Wheelie saying something - New Musical Express - 21 September 1991
Beardy-weirdy radical ROBERT WYATT may have ended up in a wheelchair pursuing rock'n'roll Nirvana with '70s experimental cases Soft Machine, but he refuses to take the continuing distortions and skullduggery of the capitalist propaganda machine sitting down. His new album 'Dondestan', with help from poet wife Alfie, rails against Third World exploitation and the fate of the alternative viewpoint, reckons a hot to Trot STEVEN WELLS, and it's not half bad - for a Stalinist. (Black and) Wyatt riot:
Sometime between my bollocks dropping and my skin erupting I saw this beardy-weirdy in a wheelchair on Top Of The Pops, Cockernee geezering his way through The Monkees' 'I'm A Believer'.
I was very impressed, I remember, by the accent. For a few months "Then Oi Sawuh 'er Fayuss" became a catch phrase amongst Bradford youth.
Alfreda Benge grumbles as she drives us through flat, Lincolnshire farmland to a tea of ham and pickles, wholemeal bread and boiled eggs. She is Robert Wyatt's partner.
"I do the cleaning and the cooking and the shopping and he does the talking..." she says.
"They had an Acid House rave around here and all the locals were complaining about the noise. Then the week after they had this 'Fun Day' with Tornado bombers streaming over at treetop height. Oh, they didn't complain about that, they loved it!"
Robert Wyatt is an enemy of the state and he lives but miles from the airfields where US planes left to murder the children of Tripoli.
WHAT EVERYBODY knows about Robert Wyatt: he was the drummer for Soft Machine, he jumped out of a window and broke his back, he wrote 'Shipbuilding' (really?- Ed) and all left-wing music journalists have got their tongues stuck right up his arse.
Robert Wyatt is not Nikki Sixx, Ozzy, Izzy, Axl, or Sid the Vish. He's got a beard for a start, always a dead giveaway. And he has... these... long ... pauses in his conversation, like, dude, he is the only person in the entire world who actually stops and thinks before he answers a question. Spooky.
And there's his music. Um.
Dondestan' is Spanish for "Where is it?" It's a pun about countries like Kurdistan and Palestine that exist only in the hearts and minds of their people. And it's his new album which is tinkly and breathy and sad. The first half uses some of the poems that Alfie wrote during a couple of long sojourns in Spain.
With titles like 'The Sight Of The Wind' and Catholic Architecture', Alfie's poems are not exactly in the dig-it-up-and-carve- 'New Age Parasite' -on-the-corpse-with-a-rusty-razor-blade Manic Street Preacher style of rock nihilism.
In a different decade, where anything seemed possible and Thatcherism was still a nightmare well under wraps, Alfie was a "drummer's moll" who met up with Robert at the suggestion of his then-wife to help get him over a bout of depression.
Alfie was born in 1941 in Poland. Her father was an Austrian border guard who got her mother drunk and seduced her and, being a good Catholic, married her when she became pregnant. Years later she visited her father's family, visited his grave. One of her relatives, when asked what her father's politics were, replied "he was a good National Socialist (a Nazi) until the end". She resisted the temptation to piss on his grave.
Alfie and her mother spent the war being shunted around the Reich in cattle trucks. Her mother requested and got a move out of Dresden days before it was firebombed into ashes by the Allies. At the end of the war, whilst in a refugee camp, a British officer gave her mother 12 gold guineas. In Vienna, her mother, being a fashion conscious woman, swapped the coins for a handbag before coming to Britain to marry the British officer who also happened to be an active member of the Communist Party.
The rest of the lyrics on 'Dondestan' are Robert's and they cover much more conventional Wyatt territory, including the exploitation of the Third World, privatisation and the scum-sucking liberal shitehawks of Marxism Today.
Oh yeah, another thing everybody knows about Robert Wyatt—he's a Stalinist. Not one of the headbanging personality cult loonies who'll deny that Uncle Joe was a murdering psychotic, racist bastard, but a defender of the (ex) Soviet Union as an imperfect but socialist state.
Me, I think he's full of shit. Usually, says Robert, interviews leave him depressed, but this time "I knew where I stood from the start," meaning that I'm a Trot and he's a Tankie - so we don't waste any time.
"The right-wing establishment eats eight left-wing pressure groups for breakfast - like those monsters in films that the more you use the flamethrowers or whatever the stronger it gets. So I suppose I just wanted to be as inedible as possible."
But he hasn't been glued to the box watching the toppling of the statues of Marx and Lenin. Alfie vets the TV and newspapers for him.
"We're herded week by week from one news story to another, it's thought control really. Soon we're all going to be terribly excited at the thought of another election. I used to quite like listening to Radio Havana, which would talk about literacy rates in the Third World, fresh water supplies in Asia. I think they have a better sense of priorities!
"I find a lot of things offensive that other people don't. I flinch away from looking at right-wing propaganda in the same way that Clare Short flinches away from looking at pornography. And it is propaganda and like all propaganda it serves two purposes. It builds their side up but it also knocks our side down, attempts to undermine our confidence and our ideas."
There are those who shout about the smothering effect of baby boomer culture, of the softness and idiocy and hypocrisy of the '60s generation - the people who gave us sexual liberation and soft drugs, who stormed the barricades in front of the US embassy, kicked seven shades of socialist shit out of the Paris riot pigs and now read Q and buy Tin Machine CDs and think Mike And The Mechanics are exciting and that The Traveling Wilburys have really got something to say and, sporting a hideous ponytail and a Next suit, tell us to "swim with the dolphins and the sharks" and then settle down and get af------ing mortgage and rot in suburbia. So how the hell did this particular hippy end up - in disillusioned, battered, sell-out city - as the last rock 'n' roll communist?
...(pause)... I... never enjoyed the cultural triumphalism of rock'n'roll, using words like 'balding' and 'ageing' as insults. The way I saw it was like with Hendrix. The youth of the West were meant to be au fait with black culture and yet, at the same time, their governments were responsible for hideous acts in Mozambique and Angola."
MUNCHING SALAD with Robert and Alfie, avoiding the verbal bushfires that start when I'm no longer able to restrain my frustration and confusion as to how two such decent, sorted out and intelligent people were able to ever see the Soviet Union as anything other than the sick, murderous travesty that it was, Alfie, who claims that she always knew that Lech Walesa was an anti-Semitic bastard and who cheered when Solidarity was crushed, asks Robert if he thinks they should adopt a sea-side donkey for the winter and then they tell me how they intend to bury their two million-year-old dog when it eventually dies.
Russian beer and English sunshine. Rock'n'roll drummers and Nazi forced labour. American bombers and pickled onions. When Robert wheels himself to the office to get some fags he dons these massive rock'n'roll gloves that make motorcycle gauntlets look like kiddies' mittens. In the bog Castro's speeches nestle next to The Book Of Heroic Failures. There's a novel here somewhere.
What the hell - intelligent pop music made by people who couldn't tell you the difference between Kylie and her grinning sister and who just don't understand why, in a world that for the first time has the resources to feed, clothe and house everybody, we still have the homeless and the starving. You can keep your Morrisseys.