At home in the ‘groover’s paradise’
"I’m sort of surprised there aren’t more of me around,” Robyn Hitchcock muses, stirring an iced coffee at Bongo East on a blistering Nashville afternoon, looking about like what you’d expect him to, in an untucked flower-print white shirt, dark jeans, and what look like low-cut Beatle boots.
He’s just been confronted with the notion that there is only one of him, and how he stumps any “sounds like” attempts there might be to pigeonhole him, as the industry always feels the need to do. “I suppose I’m quite proud of that,” he says, English vowels bouncing around. “At least it means I’ve done something nobody else has done. It may be something that nobody else wanted or needed to do. It might be like somebody building an extravagant folly, making a 50-foot statue of Mickey Mouse out of pine cones or something.”
Robyn Rowan Hitchcock was born in 1953 in Paddington, London. He is a man of both pop hooks and delicate sculpted silence, profoundly influenced by Bob Dylan and sounding nothing like him, curator of surrealist lyrics leavened with mordant mother country wit. He wrote one of the loneliest lyrics of all time, “Television, say you love me” and followed it with “bing a bong a bing bong!” Right around a year ago, he and Australian singer-songwriter Emma Swift chose East Nashville as their home, and that probably says as much about the East Side as it does about Hitchcock. This loam has proven friendly purchase for the man who wrote “Sandra’s Having Her Brain Out.”
From his classic work in the ’70s with The Soft Boys, to his MTV success in the ’80s as leader of Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians, to his collaboration with Peter Buck in the Minus 3 and his important work in the new millennium with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, among others, Hitchcock has danced to his own beat and carried his own water. Be it electric jangly guitar riffs that ring and chime, to quiet acoustic moments that warm the room, Hitchcock is less psychedelic in the notes he plays as opposed to the words he sings. His lyrics are by turns whimsical and lacerating. He sings of love, he sings of lost love, he sings about insects, he sings about anything he bloody well wants to, and he’s been doing it for a fervent bunch of followers going on 40 years now. He has the voice to sing, “it rained like a slow divorce” with no smile, daring the listener to ask whether he’s being funny or is as serious as any man could be. You might say that’s the Dylan influence, but you can’t learn to be wry. You’ve either got it or you don’t.
Sipping his coffee, he gets back to the subject of his singularity. “I’m so obviously a product of my time,” he says, “My musical and lyrical approach comes out of the late ’60s, the kind of wordgasms that Bob Dylan and Captain Beefheart engaged in, to name two; I remember getting into them, William Burroughs, and Shakespeare when I was 16, and just everything opening up, word-wise. There were a lot of receptive minds around listening to and reading the same stuff. The cross-pollination between Dylan and the Beatles is legendary, and goes on to this day. So I’m surprised there aren’t more people who sound like me and have the attitude I have.”
To an observer, Hitchcock must leave all eccentricities to his art. There’s no hipster genius catatonia, none of Dylan’s Chin Gigante routine. Clear-skinned, bright-eyed, and delectably sane, white-headed and personable, he looks nowhere near his age of 63, suggesting that the man so steeped in psychedelia has done his composing with no more chemical goosing than what he was born with. He answers every question thoughtfully, occasionally pausing at some length as he divines just the right lyrical turn of phrase, being it of Mickey Mouse pinecone effigies or anything else of his choosing.
Speaking of singularities, Bryan Ferry was playing the Ryman that night and Hitchcock was excited to be going. “He doesn’t seem like the kind of person you can imagine actually existing in real life,” he says, as one might speculate of Hitchcock himself. “But he does exist on stage, and for a mortal he’s in good shape. He’s like a life-size Bryan Ferry doll which ages as everybody must. He’s neither fallen apart like Keith Richards, nor has he desperately tried to fight off time like Jagger. I haven’t seen him for two years, so maybe it’s all changed, maybe he’s sprouted brambles and tulips and is staggering around carrying a watering can patting a horse, talking in a west country brogue.” Have they ever met? “I poured a cup of tea for him once in Norway.”
In and amongst his touring schedule, Hitchcock has been holing up, a bit at a time, in Raconteur Brendan Benson’s well-appointed studio just off Music Row. A few days after meeting at Bongo Java, Robyn sits in Benson’s control room with a hollow-bodied Gibson diffidently finger-picking an overdub. The track they’re working on, “1970 in Amber,” about days gone by and memories that remain, is signature Hitchcock, but also not. With a pumping acoustic rhythm guitar, stacked harmonies from Wilco’s Pat Sansome, Swift, and fellow Aussie Anne McCue, and, snaking through the mix, a pedal steel guitar courtesy of Russ Pohl, there’s a whiff of Son Volt. It’s nothing overt; this isn’t Robyn Goes Twang! — but it is there, Hitchcock taking in his surroundings and putting it back out again. A few days later, Gillian Welch would again show up and add her two cents. And there may be other guests to come.
“Everyone plays beautifully,” Hitchcock offers, “They’re all professionals, and they’re quick. Half of it wasn’t even rehearsed.” Welcome to Music City, Robyn.
“The record is seen through the prism of Nashville, largely about people who have gone,” he says later. “I’ve always been pretty backward looking. I was never a sort for rubbing my hands together and going, ‘Boy, howdy, I can’t wait for the future.’ The future is a very ominous place that never quite arrives, but the closer you get to it the more terrifying it looks. But you have no choice but to go into it. I think a lot of people are just reversing into the future. There’s more than they can stand. It’s bad enough getting old without your phone getting old as well, you know, or your belief system getting old. We on the left, you know, we mourn the ’60s and ’70s, and the other side mourns the ’50s and the ’30s. It’s the same in Britain, too.”
Hitchcock was born into a quintessential English upper middle class household, with a sister and two loving parents. His father was the novelist Raymond Hitchcock, who had success with Percy, about a man who receives a penis transplant and embarks on a quest to find the donor. It was made into a movie in 1970 with The Kinks providing the soundtrack. “It was slightly risqué in its time,” Hitchcock says, “My mother and grandmother were a bit shocked when it came out, I suppose. But some people gave Raymond an absolute shovelful of money for making a movie out of his book, in exchange for which he gave away all the rights, and as it turns out there’s only one sentence from his whole book that made it into the movie.” His father was a bit of a Renaissance man. He wrote and painted and drew cartoons, he did everything except play music. “And maybe,” surmises Hitchcock, “I went into music so I wasn’t in competition with him.”
Even if his parents didn’t play music, they liked having it around. “My father used to buy skiffle and rockabilly records for us,” he says, “so we had Lonnie Donegan and Bill Haley. About the third thing I can remember in life is spinning around in a circle singing ‘One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock rock!’ so I knew that stuff from the time that I was 3, and some folk songs he used to buy, and then later on The Beatles came.
“One day my father turned up with a transistor radio,” Hitchcock continues. “He liked gadgets. But they were quite big in those days, about five times the size of a laptop. He was very proud of it. I came in from school one day, he pointed at the table and said, ‘Look! My wireless! It doesn’t plug in!’ There was an hour a week of the Top 20 on British national radio. This was 1963 and The Beatles had just hit, and he said, ‘Why don’t you listen to this?’ — which was nice because I don’t think he was listening to it, but he thought we might like it. So we listened to The Beatles and The Shadows and Roy Orbison, and things like that. And the next week, my sister and I just pushed the radio around outside in the garden in a pram, like a stroller posh Brits put their kids in. We had a toy one and like some post-apocalyptic couple, we shuffled through the hedges pushing this pram and listening to ‘From Me to You.’ ”
Soon enough came an English rite of passage for upper crust boys or those near enough to it, in which young and tender fellows are wrestled away from home and Mum and Dad, and are sent off to boarding school, where homesickness is expected to be dealt with by keeping a stiff English upper lip and getting on with things. “That’s what they do in Britain, the upper classes,” Hitchcock says now, “First, they cripple you emotionally, and then, they send you out to run the country. It’s a neat one-two.”
As it was, from a pop music perspective, there might have never been a better time to be an English lad off at boarding school, even if you just listened and didn’t play. “I loved all that music, but I didn’t see myself as doing it,” he says. “And then I heard Bob Dylan do ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ while I was feeling cut off in this male, monastic community, in a strange town. There I was, my parents having paid all this money for me to be expensively educated, and all I can remember from my school days is the sequence of Bob Dylan albums, Beatles albums, the Stones, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, The Incredible String Band, The Doors — that’s all I remember!
“One day, some hipster turned up asking if I’d heard of The Velvet Underground. He said, ‘Oh, it’s something else. It’s quite naughty.’ I remember listening to ‘Heroin,’ and just — oh my god. I was 15, I think. So those four years from ’66 to ’70, I just marinated myself in music as pop turned into rock; about halfway through all that, I knew I wanted to do this.”
Knowing what he wanted to do and doing it were two different things. “I didn’t know what the job was called because there wasn’t a description for what a trainee Bob Dylan was,” he says and laughs. “There wasn’t really a guidebook for being a spokesman for Western youth. On a personal level, you’d say you were going to be a troubadour or psychedelic folkie.”
He was a total child of his era, and his music reflected that from day one. “It was a straight line,” he says. “You can look at my record collection and me and totally extrapolate where I am today. I’m completely predictable. It’s just a fast track from there to now.”
As a teen (with Brian Eno as a classmate) nestled in that green and pleasant land, America might as well have been another planet. “I remember first reading about Nashville,” he says, “and I was wondering, ‘Where’s Nashville?’ Oh, it’s mentioned in Blonde On Blonde. And then 50 years later, Pete Finney’s taking me around the Nashville Cats exhibition and explaining exactly who Kenny Buttrey was and how I could still see Charlie McCoy, and how he might even turn up at The 5 Spot!”
Upon his graduation from boarding school, he spent the ensuing years painting pictures in art school, playing in cover bands and busking on street corners. He’d started writing songs when he was 16. “I only played covers in public for years because my own stuff wasn’t any good,” Hitchcock demurs. “It probably took me 10 years to write a decent song. I think I wrote my first songs that I still play now when I was 26. So I had a very long apprenticeship.”
History doesn’t necessarily agree with that assertion, as the Soft Boys broke out with incendiary psychedelic riff-rock in 1976, when Hitchcock was 23. With Hitchcock working out his kinetic dark humor, they went against the grain of the burgeoning safety pin, spiked hair, and skinny tie set. The Soft Boys’ two studio albums, A Can of Bees and Underwater Moonlight, are cherished classics these days, as is the wonderful, hard-to-find acoustic live LP, Live At The Portland Arms, which is worth hunting down not only for the screamingly funny spoken interlude of “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin,” but also for the a capella take of Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” and the Soft Boys’ own “Human Music,” one of Hitchcock’s best early tunes.
Breaking up in 1980 (but with several partial reunions in the coming decades), Hitchcock soldiered on with Robyn Hitchcock and The Egyptians and other collaborations already noted, along with purely solo stuff, for what so far has been a dizzying 35-ish total releases, and that’s not counting live albums and greatest hits collections. Casual listeners looking for an introduction to his work would do well to pick up Chronology (The Very Best of Robyn Hitchcock) from 2011, which, like most collections for artists of such repute, is nourishing for what it contains and infuriating for what it leaves out. Listeners hankering for a deeper dive into his catalog may prefer the indispensable I Often Dream of Trains, Fegmania!, Queen Elvis, Spooked, and any of about 15 others. Songs of note include the swinging “Give It To The Soft Boys,” “Veins of the Queen,” and the hilarious “Uncorrected Personality Traits.”
And what about personal favorites? “ ‘N.Y. Doll,’ ‘Sometimes A Blonde,’ ‘I Don’t Remember Guildford’ — they’re all sad songs, which is my favorite kind” he says. “I like ‘Madonna of the Wasps,’ it has a good Scottish-type melody. ‘Insanely Jealous’ and ‘Kingdom of Love’ are my two faves from the Soft Boys era — young and intense. My new record is old and intense. ‘The Cheese Alarm’ is probably the most ‘Robyn Hitchcock’ of my songs; it’s fun, although not my favorite.”
The concert film Storefront Hitchcock, directed by Jonathan Demme, is also worth noting. (Hitchcock has appeared in small roles in a number of Demme films.) If there is a thread unspooling through all this work, it’s been toward the madcap elements being tamped down a bit over time, and the introspection deepening and darkening like the wood on a good table.
There is an excellent documentary on Hitchcock called Sex, Food, Death … and Insects, an original production by the Sundance Channel (now SundanceTV) in which the interviewer probed Robyn’s dura mater for some revealing insights, such as this one:
“Life is always a shock to me. I’m always taken by surprise. Most of my songs, if they’re about anything, are about the shock of existence. People say, ‘Wow, Hitchcock writes about food, sex, and death, with a side order of fish and insects,’ like I’m all about being insanely whimsical. Like, ‘Here comes Hitchcock, the old food, sex, and death man. Never mind him!’ I don’t always know what I’m on about. If anything, I’m about ‘write the song first and ask questions later.’ Dark and funny definitely fit well together. Why not sing it?”
And this one:
“At heart, I’m a frightened, angry person. There’s a hot core, and then on top I have this sort of whimsical, academic detachment, sprinkled with rock & roll mannerisms I’ve picked up over the years. But deep down, I’m screaming, and I think that’s why I’ve kept going.”
When asked to follow up on that, Hitchcock says, “When that documentary was being made, I had started a long-overdue course of therapy. And I was starting to discover myself, shine a flashlight around the damp cave of my interior. Many more sessions later I think I understand where that feeling came from. Both my father and his father fought in World Wars. My grandpa Jack was in the Battle of the Somme, and although not physically wounded, was never the same after he returned. His son, my father, Raymond, joined the army at 17 and was wounded in the leg at 22, and he couldn’t bend his right knee ever again. Trauma is now believed to be passed through in DNA. Raymond inherited Jack’s feelings, added his own battlefield horror, and passed the parcel down to me. I have long woken my partners up with my yelling at night, I’m sorry to say. In my dreams I am fighting something off — threatening to kill it if it gets any closer. I still don’t know what it is, but at least I think I know where it’s from.”
As a wanderer who “likes living somewhere I’m not from” and being the Dylan fan that he is, it seems inevitable he eventually would come to Nashville to record. So in 2004, he found himself at Woodland Studios. “It was my first visit to East Nashville, my first exposure to what was becoming this nascent groover’s paradise,” Hitchcock recalls. He asked Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings to drop by and maybe lend a helping hand on a few tunes. As it turned out, all he had was a few tunes, but they were drawn into doing an entire album. The songs fell from the sky and were recorded before they hit the ground. Dark and foreboding, that became Spooked, and in a nod to his muse, it includes a cover of Lucky Wilbury’s “Trying to Get to Heaven.” He also recorded a new version of “Television.”
Hitchcock had long been a semipermanent resident of America, living for a while in Washington, D.C., with his girlfriend at the time. He also has a house in London and has long considered the Isle of Wight to be a sentimental getaway going back to his boyhood. (He saw Hendrix’s and Jim Morrison’s last gigs ever at the big festivals there, as well as Dylan’s return to form with The Band.) He still gets back there around once a year.
Now with Emma Swift, the two made a tentative long visit to East Nashville in late 2014, and made the big move in August 2015. Since moving on up to the East Side, it’s been good for both of them.
“What’s struck me about Nashville is, firstly, how many musicians are here,” Hitchcock says. “It says welcome to Music City at the airport, and they’re not kidding. It’s exactly that. This is where you find them. You go into The 5 Spot and see the people that you’re playing with the next day. I really like that community. I like the layout of East Nashville, too. I don’t drive so I like walking between here and Shelby Park, and I like the fact that 5 Points is a groover’s strip — you know, like, it’s like your version of Camden Lot or Queen Street in Toronto — and ours here isn’t a strip, it’s just where they all converge. So you’ve got The 5 Spot, the 3 Crow, Bongo Java, but it’s all essentially walking distance. I can’t buy a pair of socks or anything, but there are the vintage stores, there’s Fanny’s, they buy instruments because they look good as well as the way they sound, a very visual music store. There’s the wine merchant, you can just walk down the road and within 15, 20 minutes, it’s all there. London is so scattered. There are masses of everything in London, but it’s all over the place, and it’s very expensive. I had a great pub I used to go to, but it was about 10 miles from my house so you’d spend about 60 quid in taxis getting there and back. So for me, I like the walking distance in East Nashville. There are also loads of venues in town.”
Back in the studio, taking a break while Brendan works up a rough mix, Hitchcock muses on his longevity. “I don’t go away,” he says cheerfully. “I do what I do, and so far, nothing has deflected me.” At this point, chances are nothing ever will.