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Robert Wyatt: Different Every Time | reviews, news & interviews

Robert Wyatt: Different Every Time

Robert Wyatt: Different Every Time

On writing the authorised biography of one of the UK's most respected musicians

Marcus O'Dair and Robert Wyatt: author and subject

As the presenter of a regular music podcast for a national newspaper, I used to be in the happy position of interviewing one or two artists of my choice per month, provided they were signed to an independent label. So when Domino released a Robert Wyatt box set in 2008, I spent a glorious afternoon with Robert and his wife and creative partner Alfie, in their Lincolnshire garden. I enjoyed myself so much, in fact, that I set out to find an excuse to do it again.

Different Every Time, my authorised biography of Robert Wyatt, didn’t take me all those six years to write, although it has certainly taken a while longer than I, or my publisher, expected. (I recently showed up 15 minutes late to a meeting at the Serpent’s Tail office. "Don’t worry," said my editor, "the manuscript was three years late.") But the first copies have, now, arrived. And Domino are releasing an accompanying compilation album: one disc of "greatest misses", largely dating from after Soft Machine and entitled ex machina, and one of Robert’s finest guest appearances, called "benign dictatorships". 

He had met both the poet Robert Graves and the artist George Braque by the time he turned 18

Who, for those who need an intro, is Robert Wyatt? It’s taken me well over 400 pages to answer that question. Briefly, though, he first came to prominence in the 1960s as the drummer and singer with Soft Machine, who shared a residency at Middle Earth with Pink Floyd and toured America with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Robert left – "was kicked out" would be more accurate, his crimes being too much drinking and a continued interest in song while the band moved ever further into instrumental jazz-rock – in 1971. He formed a new band, Matching Mole, the name deriving from machine molle: French for Soft Machine.

Just as the Mole were about to begin work on a third album, Robert fell from a fourth-floor window and found himself paralysed from the waist down at the age of 28. But he reinvented himself as a singer and composer with 1974’s classic Rock Bottom. Since then, he has made the top 40 twice – once with his cover of "I’m A Believer", and once, in the aftermath of the Falklands War, with "Shipbuilding", written for him by Elvis Costello and the producer Clive Langer. Robert is happier, though, far from the mainstream, working with jazz musicians such as Evan Parker and the late Charlie Haden or singing revolutionary songs of the international left (see video for "Wind Of Change", below). Unlike so many of his contemporaries, he hasn’t got worse as he’s got older – or even, to my ear, had a dodgy period in the middle. No Christian rock cul-de-sacs here. Now nearing 70, Robert finds himself perhaps more recognised than ever: in recent years, he’s been shortlisted for the Mercury Prize, guest-edited Radio 4’s Today programme, and curated the Southbank Centre’s prestigious Meltdown festival.

That the book took me four years from contract to completion was in part because I was doing too many other things (among them making music as one half of Grasscut – including a track with Robert on our second album, Unearth) and in part because Robert has made a hell of a lot of music in the half-century since he first sat at a drumstool with beatnik jazz ensemble the Daevid Allen Trio. There are hundreds of releases as a sideman as well as a considerable number in his own right, both as a solo artist and band member – particularly given the stream of live and radio recordings from his days, in his own words, as a "drummer biped". 

As well as listening to a lot of music, of course, I spoke to everyone I could. I didn’t get all the Softs: I couldn’t get an interview with keyboard virtuoso Mike Ratledge, while both Kevin Ayers and his successor Hugh Hopper have died since my first meeting with Robert. Likewise Mike Zwerin, David Bedford, Lol Coxhill, Richard Coughlan, Harry Beckett, Charlie Haden, Ian Knight and Robert’s half-brother, the photographer Mark Ellidge. That Robert himself is still with us is, frankly, against the odds. Back in 1973, the doctors apparently told him that paraplegia would knock 10 years off his life, 20 if he smoked (which he does, like damp kindling on a bonfire). And there has been booze too, until he sobered up in 2007, although – perhaps surprisingly for a former member of a band rivalled only by Barrett-era Pink Floyd as icons of the "summer of love" underground scene – no illegal drugs.

One musician, who shall remain nameless, politely declined to speak to me on the grounds that the interview was flawed as a means of eliciting information. On the whole, however, the esteem in which Robert is held by fellow musicians meant that most were willing to speak to me. In total, I managed to speak to over 70 collaborators, among them David Gilmour, Geoff Travis, Brian Eno, Jerry Dammers, Paul Weller, Björk and Hot Chip. (One musician – again I’d better not name him – demanded mid-interview that I list all his albums in my possession. Another, when we came to a point of chronological uncertainty, broke off for a good-natured Google; luckily, Wikipedia agreed with me.) Beyond music, I spoke to Alfie’s mate Julie Christie; artist and activist Caroline Coon, the ex-girlfriend who inspired the lyrics to the Matching Mole song "O Caroline" (see video below); Robert’s first wife, Pam; his son, Sam; and to his other half-brother, the actor Julian Glover.

Most valuably, I spoke at length to Robert and Alfie themselves, who opened up on everything from Robert’s alcoholism (or, as he prefers, "dipsomania") to the suicide attempts he made as a much younger man. I am grateful to them for allowing me to rake through their past. I am also grateful to Alfie, in particular, for not only having maintained a meticulous cuttings library over the years but also for lending me her shopping trolley in which to take home the bundles of Melody Maker and NME back issues. I confess I took a hopelessly long time to give it back.

I then went away and – at home in east and then south London, in cafés, on public transport, in the British Library – attempted to turn the interviews into a vaguely coherent narrative. It was a ruthlessly selective process, of course, entire interviews in some cases reduced to just a couple of lines. At first I didn’t want to make the book strictly chronological, on the grounds that the first few chapters of many biographies can be safely skipped. But it didn’t work for Robert: this is a man who not only knew many of his subsequent bandmates as a teenager but had met both the poet Robert Graves and the artist George Braque by the time he turned 18. And he nearly killed himself near the start of sixth form – hard to resist as a conclusion for chapter one.

I bounced chapters backwards and forwards with Peter Culshaw of theartsdesk, then working on his biography of Manu Chao, until the narrative started to coalesce. At this stage, Robert and Alfie had yet to see a word. But it was important to me that this was an authorised biography, and it was also important when requesting interviews: many checked with Robert before agreeing. So, earlier this year, I finally posted Robert the result – no doubt a bizarre "this is your life" moment. He read it all, several times I think, which he described as an odd experience, friends and colleagues having made a number of (very largely positive) comments that they would never have said to his face. And then he sent me one of his trademark DIY postcards, giving the thumbs up.

"How old are you?" asked Alfie during one of our early meetings. "Twenty-eight," I replied. "It’s a dangerous age," grinned Robert. "Don’t go near any high windows at a party." That was in 2010. Since then I’ve got married, had a baby, and moved from freelance journalism into a position in a university music department. (Less has changed for Robert, still trying and failing to give up cigarettes, still trying and failing to retire from music.) I’ve also learnt a huge amount, not only about Robert himself – or Robert and Alfie, for the book, at least after the first third or so, is really about them both – but also about everything from Marxism to Pataphysics, the surreal pseudo-science invented by the Frenchman Alfred Jarry. And I’ve spoken to some superb, and enormously diverse, musicians: who else could comfortably fit Brian Eno, Paul Weller and Evan Parker on the same album? Best of all, I pulled it off: I got to spend many more afternoons drinking tea in Robert and Alfie’s garden. I’ll miss them.

  • Different Every Time: The Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt is published by Serpent’s Tail on 30 October.
  • A compilation album, also entitled Different Every Time, is released by Domino Records on 17 November.
  • Robert Wyatt is in conversation with the author at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 23 November as part of the London Jazz Festival

 

I’ve spoken to some superb, and enormously diverse, musicians: who else could comfortably fit Brian Eno, Paul Weller and Evan Parker on the same album?

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