Monday, June 7, 2010

Realty Bites- The Singular Surrealism of Robyn Hitchcock- This Wednesday at the Iron Horse

By Daniel Brockman (Boston Phoenix)

MIXED EMOTIONS “You know what they say. ‘Life is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel.’ I guess I want both.”

At some point or another, the greatest artists are pegged as oddballs, weirdos, freaks. Being a great artist does mean going out on a limb. Over time, and often without knowing it, an artist will create something greater than just himself — an understanding of the world made from the bric-a-brac of his mind combined with the collective energies of both his supporters and his detractors. UK post-punk legend Robyn Hitchcock (who comes to the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Tuesday) has done all that — and in more than three decades of continuous experimentation, he’s fashioned a new reality for those who fall under the intricate spell of his beguiling music.

“Of course, it depends how you define reality,” says Hitchcock, on the phone from his office in London. The slightest mention of the fractured world within his songs sets him off on a fascinating flight of fancy. “I mean, reality is the ultimate collection of improbabilities, sat on a chair opposite you, you know? Reality is shaking hands with the impossible, which is what we do every day. Reality is a membrane of the banal spread over the inconceivable: we think that we are getting up every morning and going to work, or we follow these patterns of how we live — when all the while, this extraordinary mechanism is lurching and buckling beneath our feet. We all live on the edge of an apocalypse, because we all die, you know? People tend to have this rather tame concept of what reality is.”

Since the late ’70s, first with his punk-era group the Soft Boys, and then later during his ongoing solo career, Hitchcock has been chipping away at that tame concept. His songs operate as psychic Trojan horses, as lyrical mind bombs packaged in sweet and lilting pop bonbons, exploding in your mind after they slip slyly through your ear membranes. Whether indulging his early lyrical obsession with insects and fishes or his later bent for disturbing verbal ruminations on death, Armageddon, and political buffoonery, Hitchcock has always snuck his own singular surrealism into his gorgeous tuneage.

That tuneage has taken many forms, from the prickly new wave of his ’80s trio the Egyptians to the more lush vegetation on which his songs tread softly when he plays with the Venus 3 (R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey and Ministry/Revolting Cocks drummer Bill Rieflin), as he does on his newest long-player, this spring’s playful and breezy Propellor Time (Sartorial). Recorded at various sessions over the past four years with a cast of guests who include John Paul Jones, Johnny Marr, and Nick Lowe, the album finds Hitchcock toning down the direct creepiness of some of his older work, with cascading arrangements guiding his slyly hypnotizing vocals to melodic nirvanas. But no matter what form his music takes, even when minimized to just a man and his acoustic guitar (as will be the case when he graces Northampton’s Iron Horse stage this Wednesday, June 9th), his mastery of surreal states always finds a way to bob to the surface.

“Surrealism is a dream state,” he points out, “but it can encapsulate what we feel about what’s going on. And anything can happen, anything can be juxtaposed with anything else. That same horrifying surrealism occurs in dreams, but in real life, too — could there be anything more surreal than those planes crashing into the Twin Towers? But, you know, it’s almost collage. You can take the president’s hand and replace it with a lobster claw. You can put a rocket in a baby’s mouth instead of a bottle, or have cars hanging from trees.”

Hitchcock’s knack for words and wordplay identified him early on as one of the more clever lyricists of the post-punk era. His imagination is rarely confined to his albums — for diehard fans, the real Hitchcock manna comes from seeing him live, where songs are woven together with strange and humorous monologues that are equal parts Monty Python and Man Ray.

And in case you were wondering: he doesn’t work them out ahead of time. “If I did, I’d never be able to remember them! I don’t know how professional comedians do it. For me, they’re just word solos, from the font of my subconscious. The things I say between songs are more apt to be funny, because they function almost to test the audience, to see if they’re on my frequency. The songs themselves are more emotional, often quite sad or morose — but humor is so important. You know what they say — ‘Life is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel.’ I guess I want both.”

For Hitchcock, the mental is more visual than anything we actually see. “Looking at me doesn’t tell you anything, and watching me perform isn’t relevant to anything. I don’t necessarily look like my songs! And I may work in music because it’s such an emotional art form, and I use words because we have them to help communicate. But the feeling is there first, the words are just put on top, they are secondary, just the way that words are secondary to the tune. People are feeling something just by the sound of how the song goes. The words are just there to give people a picture in their mind’s eye.”

As you might guess, Hitchcock found his muse in the surreal late ’60s, when candy-colored sounds dripped from his bedroom walls whenever he put the needle on his stereo. “I was 14 in 1967, when I had what I call my psychedelic bar mitzvah. You know, Are You Experienced?, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Sgt. Pepper’s, all of that. It wound up being the compost I’ve risen from, as it were.”

If his youthful ear tilted toward the twisted end of the psychedelic spectrum, his own work has always skewed in a similarly unpredictable way — whether we’re talking the aggressive jangle pop of the Soft Boys or the constant zig and zag between somnambulant acoustic material and edgy, jagged guitar rock that has characterized his solo records. Throughout it all, his work has always seemed timeless — almost hermetically sealed from whatever trends are current.

As Hitchcock himself acknowledges, “The only state you can really know is yourself — the only world utopia you inhabit is your own. I think that if you are true to yourself, you are going to be true to other people. If you can reflect that accurately in your work, you can take something real to other people. The risk you run, of course, is that your life might not be relevant to anyone! But, really, how relevant are my songs to, I dunno, someone rioting in Thailand? Maybe they’d be happier listening to something else — maybe Lady Gaga or the Bee Gees or Handel or Indian raga might make them feel better. Maybe my stuff only works for the kind of people who live in my kind of world.”

Lucky for all of us, we can slip into Hitchcock’s world anytime we want.

Robyn Hitchcock, Jennifer O’Connor- Wed., June 9th 7PM- Iron Horse, Northampton 413-586-8686

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