is ROBERT and WYATT matters - Pulse! N° 170 - May 1998
WHO IS ROBERT AND WYATT MATTERS
ELDER STATESMAN ON HEGEMONY, HENDRIX AND HEAPS OF SHEEP
BY BILL FORMAN
PHOTOGRAPH BY GUIDO HARARI
Given free will, Robert
Wyatt would prefer to live his life as part of a dance
rather than as if there were some great weight on his
shoulders. "Most people think they ought to stop
being trivial and get serious, but I'm trying to get light
from heavy," says Wyatt in the wake of Shleep
(Thirsty Bar), the Soft Machine founder's most congenial
and collaborative album in many years, featuring contributions
from Brian Eno, Paul Weller and other friends, old and
new. "When you let it, life can be so heavy, gravity
becomes too great, and you can hardly function. And I
think the thing is to somehow become some kind of gas
and float above it."
Wyatt has surely had his run-ins with gravity: Both his
touring and drumming career came to an abrupt end in 1973,
when a fall from a third-story window left Wyatt paralyzed
from the waist down. By that point, he had already quit
his band Soft Machine and started another called Matching
Mole (pidgin French for Soft Machine). Forced to abandon
the custom Maplewood kit that Jimi Hendrix Experience
drummer Mitch Mitchell had given him after Hendrix and
the Softs toured America together, Wyatt switched to keyboards
and set about reconstructing himself as a solo artist.
Wyatt's voice, a plaintive countertenor he once likened
to "Jimmy Sommerville on valium," has always
been unconventional yet oddly accessible. His sad choirboy
vocals float serenely through an ambient soundscape of
understated keyboard and percussion, colored by the subdued
improvisations of his avant-jazz friends. If the most
blatant jazz-rock fusion acts combined an excess of technique
with a paucity of ideas, Wyatt's approach was more fission,
a contemplative yet compelling mix of free jazz, naive
pop and English eccentricity.
A year after the accident, Wyatt recorded an altogether
unlikely cover of the Neil Diamond-penned Monkees single
"I'm a Believer," which became a hit and landed
him on the BBC's Top of the Pops. Accompanied that
evening by Pink Floyd's Nick Mason, Henry Cow's Fred Frith
and future Police-man Andy Summers, Wyatt lipsynched his
way through clenched teeth after a BBC producer insisted
that his wheelchair was unsuitable for prime-time televiewing.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, Wyatt's music grew
simpler, more direct, and-with the 1975 death of his friend
Mongezi Feza - intensely political. "When Mongezi
died, I suddenly realized that apartheid was killing my
closest friends, and that's when politics right across
the world becomes just as personal as anything can be,"
says Wyatt of the exiled South African trumpeter featured
on Wyatt's Rock Bottom and Ruth Is Stranger
Than Richard (two of the six Wyatt albums Thirsty
Ear plans to reissue this year). "You can be theoretically
anti-racist or anti-apartheid and say, "I don't think
people should be allowed to have a kind of internaI slave
population servicing their businesses" - which is
what South Africa was, a kind of internaI colonization
- and you can know that abstractly. But when you actually
have South Africans who come here just so they can play
music together and when, in their early thirties, they
start dying because you find out they've been living on
no food and too much gin from the gin palaces since they
were about 9 years old, and even after coming to England,
they would be so terrified every time they saw a policeman
that they would nearly have a heart attack. Mongezi Feza
died a quite unnecessary death of double pneumonia whilst
he was in a psychiatric hospital, and he was really only
in a psychiatric hospital because he just couldn't handle
whether he was allowed to deal with white people or not.
He was so confused about what the relationship now was.
So then he died. I had actually planned to make a lot
of records with him. I had thought I' d found my ideal
Wyatt's songwriting reached its political apex with 1985's
Old Rottenhat, a starkly beautiful album whose
musings on the anti-imperialist theories of Noam Chomsky
and the troubles in East Timor earned a mixed critical
response. "WeIl, I'm really glad you heard [the album'
s minimalist aesthetic] as clarity, because some people
heard it as not much going on, which is missing what was
going on, I think," says Wyatt. "I mean, there
are some people who just don't like my politics, and I
understand that, but sometimes they sidestep that by saying
they don't like my style. I don't mind. You can't tell
people what to listen to. You have to be grateful if they
listen to anything you do, really."
It was also during the mid-'80s that Wyatt released a
series of 7-inch cover singles on Rough Trade, including
the Billie Holiday classic "Strange Fruit,"
an anthemic remake of Chic' s " At Last I Am Free,"
and the anti-war ballad "Shipbuilding," which
Elvis Costello wrote for Wyatt so that he could hear it
sung by the saddest voice in the world. "I think
part of the job of a-can I use the word artist? - is not
just to make objects, but to find the beauty in objects
that already exist and to represent it. It's not that
something has to be new or indeed perhaps that
anything ever can be new, but somehow you must
make it new. And that's really what I wanted to
do with those songs."
As a vocal interpreter, Wyatt prefers the understated
style of, say, Chet Baker over the melismatic maneuvers
that have become de rigueur for contemporary jazz vocalists.
"I've listened to singers who are kind of instrumentalists
in denial," laughs Wyatt without naming names. "If
they really think the voice is just an instrument, they're
wrong. The fact is if somebody is going 'Oooda-da-deeda-dee-da,'
you know it's a person doing it and there's no
way it's like listening to a trumpet or a saxophone.
We all tend to listen to voices quite differently, which
perhaps goes back to childhood when we listened out for
our mother's voice. So the human voice carries with it
something that no other instrument does, and you just
have to remember that when you're singing."
Wyatt says he someday hopes to record an album's worth
of Gershwin-era covers: "You know, the Nazis' definition
of degenerate music was mournful Jewish tunes sung by
Negroes to sexual rhythms, or something like that. Now
if I were an American, that's something I'd be really
proud of. So I really would like to do some more of those
mournful Jewish melodies. But if I'm getting ideas for
my own tunes, they take precedence. Not because I think
they're more important, but because if I don't do those,
nobody else will."
Which brings us back to the long overdue Shleep,
Wyatt's first full album in seven years. This time out,
politics seems to have taken a backseat to semiotics,
with Wyatt's crafty wordplay evoking the more enigmatic
lyrical terrain of his early work. "I'm not by nature
into either confessional personal songs, particularly,
or polemics in songs, particularly ," says Wyatt.
"Even when I was writing a lot of songs with overt
political references, an awful lot of things I was thinking
about didn't get into the songs. Songs aren't just sentences
set to music. They have to come through [in] that hallucinatory
form. They come from somewhere else.
"Actually, a number of Shleep's songs came
from Wyatt's wife Alfrede Benge, whose poetry he is forever
finding around their old wooden dacha deep in the English
countryside. Thus the title cut, recorded over Alfie's
mild objections, with its image of an insomniac's sheep-counting
where it landed
refusing to exit, remained.
(Creating a vast writhing
heap growing fast on the left).
"I couldn 't waste that,
could I?" laughs Wyatt. "She thought it was
a bit trivial, but it just made me laugh, and it made
Brian Eno laugh, too. So we did it anyway. You know, she
writes these things and then I find them and then that's
what happens. When you're in the same house with somebody,
you can't hide everything."
Wyatt has paid tribute to his wife on past recordings,
most notably on the surreal " Alifib" and poignant
"P.L.A. (Poor Little Alfie)." On Shleep,
that tradition continues with "The Duchess,"
a loopy number in which Wyatt vows:
is old and young,
so sweet with her poison
on her evenings off she
blackmails toffs, but her
secret's safe with me."
"We actually wrote 'The Duchess'
together, but I got writing credit because she didn't
want to be associated with such silliness," he says
of his partner, who might have known better after so many
years. "That's right," says Wyatt with a laugh,
"it' s a bit late now, isn 't it?"
Alfie isn 't the only old friend who
turns up on Shleep. Roxy Music vets Eno and Phil
Manzanera (who lent Wyatt the use of his Gallery Studio)
also help shape the sound, as does jazzman Evan Parker and
trombonist Annie Whitehead. Citing the "courage of
old age," Wyatt even dusted off the trumpet he hasn
't played on record since Soft Machine days. "My excuse
is this," says Wyatt, sounding only slightly apologetic.
"The particular people who make the exact sound I want
to hear on trumpet - Mongezi Feza, Don Cherry, Miles Davis
and Chet Baker - have now all died. I really love the great
jazz trumpet tradition, you know, people like Clark Terry
and Maynard Ferguson and the Marsalis School and now Roy
Hargrove, but I'm not trying to do any of that. I'm just
trying to extend the range of the song when I'm playing."
With one foot in the folksong tradition, Wyatt has always
been more tolerant of simplicity than his jazz friends:
"Given that I'd been brought up on the sort of harmonic
preoccupations of Bartok and Thelonious Monk, how could
I possibly be interested in people who use basic chords
and rhythms? And the point is that there is something else
going on which transcends the obvious analysis of whether
or not this is a complicated or interesting chord. There's
something way beyond that with a good singer, someone like
Bob Dylan, who just has one of those magic voices."
Wyatt, in fact, pays tribute to Sir Bob on the "Subterranean
Homesick Blues" - inspired "Blues in Bob Minor,"
which culminates, by the way, in a caution not to let the
"gringos grind you down." ("So anybody who
says there's no politics on this, just point them to that
last line," Wyatt says with a laugh.) It's also one
of the tracks that features Paul Weller, who was recording
down the hall and volunteered his guitar services, just
as Jimi Hendrix once stopped by a Wyatt session decades
ago and asked if he could try adding a bassline ("You
wouldn 't have to use it," whispered Hendrix) . "Funny
enough, Paul Weller is the first person I've met who had
that same intensity of presence when you're in the room
with him, but is equally gentlemanly and modest about what
he can do. Hendrix was always worried that his singing wasn't
good enough, or his guitar solos were too long or he couldn't
write songs as interesting as Bob Dylan. ln that sense,
he was almost the opposite of most other guitar legends
that l've met, who were very full of themselves indeed.
Hendrix was just a considerate person, really; can you imagine
that in the '60s!?"
Shleep also boasts a kind of reunion with former
Soft Machine mate Hugh Hopper, who provided the melody for
"Was a Friend." "He occasionally writes a
song that's too simple for the jazz treatments he'll use
for his own groups, so he'll send them to me and ask if
I would like to use them," says Wyatt. "But we
haven't actually met for a long time." Still, Wyatt's
lyrics for "Was a Friend" convey a sense of bittersweet
reconciliation, a sentiment that resonates throughout much
of the new album:
Faded scars are painless -
just an itch.
We are forgiven. It's been a
"There are some songs that you couldn 't even write
in your twenties, because you don't know that yet, and I
think this is probably one of them," says Wyatt. "That's
one of the advantages of surviving, you get time to find
these things out."