By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
I’m as mad as any hatter . . . I feel safer touching wood.
—“Just a Bit”
When it comes to the persistent problem of descriptive inadequacy in contemporary music criticism, there can be no more fitting example than Robert Wyatt, the non-genre-bound English singer/composer/multi-instrumentalist who more than anyone has blurred the lazy lines in that vast space somewhere between “serious” music and pop detritus.
You may or may not be aware of Wyatt — a genuinely legendary figure to fans nonaligned with rock’s personality-based Grand Gesture canon — from his drumming/singing days alongside such luminary loons as Kevin Ayers and Gong’s Daevid Allen in the avant-jazz-rock band Soft Machine, or perhaps from his stint in the subsequent whimsically modernist jazzy-pop combo Matching Mole (from the French machin mol or “soft machine”), or maybe from his numerous guest plaintive-choirboy appearances on recordings by the cream of the ’70s English art-rock crowd such as Henry Cow, Hatfield and the North, and especially on Michael Mantler’s album of Edward Gorey settings, The Hapless Child; though not an admirer of the song’s composer, Neil Diamond, Wyatt also had an English chart-topper in the ’70s with his earnest cover of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer.”
And then you may or may not have heard about the night that Wyatt fell from a fourth-story window at a drunken London party and broke his back, leaving his legs useless. His crawl from the wreckage on the 1974 solo album Rock Bottom — a set of characteristically sweet/mournful pieces dealing or perhaps not dealing with his recent catastrophe, his complex relationship with his wife, artist/writer Alfreda Benge, with his violently altered self and the seashore outside his door — won numerous prizes upon its release and in non-mainstream circles is still spoken of in hushed tones.
At infrequent intervals throughout the ’70s up to today, Wyatt has issued forth via numerous collaborations as a vocal interpreter and with a series of idiosyncratically moving solo discs such as Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard, Old Rottenhat, Dondestanand Shleep, all of which are varied in approach but all of which bear his exceptional way of combining an understatedly experimental musicality with an almost unbearable yearning. And now after a bit of a lull, Wyatt has not one but two new discs out: Cuckooland (Ryko), featuring collaborations with Benge, Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera, Karen Mantler and others, is his latest and possibly greatest collection of inverted love songs and observational set pieces; Solar Flares Burn for You, on the excellent progressive-music label Cuneiform, is a fascinating collection of BBC performances from the early ’70s, along with a couple of new loop-art tunes with former Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper, as well as a video of the titular short experimental film for which Wyatt composed the obliquely beautiful score in 1973.
What is most essential to know about Robert Wyatt is that he has created a quietly devastating body of deeply personal and musically advanced work that cannot help but sound instantly recognizable yet like nothing else in the whole wide world; thus, of course, he’s been relegated to the fringes, to the art ghetto, in America, anyway. Which is a serious crime, as Wyatt’s music is in its own peculiar way highly accessible, which the American college-radio generation of the mid-’80s to early ’90s discovered, briefly boosting Wyatt’s profile as a godfather-ish figure on the mount of post-rock “alternative” songwriters.
To be well ahead of one’s own time is simply the lot and the burden of the artist, clichĂ©d though that may be. And Wyatt is the genuine article, if only for the fact that, apparently, he has invented his own very distinct tonality; it is as if he hears consonance in a hugely albeit subtly expanded way. Wyatt’s not at all from the self-consciously lo-fi Neil Young/Pavement school, but you might liken the experience of hearing him to the way you adjust to one of those films shot hand-held on Hi-8; after a few minutes, the shakiness and fuzz around the lens become a part of the very soul of the film. I run that analogy by Wyatt over the phone from his home in Lincolnshire, England.
“Yeah, it is that way,” he says. “I think more like a filmmaker might think than as a concert promoter.”
Fortunately, I’ve never been able to pinpoint the exact sources of Wyatt’s way of hearing.
“Well, if I have a sort of imaginary country that I come from, it’s the land of jazz,” he says, laughing. “I was brought up in the ’50s, and obviously jazz was the main event at the time. Recently I realized that very important was the West Coast work of 50 years ago. It seemed to be more eccentric — Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman and so on. Twentieth-century painting used to be my thing, and I found a sort of directness from painting to jazz which I didn’t quite find in any other music; that link comes straight from the creator, through you, to the audience. And unlike in the buttoned-up European tradition, it’s all the same person, so that the person thinking of it is the person doing it.” (Wyatt, by the way, has never presented himself as a jazzer as such. He is that rarity, an English singer who sings like an Englishman — ’e drops ’is aitches.)