Sunday, April 8, 2007
He's a tall man, Robyn Hitchcock. Not by American basketball team standards, but by English standards he's tall. By rock musician standards, too. He has to fold his body -- dressed in a sharp green wool jacket and luminous purple shirt -- into the seat at the game table we've requisitioned for an interview. We're in Austin, Texas, in the lobby of a movie house where we've just watched a screening of "Sex, Food, Death and Insects," a documentary that follows Hitchcock as he makes an album with his new band, the Venus 3. It consists of Peter Buck, a full-time member of R.E.M., and R.E.M. part-timers Scott McCaughey of Young Fresh Fellows and Bill Rieflin of Ministry. And it's the band that will accompany Hitchcock on Tuesday at Slim's in San Francisco.
This band (and he's had several these past 30-odd years, including the Soft Boys and the Egyptians) is American. The film, though, is very English -- at least the parts shot in the London home Hitchcock shares with his artist wife, Michele Noach. It's all damp brown brickwork and rambling gardens; you almost expect Michael Palin in "Monty Python" old lady drag to pop his head over the fence for a natter. Instead we get John Paul Jones (the former Led Zeppelin bassist and acclaimed producer) and Nick Lowe (the singer and writer and Johnny Cash's only English ex-son in law) dropping by.
Hitchcock, when he's not playing songs, is talking about them -- how they'll come from things that pop into his head like "Note to self: Kill more flies." How they'll often start out dark, but he'll make them lighter, "otherwise you're making people's difficult lives even worse." Laughter, he says, "is the dateline that you cross when life becomes unbearable." As fans of British TV comedy can attest, very English.
His songs -- music critics tend to call them psych-folk-rock -- are light of touch, surreal, intellectual and whimsical. A bit like the Incredible String Band without the drugs or Syd Barrett without the madness. The new Hitchcock documentary grew out of "Crazy Diamond," which British director John Edginton made about the late Pink Floyd singer-writer Barrett. It was one of a rash of recent film treatments of musicians with mental health issues (Daniel Johnston, Brian Wilson, Roky Erickson).
Hitchcock, though, appears entirely well-adjusted. Musing on the idea that one might consider him a rock casualty, he concludes that "if I were dead or institutionalized, I would probably be a lot more famous." Like most people, he says, he finds life "difficult at times, but I also find things to celebrate, so I'm not a lonesome guy gibbering in an attic. I'm more like Brian Eno. I wander around the world in nice clean clothes and hold forth at festivals. I am currently in the world. What I probably have in common with these other people you mention is I try to find my own language as a songwriter, which probably restricts my appeal because not everybody can pick up on it, but it probably intensifies its appeal to the people who do."
American audiences, he says, are among his largest and most devoted.
"It's probably that the preproduction was done by 25 years of 'Monty Python,' but people in America actually seem to pick up on what I say more than the Brits," he says.
Do Americans understand his dark sense of humor? In one scene in the film, for instance, Gillian Welch, who made a guest appearance on his album "Spooked," talks about being a bit creeped out by the lyrics of his song "Dead Wife."
The short version of Hitchcock's long, measured answer is that he does think that Americans in general, his fans obviously excepted, have "trouble looking at their own dark side," mostly because the United States is a country more interested in looking forward than back, since it's "a relatively recent country, one that is not based on memory but on erasing the indigenous culture, so it does not want to remember things. You can see that in the way those great old buildings from the '20s and '30s are being knocked down. It's like a cancer of memory being erased.
"Britain, on the other hand, is older and much more fatalistic. You assume that things mess up, that you won't succeed, that if you're waiting for a bus it doesn't come, your relationship will go wrong, you'll get fired from your job. Everything is ultimately for the worst and futile. But with that mind-set you can almost sit back and laugh and go, 'Well, it's not going to work anyway, so let's take it easy.' You're actually very protected from what life throws at you. Whereas the Americans would say, 'Why not? We can do something. Sue the bastard who threw you out of your job.' "
He says he likes that "America never stopped rocking. The Brits sort of did. In Britain, as a whole, there's been this thing since the mid-'70s, where rock became very uncool and was renounced by the British hipsters. It was OK if it was punk rock or art rock or new wave -- everything had to disguise itself as something else. I mean, the Clash was really a rock band, but they couldn't call themselves that. They had to be a punk band, though when they came to America, people realized they were a great rock band."
Two countries separated by more than a language?
"Maybe. But personally, I've not had a problem. And I've found that people on the West Coast are particularly hip," Hitchcock says.
He's had a long, warm relationship with the Bay Area.
"I'd always wanted to come to San Francisco because I was a big fan of Country Joe and the Fish in the '60s," he says. "I would dream of going out to Berkeley and tripping in the Haight and all that stuff, and I finally got there in 1985, sort of 10 years after it was all over. But I was very excited to be there, and in fact I had two successive girlfriends from San Francisco with the same name. I went to see the Airplane reunion in '89, and one time I played in Golden Gate Park. Oh, and I recorded an album in San Francisco in 1989 and '90, 'Eye.'
"In fact," it just occurs to him, "the 2-inch tapes for 'Eye' are still in (the) studio. So ... I left my tapes in San Francisco."
ROBYN HITCHCOCK performs at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Slim's, 333 11th St., San Francisco. $18-$20. (415) 255-0333, www.slims-sf.com. Sylvie Simmons is a freelance writer.
Sylvie Simmons is a freelance writer.
This article appeared on page PK - 40 of the San Francisco Chronicle