Originally published in Stereo Review, November 1991:
ROBYN HITCHCOCKby Mark Fleischmann
"Now I'm swanning around in a tutu, happy as ever."
Robyn Hitchcock, rock's surrealist-in-chief, is talking about his home on the Isle of Wight. "There's no one in a leather jacket, no style victims. My daughter hates it because there are no groovers. There are only three people on the entire island who've ever heard of hair dye. It's my roost.
"Just imagine it pouring with rain, green and damp and cold, lots of old people shivering on the beach eating nasty chips. Old cars bumbling around back lanes. Pubs with really nice beer. A lot of my songs were written down there. 'Innerscape' is about the Isle of Wight. 'Heaven,' 'Glass,' even crummy songs like 'Tropical Flesh Mandela' are about the beach."
The pastoral beauties of life amid the English Channel may have inspired part of Perspex Island (A&M), Hitchcock's latest album and the best since his 1982 solo debut, Black Snake Diamond Role. But there's something more, a new note of tenderness on songs like "Birds in Perspex" -- the sound of a soul moved by something "so beautiful my heart should stop."
Robyn Hitchcock is in love, and sitting beside him as we chat is his fiancee Cynthia Hunt. "My life has changed for the better," he admits.
This is a new posture for fans weaned on the bristly eccentricities of Hitchcock's career, which started in 1977 at England's Cambridge University. His antipunk band the Soft Boys was sort of a Cambridge supergroup formed from the remains of Hitchcock's band -- including Andy Metcalfe (bass) and Morris Windsor (drums) of his current backup, the Egyptians -- plus Kimberley Rew, now with Katrina & the Waves. Hitchcock's winding leads and Rew's crunching rhythm guitar gave the Soft Boys a fabulous two-guitar whallop, and his songs even then were fancifully spiky like no one else's, but the punk revolution that made stars of the Sex Pistols and Elvis Costello was merely confining for Hitchcock and crew. "It was totalitarian in the same way that in 1967, everyone had to wear a caftan," Hitchcock recalled when I first met him several years ago. "So in 1877 everyone had to cut their hair short and spit."
Then began an initially ill-starred solo career. Black Snake Diamond Role -- released here on Glass Fish, like much of Hitchcock's early output -- drew waves with well-burnished thumbnail portraits of Syd Barrett, Jim Morrison, and Margaret Thatcher, but never made it to the States until the CD era was well underway. The followup, the now-deleted Groovy Decay (Albion), "was one of the things that just caused me to get rid of everybody," Hitchcock says. "I felt I'd become the property of other people's whims. I was being passed around like a shopping bag." Ex-Soft Boy Matthew Seligman produced the original sessions, then quit halfway through. Hitchcock was unhappy with the second version produced by Steve Hillage -- so unhappy that he reissued the album as Groovy Decoy, substituting Seligman's demos for all but four of Hillage's tracks.
Hitchcock quit music but it wouldn't quit him. I Often Dream of Trains emerged in 1984 as a stripped-bare vehicle for his voice, one or two overdubbed instruments, and deep introspection: "I had a little portastudio and the songs evolved around the time I stopped," Hitchcock told me a few years later. Not until 1985's Fegmania! did he reunite with the reliable Soft Boys rhythm section of Metcalfe and Windsor, recruit keys player Roger Jackson, and "hit the wide-open goodies of America. It was fun because it was the first time the three of us had played together for five years."
To what does Hitchcock owe the 14-year longevity of his relations with Metcalfe and Windsor? "A sense of destiny, a sense that something's there and we're going to get it, like blind people going shopping -- the discount baked beans must be somewhere. We're all timid, fleeting, introverted people who are able to turn this inside-out for a performance. Andy and I are quite shy, Morris is very reflective. We represent a strain of English personality virus." When he plays new songs for them, "they never say anything. We all look away at different angles."
Fegmania! was a triumphant return to form, catapulting Hitchcock to stardom (at least the college-radio kind) with songs like "My Wife and My Dead Wife" and setting the stage for more albums and tours. Invisible Hitchcock was a compilation of odd experiments recorded largely without the Egyptians, containing the now-prophetic "All I Wanna Do Is Fall in Love" (". . . while there's still time"). Hitchcock: "I like it because it was just done by mistake. Half of it was recorded for free in people's homes." Element of Light contains "Raymond Chandler Evening," possibly his best ballad. "People remember that fondly as our last independent album. That was the height of our trendiness."
Hitchcock hit major-label land with Globe of Frogs and Queen Elvis, his first two albums for A&M. He recalls: "We sat around this very table and I said, we don't want to be the new anything. We are us, that's it. Don't try to market us as somebody else." (Thanks to strategic cover versions, Hitchcock has been blessed/plagued with constant comparisons to John Lennon, whom he resembles vocally, as well as Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett and the Byrds.) "In fact there was not much change, but they'd targeted the independent era with their diabolical marketing skills. Gradually, everything you said you'd never do, you do. If you're lucky you get to shake hands with Arnold Schwarzenegger."
The missing title track of Queen Elvis actually turned up on Eye (Twin/Tone), another album in the personal mode of Trains, but even more solitary. "Every so often you wonder what it would be like if you weren't making decisions by committee. I just wanted to be on my own, without anything else, as naked and simple as possible."
The new Perspex Island goes to the other extreme with a thick stew of overdubbed guitars by Hitchcock and REM's Peter Buck, as many as eight on one track. The producer was Paul Fox, who's also worked with XTC and the Sugarcubes. "Paul helped tune us into a good state," Hitchcock says. "He made us feel the songs were live performances rather than another dreary old studio backing track."
After a six-month break from songwriting, Hitchcock sat down at his kitchen table on the Isle of Wight and wrote 50 new ones, of which 30 were finished and 11 recorded: "Machismo through verbiage. When they come, they come. They've got their own mind -- it's like fishing. I was certainly in a better state writing than in the past. It's not quite the disgusted-animal-looking-down-at-its-own-body syndrome, not quite the human head on the centipede's body, not so much existential horror."
Instead there are love songs of every description -- songs of longing ("If You Go Away"), songs of regret ("Earthly Paradise"), songs of giddiness ("Ultra Unbelievable Love") and exhilaration ("Birds in Perspex"), and occasional moments of philosophical navel-gazing ("Ride," "So You Think You're in Love"). Not to mention "Vegetation and Dimes," a characteristically furious rant in which his voice rises to condemn "this city of wolves." The city turns out to be LA: "Everyone's varnished there, they've all got their sell-by dates tatooed on their necks. It's a miserable howl, basically. Cynthia and I were separated."
Most astonishing of all are the many moments of overt vulnerability, the sort of emotions other songwriters get rich on but Hitchcock has never even bothered to fake. "I've always been so macho," he says, "me and Arnold. Partly it's because in the early '70s everyone was so painfully sincere. Everyone ran out of steam and got really stoned and began feeling sorry for themselves -- and had enough money to do it, usually in LA as well -- and I hated that. I would run off and listen to the Velvets just to get a blast of cold northern cynicism. I couldn't stand that wimpy stuff, partly because I was afraid of those same wimpy feelings in myself and partly because that music was genuinely dreary. Later I began to feel more compassion.
"I'm not trying to do the same thing I was doing with the Soft Boys. In those days we were trying to demolish cliches, demolish sentiment, demolish good, demolish all that yucky girly longwinded pink stuff. And now I'm swanning around in a tutu, happy as ever."