My hero: Robert Wyatt by Jonathan Coe

Oblique and eccentric, Wyatt’s songs provide the voice of sanity during insane times

A good deal of the rock music I listened to in the 1970s was, I realise now, militantly introverted: a commercially suicidal mix of evasive lyrics, intellectualism and tricky time signatures. Not surprisingly, most of the people who made this music remain obscure. But there is one figure to have emerged from that scene who has steadily grown in stature and reputation over the last few decades: Robert Wyatt.

When I interviewed him for the New Statesman, in 1997, he complained about “totalitarian Englishness”. “If I’m to have a cultural identity,” he said, “then in a free society I’d like it to be one over which I have conscious control.” As a surrealist and an internationalist, he felt that he could still be a patriot, but didn’t see why he couldn’t be “a patriotic Cuban sitting in Twickenham”.

It might be this outlook, and Wyatt’s generous breadth of political sympathies, that help to explain his longevity. Like his contemporary Peter Gabriel, as the 1970s waned he started to look further afield for his musical influences. He began to engage more directly with politics without losing any of his trademark humour or self-mockery. Suddenly, Wyatt’s music was no longer introverted, but outward-looking, inclusive and universal. He began to speak (and sing) for a whole generation. Much as he would recoil from that notion, I’m sure.

I shudder to think what the last few decades would have been like without the continuous, alternative running commentary that has been provided by Wyatt’s music and lyrics. He once said that he had no objection to songs not making sense, because when songs do make sense, more often than not he doesn’t like the sense that they make. As for his own songs, they can be oblique, certainly; sometimes eccentric. But to me, they make a better kind of sense than most things that are going on in the world at the moment. More and more, Wyatt sounds like the voice of sanity. Sane songs for insane times. No wonder that I, and countless others, have been inspired and uplifted by them for so long.

Different Every Time: The Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt by Marcus O’Dair is published by Serpent’s Tail. Wyatt’s album Different Every Time (Domino) is released on 17 November.

Contributor

Jonathan Coe

The GuardianTramp

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