“The music industry pays people to remain frozen children”: The Bard of Prawns on growing old, innate Englishness, living in Nashville, overt eccentricity, the Beatles, Sinatra, and avoiding Bob Dylan’s broadsides.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN / PHOTOS BY ALISA CHERRY
Most fans would agree that Robyn Hitchcock is an eccentric. Indeed, his random musings about life and general happenstance make both his music and his persona as charming as they are challenging. A wordsmith like no other, his wry observations find him both amusing and thoughtful all at the same time, the result of an unrestrained wit expressed on both stage and in song.
That inventive stance made him a perfect performer for Big Ears, the Knoxville Tennessee festival that courts artists who are decidedly out of the ordinary. Consequently, during his two Friday performances, Hitchcock easily lived up to those expectations, fascinating fans and followers with songs from various intervals in his nearly 40 year career. Oddball favorites like “My Wife and My Dead Wife,” “Raymond Chandler Evening,” “Madonna of the Wasps,” and “I Want to Destroy You,” a song first sung with his seminal band the Soft Boys back in the day, surfaced during his sets, neither of which found any replication. Less familiar were the songs from his upcoming self-titled set, but the fact that his afternoon performance opened with three covers — Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom,” The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” and a relatively obscure song by the late Syd Barrett, the madcap founder of Pink Floyd — clearly suggested he was returning to his roots.
“Time seems to slow down as we get older, because we’ve been through so much of it already,” he remarked at one point, clearly referencing the older individuals in attendance, he himself included. We could go one step beyond; time seems to stand still when Mr. Hitchcock is at the helm.
BLURT spoke with the affable Mr. Hitchcock over lunch, and though he was obviously famished, he was quite willing to chat, even at the expense of his salad and seafood chowder, especially when the subject turned to other English icons and Bob Dylan, an idol of his own. In person and away from the stage, he’s as clever and quick-witted as ever, and over the course of the next hour he freely shared his observations about life, longevity and his love of music.
Robyn Hitchcock’s new album, Robyn Hitchcock, is out this week via Yep Roc. Go HERE to view his American tour dates—and for a cheap thrill, go HERE to see photos of him a few years ago at BLURT’s SXSW day party at which he received a surprise birthday cake from the BLURT gang.
BLURT: You did a song by the late Syd Barrett today. It’s easy to see how he was an influence on you.
He wasn’t around very long so it’s hard to know what he was or what he would have what he would have been. We don’t know if he was being ironic or not or simply funny. It’s difficult to know when he said things if they were in quotation marks or not. It’s interesting how we Brits come across. I am very British in a way, more like Nick Lowe than John Lennon, who considered himself more American when he died. Or look at someone like Ray Davies who was our version of Chuck Berry. He was mournful without being dreary. Like Chuck Berry, he was very good with words. Like Lou Reed. Very journalistic and yet quite specific. Bowie, on the other hand, would get quite abstract. Bowie didn’t do microcosms much. He got very widescreen.
The Beatles and the Stones transcended all that.
The Beatles and the Stones were quite American. They were British blokes with an American repertoire. Their music was mostly by black artists. It was soul music before they even called it soul. The Beatles were very specific, they had these nice little vignettes like with “Strawberry Fields.” But the Stones were already kind of talking American by the time they got over here. They were recording here in ’64. It always surprised me that the Stones were from south London because they sounded so American, but then again, their whole schtick came from Chicago blues. But it was a weird thing how so many British bands at that time played American music. There was almost nothing British at that time except some of the music hall things that the Kinks and the Beatles did, like “When I’m 64.” But even that was like ragtime. It’s certainly not British folk. There’s no real elements of British music. There was sort of this trans-Atlantic echo. I never really considered myself British or American. I considered myself part of that genre, with the Beatles and Syd Barrett and the like. And I loved Bob Dylan. I don’t break it down into countries. That may be my persona onstage but I don’t know whether the songs themselves have a nationality to them. Obviously they’re not from the Ukraine.
They’re from you. That overrules everything.
Yes, they’re from me.
It’s your persona above everything else.
I guess whatever my persona is in an act. I’m a trans-Atlantic act. I have been since the beginning. The Beatles never sang in an English accent. Maybe Bowie did. And Syd.
Ray Davies did as well.
But it wasn’t a cockney voice like Bowie. (Affects a Cockney voice for “Well Respected Man”)
And Peter Noone as well.
Peter Noone! He had a big effect over here, didn’t he?
He actually sang in an English accent.
The only thing I remember of him was “I’m Into Something Good.”
He did songs like “East West, “No Milk Today.”
That’s really interesting. I guess I need to listen to him again. But in Britain they were never cool. They never got beyond the teenybopper thing. They never wrote their own stuff. They were kind of like Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. I guess it’s the same people that would go see Davy Jones. A friend of mine went to see the Monkees and he could count the number of times he was in tears. Mind you, I was the same way when went to see Ringo. If he played “Yellow Submarine,” I’d just be weeping. My God, it’s Ringo Starr singing “Yellow Submarine” and I’m 150 feet away, seeing him at the Ryman. He’s looking fantastic and sounding great. Then the other guys come on and sing their hits from the ‘80s. I first saw them when Levon Helm was with him.
I saw them at various times with John Entwistle and Jack Bruce.
Really! He picked the ones that were going to exit. He should have called his band The Rehabs, but Ringo stuck with it and they didn’t.
You did an album of Dylan songs, didn’t you? It was kind of an unofficial release?
Yeah, most of what I do is unintentional. It’s not towards an end. I actually had those lying around. And then we did a whole live show where we replicated the Judas gig. Which again was recorded from a mike on the desk. It wasn’t even a desk tape but it sounded even better than a deck tape. I should probably have mixed the two together. I have so many songs lying about. I do so many live shows where I do Dylan songs.
Have you ever met Dylan?
Oh God no! I wouldn’t want to. Too many people want a piece of Dylan. He has to be the most scrutinized person in the world. I know people who have met him and he generally sort of plays with them but he can and because people have kind of treated him like the crown jewels since 1964. He’s said as much in interviews. I don’t have unconditional love for what he’s done, apart from his momentum years when he had momentum. I would totally avoid him.
What if you were told that he wanted to meet you? Would you be up for it?
If he wants to meet me it’s different, but he may want to meet me just to fuck around with me. He’s the kind of guy that doesn’t really trust people, and on some level I like that. But I know people who have worked with him and hardly even saw him. So I don’t think I need to meet him and he doesn’t need to meet me. I know that me and many other people will miss him when he goes and I take comfort in the fact that he’s still there. And I like his approach to time. He accepts it. He’s a reverse Paul McCartney. He shows his scars and leaves the knocks and the chips on him. He hasn’t had any facial work which he could easily afford. He likes to be like an old tree or an old chair. He likes to show all the marks of time, and the paint never dries on his songs. If he does play an old song, it’s unrecognizable. I don’t like that, I’d rather watch McCartney do a crispy version of “Penny Lane” than to see Dylan sing some mangled thing that turns out to be “Visions of Johanna.” I can do a better version of that than he can. He’s moved on and I respect the fact that he’s not beholden to his past. Unfortunately, Paul McCartney and me still have to come up with our old songs in a respective way. I saw Ray Davies a few years ago and he sang “Waterloo Sunset” like he’d never sung it before and it was great. He didn’t try to change notes or alter the style. Donovan’s like that as well.
They’ve really become a brand.
Yes, and that’s why they’ll stay forever young. Keith can be this old fossilized mummy and Dylan, well he was always this old man. He had a voice like an old man early on. Dylan never had the demeanor of a kid, even in the idolized image of his younger self. He’s so scrutinized. There’s never any expression on his face. He’s like a kind of old, withered gargoyle. His expression has long since been obliterated by the winds of time. It’s a rare position. It’s not like there’s anyone to be that, or it’s a position that occurred before. He talks about Sinatra, and I suppose Sinatra was one of the few people he felt competitive with and had respect for. If Frank speaks to me, I will speak back. There are only a few people Dylan respects or is in awe of. Which is one reason why I wouldn’t want to meet him…Oh God, I can’t remember where I was. My mind’s gone. What were we talking about?
We were talking about how Dylan looked up to Sinatra.
Sinatra and Paul McCartney and Elvis Presley are icons and gods who time can erase or replace. Dylan is an oracle and still is. Sinatra and McCartney might make some pithy points about life, but you’re not going to go up to them thinking they might give you the great psychic fortune cookie that will make you say, “Thank you great master. I am now reprogrammed. Only Dylan did that. He has the curse of being the one that unleashes this stuff. For that reason alone, you really have to stand clear, because he made the error on the personal level of giving all this stuff away, and no people expect him to enlighten me, oh master. I’s a weird gift, and not like anything other celebrities have. Maybe like some professors or poets.
You now reside in Nashville? What brought you there?
Emma (Swift, his girlfriend). Em was living in Nashville. People go there for a record deal or to make contacts. I went there for a relationship. She’s from Sydney. Then she went back to Sydney and I commuted from Sydney to the Isle of Wight for a year. Then our address was a couple of suitcases for about six months and then we moved back to Nashville.
How do you like it?
I think I do much better here than I do in England, and it’s much easier for me to be based in Nashville. All I have to do is get on a plane or drive. I don’t have to block off lots of time to do things in the States. It’s two hours from anywhere east of the Rockies.
Where were you living before?
I was living in London for ages. I’d go live in the Isle of Wight between relationships. It had become a place for gnarly dudes who liked surfing and stuff, but it all began with Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. They had a royal residence down there, but I don’t think she went in the sea much. Alfred Tennyson, who was like the Bruce Springsteen of his era, had a house there in the west, where I tended to hang out. Charles Darwin came and stayed there. Em and I actually lived in Charles Darwin’s house for six months. It still had the same plumbing and the same heating. Then there were the big festivals in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, which I went to as a kid. Bob Dylan played there after he was sort of snubbed at Woodstock.
Did you see him there?
I did, and what was especially memorable, was that I saw Jimi Hendrix’s last show. I also saw one of the last Doors gigs. Jim Morrison was very polite. He didn’t reek of imminent doom or anything. They just kind of did a medley of their greatest hits. Hendrix was more alive. He was in a creative arc. I remember seeing a statue of Hendrix at the end of our lane. It made him look very bedraggled.
It must have been very inspiring to live in a place that had such a rich poetic history.
I wrote loads of songs when I lived there. I went there as a kid and I went there for the festivals. My father lived on the island before World War II, so he’d take us there as kids in the ‘60s. So I went to those festivals and then I went back in the ‘80s, and I had a house there on the west end until about ’93. And then I went to Washington D.C. and then London.
What brought you to Washington D.C.?
Cynthia, my partner at the time. She lived there, although we met in San Francisco. So I lived there. But we didn’t last. So then I was back in London, and then on the island and now I’m in Nashville.
Do you miss London?
No. When I moved to Nashville I found it was quicker to get to London from there then it was from the Isle of Wight. Are you okay? I was in a place like that and the same thing happened. It might be my magnetic field. So just blame me. Once I got to Nashville, I spent more time in London. It’s easier to get over there from here. Certainly a lot easily from Sydney, although I like Sydney. London is expensive and damn cold. All the shit that’s happened here has happened there as well.
People also have a certain image of you, certain expectations no doubt. You have this very articulate and witty persona.
It’s sweet of you and I won’t belittle what I do, but it’s only a sort of cult that really knows who I am. I deal with lots of people who expect stuff. When I was on MTV 25 or 30 years ago, I’d go through airports and anybody who was between 25 and 30 years ago would come up to me and say, “Aren’t you Robyn Hitchcock?” They’d want to know the meaning of life, oh master. It slows you down. People are aware of who you are…
Much like now we would guess…
Oh no. Far less. If I’m in a town like this full of people of a certain age, yeah, the people will probably wave and say hello. But they’re not 19 where they’re going to swoon all over your balcony. They’ll nod at you and go back to grazing and doing what they do. It’s really good not to be followed too much.
Can you imagine yourself at 80?
Well, simply don’t die, that’s all. I’m in a precarious situation. If something goes wrong, I have to be shipped back to Britain to be dismantled. Unless it’s clean kill. I’d rather be cremated here because it’s a lot less expensive.
It’s more about retaining your wit and your persona and moving about in circles with people half your age.
As long as I’m able to function. They might have to freeze your head and remove your whole body. Or be like Stephen Hawking. Jesus. The Me Generation only has five years to go — Dylan, McCartney, the Stones, David Crosby — they’ll all be 80.
They’re in the 70s now, so who would have thought that?
They are have a few quid so I’m sure they’re better off medically than I am. You do what you do and people will enable you to do it. You can always come wheezing in and putting on a show until you start to malfunction. We have all those people who are a dozen years older than me and none of them have packed up. Richard Thompson, Nick Lowe… in a few years they’ll be classics. The surviving Beatles, Dylan, David Crosby… they’re already 75. What I hate is when they start saying 70 years young. I don’t mind saying I’m 64 years old.
Perhaps 80 is the new 60.
The thing is, people of that generation was the first generation not to have to grow up. They were a generation of selfish hippies. It used to be, when I get to 30, I’m going to cut my hair, put on a tie, provide for my family and stop taking drugs. It doesn’t mean that we won’t be come laughing stocks and all that, but the whole schtick of the baby boomers is that you won’t grow up. It’s great that McCartney is still Beatle Paul. And Dylan is still the wise the wise old man. You don’t want the sad old guy with missing hair, and I’m just me. I think the key point here is that nobody told us we had to grow up> I’m sure there are loads of people back home who say, “Oh God. Poor old Robyn. He never grew up and went off to America. There are people like that who were born after 1940, but there are people who were born in the ‘90s who are now just sort of responsible. The whole point of our generation was that we never grew up.
Eternal youth then.
No, I never grew up. I’m in a business that doesn’t encourage me to grow up. It pays people to remain frozen children. So while Dylan shows time, McCartney defies it. He’s had all the work, he’s had the hair done, you watch him from 200 yards away and he still looks like Beatle Paul. Jagger still moves like Jagger. I saw a video and I thought, this guy moves like Jim Morrison, and it was Jagger. He was aping all his movements. But his dad was a physical education instruction. And with people like Dylan and Keith (Richards), you’re bound to get attention even though they’re gnarly old people with terrible teeth and knotty hair.
Below: Hitchcock with the author.