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2017: The year of the Hitchcock (Robyn)

Robyn Hitchcock (2017, Yep Roc.) Artwork: James Bellesini/Emma Swift

Even for an artist as consistently productive and aesthetically satisfying as psychedelic folk troubadour Robyn Hitchcock has been over the past four decades, 2017 was an especially rewarding year. For those paying attention, Hitchcock is seemingly everywhere - in concert, in print, participating in podcasts, radio programs, cable TV, music panels, and posting on Twitter, Facebook, and (as himself, and posing as one of his adopted cats, Tubby the one-eyed wonder) on Instagram. Even a 37 year-old song appeared in the unlikeliest of places - a Subway Sweet Onion Teriyaki Sandwich commercial.

April also saw the release of his 21st (more or less) solo studio album, an eponymously titled, 36-minute distillation of everything Hitchcock has previously done, expertly co-produced with the Raconteurs’ Brendan Benson, in Robyn’s newly adopted hometown of Nashville. The cover artwork says it all - a colorful, somewhat romantic (if still a bit nihilistic) look at the past and present through Granny-takes-a-trip colored autumnal lenses. Benson’s idea was for Hitchcock to revisit the two-guitars-bass-drums-harmonies line-up of the Soft Boys (1976-81), the band that eventually placed him on the “Modern Rock” map, minus the energetic anger of youth. Ten slices of psych-pop perfection, with a touch of Tennessee twang, are infused in the grooves. From his opening manifesto, “I Want to Tell You About What I Want,” an updated version of the Soft Boys’ 1980 classic, “I Wanna Destroy You” recast as his own version of John & Yoko’s “Imagine,” on through to his relatively upbeat takes on suicidal authors, religion, alcohol, madness, crushed dreams, departed relatives, and ungroovy decay, Robyn Hitchcock is a kaleidoscopic album of harsh truths wrapped up neatly in fashionable 1966 Carnaby Street drag. 

As 2017 limps to a close, Robyn Hitchcock , the album, has made it onto a handful of those obligatory “Best of the year” lists, but, in my not-so-humble opinion, it should have topped every one. If only those critics could remember a time when songs, musicianship, and a unique vision were more important than branding, streaming, and autotune. I haven’t felt this type of unity and excitement among other like-minded fans since the Rolling Stones released Some Girls nearly 40 years ago. Although Hitchcock has been critically acclaimed for much of his career, he’s only briefly enjoyed wide exposure, despite the efforts of people like Jonathan Demme, who featured him in three of his films, including the concert documentary, Storefront Hitchcock. Among his other fans and collaborators are R.E.M., Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, Belly’s Tanya Donelly, and his doppelganger, Nick Lowe, to name but a few. He was the darling of Modern Rock in the 1980s and 90s with such off-kilter radio hits as “My Wife and My Dead Wife,” “The Man With the Lightbulb Head,” “Balloon Man,” “Madonna of the Wasps,” and (the relatively straightforward) “So You Think You’re In Love,” among others. These catchy, clever songs have branded Hitchcock as a quirky novelty act to those who had chosen to explore his oeuvre no further. Their loss, since the dreamlike visions that have always infiltrated his songs have since become more mature and wide ranging, as his frustration has given way to the empathy that has always occupied the deep underbelly of his songs. If anything, the second half of Hitchcock’s career may be superior to his first, and how many artists can boast that?          

Lately, Hitchcock has been touring the globe with no more than his acoustic guitar, a harmonica, and a collection of fashionable shirts , occasionally playing electric gigs by collaborating with like-minded musicians in selected cities. This year, Robyn performed his first solo album from 1981, Black Snake Diamond Role, a handful of times in its entirety with Yo La Tengo, along with some rare or never performed oddities. He also promoted his new album by playing live with a collection of musicians known at the L.A. Squires.

With his solo acoustic shows, each appearance is unique, as Hitchcock uses social media to cultivate fan requests, often challenging him to relearn some half-remembered album track, b-side, or cover version. Besides his Beatle-esque vocals and under appreciated guitar-picking style, it’s Hitchcock’s priceless between song patter that makes it truly entertaining. Luckily for fans in New England, Robyn and transplanted Australian singer-songwriter Emma Swift, his opening act and mid-set harmonizer, decided to celebrate his 64th birthday at a sold-out show at the ONCE Ballroom in Somerville, MA, on March 3rd. He was in particularly good spirits, with ongoing tales of his cat Myffy’s ability to pilot domestic aircraft, surreal encounters with New York hotel elevators, “your first major divorce of the 1980s,” fearing both compact discs and salami, and the haircuts of narcissistic British musicians, among other tales of whimsy and/or political commentary. The highlight, however, had to have been a birthday present Robyn gave to himself, a half-hour encore of Blonde On Blonde excerpts featuring a surprise appearance by Bob Dylan’s former keyboardist, Al Kooper.

In September, I saw Robyn again when I made the trek to his Woodstock, N.Y. debut at the Playhouse Theater, where he performed some songs from Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes, conceived just up the road. The venue is geographically located where the Band recorded their third album, Stage Fright, in 1970, although the original structure is long gone. During his 20 song set, Hitchcock clearly paid tribute not only to Dylan, but to the Band as well. The third song was “All La Glory,” from the Stage Fright album, which originally featured an uncharacteristically fragile vocal from drummer Levon Helm. Two songs later was Robyn’s “Serpent at the Gates of Wisdom,” inspired by bassist Rick Danko’s singing style. This was followed by a cover of “Tears of Rage,” co-written by Dylan and pianist Richard Manuel. A nice, subtle tribute to the three now-silenced voices of the Band. For those keeping score, Hitchcock also covered “Too Much of Nothing,” “Lo and Behold,” and “Open the Door, Homer” from Dylan and the Band’s 1967 recordings.

Like the Somerville birthday concert, this show had a surprise guest. For the encore, Hitchcock brought out a Woodstock (via Boston) resident and clearly excited longtime fan, Amanda Palmer, to, as he put it, “get a thing together.” Palmer told the story of how, to get Robyn’s attention as a 16 year-old fan, she placed flower-shaped vegetables in a baguette, and positioned them next to his microphone stand at an all-ages Boston gig. The duo proceeded to perform two ragged-but-right Hitchcock songs, “Queen Elvis” and “I Used to Say I Love You.”

WARNING: VIDEO BELOW INCLUDES MATURE SUBJECT MATTER

Robyn ended the night with a solo acoustic version of “I Wanna Destroy You.” He introduced it as a “folk song,” dryly adding, “It was written for the Soft Boys many years ago, and now it’s a sandwich commercial. In a culture where money is king, is it any surprise Donald Trump is in the White House? Is it any surprise the Soft Boys are selling chicken sandwiches? I’ll leave you with that heartwarming thought.”

In recent interviews, Robyn hinted that his new album might be his last. He said that his money may be better spent on things like health insurance, and other more pressing concerns. Making records is no longer a way to generate income, and streaming is certainly not an option. At a point in his life where most people slow down, Hitchcock is traveling the world, as busy as he’s ever been, clearly content in Nashville with Emma and their three cats, Myffy, Ringo, and Tubby Stardust. He has become what he always wanted to be, a traveling musician, kind of like Bob Dylan on a smaller scale, without the trappings of fame which sent many of his influences over the edge. He has a strong cult following, the respect of his peers, and a legacy to be proud of.

Robyn Hitchcock is the type of artist not usually mentioned as a possible candidate for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, although he is clearly more deserving than many of the current occupants. The least Jann & Co. could do is to ask him to write and present an induction speech for somebody/anybody. But, of course, that’s unlikely. He’s not in with the in crowd. He’s an outsider. Like Neil Young, once he courted mainstream success, he found a ditch. If you want him, you know where to find him.

Now if we can just get people to remember him in their end-of-year lists.

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BONUS TRACKS:

In the fall of 2014, I met the singer-songwriter Henning after he opened for Robyn Hitchcock at the Iron Horse in Northampton, MA. We corresponded after the gig, and I promised him I would included any reminiscences he had of his previous encounter with Robyn when I would write my imminent review of the two Hitchcock shows, and Berklee College of Music presentation, I had just attended in just over 24 hours. Henning kindly sent the following recollection soon after. Unfortunately, a review was never written as an interview was arranged instead, so this material was never used. I am included it now. Sorry for the delay, Henning.

I first heard Robyn Hitchcock when I was in high school and my older brother returned from college with the brand new album Fegmania! I was just learning to play guitar and write songs at the time and Hitchcock's style immediately made sense to me and melded with the R.E.M., Pink Floyd, Beatles, Donovan, XTC, Suzanne Vega, and Velvet Underground influences that I already was under. I learned guitar by deciphering how to play most of I Often Dream of Trains.

I saw Robyn play at Northampton's Iron Horse Music Hall (one of my first Iron Horse shows) in the late 80's. When I started playing coffeehouses and open mics, Hitchcock songs were often included in my repertoire. "I Used To Say I Love You," "One Long Pair of Eyes," "My Favorite Buildings," and "I've Got a Message For You," were all staples. Eventually I formed a band called School for the Dead (now called Gentle Hen). During our first gig we played "Egyptian Cream," and later, "Freeze."

Eventually, I became a pretty seasoned performer with my own voice, and nine years ago I somehow landed a slot opening for him at the Horse (on that same stage where I saw him so many years beforehand). I had a great show. Afterwards a number of musician friends headed over to a nearby open mic night and Robyn came along. There was a backline set up so we ended up doing a few songs with Robyn leading. I was on guitar (or bass I can't remember), my bandmate Brian Marchese was on drums, and Chris Collingwood (of Fountains of Wayne and also a bandmate in our short lived country band The Gay Potatoes) joined us. Lloyd Cole, who was also a Gay Potato stood aside the stage and observed as we mangled our way through a few Kinks, Syd Barrett, and Beatles tunes. "Thank you. That was very drunk," Robyn said as we finished. I just stood there shaking my head at what a strange experience it was to be involved with all these voices of my past musical listening.

Last week, I had the pleasure of opening again for Robyn. I took the stage knowing full well that I was at home amongst my people, a room full of Robyn Hitchcock fans. It's rare for an opening act to feel as welcome as I did on this night. But it makes sense that this man with the sensitive, surreal, smart, and funny songs would attract a friendly, supportive, open-minded audience, doesn't it? And it also makes sense that my songs which come from a background listening to his music as well as the music of his influences would go over pretty well.

At the end of the night last week, I stood by the door as the audience filed out and shook a lot of hands and met a stream of smiling faces. It felt like a family reunion.

Henning Ohlenbusch

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