The meditations that Robyn Hitchcock puts to song balance the perfectly ordinary and the extraordinarily strange.
The purple-panted one topped with a shaggy gray mane dollops out surreal fantasies like so much gruel plopped onto a Dickensian orphan’s meal tray, and before one can utter, “Please sir, may I have another,” he’s serving the next child in line.
Yet there’s nothing bland or unsatisfying about Hitchcock’s concoctions, as if they’re all composed of some sort of unidentified magical mushrooms the cook happened upon whilst pedaling his white bicycle to the orphanage that day.
Robyn Hitchcock deserves a deep dive into his obsessions with insects and amphibians, cormorants and crows, yet he strings together such seeming nonsense into coherent trains of thought, and given he often dreams of trains, it all somehow makes sense at the end of another “Raymond Chandler Evening.”
On that particular bare-bones gem (from 1986’s “Element of Light”) which barely exceeds the two-minute mark, Hitchcock successfully channels a detective from a hard-boiled film noir thusly: “There’s a body on the railings / That I can’t identify / And I’d like to reassure you / but I’m not that kind of guy.”
What kind of guy is he? While he’s the very definition of a modern major iconoclast, Hitchcock is not without his antecedents. I’m sure he’d be the first to admit that his songs could not have come to be without Syd Barrett’s bike parked on his porch, and in his rare shouty-forte moments he channels a fellow Brit, John Lennon, to electrifying effect.
Hitchcock cut his teeth with the post-punk outfit The Soft Boys, whose 1980 album “Underwater Moonlight” is hailed as a new-wave classic. Upon the group’s breakup, band member Kimberley Rew formed Katrina and The Waves (known best for the hit single “Walking on Sunshine”). Since 1981, Hitchcock has piloted a lengthy career, both by himself and with The Egyptians (1985-1993) featuring some former Soft Boys, and then the Venus Three (2006-2010), featuring Peter Buck of R.E.M., Scott McCaughey of Young Fresh Fellows, and Bill Rieflin of Ministry.
No less an authority than the Trouser Press Record Guide declared that Hitchcock’s entire body of work “remains one of the great undiscovered treasures of modern pop music,” and that was in the fourth edition, in 1991. Twenty-nine years later, that’s sadly still true.
Oh, sure he’s flirted with the occasional breakthrough, achieving minor MTV airplay (albeit mostly on “120 Minutes”), featuring on playlists of album-oriented rock stations like Chicago’s WXRT. He’s always been a college radio darling with “hits” like “Balloon Man,” “Love Madonna of the Wasps” and “So You Think You’re In Love,” but his intrinsic weirdness as a lyricist has always limited his commercial potential.
Perhaps his brightest spotlight came when Jonathan Demme made him the subject of a one-man concert documentary, 1998’s “Storefront Hitchcock,” which might be the best introduction to his charms as a live performer. Hitchcock also appeared in Demme’s 2004 remake of “The Manchurian Candidate” and in “Rachel Getting Married” (2008).
When I saw that Robyn Hitchcock was coming to town this month (Old Town School of Folk Music, April 23), I leapt at the chance to immerse myself in his recorded output, as if I was inspired by a “Globe of Frogs.” I’ve loved everything I’ve heard by him that’s been released, but I’ve never been a completist. I only had the chance to survey portions of eleven of his twenty-one albums, and have gotten so lost in the proverbial weeds that I don’t recall where this particular couplet hails from, but I love it: “I was always in a hurry but I never know what for / Paranoia chased me out and then time just closed the door.”
Given that there’s such a depth and breadth to Hitchcock’s recorded output, and given that it’s almost entirely brilliant, it’s hard to know what to highlight, but to choose almost at random amongst his more recent releases: his fifteenth album, “Spooked,” recorded and released in 2004, was a collaboration with Americana-alt-country power couple David Rawlings and Gillian Welch. It begins with the lengthy meditation on the mysterious evil of “Television,” continues with “If You Know Time” (“There’s a door inside you, and it wants to slam you shut”), progresses to the bouncy “Everybody Needs Love;” and while “Sometimes A Blonde” seems to be an opportunity to make dumb-blonde jokes, it instead starts off with ghosts, refers to “heavenly nightshade,” honeycombs, ocelots and meerkats. Upping the weirdness factor, as Hitchcock does best, he sings from the perspective of a bird on the—relatively speaking—stomping “We’re Gonna Live in the Trees,” and includes a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door,” along with another half-dozen moments of genius. A close-up of one of his paintings provides the album’s artwork. (He’s a gifted painter as well.)
In March 2013, Hitchcock turned sixty and released “Love From London.” As he said in the label’s press release, “Rock ‘n’ roll is an old man’s game now, so I’m staying in it.” In contrast to primarily acoustic records like “Spooked,” “Eye” and “I Often Dream of Trains,” “Love From London” strikes the balance between full-fledged, fleshed-out rockers and minimalist ballad-like meditations. “End Of Time” bridges both sonic tropes, and is for all intents and purposes the title track (it ends with twenty seconds of ocean waves). “Death and Love” sounds like the real single here, but it’s almost too smooth; instead, consider the quiet, piano-driven “Harry’s Song.”
Although he’s never lost his inveterate Britishness, Hitchcock now calls the USA home. Five years back, he moved to Nashville to be with his current partner, Emma Swift, who is also an expatriate (originally hailing from Australia). They have released two singles together, “Follow Your Money” in 2015 and “Love Is a Drag” in 2016, produced by Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub.
To conclude, let’s revisit our favorite hard-boiled gumshoe, engaging in a bit of apparent precognition: “It’s a Raymond Chandler evening / And the pavements are all wet / And I’m lurking in the shadows / ‘Cause it hasn’t happened yet.”
Craig Bechtel is a freelance writer and has also been a Senior Staff Writer for Pop’stache. He is also a DJ, volunteer and Assistant Music Director for CHIRP Radio, 107.1 FM, and contributes occasionally to the CHIRP blog. As DJ Craig Reptile, you can hear him play music on the FM dial or at www.chirpradio.org most Sunday nights from 6pm to 9pm. He previously worked in radio at KVOE AM and Fox 105 in Emporia, Kansas, and served as a DJ, music director and general manager for WVKC at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where he also won the Davenport Prize for Poetry and earned a B.A. in English writing. Craig has been working in various capacities within the hotel and meetings industry for over twenty years, and presently works at a company that uses proprietary systems to develop proven data strategies that increase revenue, room nights and meeting attendance. In his spare time, he also fancies himself an armchair herpetologist, and thus in addition to a wife, son and cat, he has a day gecko and a veiled chameleon in his collection.