Robyn Hitchcock Interview

Robyn Hitchcock, attended Winchester College (alma mater to 1890’s decadent poet Lionel Johnson), followed by art school, from which he emerged to found the bands The Soft Boys in the 70’s, The Egyptians in the 80’s, and Venus 3 in the present century. His sound is generally in the Syd Barrett psychedelic folk-rock end of the spectrum. As in the best of this genre, Hitchcock’s music is driven by his voice, which achieves an oratorical exaltation, such as is sometimes managed  by Bob Dylan. Also, the music is often poignantly lovely, as folk music rather reliably is. But what makes Hitchcock so extraordinary is the dark drollery of the English soul—which seems to be what he means by his “nihilism.”

English humor properly begins with Anglo-Saxon poetry, which is shot through with the ironic understatement so esteemed by the barbarians and sea-raiders of the north, e.g.,

. . . Acwellan’s battle-axe crushed his skull—
not quite the answer the man had expected.

This example, from the Andover Book, makes up in clarity what it lacks in subtlety. Such grim witticisms are the dinosauric prototype of  a particular tradition of English whimsy, which appears from time to time in Gilbert and Sullivan with a “short sharp shock,” and may be sensed in the eeriness of Lewis Carroll’s truly otherworldly Alice books—which children enjoy because the weirdness is  bereft of its terror by the laws of social hierarchy and polite niceties.

Hitchcock’s work is clearly informed by a wide range of literary influences: one might mention Mervyn Peake, J. G. Ballard, H. G. Wells, Giorgio DeChirico, Leonora Carrington, Paul Delvaux, Vivian Connell—the unexpected surreal turns of his lyrics bespeak a wide literary culture. He has described his songs as “paintings you can listen to,” and that is the perspective I have adopted in this interview. It’s all about the images.

96 You have described your songs as “paintings you can listen to,” so I shall take you at your word and ask you about visual elements in them. Sea life often appears in your songs as a symbol of sex and reproduction, the parade example being “Victorian Squid.” What was your most significant personal encounter with things marine: a childhood experience on the beach, a trip to an aquarium, a book, a film? What happening initiated or best represents your special affinity for the undersea world?

RH It’s long been in my dreams, the marine world, and the aquatic one: I’m often on a beach or a seaside hotel and then, as I gaze out to sea, a tsunami rears up on the horizon and begins to roll towards the shore, like a water tornado. I wake up before it hits me, every time. Fish have always been in my dreams, too: often glowing in the bright green grass, alive and pulsating, near a clear river like the ones in Hampshire. Or I’m floating in a glass tank with giant dead fish. All these scenarios feel ominous.

Each of the YouTube links will open in a new tab, so you can listen while your read the lyrics.

YouTube link to Victorian Squid (You and Oblivion 1995 compilation, outtakes & rarities, 1981-87) Lyrics:

Victorian squid is a delight
For all the family because
It’s greasy and hot
When you’ve had lots
Then you’ll want more

There’s old H. G. Wells
Lying in bed
With his new housekeeper with
Hot squid by their side
Glowing with pride
Flushed with exhaustion

Victorian lungs
Victorian skin
Victorian tongues
Victorian sin
Victorian parks
Victorian moans
Victorian darkness

Victorian squid down on the beach
Is an embarrassment to
Respectable girls
Walking with pearls
And their fiancés

“Oh, Edward my love
Is that a squid?”
“Yes, I fear so, my pet
But, pray, leave it alone
Let us go home
And take some cocoa.”

Victorian arms
Victorian legs
Victorian charms
Victorian eggs
Victorian boys
Victorian girls
Victorian darkness

Every night our
Voices meet in
Clicking feet on
Hollow streets the
Fanlight falls a-
Cross the city
Onto me and
Mistress Kitty
Pray that someone
Breaches her be-
Tween the walnut
And the fur to
Where she keeps her
Real secret
She’s a Victorian squid

96 Food of course is another important theme, and one that receives far too little attention in Western art. Cooking, like dance or sand-painting, is one of the great evanescent art forms, which gain some of their intensity from the fact that they are complete and completed in the moment. Having noted the grandeur of food as a theme, I note that you have done it ample justice in “Eaten by Her Own Dinner”, where food becomes an emblem of the richness of existence. Your verses achieve an intensity that calls to mind the paintings of Arcimboldo or the Hindu aphorism Annan Brahma —food is God.

 So then, what is your favorite food? What was your greatest dining experience? Are you inclined more to the sweet or the savory end of the spectrum?

RH There’s no life without food, for any living creature; I’m surprised there aren’t more songs about aspects of food: hymns to cheese, ballad of a fried egg, avocado quartets, you know? Maybe because food can’t walk off and break our hearts: but you die from lack of food long before you perish without love.  Chocolate, cheese, avocado, toast and Marmite, hummus, tahini, halloumi, roast potatoes and the random prawn here and there: all these are bliss to me. . . .

YouTube Link to Eaten By Her Own Dinner (EP 1982)

A rich fat pussy with nothing to think
Stared down the plug hole and fell in the sink
A rich fat pussy with nothing to stroke
Stuffed a tomato and started to choke
Smoked a tomato and punched in the tissues
That ruptured all over her mouth

A rich fat pussy in a sea of milk
Of fur and flags and skin and silk
But choking on a rubber gnat
Her feet stuck out beneath her hat

She was eaten by her own dinner
Eaten by her own dinner

The chandelier went down on her and covered her with crystal twigs
There’s no way back tonight my friend
As waves of gravy swamped her thighs
Her skin is full of money
Her mouth is full of meat
And she makes love to everybody
Walking down the street

Avocados filled her breast
Cauliflower filled her brain
Ripe bananas were her fingers
Syrup flowed through every vein
Her lungs inflated by chapatis
Fragile spicy valves of air
For what was hair, but now is seaweed
Mackerel sprouted everywhere
And what had been her handsome nude
Was now a writhing mass of food
As meat and vegetables, too
Ganged up upon the creature who
Had preyed on them so long
So long
Bye bye
She was eaten by her own dinner
Eaten by her own dinner
Eaten by her own dinner
Eaten by her own dinner

Eaten by her own dinner
Eaten by her own dinner
Eaten by her own dinner

96 Bones come up a good deal in your lyrics, as they must in a true poetic imagination. The sacrality of bones is one of the most archaic of human beliefs, going back to hunter-gatherer societies, who believed that the bones contained the real life and identity of the hunted animal. There are traces of this belief in the Bible, the Valley of Dry Bones, and the making of Eve from Adam’s rib. With an awareness of how deep a subject bones can be, my questions are: Do seashells count as bones? Do statues count as bones? What about fossils? Do you own any bones, antlers or animal teeth? 

RH Statues and bones are separate in my mind. But I like the idea of a statue with a skeleton. We are merging with our phones, or trying to, but we are grown organically from seeds, whereas phones are manufactured. It’s the great divide; I wonder how technology will overcome that one?

Imagine finding the skeleton of a phone, in years to come. . .the phone bones. Or a fossilized one! I do have song about a trilobite and how it was given that name millions of years after it became extinct. What if that happened to us, too?

YouTube link to Bones in the Ground (I Often Dream of Trains; solo, 1983)

Oh Vera my sweet
I would offer you some meat
In exchange for a good loaf of wax
I would smear it on you
And on all your apples too
If I thought it would help you relax

But the bones in the ground
Well they never make a sound
And the bones in the ground are all fine
And the bones in the air
Well they haven’t got a care
And the bones in the air are all mine

Oh shiny Maureen
Won’t you tell me where you’ve been
And I’ll work out where you should be now
In a cluster of apes
That do rub themselves with grapes
You’ll be tied to the back of a cow

But the bones in the ground
Well they never make a sound
And the bones in the ground are all fine
And the bones in the wind
Lord have mercy how they grinned
And the bones in the wind are all mine

Oh Paula-Lorraine
Won’t you comment on my sprain
And I’ll shave you in some cozy church
I don’t care what you’re called
I just want to shave you bald
And I’ll know that I’ve finished my search

But the bones in the ground
Well they never make a sound
And the bones in the ground are all fine
And the bones in the air
Well they sing a rattling air
And the bones in the air are all mine

96My Wife and My Dead Wife” is one of your most fully realized surreal narratives, and uses the theme of the first wife’s ghost in a most unexpected and genial way. Do you believe in ghosts and have you ever seen one? (The answers to these questions do not need to agree). 

RH I’ve never knowingly seen a ghost—have you? But I may have seen one without realizing it. Many people believe in things that they can’t see, don’t they? I believe that humans (and other lifeforms) may leave a kind of emotional tattoo in the brickwork, which echoes after they’ve gone—the “stone tape” theory; that ghosts are vibrations left behind from the intense feelings of others. Which means they’re more of a pattern, an echo that repeats itself, rather than a sentient spirit with which one could communicate, like the ghost of  Hamlet’s father. But I guess you’d have to run across one to find out. . . .

YouTube link to My Wife and My Dead Wife (Fegmania 1958 with The Egyptians). Lyrics:

My wife lies down in a chair
And peels a pear
I know she’s there
I’m making coffee for two
Just me and you
But I come back in with coffee for three
Coffee for three?

My dead wife sits in a chair
Combing her hair
I know she’s there
She wanders off to the bed
Shaking her head
“Robyn,” she said
“You know I don’t take sugar!”

My wife and my dead wife
Am I the only one that sees her?
My wife and my dead wife
Doesn’t anybody see her at all?
No, no no, no, no no no no

My wife sits down on the stairs
And stares into air
There’s no one there
I’m drilling holes in the wall
Holes in the wall
I turn round and my dead wife’s upstairs
She’s still wearing flares
She talks out loud but no one hears

And I can’t decide which one I love the most
The flesh and blood or the pale, smiling ghost
My wife lies down on the beach
She’s sucking a peach
She’s out of reach
Of the waves that crash on the sand
Where my dead wife stands
Holding my hand

Now my wife can’t swim
But neither could she
And deep in the sea
She’s waiting for me

Oh, I’m such a lucky guy
‘Cause I’ve got you baby and I’ll never be lonely

96 You attended Winchester college, as did the 1890’s decadent poet Lionel Johnson. Is there any continuity there? Johnson felt it made him who he was, and the school does look rather like a castle in an enchanted forest. Do you consider yourself in any meaningful way a Wykehamist?

RH I’ll have to read Lionel Johnson to really answer that. Winchester College was where I gestated as a teenager, absorbing the music that makes up my DNA—Bob Dylan, The Incredible String Band and the rest of them. I was launched by the fifteen-year-old me, and he’s still pulling the strings, in a way. I was there in the late 1960s, when the world seemed to be mutating as fast as I was. Winchester ‘67 looks idyllic through the prism of time: Brian Eno and Brian Patten wandering through the water meadows, courted by the groovy college inmates who slept in their black gowns hanging upside-down like bats from the rafters. We sat on St. Catherine’s Hill at dawn, trying to levitate. 

“Wykehamists” are trained to over-think things, and so tend to wind up in the background: cardinals, influencers, eminence grises—I guess that’s me, isn’t it? Meaningful might be pushing it, though. . . .

96 You have some of the best shirts in rock ‘n’ roll. Dots are one of your trademark patterns, and I commend you with Christian Dior’s observation, “Dots are lovely, easy, elegant and always in fashion. I never get tired of dots.”

 So then, where do you buy your shirts? Do you enjoy shopping for them, the shopper’s thrill of the chase, and the triumph of a deep discount? Who was the greatest influence on your fashion sense?

RH I’m glad my shirts chime with you: they’re mostly from Blaqua (now based in Deal—proprietor: Simon Green) and occasionally from Paul Smith. Russell Wade of Sydney made three of my best polka-dot shirts. I’m not an intense shopper, but it’s always great to snaffle an affordable beauty, to be sure. My mother, Joyce, loved bright, vibrant clothes and under her influence my father, Raymond, became a bit of a dandy; coming of age between Mod and Hippie I was catapulted right in there, too. My fashion sense, like so much else about me, comes from record album covers between 1965 and 1968. . . .

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