By Benjamin Leatherman
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Troy Farah
By Roger Calamaio
By Mark Deming
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Brian Palmer
"I must be incredibly lucky to be me. I mean, I might well explode if I exchanged bodies with someone else."
Robyn Hitchcock is doing it again. He's acting the eccentric. He's waxing metaphysical. His mind's getting away from him.
Hitchcock, the crazy uncle of postmodern pop, was supposed to have settled down in recent years. His latest CD, 1991's Perspex Island, was heralded as the first Hitchcock disc that dealt in honest human emotions instead of surreal, pseudo-Freudian absurdities. The guy who made a career out of writing such oddball epics as "Tropical Flesh Mandala" and "Sandra's Having Her Brain Out" on albums with titles like Globe of Frogs and A Can of Bees sang optimistically last year of "Ultra Unbelievable Love" and generally kept his quirkiness in check. Hitchcock's newfound realism was rewarded with a hit single--the suitably syrupy "So You Think You're in Love"--and his most commercially successful album to date.
But as he speaks from a tour stop in Nashville, it's apparent that Hitchcock, perhaps the most brilliantly off-balance artist of the Eighties, is still a bit cracked around the edges. He's still the kind of guy, for instance, who picks up a portable telephone and immediately goes on at length about the anthropological ramifications of. . .portable telephones.
"The thing is," he says, wrapping up his stream-of-consciousness monologue, "someone from an earlier culture would see us talking into these things, muttering to ourselves, and they'd think that we were praying. Either that or they'd think there was a little man inside the phone." Hitchcock pauses. "Come to think of it, you wouldn't happen to be inside this phone, would you?"
Apparently the guy can't help it.
Hitchcock's long, strange trip began in the mid-Seventies with the Soft Boys, a psychotic pop band that sounded like the Beatles playing Captain Beefheart songs. The Soft Boys released two killer albums--A Can of Bees and Underwater Moonlight--packed with tuneful interpretations of Hitchcock's distorted inner eyesight. A wonderful collection of additional Soft Boys songs was released as Invisible Hits a few years after the band broke up.
The Soft Boys' self-destruction was mostly Hitchcock's doing. He wanted to go solo. His initial effort, 1981's Black Snake Diamond R”le, differed little from his peculiar mindset with the Soft Boys. The songs, highlighted by the hallucinogenic "Acid Bird," were at once melodic and grotesque, the audio equivalent of a gargoyle with a guitar.
But then something really weird happened.
Hitchcock, nearing his 30th birthday, decided to "mature." He released a slicked-up album called Groovy Decay. It featured a few monster cuts, most notably "Fifty-Two Stations" and the haunting "St. Petersburg," but Hitchcock's talent was tethered to a desperate, near-disco sound.
"Groovy Decay was an attempt to clean things up," Hitchcock says. "The idea was to present an adult fa‡ade."
The idea didn't work. Groovy Decay stiffed, economically and artistically. (Four years later, in 1986, Hitchcock set about to resurrect the stillborn disc. He remixed and rerecorded the songs, releasing the modified version as Groovy Decoy.)
But the original Groovy Decay was a massive disappointment for Hitchcock. Depressed and confused, he dropped out of the music scene. Rumors of personal problems soon followed.
"It was a variety of things," he now says of his retreat. "I didn't have a drug problem or anything like that. I was just tired of being manipulated by different people who thought I should be different things."
Hitchcock's early retirement all but killed whatever momentum he had as a New Wave cult fave. To quote one of his later songs, Hitchcock "didn't exist" for a couple of years.
Which helps explain why his re-emergence in 1984 with I Often Dream of Trains, arguably the most powerful album of the decade, went almost entirely unnoticed by fans and critics alike.
I Often Dream of Trains was an austere, acoustic masterpiece of anxious moods and visions. The disc's lyrics, acutely introspective, read like a psychoanalyst's wet dream. The song stylings, recorded on portable equipment at Hitchcock's home, were equally intoxicating, ranging from the uncanny a cappella of "Uncorrected Personality Traits" to riveting love songs like the Plastic Onoish "Flavour of Night" and "Autumn Is Your Last Chance," a stunning ballad of mesmerizing beauty.
"Everyone tells me retrospectively that they liked Trains," says Hitchcock. "But we certainly weren't made aware of it at the time. I mean, it wasn't even reviewed in the English music papers. We figured if we sold a thousand copies we'd break even. But then about six months later we discovered that people were liking it in America."
Hitchcock goes on to describe I Often Dream of Trains as a "happy" record, despite the album's lingering melancholy.
"I was really ready to go out and lay some eggs," he says of his return from retirement. "I was so ready that I recorded Trains and Fegmania! at pretty much the same time."
Fegmania! was Hitchcock's first recording with the Egyptians, a backing band that includes ex-Soft Boys Andy Metcalfe on bass and Morris Windsor behind the drums. With its fuller sound, Fegmania! brought accessibility back into Hitchcock's twisted song craft. Subsequent albums with the Egyptians--Element of Light, Globe of Frogs and Queen Elvis--continued the trend toward higher ground, eventually elevating Hitchcock to all-star status among alternative acts.