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.
Robyn Hitchcock & The Minus 3 by Carina Jirsch
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.
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.”
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| You couldn’t speak your mind in Soviet Russia but you did have free health care and no unemployment. It’s a question of what will you trade for what? Freedom just generally means the right of anybody to sell anybody anything and no safety net. Capitalism eats itself… You wind up feeding on yourself when there’s nothing left to eat. |
Throughout his career there’ve been swarms of odd creatures in his lyrics. There’s a palpable connection to living, breathing life in Hitchcock’s verses, often expressed through animals both real and imaginary. Amongst the menagerie in his compositions are insect mothers, globes of frogs, an ant woman, midnight fish, acid birds, wise pythons, and obscenely wide-mouth bass. He has the distinction of being the only songwriter I know of that’s ever mentioned meerkats.
“Suzanne Vega might have mentioned meerkats but Johnny Thunders wouldn’t have [laughs]. Let’s call them non-human animals because we’re animals, too. We’re just animals with dictionaries. It doesn’t make us any smarter,” observes Hitchcock. “I’m not constantly running around in the wilds or scrambling through the rocks looking for different species. They just make their way into my songs. Maybe it’s just because of the way they look. I mention beasts I like the look of. Meerkats sit bolt upright like humans, very good posture. The tarantula is a very iconic creature, not necessarily as bad as its reputation. Plus it’s a great sounding word. So, if I like the sound of the word and the look of the creature it’s likely to crop up.”
‘s “The Authority Box” takes a few well-placed shots at George W. Bush but Hitchcock has been speaking to power with clear-eyed wisdom since the beginning. With quiet insight and gentle humor, he takes the legs out from fools who misuse their power. A good example is “The President” from 1986’s Element of Light
, which contains sticky bits like “When I hear the word ‘Democracy’ I reach for my headphones” and “He’s talking to the dead/They’re the only ones who’ll listen or believe a word he said.” Without histrionics, Hitchcock breathes fresh air into protest music by offering it up without apology or fanfare. Good ideas will always shine in the face of bad ones.
“America is a nightmare institution full of great people. My biggest following is here. I’ve got a lot of friends and fans here, and they’re all sort of trapped in the thickening nightmare. One of my functions is to go around and rally the faithful like Billy Bragg,” comments Hitchcock. “Once they shot Martin Luther King it was pretty clear which side the bread was buttered. I did hear an amusing song by Lieber and Stoller on the radio called ‘Only In America,’ that said, ‘Only in America can a poor kid without a cent grow up to be President.’ I just couldn’t believe that anyone bought that myth or anyone’s buying it now.”
Robyn Hitchcock by Carina Jirsch
“I was [in America] when Bush got elected again, and I found myself this magnet for heartbroken Democrats. I don’t attract many Republicans. I actually said my audience was 100-percent Democrat. Somebody emailed in and said, ‘I’m not. I’m a Libertarian!’ I think my GOP rating is nill, and I’m very proud of that.”
On his taking a good swipe at power mongers, he says, “It’s what they deserve, but it’s easier to do that [in the U.S.] than it would have been somewhere else. You couldn’t speak your mind in Soviet Russia but you did have free health care and no unemployment. It’s a question of what will you trade for what? Freedom just generally means the right of anybody to sell anybody anything and no safety net. Capitalism eats itself. It needs constant expansion. That’s what ‘Balloon Man’ was about on an unconscious level. Accelerated consumption means you wind up feeding on yourself when there’s nothing left to eat. It’s a weird human thing, this tendency towards models, whether it’s a Stalinist state model or a capitalist model where everything keeps merging and there’s only two record companies left and eventually there’ll just be one. People used to laugh when I talked about Sonyweaversal ten years ago but it’s pretty much there now.”
A Backward Glance
While discussing the gentle turns of Spooked
, talk turned towards older acoustic-leaning records like 1984’s I Often Dream of Trains
and 1990’s Eye
. Hitchcock observes, “I know my voice subtly modulates as it goes back in time. I’ve got more of my own voice now. I’m quite a good mimic so it may have taken me some time to shed other voices. When I play acoustic I take a lot from Eye
. It was a fertile period. There are some good songs on Trains
. It’s got a few instrumentals and it’s got me having fun with overdubs, which was the first time I did all that, lots of Robyn and The Robyns, which isn’t always a good idea but it’s definitely fun on that record.”
In a vast catalog, Trains‘ title tune is a simple daydream that slices across great distances, making big things personal and approachable, a rare gift Hitchcock possesses in joyous abundance.
“I play it about half that speed now. You find that with quite a lot of old things,” says Hitchcock. “I don’t change the older songs much but I think they tend to drift, and they drift downstream. You really do get slower as you get older, unless you’re very agitated, in which case you’re probably going to pop [laughs].”
I often dream of trains when I’m alone
I ride on them into another zone
I dream of them constantly
Heading for paradise
Or Basingstoke or Reading
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