Wyatt Life - The Face N° 39 - July 1983
THE WYATT LIFE
After many years
of critical neglect and seven months sunny exile on a Spanish
beach, Robert Wyatt is back in favour. With the Costellopenned
"Shipbuilding" firmly established in the charts
and the hearts of the nation, Anthony Denselow drew Wyatt
out of his introspective mood for some quiet thoughts on
global music, PLU's and the new life of a former "classic
Sixties drop-out figure"
Photo by Mike Laye
Robert Wyatt has tried many
to his life and work. He has experimented with drink and
melancholic brooding, he has tried periods of relative working
normality when he has chatted openly to the press. He has
even tried tackling England from abroad. His most recent
approach seems to be a healthy combination of early introspection
and later career awareness.
He and his wife Alfie have now decided on the curious policy
of non recognition of PLU (people like us) which seems to
effectively mean that while he continues to seriously consider
his musical development he can hide out in Spain having
nothing whatsoever to do with the obscene worlds of media
and music business.
"It's not an act of hostility, in fact I'm quite grateful
to the music scene," says Wyatt. "It's more against
the kind of dreadful cultural narcissism that can occur
when like-minded people get together in a scene. I'm scared
of all the windows misting up and turning into mirrors."
In fact Wyatt's life has changed dramatically since he packed
up and headed for the Mediterranean seven months ago. He
had a single - "Shipbuilding" - bubbling so close
to the top 30 that only the FA cup replay postponed a Wyatt
airing on Top Of The Pops. He has suddenly become aware
of the growing following he's been attracting in recent
months and he has one of the year's finest albums as proof
of his importance in a music scene constantly drifting towards
the shallow end.
Wyatt sees himself as a "looker, watcher, selector
and editor" rather than as a live performer. The singles
that have been dribbling out on Rough Trade since the late
Seventies (collected on the new Wyatt album "Nothing
Can Stop Us" released recently for the second time)
are a truly oddball set of songs from staggeringly diverse
cultural contexts. The album is perhaps best described as
the first edition of Robert Wyatt's world view displaying
a total lack of concern with ego and fashion, rather a fascination
with world politics and the sort of universally powerful
music that can only lamely be described as folk.
There's a version of the Cuban national anthem updated to
talk about the presence American bases in Cuba that few
in the West know about. There's a song from Violetta Parra,
the Chilean responsible for getting that country's youth
song movement off the ground. "Her songs are straightforward,
unpolished, fragile and extraordinary," says Wyatt.
"This one's a helpless cry for Chileans to rise from
the grave and stand up for themselves."
There's Wyatt's heart-trembling version of Chic's "At
Last I Am Free", the typically child-like Ivor Cutler
song "Grass" ("Cutler says I sing it alright
except that I sing it as though it has meaning," reports
a surprised Wyatt); "Born Again Cretin" is inspired
by Nelson Mandela's imprisonment in South Africa; Billie
Holiday's "Strange Fruit" is about a racial lynching
in the American deep South while Wyatt's rendition of the
Red Flag speaks eloquently enough for itself.
"I suppose that I'm attracted to certain places but
it's more often just the tunes that get me first,"
says Wyatt about his material. "There are many musical
areas that I'm really into that I couldn't handle within
my technical range, things like Middle Eastern Arab music
and Oriental classical music. So this album doesn't reflect
all the styles that I'm interested in, just those that I
think I can add to."
Wyatt has also included work from
other people on the album. Along with Peter Blackman's rather
plodding poem about the battle of Stalingrad (revolutionary
in content, epic in style) is an excellent piece of music
from a British based Bengali troupe called Disharhi. Wyatt
heard them singing at an art against racism and fascism
concert and liked them so much he just asked them onto the
album. They sing (in Bengali) a trade union rallying song.
"I was accused of being elitist for not translating
the lyrics for the Parra and Disharhi songs," says
Wyatt. "It's not elitist if you're a Bengali is it?"
"Nothing Can Stop Us" is a generous album; a collection
of fine tunes, stimulating ideas and powerful emotions that
says much about the function and inspiration of music (as
it leaps between different cultural standpoints). Wyatt
himself is weary of giving the album too much significance.
"What we think of as global politics, global visions
and global cultures are in fact so conditioned by our Eurocentric
myopia that we still, despite our power and our increased
dealings with other people from around the world, haven't
come to terms with other cultures. I even make fun of attempting
to make a comprehensive world view with the title of the
album - which sounds quite revolutionary. It's a quote from
an American government official of the Thirties who reckoned
that America shouldn't make the same mistake as Britain
by trying to govern the world. He said America should simply
own it, nothing can stop us."
For its second outing to the record shops "Nothing
Can Stop Us" includes the Langer/Costello/Wyatt collaboration
"Shipbuilding", an intriguing partnership that
will hopefully bear more fruit in the future. Clive Langer,
apparently inspired by the way in which Wyatt sings the
Billie Holiday song "Strange Fruit", wrote the
music. Elvis Costello supplied the bleak lyrics and Wyatt
received the demo tape through the post one morning.
"It's been the happiest experience I've had as a producer/songwriter,"
says an unusually enthusiastic Elvis Costello of his encounter
with Wyatt. "The song has been realised perfectly.
It sounds completely like the intent of the lyric and melody,
Wyatt has an amazing voice. I'd always wanted to hear Dusty
Springfield record one of my songs and when she did 'Just
A Memory' it was a great bland disappointment. I think that
people have been so overwhelmed by the melancholy of Robert's
singing that the political comment in 'Shipbuilding' hasn't
been immediately spotted. The lyric seems to filter through
afterwards; the BBC probably wouldn't like it otherwise."
Wyatt seems to invest everything he sings with this
haunting sadness (it will be interesting to hear Costello's
version of "Shipbuilding" on his forthcoming album)
but he shies away from any boasts on his role as a singer.
"Maybe it's melancholic because I don't consciously
emote," he offers. "I'm aware that there are people
- musicians - who say that I'm an influence on them but
I really don't know enough about the current music scene.
In fact there's no one idiom available to me that I feel
comfortable with. Rock I find too musically dogmatic. I
was brought up on the sort of jazz with fluid, ambiguous,
drumming and walking bass lines and I guess it's that kind
of breezy fluidity that I'm trying to put into singing songs.
I still get infuriated with rigid blocks of verses and instrument
breaks, but I'm working on it."
Wyatt is sitting in his Twickenham flat (a quiet backwater
by the river that he still maintains despite the move to
Spain) surrounded by objects reflecting his preoccupations
in life. The walls of his brightly painted breakfast room
are covered with Alfie's equally bright paintings and with
ethnic art objects; the bookshelves are full of political,
mainly Communist, literature. He has a music room where
he can play piano (his toy organ has recently broken) and
bits of percussion. He has a specially built ramp so he
can run his wheelchair into the neat bird-haven garden.
The flat was bought for them partly by their friend Julie
Christie and from money raised by a charity concert given
by the Pink Floyd after Wyatt's tragic accident ten-years-ago
when he broke his spine falling from a house window. "I
didn't have to use all the money," recalls Wyatt, "because
the album 'Rock Bottom', which I still think is great, was
actually making me some money."
Given Wyatt's current popularity after years in the wilderness
it's incredible to consider that his first musical tangles
were back in the Sixties. As the drummer with Soft Machine
(he was then only a closet singer) he toured the US supporting
Jimi Hendrix, and built up quite a following in this country
("among the wrong sort of people") for his bare-backed
The son of a psychologist father and journalist mother,
Wyatt was the perfect Sixties drop-out figure, the untrained
and illeducated intellectual member of a jazz-rock fusion
band. After Soft Machine disbanded in 1971 Wyatt started
to sing, first on the "End Of An Ear" album, then
with the band Matching Mole (recording that classic Wyatt
song "Caroline") and on the other solo albums
"Rock Bottom" and "Ruth Is Stranger Than
Richard". All these records are now difficult to obtain.
While the early albums often reflected Wyatt's frustration
with the traditional song format (another Matching Mole
song was actually about verses and choruses) he has steadily
developed the political quality of his songwriting and music
choice. Wyatt is a paid-up member of the Communist Party
and he feels that the CP helped him move away from the shock
of his accident and from the narcissism of rock in the mid
Seventies to a more considered philosophy.
"It helped me focus the jungle
of my thoughts, but it's difficult to talk about politics
and its relationship with music. I think Julie Burchill
is the only person I know of who can articulate that. I
don't think of music as intrinsically political (as some
do) but I think it's quite pretentious to claim that you're
not trying to say anything when you sing. All noise is communication
and reminds you of words. Personally I see the political
role of music in a totally different light. "Memories
Of You" for example (the B-side of 'Shipbuilding')
may sound just like a nostalgia song but it's political
for me because Eubie Blake who wrote it and who was 100
in 1983 was writing before jazz and somehow represents a
much used but amazingly uncredited strand of American popular
music. That he gets some royalties for that song is the
only genuinely quantifiable political act I can make: the
transfer of resources. Beyond that I have no control over
a song and how it affects anybody."
Wyatt's greatest joy in life is to take the phone off the
hook and tune his radio into a variety of exotic stations.
When he hits Radio Moscow, then he's off in dreamland. He
reads and listens to music from all over the world, especially
the early and obscure jazz that he grew up with, and recently
he has been expanding his fascination with all things Spanish.
Robert and Alfie live in "something bigger than
a garage" right on the beach south of Barcelona.
Alfie paints and Wyatt wheels himself around the beach,
writes, reads, attends regular weekend Catalan piss-ups,
and has been getting to hear as much pure Flamenco music
as possible. He is lucky that Barcelona has a good spinal
unit for he cannot stray away too far from medical surveillance.
"Being in a wheelchair has been like a short cut
to feeling old. You are forcibly removed from things like
sexual panic. You worry about getting in and out of places.
You start finding yourself sitting on park benches next
to retired couples. You feel more fixed, less nomadic.
You get tired quicker, and being a paraplegic, my body
is actually aging faster than most people's. You cannot
be spontaneous, you worry about the future and whether
people will buy your records. I never thought that ten
Wyatt has again retreated back to Spain to consider his
next form of musical attack. Apart from the singles and
now one album, he has had little commercial output in
years and he says he could never consider performing live.
"I had to get drunk to do it before; it would mean
having things like managers and microphones." He
also made that excellent soundtrack for Victor Schonfeld's
horrifically distressing The Animals Film largely
because Julie Christie, the narrator, asked him to. He
worked furiously for months for £100. Talking Heads
demanded £500 just for the use of their music during
the opening sequence.
At the moment Wyatt is carefully observing the policy
of avoidance of PLU and he has yet to actually write a
song in Spain. Those of us who have been mesmerised by
Wyatt's dolorous singing will just have to wait. But hopefully
another album will not take another decade in coming.
"I can't do anything else in life declares stoically,
"I have to keep doing this somehow."