"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 Rle, 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 faade."
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.
Which brings us back to Perspex Island.
Hitchcock's testing of the mainstream last year no doubt pleased his record company and endeared him to a newer, wider audience. But longtime Hitch aficionados weren't happy. They remembered the not-so-groovy decay that followed their hero's previous attempt at being an adult.
"I know what you mean," he says. "There is a similarity in the adult aspects of the two records. But on Groovy Decay it was more imposed on me from the outside. Perspex Island I was into doing as much as anyone else. Certainly the music on it is happier, isn't it?"
But that, say Hitchcock's older fans, is the point. The mature Mr. Hitchcock sounds almost giddy. "So you think you're in love," he croons on the radio-friendly hit single. "Well you probably are/But you want to be straight about it . . ."
Robyn Hitchcock? Straight? The guy's never been less than bent about anything. Compare Hitchcock's newer, lightweight love songs to "Autumn Is Your Last Chance," or the ethereal "Airscape" from Element of Light. Indeed, check out "She Doesn't Exist," the most evocative cut off Perspex Island: "I used to ring you and hang up the phone," Hitchcock sings alongside a solemn guitar. "Even tried voodoo outside your home/But these days I just couldn't care less."
Now that sounds like someone who thinks he's in love.
"Inevitably, what one person likes about your music will turn another person off," Hitchcock responds. "But you can't go around pleasing people all the time because you'll vanish." In the next breath, though, Hitchcock says, "But if you eliminate what your hard-core fans really want, not only do you upset them, but it kind of invalidates everything you've done.
"My moods are incredibly erratic," he adds. "And there have been times when I just wanted to do something that's childish and silly. A lot of the things from the early Eighties, like 'The Man With the Lightbulb Head' [off Fegmania!] and 'Vegetable Friend' [from Invisible Hitchcock, a compilation of B-sides and outtakes]--all that stuff with organic representation sounds like kind of a kid's world now. Kind of twee. I think Perspex Island is more intense in many ways."
Hitchcock says his next record will be an acoustic outing with the Egyptians. He says he plans to record it in the kitchen of his home in England. He figures it'll be out by January, but he's not sure.
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"It's dangerous to talk about it," he says. "It's like describing a child before it's been conceived."
Suffice to say the outline of the new album will be up for review when Hitchcock hits town next week. Hitchcock and the Egyptians are going acoustic on their current tour. Hitchcock figures it's a good way to rehearse the new songs as they're meant to be played.
"It's not as dramatic as it sounds," he says of the unplugged format. "We've been doing it on and off for years. It's not like people are accustomed to stage-diving to our music."
But people are expecting a hint of high jinks from Hitchcock. They want at least a glimpse of the "man with the light-bulb head," the guy who used to croon about crustaceans and sing fondly of fish.
"Hey, all we can do is catch what's out there," reasons Hitchcock. "Maybe you'll catch a fish, maybe you'll catch a disease. Maybe you'll even catch a train. Or, you can catch a live wriggling creature that you can't name that looks like a tortilla swimming around in a sea of red afterbirth."
He pauses long enough to take a breath.
"You catch what's given to you. But you can't catch what isn't there."
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