Robyn Hitchcock first emerged as the singer with The Soft Boys, Cambridge misfits whose against-nature fusion of punk, prog and psychedelia peaked with 1980 masterpiece Underwater Moonlight, an album that would later burrow into the brains of US heroes The Replacements and REM. As a solo artist (or with backing bands The Egyptians and The Venus 3), he continued to explore the clammy absurdities and cosmic mysteries of human existence with a slew of beguiling albums, alt-rock heaven Fegmania! (1985), emotional exorcism Eye (1989) and the richly spun Ole! Tarantula (2006) among the very best. On the eve of the release of his 19th solo album, the luminous Love From London, he turned 60 and celebrated with a birthday retrospective show. As he sings on “End Of Time,” Love From London‘s closing track, “it’s been wonderful.”
You may think you know all there is to know about Robyn Hitchcock, but Victoria Segal uncovered 10 little-known facts about the iconic singer-songwriter.
He is available for weddings.
“I’m a minister of the Universal Life Church of Arizona: I can marry people in the States, although I’m not sure I can do it in Britain. I married Colin Meloy of The Decemberists and his wife [artist] Carson Ellis five years ago. I haven’t done a marriage recently, though.”
He likes a birthday party.
“There’s nothing more significant in your life than your birth. I’ve signed on for the long haul, like John Lee Hooker or Bob Dylan or Martin Carthy. You no longer have to knock off when you hit 30. As far as I’m concerned, the songs aren’t necessarily better now, any more than they were at 40 or 50, they’re just expressing different things and reacting to different things as your metabolism changes. But I’m really happy to put flags in the map of my life and anyone who is interested can come along and celebrate with me.”
He was born with trousers on.
This is a line from my song ‘Birds In Perspex’ (1991). It’s a very British angle. You are born already embarrassed, concealed, shamed by emotions and your physical existence. I came from a very squeamish kind of middle-class background — we were all born with trousers on. But I don’t necessarily think the Brits have a monopoly on it — I think it can be universal.”
He played at Yoko Ono’s 80th birthday show.
“It was a complete accident. I was in Berlin, visiting my daughter. I knew Michael Stipe was also there, and we were going to meet up. We attempted to get tickets to Yoko Ono’s show, but it didn’t happen so we went to get coffee and then Michael rang up and said, ‘You’ve got tickets.’ So we bolted down some prawns, hopped on the U-Bahn, then Michael texted and said, ‘You’ve got front-row seats.’ We squeezed past everyone and sat down. And then Yoko and Sean appeared. I’d never seen either of them before. Legend central, really. They did an amazing show. Sean’s a great bandleader, I’ve never seen a mother-son thing like it — I tried to imagine my mother and me doing a similar thing and I couldn’t at all.
Then Michael tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘We’re on in the encores.’ I didn’t even have a shirt on — I was wearing a V-necked sweater, and was basically dressed for coffee on a chilly Berlin night. Thank God I was wearing trousers! So these encores came and we were duly hauled up to sing ‘Give Peace A Chance.’ Then they gave us some birthday cake.”
He’s not prone to Soft Boys nostalgia.
“The Soft Boys didn’t have any fun. I hadn’t really learned how to write songs — I’d bring in all these lines and the other guys would play them back like a very mild version of Captain Beefheart. Then we’d try to play in bars but often I’d have drunk too much to be able to play — I hadn’t worked out the alcohol-to-performance ratio at that point. What we left behind was better than how it was at the time. I like to meet up with Morris [Windsor, drums] and Kimberley [Rew, guitar] and talk about who’s alive and who’s dead , but it’s not something I pine for at all.”
The Soft Boys played at The Mudd Club and Danceteria, bringing neurotic British rock to the epicentre of NYC grooviness.
“We were very excited to be in America. Lenny Kaye always says how he saw us at the Mudd Club. It had a garage door — you’d stand on stage and this garage door would just roll up and reveal you. I don’t know if anyone ever went on stage naked to play with that. It wouldn’t have happened with us — we all had our trousers on.”
Arthur Lee wanted to kill him.
“I’d written this song, ‘The Wreck Of The Arthur Lee’ [on 1993's Respect]. Arthur hadn’t taken this very well and had issued various threats to kill me in interviews after which he was put away for waving a gun in a supermarket. I was then invited to be a guest on stage when they did Forever Changes [at London's Royal Festival Hall, 2003]. It was very odd. Arthur invited me up on stage a song early so I had to play something I’d never played before, introduced me as ‘Alfred Hitchcock’ and mimed shooting me with a gun. After that, he was very friendly.”
He suspects cats may one day rule the Earth.
“The dinosaurs ruled for something like 100 million years and we’ve been here 30,000 years. I don’t know if we’re going to outdo the run of the dinosaurs. Will a feline dynasty in 5 million years be looking back at us, the super-cyber cats who survived the next apocalypse? Have you seen those Bengal cats with silver skins? I can imagine them walking around museums that have our iPhones in, looking in wonder.”
He doesn’t like “schlepping electric guitars around.”
“I prefer playing acoustic. Electricity is a barrier. Jonathan Richman said the fewer plugs and wires between you and the audience the closer you can be. I’m not really drawn to widescreen gestures — I don’t make widescreen records either which may be the limit of my appeal. I’m not like a hoarding or a poster, I’m more like something in an antique shop next to the stuffed owl.”
He isn’t giving in to despair.
“My elegiac records were when I was much younger. Things like I Often Dream Of Trains, I wrote that sort of stuff in my 30s. Love From London is celebration — we may be having a party on the Titanic but it’s still a party. Time is finite for all of us, whether one of us goes or everybody goes, each of us only dies once. Look on the label, it never said we were going to last too long.”