Wyatt fights back - Melody Maker - November 10,
He’ll never drum again, but Robert Wyatt is getting ready to return to the rock business. From his hospital bed, he talks to Steve Lake.
Last week, Robert Wyatt and his lady Alfie had five pounds in the bank. Not a great reward for almost a decade in the music business, and the sort of situation bound to bring a little panic to any temporarily incapacitated musician.
And for Robert, of course, the prospect was particularly grim. Doubtless everyone knows by now that Robert broke his back in an accident at a party back in June, and now he's paralysed from the waist down.
The cold hard facts are that Robert will not be able to walk or play drums again. For a lesser person that could be the absolute end of the line, nothing left to do but wallow in self-pity.
Not Robert Wyatt, though. He's re-evaluating his position as a musician, and trying to find a way to return, to playing as soon as possible.
I went down to Stoke Mandeville Hospital with Mike Ratledge and Soft Machine manager Sean Murphy last week to see Robert. Frankly, it was a confrontation that I just didn't feel I was emotionally equipped to deal with.
What words could I possibly say to a personal musical hero, now confined to a wheelchair, that wouldn't sound like an obituary?
Some kids grew up with Gene Krupa, some with Jagger. Me, I grew up with the Soft Machine, went to more gigs than I can remember, and it was always an education to watch Robert.
It's not generally acknowledged yet, but Robert was a true innovator as far as drumming's concerned in the mid-sixties, single-handedly responsible, I think, for a lot of the cross-fertilisation that has occurred between rock and jazz.
But my worries were unfounded.
As soon as I saw Robert now out of the wards and as comfortable as possible in a cosy hospital annex called Ashendon House, I realised that he's capable of becoming an influential musician all over again.
One only has to look at his track record to understand the possibilities that are open to him. Generally speaking, if you deprive a drummer of his ability to drum, he doesn't usually have much to offer musically. Wyatt has always been more than just a drummer, however.
For two years he was the lead singer with a Canterbury band called the Wilde Flowers, and later of course he vocalised with the Soft Machine and Matching Mole, so he'll be singing more in future.
Then there's his keyboard playing, about which he's always been unnecessarily humble, because he's very original.
As if that weren't enough, he's dabbled with electric guitar ("Memories" on Daevid Allen's "Banana Moon" album), and he once played trumpet in a trio which featured Daevid Allen on guitar and Terry Riley on boogie-woogie piano.
He has actually done some recording since his accident, proof that you can't keep a good man down.
“I went on my first outing since the accident, last week,” he says, “to the Manor. I was hanging around the studios while Hatfield (and the North) were recording, hoping to be asked to rattle a tambourine or something, ‘cos I'm pretty good at that, and eventually Phil (Miller) getting embarrassed by my presence, gave me a piece of paper and said ‘Well, while you're here you might as well make yourself useful. Sing this.’
It was a new song that he'd just written. I thought ‘Christ, I'll never be able to learn it. I'll make a fool of myself.’ As it happened, though, it worked out all right.”
The Pink Floyd/Soft Machine benefit concert came as a pleasant surprise.
“I couldn't believe it at first, in fact I didn't believe it till I read it.
But I'm knocked out because it means I can stop worrying about money for a bit, and that's a tremendous load off my mind.”
And future plans? Rumour has it that Robert has written a whole batch of hit singles from his hospital bed.
“That's not quite true. I'd written a lot of songs for what was going to be the third Matching Mole album with Bill (MacCormick), Francis Monkman, and Gary Windo. I thought I'd got them all sort of safely stored in my head, but what with one thing and another I've forgotten most of them.
I've been working on some tape loops and things though.
By chance I've met a guy who's a friend of Ron Geesin's, and just happens to live across the road from here.
He's got a piano, and some Revox machines, and Alfie's got me this little Japanese organ. We've made some funny old tapes. This guy doesn't know anything about me or Soft Machine or anything, but does know a lot about recording techniques.”
And so, with more problems than most people could handle, he plans to slowly return to the fast-living rack 'n' roll circuit. I'm a hundred per cent certain that he'll be strong enough to cope with the pressures.