Clip: Robyn Hitchcock discusses Americans
The lighter side of Hitchcock
Sunday, April 8, 2007
He's a tall man, Robyn Hitchcock. Not by American basketball team
standards, but by English standards he's tall. By rock musician
standards, too. He has to fold his body -- dressed in a sharp green
wool jacket and luminous purple shirt -- into the seat at the game
table we've requisitioned for an interview. We're in Austin, Texas, in
the lobby of a movie house where we've just watched a screening of
"Sex, Food, Death and Insects," a documentary that follows Hitchcock
as he makes an album with his new band, the Venus 3. It consists of
Peter Buck, a full-time member of R.E.M., and R.E.M. part-timers Scott
McCaughey of Young Fresh Fellows and Bill Rieflin of Ministry. And
it's the band that will accompany Hitchcock on Tuesday at Slim's in
This band (and he's had several these past 30-odd years, including the
Soft Boys and the Egyptians) is American. The film, though, is very
English -- at least the parts shot in the London home Hitchcock shares
with his artist wife, Michele Noach. It's all damp brown brickwork and
rambling gardens; you almost expect Michael Palin in "Monty Python"
old lady drag to pop his head over the fence for a natter. Instead we
get John Paul Jones (the former Led Zeppelin bassist and acclaimed
producer) and Nick Lowe (the singer and writer and Johnny Cash's only
English ex-son in law) dropping by.
Hitchcock, when he's not playing songs, is talking about them -- how
they'll come from things that pop into his head like "Note to self:
Kill more flies." How they'll often start out dark, but he'll make
them lighter, "otherwise you're making people's difficult lives even
worse." Laughter, he says, "is the dateline that you cross when life
becomes unbearable." As fans of British TV comedy can attest, very
His songs -- music critics tend to call them psych-folk-rock -- are
light of touch, surreal, intellectual and whimsical. A bit like the
Incredible String Band without the drugs or Syd Barrett without the
madness. The new Hitchcock documentary grew out of "Crazy Diamond,"
which British director John Edginton made about the late Pink Floyd
singer-writer Barrett. It was one of a rash of recent film treatments
of musicians with mental health issues (Daniel Johnston, Brian Wilson,
Hitchcock, though, appears entirely well-adjusted. Musing on the idea
that one might consider him a rock casualty, he concludes that "if I
were dead or institutionalized, I would probably be a lot more
famous." Like most people, he says, he finds life "difficult at times,
but I also find things to celebrate, so I'm not a lonesome guy
gibbering in an attic. I'm more like Brian Eno. I wander around the
world in nice clean clothes and hold forth at festivals. I am
currently in the world. What I probably have in common with these
other people you mention is I try to find my own language as a
songwriter, which probably restricts my appeal because not everybody
can pick up on it, but it probably intensifies its appeal to the
people who do."
American audiences, he says, are among his largest and most devoted.
"It's probably that the preproduction was done by 25 years of 'Monty
Python,' but people in America actually seem to pick up on what I say
more than the Brits," he says.
Do Americans understand his dark sense of humor? In one scene in the
film, for instance, Gillian Welch, who made a guest appearance on his
album "Spooked," talks about being a bit creeped out by the lyrics of
his song "Dead Wife."
The short version of Hitchcock's long, measured answer is that he does
think that Americans in general, his fans obviously excepted, have
"trouble looking at their own dark side," mostly because the United
States is a country more interested in looking forward than back,
since it's "a relatively recent country, one that is not based on
memory but on erasing the indigenous culture, so it does not want to
remember things. You can see that in the way those great old buildings
from the '20s and '30s are being knocked down. It's like a cancer of
memory being erased.
"Britain, on the other hand, is older and much more fatalistic. You
assume that things mess up, that you won't succeed, that if you're
waiting for a bus it doesn't come, your relationship will go wrong,
you'll get fired from your job. Everything is ultimately for the worst
and futile. But with that mind-set you can almost sit back and laugh
and go, 'Well, it's not going to work anyway, so let's take it easy.'
You're actually very protected from what life throws at you. Whereas
the Americans would say, 'Why not? We can do something. Sue the
bastard who threw you out of your job.' "
He says he likes that "America never stopped rocking. The Brits sort
of did. In Britain, as a whole, there's been this thing since the
mid-'70s, where rock became very uncool and was renounced by the
British hipsters. It was OK if it was punk rock or art rock or new
wave -- everything had to disguise itself as something else. I mean,
the Clash was really a rock band, but they couldn't call themselves
that. They had to be a punk band, though when they came to America,
people realized they were a great rock band."
Two countries separated by more than a language?
"Maybe. But personally, I've not had a problem. And I've found that
people on the West Coast are particularly hip," Hitchcock says.
He's had a long, warm relationship with the Bay Area.
"I'd always wanted to come to San Francisco because I was a big fan of
Country Joe and the Fish in the '60s," he says. "I would dream of
going out to Berkeley and tripping in the Haight and all that stuff,
and I finally got there in 1985, sort of 10 years after it was all
over. But I was very excited to be there, and in fact I had two
successive girlfriends from San Francisco with the same name. I went
to see the Airplane reunion in '89, and one time I played in Golden
Gate Park. Oh, and I recorded an album in San Francisco in 1989 and
"In fact," it just occurs to him, "the 2-inch tapes for 'Eye' are
still in (the) studio. So ... I left my tapes in San Francisco."
ROBYN HITCHCOCK performs at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Slim's, 333 11th St.,
San Francisco. $18-$20. (415) 255-0333, www.slims-sf.com.