The idea of live shows based around musicians playing an album from start to finish started off as a novelty, but over the last several years has built into a full-fledged phenomenon that shows no signs of letting up.
It’s a form that defies conventional wisdom about what fans want out of a performance by their favorite artists. Supposedly, they only want to hear the “hits,” but most musicians will play those at any of their shows. What makes these full-album performances truly special is that they play the other songs from the records that fans have grown to love over repeated listenings, but that rarely—or never—get played live. Audiences crave these shows because they get to see and hear things that they haven’t before, and might not again.
Never was that truer for me than when I saw Robyn Hitchcock perform his first solo album, 1981’s Black Snake Diamond Role, in its entirety at the Fillmore last year. Not only had I never heard him play many of his earliest songs, like “Out of the Picture,” “City of Shame” and “Love,” but he also played them with Yo La Tengo as his backing band. It was an incredible show, but not one that I would have imagined. While they’re both pioneering alt-rock acts that turned college-radio cult fandom into major international success without compromising their idiosyncrasies, Hitchcock’s Britain just seems too far from Yo La Tengo’s Hoboken, New Jersey in every way.
But Hitchcock—who, after not playing in Santa Cruz since two 1998 Catalyst shows with his former backing band the Egyptians, returns solo to play Michael’s on Main on Dec. 29—says his connection to Yo La Tengo actually goes back to before it was formed, when the group’s future vocalist-guitarist Ira Kaplan was a music writer. Kaplan was a big fan of Hitchcock’s first band, the Soft Boys, which came out of Cambridge, England, in the late ’70s and built a cult following both in the U.K. and U.S. with proto-indie-rock songs like “Kingdom of Love” and “Queen of Eyes.”
“I’ve known them for years,” says Hitchcock of Yo La Tengo. “Ira was the first person to write up Black Snake Diamond Role in an American paper. He wrote some nice stuff about it, and the Soft Boys. He was one of the 28 or so people who saw us when we played in New York in 1980.”
Almost four decades later, that early connection finally came around to the show, on a whim.
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” Hitchcock admits. “I just thought, ‘Ooh, wow, I wonder if they would back me up on Black Snake Diamond Role.’ Because in a way it’s now sort of an archetypal indie record, and they are an archetypal indie band. They’re very successful, but they’ll always have that sound—they’re never going to be sort of smoothed out or anything. Whatever it is, they define it.”
Now is definitely the time for him to act on such whims, because despite the fact that his big alt-radio hits like “Balloon Man” and “So You Think You’re In Love” were in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it’s quite possibly never been cooler to be Robyn Hitchcock than it is right now.
The Unsettled Celebrity
That was evident this year when Hitchcock was asked to write a song for director Jesse Peretz’s film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s “Juliet, Naked.” The result, “Sunday Never Comes,” was sung by Ethan Hawke as cult musician Tucker Crowe in the film. (A demo sung by Hitchcock is on the soundtrack, along with Hawke’s version, and Hitchcock plans to release a proper version of his own as a single next year.)
At this point, he’s had his music and uniquely stream-of-consciousness stage banter documented by the late director Jonathan Demme, in the 1998 concert film Storefront Hitchcock, and several of his songs have become part of the rock ’n’ roll canon. For example, “I Wanna Destroy You”—originally released on the Soft Boys’ classic 1980 album Underwater Moonlight—has been covered by everyone from the Replacements to the Circle Jerks to Uncle Tupelo to Liz Phair (a live clip of she and Hitchcock performing the song in October went viral).
“You don’t know how long a song is going to last. I think if I sing my songs long enough, I sort of can’t remember life before them,” he says. “Now I can’t really imagine what my life was like before I wrote ‘My Wife and My Dead Wife,’ and ‘Listening to the Higsons,’ and the ’80s radio hits. Just as I’ve sung ‘Visions of Johanna’ so much, I feel like it’s part of my life. I know Bob Dylan wrote it, but I feel like it belongs to me as a song now. So I’ll keep the royalties from ‘I Wanna Destroy You’ or one of those other old ones, but in a way they just feel like folk songs. They feel like they’ve been around forever.”
It’s not just his most popular songs that continue to influence rock songwriters, as I discovered when I went to the “Viva Hitchcock” show at the Fillmore in 2013, held in honor of Hitchcock’s 60th birthday. Organized by Colin Meloy of the Decemberists, it featured a number of major artists covering Hitchcock’s work, and some of the selections were downright obscure. Amanda Palmer of Dresden Dolls fame did a gorgeous version of “Surgery,” a song which was never even on a proper Hitchcock album, but has nonetheless become a fan favorite.
“It was very flattering,” Hitchcock says of that star-studded night. But he’s not altogether comfortable with this current level of affection from peers or fans.
“I think being a Brit, it’s quite hard for me to accept compliments,” he says. “I’m not one of those people going, ‘Thank you very much, it’s been wonderful, it’s great to be here, I love you all, good night.’ When people say, ‘I love you, Robyn’ from the audience, it’s very hard not to say something sarcastic back. ‘You don’t have to,’ or ‘I wish I loved you, too,’ or ‘Thanks for sharing’ or some sort of a put down, you know? Because I’m just too British. I’m too embarrassed by that sort of love. We’re used to being the kind of resigned losers. We’re a dismal bunch, and that may be why so many of us wind up in the states, because we want to warm ourselves on your guileless optimism.”
The Man Who Reinvented Himself
His most recent album, last year’s self-titled Robyn Hitchcock, is one of the best of Hitchcock’s entire career, which explains why someone would make their 21st solo album their eponymous one. From the catchy literary rocker “Virginia Woolf” to the rootsy shuffle of “I Pray When I’m Drunk” to the closing “Time Coast,” which exemplifies the jangly guitar work that made him such a big influence on R.E.M. and other American rock bands, the album ties together sonic threads from all of his different eras.
“People would often say ‘Well, it’s been fascinating talking to you, Mr. Hitchcock, I see you have quite an extensive body of work. Where would you recommend I start listening?’ And I can’t really say that,” he says. “I don’t know. I’m too close to my work to be able to see how it strikes other people. But I figured if they’re going to like me at all, they’ll like that record. If they don’t like the Robyn Hitchcock record, nothing I’ve done is for them.”
Even though the album was enthusiastically received, Hitchcock isn’t sure whether the format is something he—or anyone—would be wise to continue with in the future. It’s not altogether hard to imagine that he might not, since his non-album songs, which have come out in collections like Invisible Hitchcock, You & Oblivion, and as bonus tracks on his reissued albums, are usually as good as his albums.
“I remember there was a guy once who referred to me as ‘king of the B-sides.’ I think there’s a lot to songs that are kind of ‘near-miss’ songs—songs that don’t quite make it. That the artist themselves, the auteurs, decide are not quite up to it, but the listener goes, ‘Oh, I love this one,’” Hitchcock says. “I kind of think in an artistically perfect world, you wouldn’t be allowed to release a song until five years after you recorded it, or an album until five years after you recorded it. And then you’d know what to do with it.”
But he hasn’t given up on albums altogether, at least not yet.
“If I make another one, maybe it’ll be Robyn Hitchcock II. I don’t know. I’m still recording, and I’m writing songs all the time, but I’m not sure about putting out another LP,” he says. “So in terms of albums, this one is me kind of waving at the world. Whether it’s hello or goodbye, I don’t know.”
Where in the World
Though Hitchcock’s songs are most often talked about in terms of their eccentricity—and when the imagery in one’s best-known songs centers around insects (“Madonna of the Wasps”), animal life (“Acid Bird,” “Bass”) and general Syd-Barrett-esque surrealism (“The Man With the Lightbulb Head,” “If You Were A Priest,” “When I Was Dead, “Adventure Rocket-Ship,” and countless others), that’s certainly understandable. But it’s also misleading. Hitchcock has never really been a madcap laughing; his songs have always had a humanist, emotional core that has shown through more and more overtly as his career progressed. In the evolution from the Soft Boys’ “Where Are The Prawns” to solo songs with his ’80s and ’90s band the Egyptians like “I’m Only You” and “Airscape,” to his 2004 album Spooked with longtime Hitchcock fans Gillian Welch and David Rawlings to the easy warmth of songs like “Belltown Ramble” and “I’m Falling” with late-2000s alt-rock supergroup the Venus 3 to the latest solo album—which opens with the emphatic declaration “I Want to Tell You What I Want”—it has sometimes felt like Hitchcock is coming out of his shell.
“As you get older, you’ve been you all your life, and there’s a point where you can be more confident, just because you’ve got as much right to exist as anybody. And you’re probably not going to do so for much longer,” he says. “The tentative outsider that I think I felt I was 40 years ago—the ‘I’m not really part of this species, mate,’ which I think was kind of my shtick and how I really felt—has sort of gone. Because I obviously am part of this species. Whatever I think or feel, I’m a human and we all share the same fate, we breathe the same air, we use the same drains. It’s incredible to think that technically I could mate with a Republican.”
Listening back over his body of work, what most defies the typical notion that Hitchcock is obsessively abstract is the way almost all of his albums feel so grounded in a particular place. One in particular, 1990’s Eye, has its epicenter in San Francisco, which has led to a special bond with his Northern California fans. His second stripped-down solo acoustic endeavor after 1984’s I Often Dream of Trains, Eye opens with a few verses worth of his trademark startlingly funny lyrics (“Napoleon wore a black hat/Ate lots of chicken/And conquered half Europe”) but rolls into some of the most gorgeous imagery he’s ever put on record in “Raining Twilight Coast,” “Queen Elvis” and “Glass Hotel.” He even gets pretty close to Santa Cruz in “Aquarium” (“In the aquarium/You stroked a greasy ray/Just at the end of day/Way down in Monterey”).
“Eye was recorded in San Francisco, when I had two San Francisco relationships, and it’s largely about the end of one and the beginning of the other. So that’s a very San Francisco record,” he says. “Eye is completely set where it happens, which is quite rare for me. I usually take a while to process my emotions.”
There’s always been a strong fascination with American life that runs through his work, but now that he’s living here full-time—having moved to Nashville, where he lives with his partner, musician Emma Swift—Hitchcock is perhaps surprisingly more focused on his native country.
“The Robyn Hitchcock record, all of those songs were written off the British mainland—except one of them was written in a tube train, so it was under the British mainland in London—but it’s all very much looking at my life in Britain. It’s all about what I was leaving behind, really,” he says. “And I suspect that what I’m writing now in Tennessee is also looking at Britain. In a way, it’s easier to deal with Britain as a kind of lost lover, like the old song ‘How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?’ For me to look at—to feel—my homeland, I have to be a safe distance from it.”
But for the man who wrote “Where Do You Go When You Die?” it’s all relative.
“The real division is between the living and the dead,” he says. “Whether I’m in Vietnam or Guildford or Paris or New Haven, Connecticut, I’m still here. Once you’ve crossed over into unbeing, that’s when you’ve gone. While you’re still here, it doesn’t really matter—we’re all on Earth. It’s a question of degree. I’m not as in London as I was, but I’m still a lot more than I’m going to be.”
Robyn Hitchcock plays at 9 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 29, at Michael’s on Main, 2591 S. Main, Soquel. $25. michaelsonmain.info.
Emma Swift, not Emma Stone.
Santa Cruz was 1988, not 1998, according to RH. Thanks for the great article!
I saw Robyn Hitchcock at Don Quixotes in Felton in October of 2011. Sure, it’s not Santa Cruz but neither is Soquel.