Free Will and Testament, a marvellous 2002 documentary about the musician Robert Wyatt, can be found on YouTube; a characteristic line in the comments box below proclaims: “This man’s a NATIONAL TREASURE!”
Back in the lairy crash-pad days of the early 1970s, you wouldn’t have pegged Wyatt, or any of his friends and fellow prog-rock players in the so‑called “Canterbury Scene”, as future national treasure material. In some ways, Wyatt’s widely cherished status doesn’t make much more sense today. A free jazz drummer and long-time Communist party member with a fondness for obscure European surrealists … not exactly Robbie Williams territory. Perhaps one reason he is so esteemed is his honorary membership of the heels-dug-in Awkward Bugger squad (other figureheads: Tony Benn, Mark E Smith), someone who has resolutely stuck to his guns (musical and political) as others have succumbed to passing fads and fashionable compromises.
Wyatt occupies a space all his own – well known for heart-rending versions of songs such as Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding” and Chic’s “At Last I Am Free”, but also as something of a melancholy jazz modernist, a mouth-music Thelonious Monk whose fragile vocalese goes completely against the grain of today’s X Factor showboating. Though an affable man regarded as almost cuddlesomely reassuring, his politics make Dennis Skinner look like a Monday Club throwback – it’s hard to think of a comparable figure in postwar British culture. A “singer-songwriter” whose music is shaped by his love of piano-led jazz rather than guitar-centric rock or folk, he’s always had a saving trick of rubbing the sublime air of his voice up against an often knockabout use of happy vernacular. In the middle of the gentle love song “O Caroline”, he sings: “If you call this sentimental crap, you’ll make me mad.” In another bruised and tender ballad, “Sea Song”, there’s the line: “Joking apart, when you’re drunk you’re terrific.” It can be a bit like finding Tommy Trinder popping up in the middle of Yessongs, or Del Boy guesting with the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Even at the heart of the early 1970s prog rock maelstrom with the ferociously polytonal Soft Machine, Wyatt always seemed a bit more human than some of his po-faced confrères. He may have drummed behind some of the fastest and fussiest players around, but he also gave the impression of being a bloke you might have a laugh with down the local. Admiration for his technical proficiency came with a side order of helpless affection. The big problem, it turns out, is that the same things an audience liked most about Wyatt were the very things his muso bandmates found increasingly trying.
When Wyatt was edged out of Soft Machine – which he thought “his” dream band – he was devastated. By his own account, he was more torn up by this than by the 1973 fall from a fourth floor Maida Vale window that rendered him, aged 28, semi-paralysed for the rest of his life. Even four decades on, Wyatt still has nightmares – not about his terrible accident, but getting the old heave-ho from the band.
According to Marcus O’Dair’s exhaustive and affectionate biography, you did indeed have every chance of meeting Wyatt down the pub. Reminiscences from fellow 1970s musicians reveal a constant and heavy drinker, a spinning-top workaholic, and possibly an undiagnosed manic depressive, as we used to call it. Away from his drums, Wyatt couldn’t sit still. When new partner Alfreda Benge (aka Alfie) wanted to take him away from London for a kind of honeymoon in Venice in 1972, Wyatt was spooked: time “off” wasn’t a concept he could begin to get his head around. Even before the accident, friends worried if there was anything that could still his increasingly ragged, roaring-boy ways; there was already a palpable feeling of bad portent. Looking back, friends such as Brian Eno say that when it happened, Wyatt’s accident, although a shock, wasn’t altogether a surprise: most people seem to have felt a “fall” was up ahead, even if turned out to be a cruelly literal one.
The pre-fall Wyatt may have looked like a cherub but he was far from an innocent: something of a Casanova in 7/4 time, by all accounts he was fending off waves of beautiful women with his drumsticks. (Or rather, wasn’t fending them off.) Permanently sloshed and sportively promiscuous, he was also deeply unhappy. Rock Bottom would have been a great name for an LP by a depressed and bandless drummer even without the multiply poignant resonances his accident eventually teased out of the phrase.
As it happened, without band “democracy” to check his various impulses, Rock Bottom saw Wyatt come into his element. If Soft Machine sometimes felt like macho riffage with Wyatt’s playful words as an appliqué, with this album (and its too-often overlooked followup, 1975’s Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard) Wyatt fashioned something sui generis.
Rock Bottom still sounds like nothing else in the rock music canon. The music alternates between baleful tenderness and brutal free-blowing noise. The lyrics are an echoic tangle of taut pun and babytalk, hiding pain behind joyously silly misdirection. At the centre of the album, on the track “Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road”, there’s a moment that seems to recreate Wyatt’s own awful post-accident realisation: he peeps out like some deeply unlikely merger of Antonin Artaud and Paddington Bear: “Oh dearie me, what in heaven’s name, oh blimey, poor old me …” Not only is Rock Bottom devoid of self-pity, at base it’s more like a rueful meditation on the pain we cause others (“So why did I hurt you?”) and a kind of awful rebirth through trauma (“Into the water we’ll go, head over heels”). A song like “Last Straw” is so sad it’s almost unbearable, but the exquisite balance in Wyatt’s voice always pulls things back from total bleakness.
Rock Bottom’s small print is like an alternative roll call of those times – produced by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason with guests such as Mike Oldfield, Ivor Cutler, Fred Frith and the South African trumpeter Mongezi Feza. As O’Dair’s book makes fascinatingly clear, in the early to middle 1970s all kinds of odd music was being made by all kinds of fluid and short-lived combinations: everything from solo flute suites to the 50-strong skronk orchestra of Keith Tippett’s Centipede; concept albums based on the works of Edward Gorey and joyful songs sung in improvised and nonsensical Spanish.
It was – contra the tired old punk canard about a musical wasteland peopled entirely by snooty superstars – an inspiring and wholly unpredictable time. Figures who pass through the Wyatt story include Kevin Ayers, Carla Bley, John Cale, Eno and Phil Manzanera. (There were games of sexual as well as musical chairs, and I especially like an anecdote about Ayers, Cale and the line “the bugger in the short sleeves fucked my wife”.) Young people today who associate brand Virgin with hellish train journeys may be surprised to discover its previous life as a premier boutique label of avant-garde Euro weirdness.
This musical/social circle also became a vital support for Wyatt in the immediate aftermath of the accident: Pink Floyd played two benefit concerts; Alfie’s friend Julie Christie bought the couple a flat in Twickenham; Christie’s then-partner Warren Beatty offered to pay for all of Wyatt’s treatment, but Wyatt, in something of a portent of his future politics, stuck with the good old NHS. O’Dair’s record of this era is lent extra weight and colour by Alfie’s own acerbic parallel commentary. If anything, I could have done with far more of her pithy quotes – she comes across as a sharp-eyed observer of the music business and all its flaky habitués.
I occasionally wondered if O’Dair has got too close to the couple; the second half of the book needs more critical engagement with the latter-day music. (Wyatt is a great defender of the emotional uplift of “mere” pop music – and I can’t be the only fan who wishes he’d recorded a few more tracks like his glorious overhaul of the Monkees “I’m A Believer”.) If the book’s second half inevitably feels a bit becalmed, compared to the madly social and tension-filled 70s, at its best you get a real sense of a life almost interchangeable with one man’s love of music, as well as the lived fibre of his remarkable relationship with Alfie. Mention is made of recent troubles, when Wyatt’s drinking has pushed their relationship closer to breaking point than ever before. The drinking seems to have been partly bound up with some kind of crippling performance anxiety – even a solitary microphone filling Wyatt with flop-sweat fear. Is it only coincidence that a newly sober and otherwise happy Wyatt, 70 in January, has now announced he’s through with public music-making? If you reach the end of the book with the tiniest feeling that maybe things were sometimes darker and more difficult than O’Dair paints them, it seems a fair enough trade for this meticulous and vivid account.
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