25 April 2016

Marcus O'Dair: Different Every Time: The Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt (2014)

It's only relatively recently that I bought The Soft Machine Volumes One and Two (1968 and 1969), although the first album of Robert Wyatt's that I bought was a number of years before: Old Rottenhat (1985), which is in essence political, and of course firmly left wing. The song 'Alliance' (concerning the formation of the Social Democratic Party by three right-wing members of the Labour Party whose names I couldn't be bothered to key in) contains two wonderful lines that should be a rule to live by: 'I think that what you're frightened of more than anything | Is knowing you need workers more than they need you.' And, typical of Wyatt, he extends the politics to global proportions: 'The United States of Amnesia' refers to what was essentially the ethnic cleansing of the Native Americans, and 'East Timor' is about the occupation of East Timor by Indonesia.

Some years after I bought Old Rottenhat I happened to be looking at a few places featured on the Heritage Open Days programme around 2000, and decided to make the Humberston Fitties in Lincolnshire one of the places to visit. This was an area of salt marshes now occupied by holiday chalets – mobile homes, cabins and the like – and although I'd previously noted that Robert Wyatt had a home there part of the year (he lives half an hour away in Louth the rest of the time) I certainly didn't have him in mind as my partner Penny and I walked round this fascinating place.

Until, that is, a beaming, bearded, avuncular figure in a wheelchair outside his home greeted us and ushered us inside. There, it seemed like a whole different world. He introduced us to his wife Alfie (the artist and creator of almost all of the art on his albums, including Schleep (1997), a poster of which was stuck to the kitchen wall), whose full name is Alfreda Benga, who was born of a Polish mother and Austrian father. I didn't let on that I knew who he was (although in 1990 he claimed that he used to be Robert Wyatt to Morning Star journalist David Granville).

I collected a little
of the above information from Marcus O'Dair's biography, a book of which I wouldn't have been aware if I hadn't been browsing the website of the Morning Star, which sells the book: unlike many people as they age, Robert Wyatt has fortunately never rejected his left-wing roots and become a boring right-wing old fart: in fact he's anything but an old fart.

With the generous lists in the Discography, Notes and Sources and Index, this book weighs in at 460 pages: this is an extremely well-researched, well-presented and well-written book to treasure. 'Authorised' can of course mean 'censored', and although unauthorised biographies can have the benefit of being more honest than the others, they don't have the supreme power that interviews from the subject himself/herself can endow: and make no mistake about it, this is as 'warts-and-everything' a biography as you're likely to find. Not only does Wyatt's first wife Pam declare that Wyatt (during The Soft Machine's grueling tour of the States) 'shagged his way across America' and Wyatt himself admits that he got in a 'tangle' in LA, causing him to spend a few more months there after the other Softs had left, preventing himself from seeing his wife and child back in England. And towards the end of the book Alfie (far from being anti-drink herself) sees the booze as becoming too much of a problem for Robert, hence the ultimatum: stop drinking or leave. That was in 2007, and apart from a few initial hiccups he's now teetotal, although maybe he needed the drink for his creativity as he's not produced a solo album since. I could mention Wyatt's pulling the plug on Matching Mole as a little extreme, but this paragraph is already overweighted.

The half-title Different Every Time comes from the first line of Robert Wyatt's 'Sea Song' on his Rock Bottom album, as well as the double album of the same name (on which, surely oddly, 'Sea Song' doesn't appear). And while we're on the subject of individual songs, I may as well mention the only thing I don't like about the book, an ever-so-tiny niggle: all the song titles are italicized, along with the album titles, which I don't just find unconventional but plain confusing. (Yes I know, it's pathetic of me, isn't it?)

But I could go on and on about the joys of this book, the songs it's introduced me to, the knowledge it's given me of one of rock's finest musicians, from the unrecorded The Wilde Flowers; through (The) Soft Machine (a band which dropped the definite article to, I imagine, fall in line with, er, the fashion of the day); through Matching Mole (a pun on the French for 'soft machine': 'machine molle'; to final solo singer.

I haven't even said anything about the almost fatal accident, his suicide attempts, the Softs snubbing him out of his own band, the jazz, avant-garde and pop influences, or all the associated outsider performers (Ivor Cutler, Gilad Atzmon, Slapp Happy (and Dagmar Kreuse in particular), Green Gartside, etc, etc). Or the literary influences, such as the name The Soft Machine coming from William Burroughs's novel title. Or even family friend Robert Graves and Deià in Mallorca. Oddly, there's even a mention of the very weird Edward Gorey (see my blog post of his Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts home) here. But I found even weirder (although perfectly understandable in so many respects) the influence on Robert Wyatt of the 'Pataphysics of Alfred Jarry (see my blog post on him and his grave here). It appears that Wyatt never took LSD (he was never into illegal drugs), but then if you have Jarry in you so much who needs it? A very English musician? Well, in a few ways, but then in others not.

This is a truly wondrous book about two amazing people. And friends.

ADDENDUM: and here is Robert Wyatt, with his inimitable voice which he has described as 'Jimmy Somerville on Valium', singing perhaps his most famous song (written by Elvis Costello (lyric) and Clive Langer (music)): Shipbuilding.


David Bingham said...

I have a soft spot for Kevin Ayers myself. How amazing to just come across him sitting outside his house - and he invites you in! Can't imagine Justin Beiber ever doing that.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Alfie gave me one of her few remaining copies of an A4 leaflet she'd written and printed: a history of the Humberston Fitties, including a brief history of their holiday home. Unfortunately, I appear to have lost it.