‘I was trapped into being alive’
Never one to shy away from confronting his inner demons, Robert Wyatt’s latest work is as poignant as ever. He talks to Dave Peschek
Thursday October 18, 2007
‘I’m a mine of misinformation,” says Robert Wyatt, wheeling his chair into the front room of the Georgian townhouse he shares with his wife, Alfreda Benge. “I’ll just invent something.”
Wyatt is eloquent, voluble, as mischievous as he is sincere. It is more than 40 years since he started making music: initially as part of the progressive Canterbury scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s; then with Soft Machine; then, nominally at least, solo. It is more than 30 years since he was rendered paraplegic after falling from a window at a party while drunk. In the meantime, he has become a national treasure. Each of his sporadic albums retains a singular sense of pop melody and the freedom and inflection of jazz; each is an event. Few musicians who have appeared on Top of the Pops (in his wheelchair) can also claim to have been profiled by the Spectator.
Before you meet Wyatt, you meet Alfie. She drives me from Market Rasen station to Louth, Lincolnshire – the first place they hit on a drive from London looking for an affordable property with a ground floor big enough to give Robert freedom of movement in his chair. Like Tom Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, Robert and Alfie live in an artistic symbiosis. She often writes lyrics for him, and has provided beautifully strange and bright cover art for all his records since his solo debut in 1973. “Everyone,” says Wyatt, “should have an Alfie.”
She is fierce and warm, a Polish refugee who came to London after the war when she was seven with her mother, who now lives with them. When Wyatt met her, she was “a proper mod”, had “all the records you would expect a girl to have, but also all this hard bop jazz.” She was also, it is clear from the photos in Wyatt’s music room, luminously beautiful.
She has not had an easy time of it. Wyatt was incontinent after his paralysis – “hard to live with for a partner, that helplessness,” he says – and suffered from profound depression through the 1990s. “Me and Alfie became like strangers who just accommodated each other,” he recalls. He was “quite unable to sleep. Couldn’t lie still, revolving in the bed all night, and Alfie had to go upstairs to sleep. Wheeling up and down the corridor at 20 miles an hour, I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t write. I lost my sight, I suddenly needed glasses. It felt like dying, but that would have been a release. Physically, as it turns out, I’m very resilient. I was trapped in having to be alive.” Counselling saved him, and, in 1997, he made one of his most cohesive records, Shleep.
Later in the day, Wyatt and I wander out with cups of tea to a spot where he likes to watch the world go by. He pulls out a handkerchief and unwraps two gingerbread men. We dunk. Suddenly he says: “I’ve been in AA for two months. You can put that in.” Later, Alfie tells me she finds his new album, Comicopera, impossible to listen to because it recalls such a painful time.
When I suggest that Wyatt is still more affected by his traumatic sacking from Soft Machine in 1971 than his paralysis, he agrees. He still has weekly nightmares about it, he says, adding with awful, melancholy force: “There is nothing worse than humiliation.”
His paralysis has inspired rather than inhibited his musicality. He had been a drummer but, refusing to be “not bad for a cripple”, he went through a long period where he barely played. His last album, Cuckooland, saw a glorious renaissance of his fluid, lush drumming style. “I’d been sitting in my room, listening to old jazz records, to how [the American jazz drummer] Billy Higgins keeps time. [He] interested me very much because he hardly used the hi-hat for the off-beat, and of course as a paraplegic I can’t use hi-hats or bass drums.”
Wyatt’s father introduced him to jazz through the movie Stormy Weather, which featured Fats Waller. “My dad was fascinated by that, being a pianist who’d listened up to that point to Mozart through to Ravel and Debussy. [Dad] was really important to me. He died when I was 18. He had two families; he joined ours when I was about six. He used to take me to museums and opera and ballet and things, and people would say there’s no point taking children to that stuff, it won’t sink in. I did fidget through Beethoven, but actually I’m really glad they packed it all in there – it made up for the fact I was crap at school, completely rubbish, and had to leave at 16. Then my big brother turned up, his other son. He had Modern Jazz Quartet, Miles Davis. And I was absolutely blown away. The extraordinary places music can go, the different changing textures, how you can thread ideas through different changes and still be coherent – you get used to that with classical, and jazz seemed to me to have that too.”
After a period in the late 70s during which he collaborated with some of the greats of the ECM jazz label – Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, Jack de Johnette – Wyatt was “saved” by long-time fan Geoff Travis from the record company Rough Trade. Travis gave Wyatt free rein to combine music and politics in a series of singles, intended as a sort of “musical journalism”. Wyatt covered everything from Chic’s At Last I Am Free to Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding; the latter became a hit after extensive play from John Peel.
Wyatt is that rare thing: a musician without an overweening ego. If he feels he has something to say, he writes lyrics. If not, he is more than happy making a point with someone else’s words. Comicopera opens with a song by Anya Garbarek, daughter of the jazz saxophonist Jan, and continues with a song sung (in part) by Monica Vasconcelos. “I’m sort of in there somewhere, nudging the traffic,” Wyatt says. “Like being a producer or a film director. It’s always a collaborative effort, and I do the bits I can’t think of anybody else to do.”
He is his own genre: the records don’t sound like anything else. “No. But this is not deliberate. I can’t understand people being deliberately eccentric. The cutting edge always sounded really uncomfortable to me, like sitting on a razor blade. I want to take in the whole thing, what art can do.”
Wyatt is brutally modest about his voice. Described by Ryuichi Sakamoto as “the saddest sound in the world”, it is limber and beautiful – yet Wyatt once likened it to Jimmy Somerville on valium. “There’s no deliberate or conscious input into the way I sing,” he says. “It’s more like damage limitation.”
Cuckooland has a brief hiatus halfway through, where the listener is encouraged to take a break and make a cup of tea. Comicopera is split into three movements. The first section concerns “relationships, bereavement, misunderstanding”, and is called Lost in Noise, because “I seem to be hitting the cymbals so hard you can hardly hear anything. The songs all seem to be about remembering people in dreams who disappear when you wake up.”
Most of Lost in Noise’s lyrics are written by Alfie; the majority in part two, The Here and Now, are by Wyatt. He calls it “a bunch of stuff that’s mainly sardonic, me muttering my way through England, or provincialism in a way, going around in bemusement at council meetings, grumbling about not having a religion. It’s very nostalgic for me – sort of a composite picture of all I love about London.”
The section’s final songs are bleak and brutal, but gloriously so; extreme and committed songs born out of the specifics of the current troubles in the Middle East, but with wider reach. “I had this piece of music that was really busy; I hadn’t got words. Alfie came in in tears one day. She’d been watching television, the battering of Beirut. The poignancy and awfulness of it. The word ‘hate’ comes into it, which is a very hard word to sing – as is ‘love’ – but ‘hate’ is even harder. On a record, you hope it’s a transitory [state]. But bombing somewhere, waiting until the ambulances went in and then bombing that – fucking hell. It’s not anything about the specific politics of the region. It’s more about the horrible tangle that happens with the backwards and forwards of cycles of violence. I know it in myself. If someone’s nasty to me, I’ll be even nastier back, and then you’re off. War is imminent.”
Wyatt says his work is instinctive. “A French journalist asked if my music was spiritual, and I said, ‘Only in the original sense of spirit meaning breath.’ I am a breathing animal. If anything, I get lower, not higher, in art to work things out, relying on animal instincts to guide me through what sounds right. Beyond that, it’s unknowable, verbally inaccessible.” He adds, with characteristic self-effacement: “That’s why I work with musicians.”
Comicopera by Robert Wyatt is out now on Domino Records.