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 The freewheelin' Robert Wyatt - Uncut N° 125 - October 2007


Robert Wyatt's home is in the centre of Louth,
a quiet town in the Lincolnshire, hinterlands. A swift, wheelchair ride down the road from his house, there's the Co-Op where Robert was shopping when the first of the summer's floods arrived. Nearer still, there's the market square where he goes for sausage sandwiches a few lunchtimes a week. "Tea 40p. Not bad, is it?" he notes approvingly.

It's a strange place to find a man like Robert Wyatt. He has, after all, followed an idiosyncratic and cosmopolitan musical path for over 40 years, with Soft Machine, Matching Mole and on his own rare and lovely solo records. He has consorted with musical legends - from Hendrix, Moon and Syd to Weller, Eno and Phil Manzanera. He has been steadfastly radical in his politics, and global in his outlook. By the end of his new album Comicopera, in fact, Wyatt is so disgusted with the behaviour of the British and American governments, he abandons his mother tongue and sings in Italian and Spanish instead.

For such a committed internationalist, you'd imagine Lincolnshire would be a little too parochial and conservative. But Wyatt and his wife, Alfie Benge, have lived in Louth for some two decades. This is where Alfie, an artist, found a house that they could afford and which was big enough to accommodate her husband - wheelchair-bound since he fell out of a window in 1973- on the ground floor.

Robert's lair is the front room, just past the step with "RA" drawn into the cement and the door decorated with a photograph of Picasso. Here, he plays Gil Evans albums, makes tea, smokes endlessly and records his impressionistic, entrancing songs. Here, too, he welcomes us for a leisurely amble through an extraordinary career.
"I have no agenda, as they say on Big Brother,"he says, arranging cigarettes, two pouches of tobacco, papers, matches and lighter on the table in front of him. "Gameplan? Me? No, I'm just here for the crack, man."

Do you watch Big Brother, then?
Alfie watches it, I see it. I can't believe how rude people are to each other. Andy Warhol would absolutely love it.

Did you ever meet Warhol?

No, although I met Warhol's associates in 1967 when we [Soft Machine] were playing in the south of France, adjacent to a German beer festival, basically living on the beach... Grey, actually. People always think beaches are pinky orange, but this was grey with dirt. Or was it pine needles? I don't remember. Rubbish for sex, actually.

Anyway, yeah, we were doing music for a play: written by Picasso, I think. And among the people involved were Factory stars and starlets. They were very nice, very funny.

There were few people you didn't meet...
Well, I haven't gone out of my way to meet people. It's because I've been at it a long time now. I'm in my sixties and my first paid job as a drummer was in 1963, so it's been getting on for 35 years, hasn't it?

Is it really? For the first 10 years I was going round drumming, and it's a social activity. Drumming is like being the engine of a car. Somebody else has to be the car.

Your parents seemed to be quite bohemian, being friends with the poet Robert Graves and all. What was your childhood like?
My dad was an industrial psychologist, my mum was a journalist, and it was a fairly straight upbringing. We just had a lot of nice artbooks around the house. I struggled through grammar school, which I absolutely hated. I got caned a lot when I was at school. I think that's what put me off.

Why were you caned?
We lived near Canterbury Cathedral, we used to sing there and once, in a casual moment of hubris, I wrote "Jesus Christ" in a visitor's book. I was caned for that. Then, when we got to the fifth form, the headmaster gave us boaters, because he fancied we were a public school. I steamed mine up into a sort of cowboy hat, and I was caned for letting the school image down. Blimey, my bum was sore by the end of all that.

All the way through Soft Machine you seem to have been a bit of a troublemaker, as well.
I was always getting into trouble, but I'm not sure that's the same thing. I was never a born rebel. I think there's something utterly meaningless about that, it's totally posey. I liked my parents, I tried to fit in. Half my recording is an attempt to make normal records, seriously, but what I do just doesn't come out normal. That's not deliberate troublemaking.

When I joined the Communist Party, someone said, "Don't you mind being told what to do?" and I said,"No, not at all."

I thought that the band [Soft Machine] was being taken in a direction to compete with American jazz rock and I couldn't or didn't want to do that. I remember the organist [Mike Ratledge] once said to me, "Why don't you learn to read music?" and I answered, "So that you can't tell me what to play." That was probably the nail in my coffin as far as that band was concerned.

What about the drinking? Weren't you on a slightly different social path to the other Softs?
Well we all know that young drunken men are a terrible pain, and the others didn't really drink. They weren't always kind, but they were well-behaved, and I wasn't.

Didn't you end up spending time in Laurel Canyon with Hendrix at the end of the second Hendrix/Soft Machine American tour?
That's true. The whole of'68, we were there with the Experience, and at the end of it, our group broke up, basically. I hung on because Noel and Mitch and Hendrix said, "We've got this place and there's a spare room if you want to stay." I'd hung out more with them than with the members of the band I was in, as they were all drinkers like me.
Listening to Hendrix play every night, he was absolutely wonderful, and I knew it then.
What he did was just eyewateringly magical. He would transform hotel rooms into magic little rooms, turn them into some curious little temple of a hitherto unknown sect. He was very shy and polite; courteous to a Victorian extreme.

Did you do drugs with him?
I didn't take drugs, no, I just drank. Since you can get completely out of your brain on legal drugs, why bring the law into it?

More proof that you're not a rebel, I guess.
I don't like breaking the law; it embarrasses me. The idea of hanging round policemen is dull.

So you never took acid?
I don't think so. I think I took some substitute - was it TCP? No, that's what you cure cuts with. Knowing me, I probably did take TCP! I didn't like it at all. I associate certain conversations with rooms full of drugs, like [adopts whiney American voice], "What sign are you?" and "Do you like The Doors?" And the record would be The Grateful Dead, always. Was it always the same record? Who could tell? I got claustrophobia in that atmosphere. The thing I didn't understand about white American rock was that they were loud folk bands, whereas the English scene was much blacker. Even before rock'n'roll, the tradjazz musicians had this fantasy New Orleans they took around in their heads. The modernists had an imaginary Harlem - which I still have.

You recorded with Syd Barrett...
Well he asked us. We were two bands [Soft Machine and The Pink Floyd] that played in the same places and who weren't playing "In The Midnight Hour" because neither of us could play it very well, probably. I liked working with people from the Floyd, because they were so different from us. We would play 100 notes, as many as possible, and they would play as few as possible. I was fascinated by that, and I was very pleased to go and do [Barrett's first solo LP] The Madcap Laughs. It's a lovely record.

What was he like at the time?
I didn't know he was meant to be mad or disturbed or anything. He just seemed very well brought-up and polite. Jolly good songs, that's all I knew.

Did you play the UFO Club a lot with the Floyd?
We did. I remember the dressing room at UFO was very small, with benches either side. The Pink Floyd had incredibly long legs, so their legs would come across and cross each other in the middle, like the giant scissors they did in The Wall. They were very kind to us. We had crap equipment that tended to blow up, they had good equipment - they were never poor - and they would let us use their gear - actually quite unusual in those days.

What about Keith Moon? You drank with him?
He took me down the blissful road to hell, several steps at once. Hendrix and I used to go down to the Scene Club in New York, and there would be Keith at the bar. His arm would go around your neck and say,"What are you drinking? Look, try this Southern Comfort." I'd go,"It's a bit sweet." He'd say,"Yes it is, so what you need now is a tequila." We'd do it with the salt and lemon. I'd say,"Oh, that's a bit salty. "He'd say, "Yes it is, so what you now need is another shot of Southern Comfort." He taught me how to get completely blasted very quickly, so within 40 minutes you were on another planet. Thanks, Keith, I enjoyed it, but it probably wasn't good for me in the long run, and it certainly wasn't good for you, old son.

Was that what you were drinking the night of your accident in l973?
What I remember is mostly punch - what on earth is that'? - but Kevin [
Ayers], I think, brought out a bottle of scotch whisky, and then I felt like I was flying out of the window. Turned out I was [laughs]. That's all I remember.

Did that stop you drinking?
No. The first time I got out of hospital, Alfie wheeled me off to the pub. We were really broke - we had about £15, and then the Pink Floyd did a benefit for us for a few thousand. We'd just heard about it and it was fantastic for us. So we went out and got drunk, and when we got back in, Alfie was reprimanded for being drunk in charge of a wheelchair. No, it didn't stop me at all. We both used to drink a lot, me and Alfie.

When did you calm down?
About two months ago. I finished this record and then I stopped. I've had about six relapses, which sounds like a lot, but it's fantastic for me. I tried to write a tune the other day, and I can't remember writing a tune sober ever before. I couldn't imagine normally even sitting down at a keyboard Without the bottle of wine on the left hand side and the packet of fags on the right hand side.

Did you have a drink problem all that time?
It seems like I had, yeah. Answering the questionnaire for alcoholics, it turns out I'm one of the unlucky ones who's an alcoholic, so I can't drink
moderately or anything. We'll see how it goes.

It's incredible that, looking through 40 years of photos, you're smoking in nearly all of them.
People ask how many I smoke and I say, "As many as possible." If there was a mile-long cigarette that I could have suspended in front of my mouth, it would go straight into my mouth in the morning and come out at night before I go to sleep.

It's interesting that Rock Bottom [Wyatt's second, greatest solo LP, from'74] was partially written before the accident, because it's so often stereotyped as your post-traumatic record.
It's a funny thing, I always feel embarrassed to say this, but I don't mind being in a wheelchair. There are aspects of it that I find quite novel and entertaining. I didn't see it as a record about a tragic trauma. It's actually quite euphoric, to me it's more like the phoenix out of the ashes. Having the nerve to play my own keyboards, having played with all those brilliant keyboards players - trying to get away with it was exciting.

I think Rock Bottom is about the possibilities of love: what someone who loves you will do, and the gratitude that comes in response.
That's much more I like it. I'd been with Alfie a couple of years, and I'd been quite rotten to her while I was in hospital. Me and Alfie had already been married before, we'd had about three decades each of bipedal life. I say it was all right for me, but a lot of people come out of hospital and it's not all right at all. I had Alfie, and Alfie with her friends really helped. I felt like life was making more sense afterwards than it had done before. I was actually very unhappy through the'60s. Being thrown out of Soft Machine, the damage it did to my confidence was far greater than the physical damage of breaking my back. It was like being washed up on a really nice desert island from a ship that had come from a port in a grubby cold northern town. It's terrible but it's not that terrible [Laughs]. Alfie has suggested that I'm much sadder and more traumatised than I allow myself to think. I don't know. How can I know if I'm kidding myself?

You seem to flourish as a collaborator with friends, but not as a bandmember.
That's exactly right. The trouble with a band is I can't take orders and I can't give orders. The people I choose vary enormously because it's not for the instrument they play or their style but what kind of company they are. With the final record I believe in a sort of benign dictatorship. I will edit ruthlessly'til every thing sounds good to me, simple as that, 'cos my name's on the cover.

With the last three records [Shleep, Cuckooland and Comicopera] I found my imaginary band. It's a lovely band because it's not any band that could exist in real life on the road or any thing like that. It's a basic team; there's Annie Whitehead [trombone], Yaron Stavi on bass, Gilad [Atzmon, saxophone], that's the core. Then people like Phil Manzanera, Eno and Paul Weller do cameo roles. It's like a little musical family.

There's something incredibly English about your music, even when you sing in Italian or Spanish...

I am totally English. I love the lyrics of Noel Coward, I even like Gilbert & Sullivan. But the point I would make, to the BNP and people who go on about their culture being threatened by alien things, is that no one has allowed and welcomed non-English cultures so wholeheartedly into their lives and into their brains and into their food more than I have. Yet I don't feel the slightest bit compromised or diluted as a human being. I'm as English as my Staffordshire great-grandparents. As my Lancashire dad would say, what the fuck are you all scared of? What kind of wimps are you that if the man standing behind you in the checkout queue is wearing a turban, how does that threaten your identity, you twats? Get over it, for fuck's sake.

On Comicopera, there's a song called "Something Unbelievable" where you voice the anger of a bombed Palestinian. The last lyric is, "You have planted an everlasting hatred in my heart," and after that you refuse to sing in English for the rest of the album. Why is that?

Susan Sontag said that people can moralise in politics, but in the end morals in politics are about empathising with the other. Instinctively, that's what I've always done. It's to do with a craving - it's not so much a principled stance, it's much more primitive than that - for cultural biodiversity, and a fear of cultural incest.

During my lifetime, the English-speaking people have bombed about 25 countries. It seemed to me legitimate that anyone who had been bombed like that might be feeling that they're going to hate the bombers for the rest of their lives. The children and the families of your victims will rise up, and they won't like you. I wanted to disassociate myself from the English-speaking trajectory abroad.

The middle chunk of this record is England, and it's not all bad. There's nice tunes, a good laugh, scepticism and grumbling. But at the end I think, 'Oh fuck, I'm off', and the last chunk is all about different ways of getting away from the mainstream, whether it's the avant garde or singing in a foreign language or singing surrealist songs. 

It seems very odd that you should end up in a county as conservative as Lincolnshire.
Henry VIII called it this "brute and beastly shire", hanged a few recalcitrant Catholics and went back home. He's not entirely wrong, but he's not entirely right. There's a village up the road where they're saying,"We don't need any Kosovans here," and I'm looking at the women thinking, "Yes, you do!"

I miss London life, the cosmopolitan thing, and we do go back there several times a year. It's a local joke that life is cheap in Lincolnshire, and we can have a house here for the price of a flat in the south. I can make all the racket I like and no one's going to bother about it. I can get everything I want just around the corner, it's like the imaginary community in a child's train set.

Everyone here seems to know you.
Well, I like buzzing about town, it takes me away from the prison of the keyboard. I'm just one of the local derelicts.

Comicopera is released on October 8 on Domino
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