Robyn Hitchcock – A wrinkle in time
IN 1965, Robyn Hitchcock, age 12, became infatuated with the literature of science fiction pioneer H.G. Wells. Duly inspired by such classics as The Invisible Man, The War Of The Worlds, and particularly The Time Machine, the British adolescent set out to construct a time-travel device of his own. A year later, Hitchcock discovered the music of Bob Dylan, and abandoned his efforts to zip between past, present and future in a glorified telephone box kitted out with levers and dials.
IN 2004, over a midday repast of sushi and miso, Hitchcock reveals that he has, in the last half-century, figured out at least one way to turn back the clock. “You’d just roll the film backwards,” he shrugs. “It’s a simple technique, but people are still stopped in their tracks by the sight of someone eating an apple in reverse…even if it’s nobody famous.”
Hitchcock has spent the past 25 years making records as a solo artist, with his band the Egyptians, and as a member of the seminal Soft Boys. Some of these platters have aged most excellently, while others have soured a bit. “The records that have dated worst, it seems, are Perspex Island and Groovy Decay” — released in 1991 and 1982, respectively — “which are the ones that most attempt to be state-of-the-art,” he admits. By his reckoning, albums such as the Soft Boys’ 1980 sophomore set Underwater Moonlight and his “first totally solo record,” I Often Dream Of Trains (1984), have stood the test of time best, “because they were made with virtually no money, and a complete disinterest in whatever market there might be.
“What I learned was just to go my own way, and ignore everything,” he concludes. “But you do that at your peril.”
Hitchcock has just released what is arguably his finest record since 1990’s solo Eye. Like that album, made with engineer Wendy Bardsley as his sole studio companion, his new disc, Spooked (released October 5 on Yep Roc Records), was crafted with an incredibly small cast of characters: Singer-songwriter Gillian Welch and her creative partner, David Rawlings, played most of the instruments and provided vocal harmonies throughout. (NRBQ bassist Joey Spampinato, featured on two cuts, is the only other participant.) How appropriate that Hitchcock should fashion what will likely prove to be one of his most enduring releases with the assistance of two musicians who, despite being in vogue at the moment, are much more in sync with the bygone era of the brothers Delmore, Monroe and Stanley than with the pop culture of the 21st century and its cast of Hilton sisters and Olsen twins.
With its late-night vibe, focusing primarily on acoustic instruments and vocals, Spooked lives up to its title. The disc opens with “Television”, a red-light romance between a man and the cathode ray, as unsettling an interaction with the boob tube as anything in Poltergeist. “Demons And Fiends”, between its spectral blues licks and finger pops (plus references aplenty to hobgoblins and ghouls), comes across as the unlikely offspring of Robert Johnson and Edward Gorey. Those aren’t the only lyrics about creepy-crawlies, paranormals or poisons; ghosts, shape-shifters and nightshade all figure in “Sometimes A Blonde”, too.
Hitchcock still displays his well-known love of flora and fauna on Spooked (tiny frogs, fungus and ocelots all get name-checked), as well as his eccentric sense of humor (the spoken-word track “Welcome To Earth” is a visitors center greeting for extraterrestrials). But the latter is kept to a minimum; a couplet about feeling “so haggard, and I don’t mean Merle” in the otherwise plainspoken, romantic “English Girl” sticks out like a panda in a polar bear’s habitat.
IN 1998, the movie Storefront Hitchcock was released. Shot by Jonathan Demme, it documents a 1996 performance by the singer-songwriter in a New York City store window. There’s a great moment in it where Robyn admits that, while he despises organized religion, he does acknowledge the existence of God. “I don’t believe in a predestinative power, or a benign or malign moral puppet master,” he clarifies during our interview. “Our destinies are controlled by the maelstrom of our own activities, which is why they’re so unpredictable.”
In the case of Hitchcock’s work with Welch and Rawlings, the chain of events leading up to their collaboration practically rates an X-File. After interviewing all the players and piecing together their stories, one arrives at several possible conclusions: a) There truly is a God, and he or she likes to pull strings; b) Kismet is more than just a second-rate Broadway musical; and/or c) Young Robyn did successfully cobble together a time machine, and manipulated subtle yet key moments in history to prearrange the creation of Spooked.
IN 2003, Hitchcock attended a London performance by Welch and Rawlings. His wife, Michele, had introduced him to Welch’s albums Time (The Revelator) and Hell Among The Yearlings, and he was duly smitten. That night’s show made an equally strong impression. “They came onstage and had no pickups on their guitars — which I hadn’t seen since the Incredible String Band in 1970 — with this kind of sexy sound of slightly fed-back acoustic guitars, coming into quite a big room,” he recounts. “They couldn’t have had fewer props to rely on if they’d tried, which, just apart from the quality of their music, was so seductive. It just took me back to a past that probably never existed, because, chances are, when the Incredible String Band and Bob Dylan were playing [like that], they had really crappy sound…whereas Dave and Gill actually sound phenomenal.”
Afterward, Hitchcock made his way to the venue’s downstairs bar for the after-show meet-and-greet (“the hostility room,” he jokes). A few minutes later, Welch and Rawlings made separate entrances. Rawlings, dismayed to find the small room noisy and overcrowded, simply honed in on the first person he recognized: Robyn. “Because of that strange, altered state you’re in after playing for a couple hours, all that he registered as was someone that I knew, a familiar face,” Dave begins.