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Interviews & articles
 The MOJO Interview - Mojo N° 144 - November 2005


Soft Machine made him miserable. Falling from a window in 1973 was "a good career move". Enter the topsy-turvy world of rock's reluctant Mr Nice Guy, Robert Wyatt.

Interview by MARK PAYTRESS
Portrait by ROSS HALFIN

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ROBERT WYATT IS MAKING HIS WAY TO THE nearest mirror. "My wife goes mad if it looks crap," he says, teasing unruly strands of silvery hair away from his face. It doesn't seem to make much difference. As he poses affably in his small front garden, oblivious to the bustle of the Lincolnshire market town passing by his gate, this softly-spoken god of small things still sports the unkempt 19th century Russian thinker look he's maintained for over a decade. He's all facial hair and kind, youthful eyes, and no 10-second makeover can alter that.

Inside, across a wooden dining table, Wyatt discusses everything that's thrown at him with generosity and insight. Moving effortlessly from Richard Dawkins to Don Covay, from father of anarchism Peter Kropotkin to flamenco siren La Niña de la Puebla over wine, fags and omelette, Wyatt is fascinated equally by musicians and ideas. Especially those, such as Hendrix and Miles Davis as well as innumerable unnamed fighters
for economic and social justice, who push themselves a bit beyond what we know.

Wyatt, too, inhabits the realm of the unthinkable. Less than two years after the singing sticksman had been unceremoniously dumped by The Soft Machine, on June 1,1973 he fell from a fourth-floor window ("I'd always been a bit reckless," he explains) during a party, which turned his life round for a second time. Left paralysed and wheelchair-bound, he insists he simply got on with the job. But when he leaves the room, his wife Alfie helpfully suggests that "the trick has been denial". Ostensibly, MOJO is here to discuss the release of Theatre Royal Drury Lane. This September 1974 set chronicles his one and only solo live show, including his masterpiece, Rock Bottom, in its entirety. Since then, he's become a cherished institution, thanks to a string of inimitable and idiosyncratic, keyboard-led solo records. Unafraid to speak up for the common people, Wyatt won the respect of punk audiences, who loudly applauded his integrity. But most cherished of all is his voice, the most plaintive, deeply affecting in popular music. Refreshingly unassuming, Robert Wyatt is rock's most reluctant legend.

This latest archive release [Theatre Royal, Drury Lane] was your coming out a year on from the accident in 1973. Was it difficult to listen to?

No. It's the sound of freedom compared with my previous responsibilities as a drummer. What I hear are the technical things, the purely musical things. The content I have to take for granted.I don't listen like a listener.I would have loved to have taken that band on the road, though with Fred Frith, Mike Oldfield and Nick Mason involved, that was clearly never gonna happen. And John Peel's intro is one of the best solos on the record. He sets up an atmosphere that a good MC would have done opening a 19th century music hall show - very light and easy.

Privately, it must have been a different matter. How low did you go?

The truth is I wasn't low after the accident. I may have had the bends coming up too fast, so I may have been a bit deranged, but I can't call it sadness. I'd just got together with Alfie. For the first time I had people helping me do my own tunes. Being rejected by the burgeoning jazz-rock community [dismissal from The Soft Machine] was far more humiliating. That was when I was miserable, before I broke my back, before I met Alfie, before I started a new year zero in '74. It's actually quite a celebratory moment for me.

So, contrary to popular opinion, Rock Bottom wasn't a direct response to your new state?

My overall view of life, not my circumstances, is that I am rather sad. I think life is wonderful, but my tendency is towards great sadness about things. I don't know why. While that may come out, it's not something I consciously put in. I operate like an animal - I just go for what feels right. People say humans have a fantastic ability for selective memory, that they erase pain because a certain amount can't be lived with. So it may be possible I was more distressed than I remember. But when you've fallen down a hole, and are scrambling out, you're not really sad.

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One night, you're a well-known party animal. The next you're sobering up in a hospital bed and have just been told you've lost the use of your legs. What was your first thought?

I thought it was interesting, odd. It was a bit like being lifted up by helicopter off a street and dumped on a beach in Java. You think, Where am I? Is anybody here? I don't know the language. The world looks the same, but you're so different in a wheelchair that you have to re-learn how to live, the oddness of being in the same place but not being able to participate in the same way. I must emphasise that I was very unhappy in the late '60s, deeply uncomfortable. It's not as if I'd lost something that was very precious to me.

Did you tell yourself: I'm gonna beat this?

No, l'm too short term for that. I thought, Blimey, I think I might have enough material here for another record - that'll be good. But I only had about three or four chords I liked. I wanted to expand the repertoire... to about six.

Where did you look for inspiration ?

Alfie taught me how to look at films in a more educated way, and though we had a lot of music in common - Sly Stone, Mingus - she listened to flamenco, Bulgarian folk music and so on, which had an enormous effect on me. To discover that the spirit of soul music is all over the world was a revelation.

From a young age, you'd cherished outsiders through your admiration of jazz musicians and bohemian culture. Did this help?

I hadn't thought of it like that, but the answer is yes. If you're feeling lonely with the world because it seems to be made for somebody else but not for you, then to find other people that it's not made for either, who are uncomfortable in their own ways, you get a certain fraternal sense of relief from that.

What did music, especially your early passion for jazz, first mean to you. Escape? Intoxication? Removal from the humdrum?

You've nailed it!

There's a childlike sense of wonder to your work, and hints of Christmas carols and nursery rhymes in your melodies.

The first songs I sang were with my dad round the piano at Christmas - Away In A Manger and Silent Night. It's folk music, but like a lot of folklore, it survives as children's music and stories. It's not a deliberate, 'Life is complicated, I'm going back to my childhood' thing. It's simply that when you're a child you experience things for the first time, and a lot of things are astonishing. And it's that astonishment that's the basis of the art I like. That's what I try and release when I turn my [creative] tap on. But you can be made to feel a bit of a fool. I had an LP once, and the back cover was just a blank blue piece of shiny cardboard. And I said to the person I was with at the time, "Isn't this beautiful?" She said, "Not really, it's just a bit of blue cardboard." That made me feel a bit sheepish about it. I don't know if that's right or wrong. Maybe I'm retarded.

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Your parents both knew the writer Robert Graves, were well travelled and seemed to provide you with an aestheticised world view.

Yes. The only thing that doesn't ring true is that it's always described as if there was something luxurious about my upbringing. But my parents were fairly poor and we lived a fairly scruffy life, as most people did after the war. It wasn't as grand or precious as the word 'aesthetic' makes it sound. As far as my dad was concerned, the world revolved around wine, women and song. If that's aesthetics, then I'm an aesthete!

I sense you had a smell under your nose when beat music arrived in 1963.

Beat music was a bit too boy-next-door to get romantic about. But it was encouraging to think that there was something I could do. I'd been interested in Eric Dolphy and Dada and Picasso, and I didn't want to work in an idiom that closed that off.

In fact, you have a quite jaundiced view of the entire '60s decade.

There's this surrealist map of the world where they made some places very big, like Africa. My surrealist calendar of the 20th century would go straight from 1959 to 1971. People say that life was so boring in the '50s, and thank goodness for the '60s. My life wasn't boring in the '5Os. As a young teenager, the whole business of beats and beatniks, and the music, these incomprehensible French films, the berets and the wines and the strange back alleys of Soho and Paris that went with it, was so exotic and romantic. I didn't need the breakthrough the '60s provided for others.

You were a significant part of The Soft Machine, an adventurous pop group doing something unprecedented. Thrilling, surely?

We were just trying to harness the various things that came into our heads and make something of it. That's all remember. Only recently when some labels started digging up old concerts from the late '60s and early '70s, I'd listen to them and think, Blimey, we weren't half going at it. It's a relief that it's not always as embarrassing as I thought it might be, though some of it is. There's an awful one that should be burned, destroyed, but you know how perverse people are, they'll go and buy it! It's like having a tattoo on your arm that you can't get rid of.

You were with The Soft Machine musicians in various guises for the best part of a decade. You must have believed in what you were doing.

It was important for me to be with musicians that might not normally play together, rather like putting garlic on cornflakes. The people I played with wouldn't try to play like somebody else. I liked the idea that what they played came out of themselves, and was not prompted by wanting to make, say, a jazz-rock record. I remember thinking it was better to be original and get it wrong than be derivative and get it right. It was an adventure to the point of recklessness.

You're very open in interviews yet always profess near total amnesia when discussing Soft Machine. Can the collapse of relationships in a pop group really have been of more significance to you than the accident?

I once asked Nick Mason why the Pink Floyd keep going. He said, 'We haven't finished with each other yet." But we had, obviously. Well, they'd finished with me. It's silly to talk about a group. It's not a living thing, just a word to put on a concert bill or a record cover. I'd rather work the way they do in cinema, where you get a bunch of people together for a particular project. But I'm grateful for the discipline and the training that being in a young group gave me.

"Harmless is as good as I dare aspire to. Beyond that I'm totally self-indulgent and hedonistic."

Your gorgeous, side-long solo epic, Moon In June, on [Soft Machine's] Third must have suggested a possible way out.

The only way to play that was for me to do it virtually myself. The dominant thing in my head was to take responsibility. I was doing more and more things that were quite incompatible with the band I was with, that weren't really rock band things at all. Moon In June was the second of two things I'd done myself. The first was taking these fragments of tunes that Hugh Hopper had written which I stitched together on the second Soft Machine record. The next was my stitching my own bits and pieces into a sustained sequence which became Moon In June.

By calling your next band Matching Mole, which roughly translates as "Soft Machine" in French, was that a case of not letting go?

It was me saying I was still in that band in my head. I could have called it Soft Machine. I can now announce to the public that in fact we were never allowed to register the name. Anyone can call themselves Soft Machine if they want a quick shufti to the top of the bill!

How did you cope now you were the boss?

To my dismay, just as I wasn't very good at being told what do to, neither could I tell other people what to do. I now think that everything was leading to me making my own records. But the musicians I worked with were terrific. Phil [Miller] wrote the tune for God Song. O Caroline was basically a duet with David Sinclair. But we didn't have any money or resources. The others took all that. It was very hard.

The title and cover of Matching Mole's Little Red Record clearly suggests you'd become politicised by the early '70s.

The cover was actually chosen by someone at CBS who'd heard the lyrics, found this poster of the imaginary liberation of Taiwan, and put our faces on it. However, the world drifting to the right took me by surprise. I thought the era of moustached racist colonels in their mock Tudor houses in Whitstable was becoming a thing of the past, but to see whole new generations picking up on those ideologies, that imperial nostalgia, made my skin prickle. I thought my parents' generation sorted all this. It was quite clear. Are we on the side of the rich, trying to stay exclusive, engineering this endless character assassination against less lucky people? When the guns are firing, there is no middle ground. My tendency is always to err on the side of the exploited.

Did the accident make you more militant?

Not directly. I've disappointed some disabled people by not using my work as a platform to fight for our rights of access. But if it hasn't caught your imagination, you can't pretend it has. Yet having to yield control of the situation you're in, a dilemma most severely disabled people know well, I can recognise in a lot of the battles going on in the world.

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Do you need to be a good man?

I want to be harmless. That's as good as I dare aspire to. Beyond that, I'm totally self-indulgent and hedonistic.

You're famous for your postcards, written on the back of cereal packets, sent to friends and admirers. My sister still has one from the early '80s where you complain about your nice guy image and sign off as "Bolshie Bertie". Are you uncomfortable with the Mr Nice reputation?

Sometimes I have to work at a compassionate view towards what other people have done. I can get very impatient and angry as an initial reaction. But ideally the goal would be, to understand all is to forgive all. It's a magical phrase.

But when a population votes in a government hellbent on destroying their livelihoods, as in the case of Thatcher, you must despair.

Well, I'm quite happy to sing a song like Shipbuilding by Costello, who felt exactly that, a rage that had to be exorcised in some way. That kind of rage can give you energy. But it's different from the cool mantle of wisdom that judges assume, which is almost inevitably bullshit. It seems to me that a nice person wouldn't have such a battle with all this stuff.

Earlier on, you mentioned hedonism. Is intoxication important to you?

I do have an intense greediness for stimuli. I get bored quickly. But I'm really scared of breaking the law. Pathetic, isn't it? Some musicians blast themselves with stimuli in order to blast their own rockets off to go into outer space. I wouldn't be alive if I were on my own. Alfie's kept me alive. My ideal state is to do absolutely nothing in a complete stupor listening to Charlie Mingus records very loud in a candle-lit room - with Alfie.

So your fall in 1973 saved you?

Yes, that's the way it looks to me. It was a good career move.

Keith Moon apparently taught you how to drink heavily. What is it with drummers?

I learnt how to get very drunk very quickly with him in New York. Drummers are hopeless; we don't get our things together. Maybe because it is extremely physical, it's possible you get into a certain state, that some chemical thing happens.

It's obvious that Alfie is your inspiration, your sounding-board, your collaborator. And, as she says, also "your guarder". Do you ever yearn to nip out and have a few sneaky beers?

I do. The trouble is it's hurtful for Alfie. If I'm left to my own devices, I do seem to be amazingly irresponsible, so I have to be grateful for someone who points these dangers out in advance. I'm not quite sure how to function safely in the world. I would be much better for her if I looked after myself better.

You survived punk. Did you feel a genuine affinity with it?

Yeah, the working methods, the attitude and the tunings. It was a very witty movement, an autonomous one that wasn't invented by fashion stylists. I thought they were very moral young people. A lot of people were thinking hard about the rise of the National Front, and the relationship between young rastas and punks was very ahead of its time. Some cracking records too.

In the '80s you spent quite a bit of time in Spain and Italy. Then you moved from west London to Lincolnshire. Is this indicative of a make-the-world-go-away philosophy?

We had a busy life abroad, recording, doing television and attending ANC meetings. I didn't need to be part of the rock world back here. But sometimes a certain distance is required. If you create a comfortable distance between yourself and the world you have to deal with, you can keep control of your own bit of it. But if I'm asked my ethnic group, I always say "Soho". In my heart I'm still hanging round Ronnie Scott's foyer. I could spend the rest of my life there, and I do in my head, just by choosing the right records.

Over the past 20 years, you've released a record roughly once every five years. The curse of perfectionism, perhaps?

I'd love to be a perfectionist. I always think I am until I hear the results, then I realise I'm not.

Cuckooland, the title of your last album is such a Wyatt word, vaguely archaic, full of echoes.

I'm really amused by words that have some sort of folk memory, and I love half making up words, because that's how they came to be in the first place. Cuckooland is ambiguous. Either the world is really as mad as it looks to me, or because that's how my brain is, it's me that's in Cuckooland.

John Peel was a long-time friend. How did his death affect you?

Terrible. A death in the family. I was asked at the time to respond in the media and I couldn't. Me and Alfie, John and Sheila, and John and Helen Walters became friends over the years quite apart from the professional connection that brought us together. Sheila is putting together a CD for the anniversary of his death. I was asked yesterday if they can have Shipbuilding for it, and as far as I'm concerned, Sheila can have anything of mine she likes. The world seems to be filling up with so many friendly ghosts. As long as you have people in your head, that's the nearest thing I understand to immortality. People live on through the people who loved or remember them.

So death is not something you worry about.

Not at all. It is difficult for the people that are left. The people who are dead are at peace.
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