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Robyn Hitchcock Sounds Great When You’re Alive

Posted by on Dec 1, 2008 in Music | 1 comment

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The iPhone’s camera captures everything with amazing resolution: Robyn at Symphony Space.

I’ve had mixed feelings about Robyn Hitchcock for many years but now I love him.

The first song I ever heard by him was “Sounds Great When You’re Dead” on the local college radio station probably around 3 in the morning.  (Funnily enough, years later I would have a radio show at my college station from 1 to 5 in the morning on Thursdays.)

What struck me was that it was so grim and subversive despite only having an acoustic guitar and piano.  There wasn’t even any cursing.  Yet it fit in great with the hardcore punk of Dead Kennedys, Black Flag and D.I.  In fact, I seem to recall that Robyn Hitchcock’s song followed D.I.’s “Richard Hung Himself.”

But the problem was that Robyn Hitchcock’s albums were expensive imports and the albums of his previous band, The Soft Boys, were selling for upwards of $100.

Then a few years later, his song “Balloon Man” blew up!  It was huge!  Robyn was all over MTV all the time!

He went on a huge tour of America and A&M records, his label in the states, gave my radio show a pair of tickets to give out on air for promotion.

Yeah, right!

I did announce the show, several times, but I put myself down as the winner of the tickets.  No one in New York City wanted to go more than me, anyway.

I believe the show was at the Ritz, which is now Webster Hall.  It’s a pretty big place and it was sold out.  Robyn and his backing band the Egyptians (which included two former Soft Boys) found themselves playing in front of thousands when they previously probably only played to crowds a tenth of that size.

But something happened in front of that huge audience.  I noticed that Robyn liked to go off on what I’ll call improvised psychedelic non-sequiturs between songs.

It completely drained the energy out of the room!  No one had any idea what he was talking about!

That room had been pumped, too.  Many had bought Robyn’s A&M debut “Globe of Frogs.”  They hadn’t counted on 2-3 minutes of one-way banter from the stage before each song.  “Dude!” I wanted to tell him, “just shut the fuck up and play!”

It was such a turnoff I didn’t think about Robyn for years.  I later picked up his earlier solo albums on cassette for 99 cents each, “Element of Light” and “Black Snake Diamond Role.”  I listened to them once each, thought they were crap and tossed them into a drawer.

What an idiot I was.

Earlier this year, I saw that Yep Roc was reissuing Robyn’s back catalog.  They had audio samples of every one of his songs.

I went to select the first song on “Element of Light,” which is “If You Were a Priest.”

“I remember this was crap,” I muttered to myself.

What an idiot I was, again.

It was a great song.  It was a fantastic song with clever lyrics and a busy bass.

I desperately dug out my cassette of “Element of Light,” popped it into my portable cassette player and went to Au Bon Pain.  I listened to the entire album as I drank a 28-ounce iced coffee.

It was amazing from start to finish.  I was stunned.

Why hadn’t I been able to recognize it as such nearly 20 years ago?

I have to admit, memories of that odd gig overshadowed my impression of Robyn and prejudiced my ears.

I next popped in the cassette of “Black Diamond Snake Role,” but to my horror, the tape was nonfunctional.  So tapes are mortal, after all.

So, to compensate and to atone for my sins of ignoring Robyn unjustly for so long, I went ahead and bought both box-set reissues put out by Yep Roc, “I Wanna Go Backwards” and “Luminous Groove.”

Every single song is intelligent, if not catchy, with pop hooks that are familiar and yet wholly original.

I was happy to see that Robyn was set to play Symphony Space on the Upper West Side in late November.  I had a chance to see Robyn with new eyes and ears.

The program provided, written by Robyn himself, mentioned that he had gotten his start playing in folk clubs even before forming the Soft Boys.
Ah, that explained a lot.  That’s why improvised snippets between songs became part of his craft, in live performances, anyway.

The program also detailed a man — an artist — clearly not only unaccustomed to promoting himself but in fact doing the opposite.  I quote from the chronology:

1981 I release “Black Diamond Snake Role” [sic — yes, Robyn himself got the title wrong!] and promote it by doing nothing; Inner city riots throughout Britain; Spandau Ballet are huge.

1982 My second solo album, “Groovy Decay”; I promote it by doing even less, except tour of Norwegian fallout shelters, playing to AC/DC fans; Falklands War guarantees Thatcher a second term; Decide to hibernate.”

Robyn took the stage and recreated his album “I Often Dream of Trains” in its entirety, opting to “play” “I Wish I Were a Pretty Girl” on a cassette player instead of singing it himself.

The old improvised talk came back up, but knowing more about Robyn, I found it as integral to his music and off-kilter lyrics.

This was clearly not the college-rock superstar A&M tried to package in the wake of “Balloon Man.”  In fact, Robyn probably still resents A&M’s meddling to the degree that his years with the label (1986-1992) were dashed off in two lines out of nearly 200 lines in the program’s chronology.

Here what brings it full circle.  He did “Sounds Great When You’re Dead,” fifth song, first side of “I Often Dream of Trains.”

Sounded great to me and I’m glad I came around before I died.

Sorry and thank you, Robyn!

One Comment

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  1. Chang

    Mrs. Chang loved Robyn Hitchcock at a time when I did not. During a roadtrip I lost the coin toss and she got to play one of her CD’s and it was a Robyn Hitchcock disc.

    I grew to love it.

    Now I psych myself up before class with “Mellow Together.”

    (Oh, you boring little twirp.)

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