Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The reputation of British rock musician Robyn Hitchcock was founded in America, where he was lead singer with Soft Boys in the Seventies and the Egyptians in the Eighties. Now 44, he feels he has never fitted into the UK music scene, which he abandoned 10 years ago. Now he commutes to the US to work, but remains based in London with his partner, artist Michele Noach. John Hegley, also 44, is a performing comic poet. He appears regularly on television, is currently recording a second series of `Hearing with Hegley' for Radio 4, and is always a sell-out at the Edinburgh Festival. A recovering Catholic, he lives in Islington with photographer Jackie Di Stefano and their small daughter, Isabella

ROBYN HITCHCOCK: I first saw John on stage in 1983. He was working with the Popticians, and I thought they were just incredible. I went along to about 20 of their shows. I was going through a couple of years when I was inert, not producing anything, and going to see them was a bit like looking at a more active version of myself. John had a sort of manic energy in those days. He's calmed down now, he's doing less and less of the demented terrier bit - the face waggling from side to side and coming to a dead halt, craned forwards at you. He got me up from the audience one time to climb into a brown paper bag or something, and he said something that made me realise he'd seen me before. Some while later he discovered I was a musician, and we got talking, and he quite quickly seemed to become part of the social horizon.

Whenever I read John's stuff I always hear his voice in my head - the way he emphasises things. Mr McNaughty's running the launderette and some lads come in with a poodle and they put the poodle in the spin drier, and Mr McNaughty says "Bad boys! The drier's for customers only." It's the way it speeds up. I find myself doing "Hegleyisms" on stage - not intentionally, it just happens. It's a bit worrying really.

I definitely identify with him. John once said he thought he and I were like yin and yang - each of us contains quite a big element of the other. He's a comedian but music's a very important part of what he does, and I'm a musician, but if you haven't got a sense of humour you're not going to like my stuff. We're both small-world guys. I think he was a trainspotter as a kid and I was a bus-spotter. We're interested in the details of things - he's into cups of tea, sugar, biscuits, trains, dogs - it's all English provincial sort of stuff. It's not heroic, and my stuff is similarly local, it's little. I'm not carved in the Bowie mould, it's not great big swooping plains and glaciers and bridges and people hollering over the desert and beating their chests. My world is the courtyard, and people skulking around and doing things to each other in the shadows, and tomatoes ...

John's comfortable to be with. Some people are so uncomfortable - you see their legs jiggling, or they've got a fixed grin and you've got to leave. But John ... he's all right. His clothes have changed a bit over the years. I sometimes see him wandering around with a beret on so you know he's a poet. That's just another element that's slowly surfacing about him. He has this working-class background in Luton, but his father was French in origin. So he's having French lessons. I say to him, "Are you taking it in?" "Not really," he says, "but I like the sound of it." I was looking at a book of his poems the other day and, in shock, noticed a load of French words. There's the trains, dogs, glasses, tea and now the French element. "Les meubles, non merci" - "Eddie don't like furniture" - lovely piece.

We're usually sitting around drinking so I can't really remember that clearly what we talk about, but I do know he managed to persuade me to watch some football once, which is quite incredible. I admire him for that. Mind you, it was about 2.30 in the morning and I was almost unable to move. John likes to feel he's a normal bloke. He likes to watch Luton play football, he likes the idea of going into a pub and having what he calls a glass of beer - he says "Are you going out for a glass of beer?"

John likes to feel there's this world with the flowers and dogs and that they don't put dogs in the washing machine ... Hegleyland, where there are no double yellow lines and everybody has short hair and people smile at each other. But reality is constantly demolishing and bedevilling it, and that's where the humour comes in.

If John hadn't been a comedian I think he would have found life very difficult. People wouldn't understand him - they'd wonder what he was for. Similarly, if I hadn't been a musician I'd go mad - I'd burst - my whole life would have been like some horrible abscess. But because I can produce stuff the whole time - like music and tomatoes - I'm all right. I consider myself very sane. And I think the same goes for John. With good comedy you know you're in touch with a sane mind. It makes you realise there's a truth somewhere.

John's quite sweet-natured really, but he understands cruelty. He's quite gentle, he doesn't seem to get angry with people. He's not particularly confrontational, he's happy to observe. He's quite reflective - he says things as they're occurring to him from the back of his mind, like reading them off an old timetable or something. I think I understand him - I always have fun with him. Most of the time we just sit there and think. Actually that's what we do, we think together. We think at each other.

JOHN HEGLEY: I met Robyn in an area of time, rather than one actual moment. He used to come along to our shows in 1983 and just stand at the back and watch. Our audiences were pretty small and you'd notice anyone who came regularly. We'd exchange a few words in the breaks: "Nice guitar you've got there." "Oh, yes, thank you." I once asked him for a roll-up in the Hemingford Arms ... And then I got him inside The Big Brown Paper Bag for one of my acts. I escape from my glasses inside a brown paper bag and get someone to come in and take a Polaroid photograph of me. Robyn was the audience member chosen, and he was very shaky. I wanted to say, "Relax, you're OK, don't worry about being on stage." Sometime later I saw his photograph in the NME, and thought, that's Robyn who comes to our shows, then read that he was a well-known performer.

I suppose I was enamoured by the fact that he hadn't come over all heavy - "Oh, I'm in the business as well, you know," but I didn't have a need to go and see him perform. Our friendship sort of started to develop more ... he'd offer me two roll-ups ... and then I think he probably said: "Let's go for a drink." Pretty early on in the relationship I remember some guy making a comment about a song that I had done with the Popticians, saying it's all about glasses, and Robyn leapt to my defence saying that it wasn't just about glasses, that there was some profound undertone in this work. I thought, gosh, he really takes this very seriously, which at the time I was surprised at. I'm not surprised now we know each other better.

In the Eighties the Popticians were losing their way a bit, and Robyn got us together to produce a record, and we went on tour with him. We had a really lovely time; we watched Spinal Tap on the bus and it felt like real rock and roll. We used to kick this little ball around in carparks while we were waiting for the van - that was nice. But I still know nothing about the private world where he creates his songs, he just does that somewhere on his own. I love his work. Sometimes I put one of his records on and just have a little dance around.

I think we've identified each other as fellow travellers. Robyn sort of speaks of his Englishness; when I ask him if he chats to people around where he lives he says: "Oh no, I wouldn't do that, it's not English." We are, in fact, two early-middle-aged English men. I suppose when we meet it's a popping out of the uptightness - we can relax - we can go, "Yeah, we're at this point on our travels ... let's just have a little relax and then get back to them."

He's gently critical of what I do and has a good eye on my stuff, but it's wider than that. Robyn's not a lad. He's a bit of a woman really. It's a sort of impression you get - but he's quite a big bloke. He has this song called "A Man With a Woman's Shadow" - it's a beautiful concept, beautifully sung. And I can relate to that. I'm a bit of a lad, but I'm also a bit of a lass. I feel that we're "beings" rather than just men or women and he throws that back, and it helps my "beingness" to be with somebody else like that.

It would have helped enormously to have had a mate like Robyn around when I was growing up. I was an outsider - although "outsider" sounds too grandiose, too "Camus" - but my impression is that Robyn was also an outsider. I have this image of a middle, with both of us running around the outside, and bumping into each other and just saying, "Oh, hello." It's almost as if we just bump into each other now, and there's a bit of pain, but there's a bit of laughter. I'm not one to discuss my problems but I might just say I'm troubled, and he'll make me feel okay. He just offers reassurance. There was one time I was feeling a bit troubled and he gave me his coat to wear ... that was nice. It wasn't the best coat in the world, mind.

I like drinking with Robyn. We can get very intense. We don't get drunk, the drink oils the conversation rather than swamps it. But I'm always really glad when there's just the two of us and a couple of pints of beer - and to know that there's a few more pints of beer, some good conversation, a few laughs and a bit of enlightenment ahead.

! John Hegley is appearing at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (0131 228 1404) on 27, 28 and 29 August