Seaweed tangled in our home from home…

A couple of days last week, tucked neatly away in a provincial coaching house, was sound-tracked by a return to what I now see is one of my very favourite records (although weirdly I have not always done so). At this point, regular readers may want to pass on to the next item on their “to read” list, I’m banging on about Robert Wyatt again…

Rock Bottom

I don’t need to say anything about the opening track (there’s a good Blog post about it, not mine, here) – everyone’s favourite Wyatt track, much coveted, much covered and the lucky subject of a certain Blog (although to be more fair than is strictly necessary, the choice was deliberately random – I’d listened to it the morning I started off on this long, strange pilgrimage, a spotted handkerchief of favourite lyrics bundled up and slung rakishly over my shoulder…). In fact, for a good time, I overlooked much of the rest of the album, such was my fascination and love of its lead song.

Soft and daft really, there’s so much other stuff to dwell on, so many other high water marks and beguiling shallows to settle on and spend an afternoon paddling aimlessly around in.

To fill in, Wyatt had disbanded Matching Mole in September 1973, after a tour supporting Soft Machine, and began writing material for the record that would become his second solo album. All of which was thrown into confusion when he broke his back falling from the 4th floor window of a Maida Vale flat during a party. An enthusiastic drinker and a spinning top of creative energy and self-destructive behaviour, friends had felt a metaphoric if not literal fall had long been on the cards. The accident obliged Wyatt to re-evaluate his lifestyle and forced him to change the direction and the outlets for his furious inventiveness. He has famously said that the accident saved his life.

Friends and musicians rallied around – Warren Beatty offered to pay his hospital bills; Julie Christie bought a flat for him and Alfie to live in (Alfie was Nicolas Roeg’s assistant on Don’t Look Now, and Wyatt apparently spent a fair amount of time bumming around the set); Pink Floyd and Soft Machine played benefit gigs for him. Rather charmingly, John Peel announced the news and exhorted all his listeners to write him cards and messages of good will.

 

The record that came out just a few months after his release from hospital, featured old chums from his Soft Machine days, including Hugh Hopper and Mike Oldfield, and also contributions from Fred Frith, Nick Mason, former “Wilde Flower” Richard Sinclair, and, of course, Ivor Cutler.

I’ve just spent a fond few moments buffeted and braced by the chaotic frenzy of “Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road” with its promenading bass and piano lines, its angry swirling trumpets and musical hall confusion – “Oh blimey, mercy me, woe are we!”. I love the forwards-backwards-forwards vocals, I love Cutler’s soft intrusive nonsense (“I want it, I want it, give it to me. I give it you back when I finish the lunchtea…”), I love Wyatt’s desperate incoherence. I think I read that the song was composed before the accident but it’s impossible not to hear the overwhelming turmoil of a hospital bed in the arrangement of it. It’s powerful and disturbing…

Equally strange and equally wondrous is second track, “A Last Straw”, meandering along at its own pace, deliberate and confidential, a product of time stretching lazily out in front of Wyatt at the prospect of his new world, and something of a contrast to the furious pace of both the “Little Red Riding Hood” tracks. I love the way he plays around with words and relishing the sounds they make; and I especially love the way the track fades out with a solemn procession of notes up and down the keyboard, trudging off in turn.

I think I’ve said before, how much I admire folk who are prepared to be as out-and-out weird as they feel they should, regardless of ridicule and common sense. And there’s certainly something craftily ridiculous he’s doing in these songs (I’m just too dull-witted to figure it properly). It features throughout his records from the “Concise British Alphabet” tracks on Soft Machine Volume 2, through pretty much all of the Matching Mole stuff on to the backwards and absurdist lyrics on this record. I gather it’s linked to the idea of “pataphysics” that Wyatt filched from his time in Paris. French philosopher Alfred Jarry called it “the science of imaginary solutions” and it’s something about playing with different words, notes and letters, rejigging sequences and meaning, re-cutting and rearranging sense into nonsense, looking for obscure meanings, codes, jokes.

I’m also very keen on the two Alfie tracks. Again, they amble along at their own restrained pace, (the first opens with a refrain of “Alife” which manages to sound like both a metaphorical and a literal life support machine); again there’s linguistic foreplay, jazzy wordlessness and Goonish nonsense; again there’s an almost uncomfortable intimacy in its devotion; and once again both tracks mooch off into strange directions. They’re  heart-felt and heart-breakingly touching.

Just imagine if there was footage from French TV, recorded in, say, 1975, with the man on a grand piano, maybe with a few garish balloons tossed around for no apparent reason, maybe with a few clips of Alfie walking him the park, and an interview with the man discussing Rock Bottom and playing “Sea Song” and “Alife”…

Wouldn’t that be something special?

 

My admiration remains boundless…