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 The Minimal Robert Wyatt : A Group by Himself - International Herald Tribune - September 11, 1997


THE MINIMAL ROBERT WYATT : A GROUP BY HIMSELF



By Mike Zwerin




PARIS: Robert Wyatt raised the level of playing his instrument to the point that being described as a rock drummer was no longer pejorative.

He was with a no-nonsense British band called The Soft Machine, named after a book by William Burroughs. They fused instrumental jazz and rock at least two years before Miles Davis. A CBS Records executive said that he couldn't figure out if they were the label's best-selling jazz band or its worst-selling rock group.

Wyatt played the drums and sang lead vocals at the same time. Not many drummers could do that then (or now, for that matter), certainly not in 11/4 time. He was also the first drummer in rock history to play bare-breasted. "EEEEE!" the groupies screamed. "Robert took off his shirt."

However, his crazy caveman Elvis/Elvin persona gave way after he fell out of a window during a party. He has been in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down, for more than 20 years now. His stature is such that you find yourself looking up to him anyway. He is a living legend, a cult hero, a towering figure.

The music he has made since the accident has been described as "wry, plaintive, soulful, humorous, idiosyncratic, melancholic" and "ingenious." There were no other musicians on the albums. He wrote the songs and played all the backing instruments himself. They were, in the best sense of the term, minimal.

His album titles begin to tell the story by themselves — "Rock Bottom," "Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard," "Old Rotten Hat," "The End of an Ear." "Shleep," ("Fat Chance to Dream"), Wyatt's latest, is being released this month.

"Shleep" is on Hannibal, a label with a serious reputation. There are live musicians on it, and not just anybody at that. If you know anything about the European Community alternate jazz and rock scene, you'll be impressed by the names Brian Eno, Philip Catherine, Annie Whitehead and Evan Parker. If not, be impressed anyway.

Now that he's a real live leader, he looks back on those rough days when he used to patch all the voices and instruments together all alone.

"It's quite funny being in a group all by yourself," he said. "I had all the same arguments with myself that real groups have. I was listening to the bassist and the drummer and I'd think, 'What are those two up to?' And it was all me. It's funny how many different characters you can find in yourself.

"I'm not even sure what culture I'm in: rock or jazz. My head is full of jazz but that's not quite the whole story. I'm not a rock musician; I can't work off power chords. I start the recording process on my little basic four-track machine. It's quite limited, but then I think that Beethoven could have written his late string quartets on a four-track. So there seems to be room for a lot of information."

Living legends and cult heroes generally involve unlikely name and discipline crossovers.

"My parents were part of a little gang of intellectuals," he says. "I guess you could call them bohemians. They were friends of [the poet and novelist] Robert Graves. I left school illiterate and drifted off to Deya on Majorca where Graves owned a house, and he put me up with his own kids. I think he was relieved that I wasn't one more young academic snob asking him about White Goddesses.

"He had Coltrane records, and we listened together. Graves approved of my wanting to be a drummer. He made me feel all right about liking the things I liked."

The Soft Machine was stranded in Saint Tropez in the summer of 1967 when the club in which they were to work went belly-up. Happener, director and poet Jean-Jacques Lebel hired the Soft for his production of the Pablo Picasso play "Desire Caught by the Tail," along with Gary Goodrow and other members of the Living Theatre. (Wyatt says that the high spot of the summer for him, however, was dining with Paul Desmond.)

Time magazine wrote it up, the French press caught on, the Village Voice covered it. Two years later, the Soft was opening for Jimi Hendrix on a tour of the United States (and opened for Davis the following year).

But then hippies began to overdose, move to Los Angeles, start work on projects they never finished and to write highly paid jingles for commercial TV. Wyatt moved to Twickenham, not far from where Peter Townshend lived on the banks of the Thames.

People would pass by and greet him indulgently as he sat in his wheelchair on Twickenham High Street selling Communist literature. He has a seductive smile, and he said that the party offered the only real choice.

He recorded with rock groups called National Health and Henry Cow, and with Carla Bley. He covered songs by Elvis Costello ("Shipbuilding"), Peter Gabriel ("Biko"), The Monkees ("I'm a Believer") and the Golden Gate Quartet ("Stalin Wasn't Stallin"').

Covering other people's material, he can reveal their hidden sides. His own material and the way he presents it is reminiscent of the French chanson — of Brel or Jacques Debronckart, for example. There are unusual degrees of drama, the arrangements are essential and the delivery often adds to the meaning.

In "Heeps of Sheeps" — written with his wife, Alfreda Benge, a painter, and arranged by Eno — counting sheep does not cure his insomnia: "Still not sleeping / I realized my goose was cooked."

The opening lines of "Blues in Bob Minor" go: "Roger's in the archive looking up casement / Martha's in the government digging up the basement."

The Wyatts live in a market town in Lincolnshire that is "meters deep in pesticide. To call it countryside is stretching the language." He bought a Pakistani pocket trumpet in a pawnshop.

He spends his sometimes long days playing along with records by Don Cherry, Dave Brubeck, Charlie Haden, Lucky Thompson and Slim and Slam.

"Wrong Movements," a scrapbook biography, has been published in Britain. Asked whether he's satisfied with his new record album, he replies with a chuckle: "I don't do reviews."