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
"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."