olé! Tarantula, a bright, deliriously infectious outing with his band The Venus 3 comprised of pals Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows), and Bill Rieflin (Revolting Cocks/Ministry). Also helping out are keyboard legend Ian McLagan, Chris Ballew (Presidents of the United States of America), and ex-Soft Boys Kimberley Rew and Morris Windsor. His 22nd solo record, Tarantula presents many of Hitchcock's disparate threads in one well-stitched tapestry, swaying between thoughtful ruminations and crunchy rockers with easy grace.
"My stuff's very much a hybrid," says Hitchcock. "I can recognize where I got most things from, even if it's just out of the dictionary. I tend to like major keys more than minor keys. I'm not sure there's anything in a minor [key] on it [Tarantula]. Even Spooked [his previous album, produced and performed with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings], which was a darker sounding record, there's not much in a minor key there either, just songs that sound reflective."
As always, the linguistically obsessed Hitchcock shows a profound love of language, rolling words over his tongue with a gourmand's relish. "I think if you're not a fan of words it's harder to get my stuff," offers Hitchcock. "Though, I don't personally think the words are that important. The melody is the most important thing because that's what carries the emotion. Songs are basically feelings. You have a feeling and you try to find the words to go with it. I've always hated clichés. I think it's the death of thought. I suppose that can put one in rarified air in places. It's a good filtering process, though there were loads of dumb Beatles fans and the Beatles were the greatest group on Earth."
The Venus 3 swings like seasoned pros despite this being their first official release. Hitchcock says, "It's just a combination of time and luck. It's always good to have both working for you rather than against you. In this instance, I've known Peter for so long, Scott for a while, and Bill for a good few years – I met him through my daughter Mazy, who's a big Ministry fan. They've all known each other for ages and they're in two other bands with each other [Minus 5/R.E.M.]. We were quite played in before we even played a note."