Robyn Hitchcock's Moving Pictures
By Russell Smith
MARCH 16, 1998: Apart from a passing snapshot image of "black Fellini sails" in his 1989 semi-hit "One Long Pair of Eyes," there's little in Robyn Hitchcock's work to suggest any special cinematic preoccupations. Not unless you read his "I Wish I Was a Pretty Girl" ("...so I could off myself in the shower") as some kind of Janet Leigh/Psycho homage. Still, anyone who has even briefly joined the lavishly gifted English musician, painter, and fiction writer on his 20-year journey through the spectral shadow-kingdom of the subconscious has seen movies like none ever set down on film. Through Hitchcock's inspired, hallucinatory words, we've toured the satiny maze of the "Veins of the Queen," met "The Man With the Lightbulb Head," seen humans transformed into "Flesh Cartoons," participated in "The Rout of the Clones," and learned how to "Do the Chisel." Explaining in press notes why he wanted to make a movie about an artist whose worshipful fan base and four-star album reviews have never quite translated into lasting commercial success, director Jonathan Demme says (stating a point that's self-evident to Hitchcock cultists), "The content of Robyn's songs is exceptionally visual. He makes movies in our minds with his lyrics."
Not that Demme's new movie, Storefront Hitchcock (making its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival) tries to give tangible form to the images of ghost-wives, glass hotels, and exploding balloon men that stream from Hitchcock's mind like a live feed from the dreams of Syd Barrett. Instead, what Austin viewers can expect to see is a faithful record of the sort of intimate, low-keyed performances Robyn has done every year or two in Austin since the mid-1980s.
"It's not a documentary," Hitchcock told The Austin Chronicle in a recent phone interview from his West London home. "It's a show. A live show that Jonathan filmed last December in New York. It's true to life in every way, except you never see the audience - though you can hear 'em in the background. Jonathan conceived the whole thing. He didn't want a club environment with people, you know, smoking and drinking and rummaging about while we're performing. It is, in fact, a real storefront, an abandoned used clothing store on 14th Street. You can look through the windows behind us and see cars and people going by outside."
Hitchcock met his future director in 1995 when Demme, wearing his producer's hat, invited him to contribute a song to Tom Hanks' That Thing You Do! "It was yet another of the Byrds rip-offs I've become renowned for," Robyn recalls. "They didn't use it in the movie, but Jonathan and I sort of got acquainted at that time. Next year, after we played a show (in New York), he came backstage and told me about this idea he had for doing a movie." Storefront Hitchcock was eventually shot in December of 1996 with Hitchcock accompanied by violinist Deni Bonet and guitarist Tim Keegan.
Because no preview prints of the film were available to the Chronicle, descriptions of Storefront Hitchcock are all secondhand at best. It's clear, however, that it'll be a fairly singular animal among music movies by big-name directors. For obvious reasons, it promises to be less grandiose than The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese's 1978 bon voyage tribute to The Band. And based on descriptions in advance publicity materials, Storefront has neither the proto-MTV style of D.A. Pennebaker's Bob Dylan tour documentary, Don't Look Back, nor the extensive interview material of Jim Jarmusch's recent Neil Young/Crazy Horse film, Year of the Horse. The best comparison may prove to be Demme's own Stop Making Sense, a 1984 movie that presented a simple, masterfully shot collage of live footage from several Talking Heads shows.
Using a small number of cameras positioned for complete stage coverage, Demme seems to have tried to give viewers the feel of attending a Robyn Hitchcock show of their dreams, in which the air would be smokeless, the sound would be perfect, no hulking 6'8" jocks would be standing in your sightline, and you'd be armed with a ticket that allowed you carte blanche to prowl the room and stage at your own discretion. The set list covers the gamut from familiar recent material ("The Yip Song") to old, brand-new, or lesser-known songs including "Glass Hotel," Let's Go Thundering," "I Don't Remember Guildford," "1974," and "I'm Only You."
Asked for his description, Hitchcock laughs and says, "Actually, the most striking thing to me was how bloody fantastic we looked and sounded. You know I've gotten pretty ratty and decrepit in my middle age... and of course Deni is basically a derelict who goes around with wads of notebook paper stuffed in her pocket and pushing a broom, but on film we look at least five or 10 years younger. It's amazing, really."
"This is a song about where it all goes wrong. Which is, of course, intercourse - between people and bugs. When it's between bugs it's called 'intercoursebugs,' but with people it's just 'intercourse.' It's the same principle but different positions. All it means is more bugs or more people. Bugs can't make up their minds. They can't do any damage. We can. It's that simple. Intense radioactivity would make little difference to the bugs, but would get rid of us. Which wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing except there'd be no one to tell the bugs what they were called. For all we know the bugs have a different name and aren't really called bugs at all, you know. They might be called something like NYOOK! or WRZEEZOR! or OWWNG! OWWNG! OWWNG! or some dialect of their own we haven't penetrated yet. Oh God! There's something green over there!... But here's how it all starts. With a pleasant mating song... it's about two people who haven't been neutered; they're having a nice rigmarole that's gonna end squelch but positive squelch... I wrote this when I was a man."
At this point I should allay the fears of Robyn Hitchcock acolytes by noting that Demme's minimalistic, "it's the music that matters" approach to shooting his film reportedly hasn't kept him from serving up a heapin' helping of Hitchcock's whimsical, mind-bending between-song raps that the faithful savor like vintage amontillado and preserve in shoeboxes full of bootlegged live audio cassettes. (A sample from my own tape stash is excerpted above.) These free-associative neural purges range from a line or two to soliloquies of 10 minutes or more. While they're obviously delivered for calculated effect, their heedless, careening defiance of familiar narrative logic nixes all suspicion of pre-scripting. Their omission from Storefront Hitchcock would be as jarring as a KISS show with no fake blood or rotating drum risers.
Two familiar touchstones that will be missing, however, are Hitchcock's longtime bandmates Morris Windsor (drums) and Andy Metcalfe (bass). With only rare interruptions, Windsor and Metcalfe had toiled steadily with Hitchcock since the trio's late-Seventies days in the gloriously deranged psycho-pop band, the Soft Boys, continuing on through nine years together as the Egyptians. The affiliation unofficially ended with last year's Hitchcock solo album, Moss Elixir, which featured Hitchcock's first major collaborations with Bonet and Keegan.
"Playing with Morris and Andy... I don't know, I wouldn't expect to play with them again anytime soon. You just reach a saturation point, I suppose - with anyone or anything. At some point maybe it makes sense to just break off and go play with a failed Tex-Mex garage band or something. Just squirrel around, find a new road. I firmly believe in keeping one foot in the darkness at all times.
"I can easily imagine me, Andy, and Morris getting together, the way men will, and going to a pub and slapping each other on the back. Actually, we're all probably a bit too posh for that sort of thing, but it's not like we try to avoid each other. Anyway, the people in my bands have never been the kind that sit in dark rooms with cloths over their heads to keep dust off, waiting for me to shuffle down the hall with a clanking ring of keys to unlock them when it's time to go on tour. 'Oh God bless you for releasing me, Mr. Hitchcock!'"
Hitchcock's new band- mates, alternative sensation-in-waiting Bonet and guitar whiz Keegan, are both serious talents in their own rights. However, as with the Soft Boys and the Egyptians, Hitchcock's shows and recordings continue to reflect his own distinctive sensibility. Throughout the middle and late Eighties, that sensibility was an exotic orchid sprouting forth from the earthy humus of the postpunk and garage sounds that dominated the era. And during the lowbrow, retro-obsessed Dark Age of Nineties alternative music, it has often seemed like a solitary shaft of light piercing the inky clouds of Seventies arena rock cliché. Granted, old-school punk staged periodic comebacks, but only as a waxy, Madame Tussaud's approximation of its former glory. Even the auditory innovators of industrial music often seemed chiefly dedicated to expressing the murky angst of the shirtless teen skinhead squatting in a culvert with his face between his knees. With electronica only recently breaking the stranglehold of grunge, despondent therapy-rock, and half-assed hippie funk, Hitchcock deserves bigtime credit for helping preserve the once-exalted virtues of wit and mystery in popular music.
"Stop me if you've heard this sermon before, but for some time now, it's been the colossal, jackbooted figure of hard rock striding unimpeded across the landscape," Hitchcock observes. "It all got started when the Led Zeppelin sound of the early Seventies shook hands with the [punk rock] of the late Seventies and created this mighty din so Pearl Jam fans can pump the air with their fists and all that rot."
The 45-year-old Hitchcock, who professes never to have heard Jewel, and who probably won't be joining fellow geezers David Bowie and U2 aboard the electronic music bandwagon, believes the real challenge facing him and his middle-aged rock stars is not staying up on trends but finding ways to break fresh ground in one's own, well-delineated artistic turf without breaking faith with one's listeners.
One contemporary whose career Hitchcock still faithfully tracks is Bob Dylan who, along with Captain Beefheart, Syd Barrett, John Lennon, and a handful of others, has had an enduring effect on the way he perceives the world.
"What'd you think about Dylan's new album? I'm not sure how I feel about it myself. It's very atmospheric, obviously. You get a serious picture, and pretty miserable at times. Bob's wretched and lovelorn it seems. He's in this self-wrapped cloud, bright but perhaps mysterious as well.
"You know, I saw a show of Dylan's not long ago and came away feeling incredibly depressed and frustrated. It's hard to see why anyone would want to pay [[sterling]]20 to see him up there massacring his own songs. I couldn't believe it. He'd have been better off standing on a platform in the lobby charging people to shake his hand.
"But of course, he's still a part of my life and as big a reason as any why I do what I do. Not that I'd have been, you know, a football player but for hearing Dylan. Maybe a poet, but very likely not a musician."
Of course, along with Irrelevance, Wealth, and Iconization, the fourth horseman of the Middle Age Apocalypse is Mellowness. Even as he affirms his desire to "...not turn my shows into a VH1, James Taylor thing," Hitchcock's music has gradually evolved away from the unmedicated schizophrenic ravings of the Soft Boys. There's very little on Moss Elixir quite as casually bizarre as "Sandra's Having Her Brain Out" or any other randomly chosen song from the Soft Boys' Can or Bees. And in terms of disturbing hallucinatory imagery there's nothing that truly ranks with the Egyptians' "The Shapes Between Us Turn to Animals" or "Acid Bird." Though lacking the impervious ceramic luster of Perspex Island and Respect (alternative radio favorites of the early Nineties that Hitchcock now considers over-produced), its most lasting impressions are grace, contemplative clarity, and an obvious - albeit hardly Pat Methenyesque - commitment to musical polish. Few would go so far as to call it Robyn Lite, yet its palpable sense of in-controllness may disappoint fans who cherish the image of Hitchcock as an addlepated Limey wildman teetering on the brink of insanity.
"As time goes by, you refine. Things happen slower... it takes you longer to reach orgasm. At a point, after 20 years of grooving in filthy clubs, you feel the need to change. I hope [my new music] isn't too tasteful, but if it is, it wouldn't really help matters for me to start dying my hair and shooting smack.
"The way I feel about my work is, you shouldn't take liberties with people's attention. You should try to be - though I hesitate to use this word - sincere, and to make your words as clear and fine as possible."
"Interestingly, though, a lot of my next album (Jewels for Sophia, set for late 1998 release) has a lot of pretty fun, rock & roll stuff on it. I ought to've called it Robyn's Rockin' Christmas Party Album or something. If I were to make comparisons, it's more like Black Snake Diamond Role than like Eye, which had that sort of slow, imperial resonance to it. Listening to Jewels, it's struck me how many of the songs are in the key of E. E is a real rock & roll key, y'know."
This should come as welcome news to Austin fans, who at Hitchcock shows of recent years have seen him struggle with technical problems, illness, and various fun-squelching logistical fuckups. At his musical appearance, scheduled to follow shortly after the movie's debut, fans can expect a focused, upbeat Hitchcock, whose artistic and personal lives are both on the upswing. (Apart from the upcoming movie, he's been blissfully "partnering" with muse/business advisor Michelle Noach for several years now, his daughter is grown up and out of the house, and his naïve-surrealist paintings have attracted steadily increasing praise from the art-crit world.)
"Austin is indeed a groover's paradise," Hitchcock recalls fondly. "It strikes me as a sort of oasis of liberal thought in Texas which is otherwise, or so I understand, like the execution capital of America. One memory I have is really liking that little restaurant across the river on - what is it? Congress Avenue? - where all the musicians go for breakfast [an apparent reference to El Sol y La Luna].
"And South by Southwest is my ideal environment because I love schmoozing and seeing all these people from your past. It's like being in the afterlife: 'Oh, that fellow over there used to be my manager, and that woman used to be my lawyer.' They're assembled there for all eternity. Tell 'em I look forward to seeing them all again."
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