Friday, March 1, 2013

A personal history of Robyn Hitchcock fandom

I'm happy to dedicate this entry, my first in an embarrassingly long time, to Robyn Hitchcock, who will be turning 60 years old this Sunday, March 2, 2013.
Before I begin, I would like to hype an event that is happening on his birthday, and which inspired this post: a multi-artist tribute (oh, how Northampton loves those!) which will take place this Sunday, March 2 at the Parlor Room, on Masonic Street, Northampton, MA.
Starts at 7:00.  Doors at 6:30.  $10.  BYOB.
Robyn will not be there, but many of your local faves will (and, why yes, I have a great twofer planned with Sitting Next to Brian).
And, proceeds go to Valley Free Radio, which is awesome so supportive of local artists. Let's give back, shall we? 

The first I ever heard of Robyn Hitchcock was around 1988 when my sister was at the height of her high school Deadhead phase and had a subscription to Relix Magazine. I believe they published a review of Globe of Frogs which piqued Alyssa's interest, since just a year or two before that, she was listening to anything considered post-punk/college rock etc and had no doubt heard Robyn on WFNX or on a college station. She was still a big REM fan, and the review probably mentioned that Peter Buck guested on the album. So this was a collision of good things.
Why was Robyn, and not, say XTC, Morrissey or The Cure, being reviewed in Relix Magazine? Because he'd gotten the seal of approval from the Dead's inner sanctum.
It's a convoluted tale, so let's let Robyn himself tell the story.
This is an excerpt from an interview a then Boston-based journalist named Dave Carroll did with Robyn in 1989:

CD: Speaking of odd relationships, there's a picture that's been going
around in the music trade magazines, taken backstage at the Oakland
Coliseum, of you, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. How did that ever come
RH: Well, they were there. They were watching the show. (listen to that show here)
CD: Are they fans of yours?
RH: Well, they did one of my songs, "Chinese Bones", with Suzanne Vega
at Madison Square Garden, and Jerry said his daughter or his daughter's
boyfriend was a fan. They seemed to enjoy it, actually, and he's really nice
chap, Jerry Garcia. He's on the case, you know? He's not an old spaceball.
He's very humorous and self-deprecating. He said, "Ha, took us twenty
two years to get a hit record.", he chuckled away. He's quite fast as
well. I thought it would be like talking to someone who was moving through
a bowl of viscous fluid, slow motion and things, but not at all.
CD: Seeing you with the two of them flashing peace signs--some people
were in a state of shock over that picture.
RH: It was my idea, actually. Yeah, it was just a great--I thought, "We've got
to do this!"

(if anyone knows where to find that photo of Robyn w/ Garcia and Weir, please let me know in the comments! i've googled and googled and...nothing.)

 I've already discussed the Garcia/Vega connection in a previous blog.

Robyn has been known to cover the Garcia/Hunter 1970 classic, "Candyman",
not to mention Dylan's "Visions of Johanna" and Paul McCartney's "Let Me Roll It", which Garcia also covered at various times. 

In 1989, when I was in the habit of programming my parents' VCR to watch Letterman, I taped one where Robyn (and bassist Andy Metcalfe, relegated to background "oooh"s) did his current (and still great) single, "Madonna of the Wasps", which Boston's WFNX was playing a whole bunch. Look closely and I'm pretty sure Robyn breaks a string in the beginning of the opening riff--then during the solo goes and tells Andy and Letterman guitarist Sid McGinnis. By the way, 1989 was a great year for live music on Letterman--at least for a 16 year old in Nowheresville.

I'd begun to read more about Robyn and, of course, the Syd Barrett comparison would always come up. 1989 was the year that I discovered and became obsessed with Syd, so to have a modern day artist who had a bit of a Syd thing going on...well, now I just had to find out more.

First off, I borrowed a Soft Boys album, Two Halves for the Price of One, that my sister had brought home from U Mass. It was live on one side (including a cover of Syd's "Astronomy Domine") and a studio EP on the other (including "Where Are the Prawns?" and "Only the Stones Remain"). I put the album on a cassette that had Syd Barrett's Opel on the other side. Loved it but kept it to myself--no one I knew at the time was into Robyn.

In spring 1990, I borrowed Queen Elvis on cassette from a friend (by then, I knew a couple people who had his most recent couple of albums), and put it on the other side of my dub of Dukes of Stratosphere Psonic Psunspot. I was getting out of my retro psychedelic party of one and into the current day, and this tape was one of the roads I took to get there. Basically, I had to be able to accept 80's production and this helped me with that--big 80's reverb on the drums...on everything, really. It just bummed me out, the way that girls with big perms did. 1990....But if the music (or girl) was cool enough, it could be overlooked.

For a little while I stopped listening to Queen Elvis because I associated it with a teenage bummer night. It was a spring night in 1990 and I drove around for a couple hours with Queen Elvis playing on repeat (the borrowed, not the dubbed cassette) while the girl (who did not have a perm) in the passenger's seat and I sat in silence. Not in a cute shy way or a "this moment is perfect without words" way or a "let us not interrupt the genius of Robyn" way. More of a "it was a mistake to hang out tonight, but neither of us wants to go home" way. Meanwhile, Robyn sung about the Veins of the Queen, the devil poking his blood red horns out of his food, and...matching the mood perfectly, venting at a girl who likes someone else better ("Freeze"). After that song, "Superman" always seemed silly--but was my companion's favorite.
I also remember it being a wet, warm night, when running over little frogs was an inevitability. I made a lame joke about it being a "globe of frogs". Not appreciated. Bad night.

Not sure about you, but I usually can't appreciate a sad song unless it hits home. In the early summer, suffering my first real heartbreak, I realized what a sad song "Autumn Sea" is, while I used to just think of it as "that ballad with the funny spoken bit in the middle". Now I thought of it as "that unbearably sad song with that stupid spoken word bit in the middle". Tables turned.

That fall (still in 1990), my sister, now living on State St in Northampton (with one Joe Pernice as a housemate), called one night and said "Robyn Hitchcock is coming to the Iron Horse! Wanna go?"
It was "visiting prospective colleges" time for me anyway (senior year) and so this seemed a good excuse. My friend came along who wasn't too familiar with Robyn's stuff, but was happy to come along. He liked the song in which Robyn says my friend's name (I'll let you guess, since Robyn says lots of names in his songs). Anyway, under the pretense of visiting U Mass Amherst, we arrived in Northampton, "pre-gamed" and went to the Iron Horse. Four years later, I'd be playing on that stage. Today I can say I've played on that stage dozens of times. Next month I'll be seeing Michael fucking Nesmith playing on that stage. But that's another story.

Opening for Robyn on this night was The Jody Grind. The main thing I remember about them was a song where the vocalist, Kelly Hogan, sung the alphabet. Really kind of jazz/soul/quirk/pop if I that clears it up at all. (not long after this, I was stunned to hear their name mentioned by Kurt Loder on an MTV News break, regarding half the band dying in a van crash).

I bought a t-shirt that night, designed by Robyn. It said "I'm growing Betsy in a bag"--a line from "Satellite", off of his recent album, Eye. In college, I gave it away to a girl named, you guessed it, Wanda.
No, a girl named Betsy. Which is good, because that means it didn't burn in a fire like all my other old stuff. So perhaps it's still out there. It looked like this (but without the autograph):

Anyway, we loved the Iron Horse show--it was October in Northampton, which is a great month for feeling chilled and maudlin and poetic, and that's exactly the kind of show Robyn gave. Plus, we saw him afterwards on the street, walking with some Chinese Lantern flowers. Too perfect.

Little did I know that at least two people who would be (and still are) very important people in my life were also there: Ken Maiuri and Henning Ohlenbusch.  If someone that night gathered up Robyn, Henning and me in a room and said, "in the year 2005, you three will be photographed playing music together in a small club a few yards from where we are now. Oh, and Lloyd Cole will be watching in the picture", I'd point to Henning and say "who's that guy?"


Then what? Oh, I really didn't get into Globe of Frogs until the summer of 1991. That was a really fucking hot summer, and a really great summer for me. Just graduated high school, had two bands I was psyched about, had cool friends...
The tapes that lived in my car that I blasted on those scorching days and groovy nights tearing up the back roads of North Andover, were The Pixies' Surfer Rosa, Dinosaur Jr.'s Green Mind, The Cavedogs' Joyrides for Shut-Ins, Throwing Muses' The Real Ramona, XTC's English Settlement, and Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians' Globe of Frogs.

So, the last day of that summer, I went into Harvard Square to buy some clothes for college, and, the brand new Robyn CD, Perspex Island.
Did I like it? reminds me of saying goodbye to the little hometown gang of misfits that I spent most of the previous 18 months with. We all hung out, played music, dated, blew our minds, listened to and talked about music, watched movies and music videos, hung out in parking lots doing all of the above, hung out in Dennys and Friendlies drinking pots of coffee and smoking tons of cigs...Them days is done. I regret nothing. Well...maybe some things, but nothing of import.
It was the end of an era that will always be with me. And Robyn can't help if I got teary whenever I heard "She Doesn't Exist Anymore", while a prime time TV montage of girl faces floated by, most of whom really loved me... as a friend. (Yeah, I was that guy. Too nice--though at the time I interpreted it as "gross and undesirable." A self image I kept for a long time. Made me a better drummer.)

That spring, Robyn and the Egyptians played at Pearl St in Northampton, with Matthew Sweet opening. This is another show where people I didn't know then, but would get to know quite well in a few years, were in attendance.

I really loved the 1993 single "Driving Aloud", but didn't buy that album. This was the start of formulated grunge and jock-i-fied alt pop displacing smart jangle pop, and those not willing (or too proud) to change were dropped from their major label deals in favor of timeless bands like Sponge and Eve's Plum.  

In any case, in the spring of 1995, I was in a band called Sourpuss with Ken Maiuri, Todd McMurray and my sister Alyssa. We were psyched to hear that Robyn was going to do an in-store at For the Record in Amherst! We were even more psyched because we were doing an in-studio at WAMH in Amherst the same day, and thought "hey, maybe Robyn will tune in!". I doubt that happened.

I was a faithful journal keeper in those days and I found what I wrote about that whole experience:

April 9, 1995: 
A year ago--well, 370 days ago-- Kurt Cobain was still alive, Todd was living at home, Alyssa wasn't in a band and none of us knew who Ken was. If you had told me then that on April 9, 1995 I'd be playing with my band Sourpuss on WAMH and meeting Robyn Hitchcock on the same day, well...(I'll spare you the rest of that sentence, for it reflects the mind of an overworked 22 year old writing in his private journal).

Unfortunately I have very little memory of what he played that day. The only thing I remember, oddly, was some between-song spiel about psychotherapy being another form of suicide and no worse than drug addiction. Or something like that. It seemed to be coming from somewhere I wasn't yet ready to go (again, I was only 22). I had him sign my copy of Perspex Island, which I don't have anymore.
Fortunately, I did take a photo that has survived....

Robyn Hitchcock at For the Record in Amherst, MA. April 9, 1995.

Incidentally, my next entry in said journal reads as follows:

April 17, 1995: 
10 months, 17 gigs, dozens of songs and one 7" later, no mo' 'puss. (Sourpuss, that is).
(only ten months!? I was also a full time student at U Mass and a part time Stop and Shop employee with a girlfriend and a social life. Thank god I kept a journal because I remember little). 

Oh well.

When I met and started playing music with Henning Ohlenbusch, our shared Robyn fandom was always a source of musical bonding--still is. I remember one Aloha Steamtrain show where he and I did an impromptu version of "Superman", joined by Joe Bartone on Hammond B3, while Lord Russ changed a string or got a drink or something. 

In 1998 or 1999, Henning and I went to see Jonathan Demme's Storefront Hitchcock  at Cinestudio, Trinity College, Hartford. At the time, I was underwhelmed--or maybe it was a mix of two geniuses that didn't taste great together.
Much like when Robyn and Andy Partridge co-wrote a song that was 5x blander than either of their blandest stuff. You can't have two eccentrics share authorship. They cancel each other out.

Hey wait...I think I heard that somewhere before:

Chicago Tribune,
May 29, 2009: Mark Caro's Pop Machine column

PM: What was the driving force behind (Andy and Robyn's songwriting collaboration)?
Partridge: I liked him. I got together with him one day to write something for an album of his, and we came up with about six ideas, one of which he finished up, and it was called “[‘Cause It’s Love] Saint Parallelogram,” and he put that on an album of his. He is so quick witted, and he is a very creative fella. No sense of rhythm. He’s very creative. He just grabs stuff from the air, which I find very stimulating because that’s kind of how I tend to work as well. So to some extent it was like dealing with a mirror reflection of myself creatively. Maybe this is why the thing is not happening. Maybe we’re too alike.
PM: Except for your work habits.
Partridge: No, no, I like to get in there and get working, and we’re doing an album, let’s do it. But I think he’s addicted to globetrotting by the sound of it. I don’t know. Like I said in my e-mail, it could be that thing where it’s two forces that get together, one fire and one ice, and all you end up with is lukewarm water.

Lukewarm Water, exhibit A:

Then came that night in 2005. Henning was asked to open for Robyn at the Iron Horse. He also borrowed his black Telecaster--hey Robyn often played a black Telecaster!
And the weirdest thing was, Henning and Robyn wore very similar outfits.
No, that wasn't the weirdest thing. The weirdest thing was that I ended up playing drums for a slightly drunk (by his own admission) Robyn at the Basement later that night when a slightly more drunk Chris Collingwood convinced him that I was someone that Robyn needed to play with. I'll forever be thankful to Chris for that.

Here are photos from that night, taken by Debbie Way:

And here's how I described it the next day on The Living Rockumentary:

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

I think that Lindsey Buckingham should start a band wth Morris Windsor called The Castles. Morris Windsor, anyone? Anyone? Respond to Your Own Rockumentary.

Right, so Robyn. Here goes.

I met DWay at the Iron Horse. What a rainy walk it was. They started to seat us upstairs. Hmm...haw...what else you got? The very front+center table? We'll take it (why didn't you offer that first?)!!
Ugh, we may have to sit with strangers...NO! It's Rick and Sarah! Groovy! Get me another V+T and let the show begin!
Henning did a perfect job. Striped shirt, red pants, glasses. The chip joke went as follows:  He said it was so quiet, he could hear all the eating sounds. And something about instead of the audience requesting songs, he could request different eating sounds. Just then, Sarah bit into a nacho real loud. Henning asked if the show was being recorded, and if so could someone send him a bootleg MP3 of that awesome version of "Chip"

So, Robyn. Just the parts Henning didn't mention or experience.

Striped shirt, purple pants, vest.
my friend MZ saw him in Brooklyn a few months back and mentioned how it was all request. I thought "how special". Well, I guess that's just how he does things these days. When he took the stage he invited everyone to write requests down. Because we were next to the stage, Rick and Debbie were the cut-off people who would then relay the napkin/note paper onto the stage.
I requested "Cynthia Mask" and "Wax Doll".
When he got to my napkin, he said "oh, those are nice" and played "Cynthia Mask". He said "I'm sure I played this here in 1990" (at the show Ning and I were at)
As he was reading one of the napkins, a woman behind us whispered discreetly "it looks like he needs reading glasses" and Robyn said "he does".

Later he did a funny monologue in which, when you get home from the show, your pet gerbil (who gets turned on by the sound of a guitar tuning) asks you "did he play any Soft Boys songs?".
This prompted me to draw a rodent on a napkin, asking "Did he do 'Where Are the Prawns?'", which Debbie did not just put on the stage, but nudged it (while he was out in the auduence doing the medly) on top of one of his pedals. Unfortunatly, he was, by then,not reading the napkins anymore.
It was awesome seeing him play Henning's guitar, and I realized, on Letterman in 1989 he also played a black telecaster (I just found that old tape and transfered it onto DVD--but I swear he breaks a string at the top of the song)

But he did note that he had no Republican fans, and thus felt ok doing his new song "Everybody Knows Dubya Sucks (and Rumsfeld is the Antichrist)".

OK, over to the Basement. Groovy of Lloyd for inviting him over there, and many thanks to Chris and Henning introducing me to Robyn and telling him I'd be playing drums (well, not telling him, but they kept strongly suggesting it).
It was cool, as I was mostly sequestered in a corner talking to Bezo and Debbie, to look over and see Ning with those three rock stars..
I imagined that Robyn was the 5th Gay Potato, having replaced Philip (sorry Philip).

So after a few Open Mic acts, and a few rounds of drinks, Hebert introduced RH to the stage. How friggin' surreal. He began with Bob Dylan's "Please Mrs. Henry", one of the funniest things in Dylan's catalog--from the Basement Tapes (this was his 3rd Dylan song of the night, including Gates of Eden and She Belongs to Me at the Iron Horse).
Then he invited the Gay Potato Three up on stage. We did the following:

Waterloo Sunset (the Kinks)--I can't believe I'm playing one of my all time favorite songs with one of my favorite songwriters. I think it went well. At the end he segued into the end of Syd Barrett's "Arnold Layne". Damn, I'm in heaven.

Something (the Beatles)--I layed out on some of this, and played lightly. Robyn looked back at me one time when I stopped, so I took the high road and assumed he meant "come on, then". So I stepped it up a bit for the bridge and last verse.

Some sort of weird drunken dialogue over the mic with Chris happened here. I can't remember what it was, but Robyn started singing like Buddy Holly. So, I started playing the "Peggy Sue" beat (tom rolls). Robyn took the cue and said "yeah! Peggy Sue!" so we did that. Pretty good.

I think here, Robyn went on some rant about how drugs aren't good for you. Then he thanked "Mr. Brian on drums--not drugs".

We then ended with "Happiness is a Warm Gun". When we got to the part towards the end where like the bass plays in 3 but the drums play in 4, I felt conflicted and thus played kinda wrong. This didn't get past RH, so he incorperated me into the lyrics "when I hold you in my arms, and I feel my finger on your trigger, Brian, no one can do me any harm".

I'm glad I'm posting this now while all these little details are still swimming around. It was a total thrill, and I ran half the way home I was so excited.
I really didn't think I could feel such a thrill at my advanced age. Thanks everyone.

PS: Just a couple more drippings from the Hitchcock show
1) when I told him I'd requested Cyntian Mask he said that that and "my Wife and My Dead Wife" were his favorites of the evening.
2) MY favorite was "Chapter 24". Seeing him play such an obscure Syd/Pink Floyd song, and such a cool piano arrangement..I couldn't stop smiling.
3) I really wish Max and Ken could've experienced the evening.

Damn. I haven't read that in a long, long time, and totally got the same feeling over again--at even a more advanced age.  

Anyway, happy 60th, Robyn, thanks for a couple decades of memories, and I hope my medley of "This Could Be the Day" and "The Queen of Eyes" goes down well on Sunday.  


  1. Wow, I used to have that photo of Jerry and Weir and Robyn!!!! I've always wondered about the story behind it, and for some reason I thought to search the web for the picture! Instead I found this very nice blog posting about Robyn! Saw him a million times (the Dead too!).

    A side note, I remember seeing Robyn play the Ritz in NYC, in 1988 (with Peter Buck guesting on guitar). The same night the Dead were playing at Madison Square Garden. For the encore, Robyn came out in a tie-dye and, I have to say, did a bit that was rather unflattering to Deadheads! This was BEFORE he met Jerry and Bob. It makes me really happy he does "Candyman" live sometimes, at the time I wasn't that into the Dead so it didn't bother me....but a couple of years later it DID bother me!!!

    Anyways, thanks for the was HARD being a Robyn fan in the 80s because he had MILLIONS of b-sides and rare releases....I once paid fifty bucks for a copy of the "Near the Soft Boys" ep!!!! Little did I know that it would all come out on CD!!!

    Unfortunately, I felt like Robyn's writing took a nosedive with "Perspex Island". I liked "Eye", and I liked "Respect", "Moss Elixer" was ok. But for the most part, I don't know what happened to Robyn's writing and his sense of melodic hooks!

    Still....he's a great undiscovered talent, The Soft Boys stuff through the early 90s yields LOTS of nuggets, great songs, and more melodic hooks that you'll find humming than 99% of other musical acts (not to mention the crazy lyrics!)

    All the best!

  2. Thanks for the nice words! Whether you feel his work has diminished in quality over the years or not (and I tend to agree, though it may just be US getting older..), the great thing is that he's still doing it. Elvis C. too!
    Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Andy Partridge, who freaked out that the last XTC album was only above average (for them) and pretty much stopped writing--except for collaborations.
    If you track down that pic of Jer & Hitch, let me know!

  3. I found the photo of Robyn, Weir, and Garcia posted on Robyn's Twitter:

  4. Yay!!! Thanks so much! I'll try to insert it here when I have a moment.
    You're a hero.