The Man and His Symbols
Underneath the dulcet pop sensibility of Robyn Hitchcock's vast repertoire lurk some potentially unsettling images: having one's soul dry-cleaned, balloon people exploding, supping with the Devil and men with lightbulbs for heads, to name a few. And while such lyrical offerings might compel the curious to probe the seemingly twisted mind of the 46-year-old Briton, the undertaking would likely yield surprising results. Robyn Hitchcock is as enigmatic as ever, but he's also slightly more sane than you might think.
"Details magazine analyzed my reactions to a Rorschach test several years ago," he says. "Apparently, I came out as the most mentally sound of the whole lot of musicians and minor celebrities." Using his forthcoming CD, Jewels for Sophia, as an inkblot, that's a fair reading. Though it carries the usual volumes of striking and peculiar tropes, Jewels is among the most happy-go-lucky of his seventeen (depending on your accounting system) solo albums. "I hear it back, and it's not a bad mirror to stand in front of," agrees Hitchcock. "I like how this record reflects me. I don't seem that bad of a proposition."
Hitchcock the artist, the man and the "proposition" is something of a charming nihilist, a character with roots in his youth. At an age when most lads and lassies were playing cricket and climbing trees, a young Hitchcock was already formulating a constructive cynicism. "Christianity gave me the creeps when I was about five," he recollects. "I think my childish antennae were wise to this sort of groveling, abject, life-hating element that seems to me to infuse Christianity and the whole idea that Jesus died for you so you owe him one."
Neither this pervasive pessimism nor a comfortable, middle-class upbringing would stifle Hitchcock's hyperactive imagination. Though an art-school dropout when he began bewildering the folk-music-club crowds of Cambridge in the mid-Seventies, Hitchcock's creativity has served him well ever since. His father's devotion to traditional English folk had an impact on Hitchcock, but his truest influences were Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Kinks and the Who. On the wilder side, Hitchcock cites the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart, both better predictors of the sound he would eventually concoct with his seminal new-wave band, the Soft Boys.
"Beefheart and Lou Reed both had very good lyrics and unusual guitar. They didn't have people playing Eric Clapton-y licks," he explains, as he adds Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd to the mix. "I think you have to be inclined before you're influenced. It's not like I would have been a soul singer if I hadn't heard Syd Barrett. I would have been in a much more Bob Dylan mold. But I was an English boy from the home counties and he was a Jewish kid from Minnesota."
Even though they broke up in 1983, the Soft Boys' influence on those pre-grunge college-rock days cannot be underestimated. A ragged-yet-melodic pop band with psychedelic tendencies, the Soft Boys' sound contained multiple personalities ranging from the rustic grooviness of the Grateful Dead to the fiercely punk mechanics of the Buzzcocks. Consequently, they were largely misunderstood in their day, and perhaps by no one as much as themselves. Some say they were the right band at the wrong time. Nevertheless, one of the two full-length studio albums they released during their active years, 1980's Underwater Moonlight, is a certified rock-and-roll masterpiece.
"We were sort of the grand old forerunners of REM and the Replacements and 10,000 Maniacs, all that jangle-pop stuff," says Hitchcock. "I suppose the Soft Boys were probably the missing link between the Byrds and REM. But actually all that stuff comes from the Searchers anyway."
Due in large part to the path the Soft Boys had cleared, Hitchcock reached the peak of his popularity in the mid- and late Eighties as a solo act backed by the Egyptians, finding a much more receptive audience in the U.S. than at home. "I make my living here. God bless America!" he jokes. With albums like 1986's Element of Light and 1988's Globe of Frogs, listeners--and MTV viewers--became acquainted with Hitchcock's moving targets of meaning and buoyant melodies. Colleges may not have offered courses of study in his verse, but those two albums and the others to follow provided fertile ground for burgeoning Hitchcock scholars. "Someone was trying to tell me the other day that a song called 'Cynthia Mask' [from Eye] was actually about the decline of the British Empire, which I thought was pretty amazing," he says. "That's like looking at clouds and saying 'Is that in the shape of a camel? Or maybe it's a duck?'"
Hitchcock's creations are essentially candy for the brain as well as the ear. His greatest feat, however, lies in proving that narratives can be intellectually refreshing without being literal. Clever nonsense, indeed. "My art, be it written or sung or drawn, comes pretty directly from the unconscious. I very seldom give myself a topic. There are exceptions. But I usually have no idea what it is I'm about to write or sing or say," Hitchcock offers. "Basically, they're probably messages from me to myself and sometimes they're quite heavily veiled."
In the early Nineties, something mysterious happened to the strange messages Hitchcock was passing on from inner space. A couple of discs that even Hitchcock seems less than enthusiastic about, 1991's Perspex Island and 1993's Respect, proved to be his third, fourth and final releases for A&M Records. Critics gave Perspex a lukewarm reception, and when Respect hit the shelves and failed to outperform the previous release, A&M Records released the Egyptians from their contract.
It is a testament to Hitchcock's resilience--and talent--that he bounced back with the critically acclaimed Moss Elixir, released on Warner Bros. Records in 1996. And there was more where that good fortune came from, not the least of which has been a fruitful and loving relationship with girlfriend Michele Noach, something Hitchcock frequently mentions in interviews and communiques. "Since we've been together, I've been in my forties," he relays, "and this has been the best decade of my life so far."
Another accolade for Hitchcock came upon him by surprise, bestowed by Jonathan Demme, who directed a performance film, Storefront Hitchcock, released last year. Typically clever Hitchcock, the feature captures him in a Manhattan shop window playing to passersby on the sidewalk. "As I get older and more decrepit the movie will get younger and more beautiful. They're releasing it on video, so soon every home will have one," he continues, "and I expect Chelsea Clinton will come bounding back to the White House with her copy and Bill and Hillary will sit either side of her on the sofa."
"No, I Don't Remember Guilford," which appears both in the film and on Jewels, is a pondering, mid-tempo selection that perhaps represents a darker Hitchcock of years gone by: "Did something happen?/The sky just blackened/ Now there's a butterfly on my face/And I'm a number in a drawer." Overall, even the song titles on Jewels belie the fact that the new record is an optimistic affair, if in a uniquely Hitchcockian sort of way. The slightly buttery "I Feel Beautiful" and the frolicking "Viva! Sea-Tac" ("Viva! Seattle Tacoma, viva viva Sea-Tac/ They've got the best computers and coffee and smack") are prime examples. Songs like the driving "Elizabeth Jade" ("Oh Elizabeth Jade/You shake me up like pre-war lemonade"), the patient, redemptive "Dark Princess," and the lofty "Mexican God" combine to make Jewels a very satisfying icing on an already impressive cake. Fans who have come to rely on Hitchcock as a release valve for their existential angst might be disappointed. That is not to say its positive mental attitude yields a love-fest, however.
"I don't think this is nauseatingly happy," says Hitchcock. "It's not like I'm clapping my hands saying I'm in love and the world has been saved."
Whether euphoric or dreary, Hitchcock doesn't intend to make his records a porthole to his soul. His art is merely an expressive means of keeping his brain healthy, and Jewels is an inevitable byproduct. "Obviously, the tenet of this interview has been me proclaiming loudly how mentally sound I am," he says with good-natured sarcasm. "But it is a point worth making because, superficially, people may get completely the opposite idea."
How might they stumble upon that absurd notion? From the lyrics of "The Cheese Alarm" ("Roquefort and gruyere and slippery Brie/ All of these cheeses they happen to me")? The very picture of mental health.
Robyn Hitchcock, with the Flaming Lips and Sebadoh. 7:00 p.m. Tuesday, August 3, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax Avenue, $19.50, 303-830-2525; acoustic in-store performance, 3 p.m. Wednesday, August 4, Twist & Shout, 300 East Alameda Avenue, 303-722-1943.
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