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, Dondestan and 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, clichéd 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.)
All new music comes from somewhere, and in Wyatt’s case jazz’s extemporaneous tendencies are encoded in the heart of his newfangled song-shapes.
“I’m a bit backwards in the sense that, when I’m recording, I improvise and then build that up with other musicians in the studio, and then I do the kind of arrangement, and decide what it’s all about afterwards — I sit with it with the engineer and we cut it down. And that’s really where the actual composition is. I see what I do as maybe the way John Cassavetes made a film — it was improvised around themes, but then it’s very tightly edited, so that it ends up with a kind of narrative, but it’s more organic than if the script had been exactly written and recorded.”
This way of structuring spontaneity gives Wyatt a very special sound that achieves the persuasive effect of drawing the listener into an artist’s personal feeling for symmetry. You experience his reshaped world, see the possibilities. Upon first listen to Rock Bottom, and probably 500 times over the years, I was floored by the craggily mellifluous, toppling, stuttering piano solo that Wyatt pulls off in the opening “Sea Song.” It is the most startling solo because it feels like nothing less than the direct outpouring of a man’s brain or heart or nervous system into yours. The chance to hear such pure intuition doesn’t come around too often.
“I’m not a schooled musician,” he says, “so I’m not trained in the various sort of scales and stuff. So I just use my ears. And I’d stumbled across the use of whole tones, and it was just using that as a scale, kind of working the whole major-minor thing. There’s a kind of thrill of discovery going on. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, almost.”
It’s one of the greatest piano solos I’ve ever heard, within a song that undergoes radical swings of emotion.
“I just needed something to take the song somewhere, have a journey there somewhere, otherwise it’s just this tendency of pop music to keep going round and round and doing the same thing over again and then stop. What I really like is seeing the whole process through: to prompt spontaneity, to kind of freezing it, depicting it. That’s what I really enjoy.”
What with the current rigid parameters within which musicians can sell themselves, I wonder if Wyatt’s identity as a musician is important to him. How would he himself characterize his music?
“I mean, I never avoid the obvious,” he says, obscurely. “I don’t try to be myself or not be myself, I just trust that if I do something that feels right, it’ll come out right. For example, the last tune on Cuckooland is a song that — sometimes another language I can deal with, I’ve done Spanish a few times, and French occasionally, and even Italian. But Arabic, I just don’t know where to start with Arabic, so I simply asked Gilad Atzmon to sing the song on clarinet.”
Wyatt doesn’t even appear on the track at all. “I didn’t write it; I had nothing to do on it. I just wanted to hear that piece of music, and I did it any way I could. If it means me doing it all, then I’ll do it; if it means leaving myself out, I’m not really bothered about where I am in it. Or whether I’m even visible, really. I’m just trying to make records that I want to listen to.” He laughs.
Wyatt, like so many of our greatest artists, is a remarkably self-effacing guy, as well known for his distinctive vocal interpretations of other artists’ work. On many of his own albums he’s given over the lyric writing to Alfreda Benge; Karen Mantler, daughter of Carla Bley and Michael Mantler, composed, sings and plays on several of the tunes on the new album. Usually Wyatt likes just being a part of the ensemble.
“There’s a tendency now in modern jazz for players or singers to get notice as soloists over a rhythm section. Even Miles Davis hardly ever did that. As great as he was, he would always get the best tenor player he could, the best alto player, the best pianist, the best everything, all around him, and just do his business in that context. He knew how to make a complete piece of music, that it required more than just his own voice — and there’s no finer voice in the 20th century than his.”
Interestingly, Wyatt’s background is in avant-garde and contemporary classical music, under his parents’ guidance. He made his way into pop music from that base, rather than the other way around, as is normally the case. That would explain the wide territory his music covers now, and the varied musicians he plays with.
“The music I still love is about conversations with a guest, really — bebop and so on. Fundamentally, what we’re all doing is based on song and dance, and if it loses that, then it’s . . . something else, I don’t know. Music has a functional thing to the whole history of the world, and those two elements are irreducible. I really like to strip those down and find those things. It’s a bit like doing science, actually narrowing down the chemical there. Reducing things to the poetry of the thing.”
On Cuckooland, a careful examination of all of this reducing to the essentials reveals that they’re made up of simple but unusual parts woven together as if by hand. If it’s a science, then it sounds like a very exact and exacting science. Wyatt feels otherwise.
“I feel a bit ashamed to say I still don’t really know how to go about doing what I do,” he says. “I sort of stumble across it sometimes, and then I think, ‘Oh, now I remember,’ and then it all sort of falls together. I have a studio here, keyboards, a mixer, a cornet, a tenor horn which I can’t play, and many, many notebooks of ideas, each filled with little attempts at effects or some interval I might love, a little trigger. But I have no system. I’m kind of just stitching, having a lot of ideas and then stitching them into a piece of music. It’s a bit like beachcombing, really, till you get enough stuff to make the album.”
Wyatt’s poetically plainspoken lyrics divide their attentions between the domestic and the outer world. Usually humorous but caustic, warm but wary, he takes a look at art, theology, life and himself on Cuckooland’s opening “Just a Bit”: “Transcendental art’s religion/thinking you’ll improve your mind/when all it does (if you’re in luck)/is camouflage the daily grind”; he’ll comment on what he might be seeing outside his and Alife’s window (two nuns, one standing, one dropping to her knees); might weigh in here on the plight of the Gypsies at Auschwitz, Lety and Dover (the deceptively breezy “Forest,” with guest David Gilmour on anguished slide guitar), or there on the victims at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Vanunu and Mossadegh (“Foreign Accents”). On past albums he’s explicitly addressed issues such as the CIA’s terrorism in East Timor, or the evils of global capitalism, or, in “Shipbuilding,” the invasion of the Falklands. You might assume that Wyatt is inspired to write by topical events, the latest outrages, but you’d be wrong.
“I personally don’t; Alife does, Alife’s something of a news hound, and she’s very affected by what she reads and has a lot of thoughts on the subject. I try and talk about things that aren’t being talked about on the news. Sort of really bringing things to the surface that aren’t really on the surface on the whole. I find I can’t bear to check headlines; I’ve just never got the stomach for all that sort of stuff.”
Given the contemporary pop marketplace, with its unyielding stylistic demands and limited and limiting “genres,” what Robert Wyatt does will be referred to as “art-rock” or “art-pop” or something similarly simplistic, always with the word art attached to it. Come to think of it, I do remember one time long ago Wyatt saying something to the effect that he wanted to live his life as a kind of work-in-progress art project. I wonder if he still feels motivated that way.
“Well, it’s settled down quite a bit now, and, sort of . . . I’m just glad to be still making records. I’ve just had my 60th birthday. I just work, just try to do enough work that I’m able to feed myself and my wife and my mother-in-law and my mother-in-law’s dog.”