Interview: Robert Wyatt The only way is up when you've hit rock bottom

Phil Johnson
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:20

Robert Wyatt has `had a bad Nineties' but has emerged from his depression with an exquisite new album. He talks to Phil Johnson about nostalgia, coping with disability and why he'll die with `Marxist-Leninist' inscribed on his heart.

Even the sleeve-notes are a work of art, a little miracle of grace and humility wherein the author apportions credit and gives thanks to friends and collaborators, like Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera and Paul Weller, for helping to make his first album in six years possible. The album itself, Shleep (the title is meant to invoke the sardonic Jewish humour of Wyatt's friend Ronnie Scott), is a real work of art too, deepening with every hearing and drawing the listener in to a strange, sometimes dark, often painfully fragile but somehow transcendentally hopeful world that has no compare in contemporary music of any genre. Honestly, it's that good (although it's not always easy listening) and, as one would expect, its creator, Robert Wyatt, aged 52, isn't your usual brand of bland pop self- publicist. "That was a long answer, wasn't it?" he adds as a coda to an impossibly convoluted, heartfelt, response to a pat question. "One word would have sufficed, Robert."

Recorded over a period of months in ex-Roxy Music guitarist Manzanera's Chertsey studio, where Wyatt slept in a camp bed on the floor and was relieved of the normal anxiety of clock-watching by getting a cut-price rate from his mate, Shleep is the response, Wyatt says, to a long spell of serious depression from which he thought he might never emerge. "I've had a rough Nineties really, in which I seemed to spin down a dark hole like Alice in Wonderland. For the first time, I reviewed my past and it seemed so inaccessible, and everything I'd done - even making records - so far from what it now was, that it was the first experience I've ever had in my life of nostalgia. Not for anything in particular, but for the physical routine of playing music with people. So when I came out of that I was trying to exorcise it in some way or define it so I could make my emotional problems into intellectual ones, to cool me down a bit, to cool down the fever in the brain. I can be fairly gloomy at the best of times but this was your actual nervous breakdown, I think."

We're talking in the living-room of Wyatt's home in a comfortable Georgian house in the market-town of Louth, in Lincolnshire, where he lives with his wife Alfie (Alfreda Benge), who is really the co-creator of the album. Her poems provide the lyrics for many of the songs, her drawings and paintings adorn the sleeve, and she clearly plays a part in Wyatt's work that is far greater than artist's muse. They came to Louth, she says, because it was sufficiently far up the map for them to afford a house with a large- enough ground floor for Wyatt's needs. Since an accident in 1973, when he fell drunkenly from a fourth-floor window at a party in London, Wyatt has been paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair. In the year following the accident, he married Alfie on the same day that his brilliant solo album, the mordantly titled Rock Bottom, was released. Shortly afterwards, his cover version of The Monkees' "I'm a Believer" entered the charts and he appeared on Top of the Pops in his wheelchair.

"It took me a long time to get over the accident," he says, "but it's misunderstood. I wasn't traumatised by it - I found it rather novel actually - and my depression wasn't anything to do with it, or not that I'm conscious of. It was a nostalgia for the Seventies, when Rock Bottom was released. I came out of hospital, got married to Alfie and, suddenly, that was my Spring, when I felt that the world was a welcoming place, an exciting place to be.

"I liked Alfie a lot - how do you say these things? - and we had a couple of years together before I was paraplegic, and then we got married when I came out of hospital, which was kind of her, really. It was a lot of work for her because she had spent all that time trying to avoid having a baby and she ends up with this incontinent giant, this alcoholic thing. But nevertheless I got nostalgic for that period, and when I look back it's got stardust all over it. Suddenly I felt like a dead person looking back on their life, and I thought, `I used to do so many things!', and I might as well carry on doing them while I'm still alive. After all, what's stopping me apart from a serious attitude problem?"

The accident had also impeded his progress with his principal instrument, the drums. "My favourite bit of the drum-kit was the hi-hat and I couldn't play it any more. It's taken me years to realise that you don't have to play hi-hat." Shleep is full of ticking cymbals, a signature sound that dates right back to Wyatt's drumming with the early Soft Machine, the great English psychedelic band of the Sixties, whose music pulsed with jazz rhythms and to which Wyatt's seemingly faux-cockney vocals (pleasingly, he speaks with exactly the same accent as he sings) brought a rare distinction. The group's first album from 1968 featured sleeve-notes by the American jazz musician and writer Mike Zwerin which recalled Wyatt in the South of France (the group were providing the soundtrack for a play by Picasso), riding in a car, his long hair billowing in the wind as he sang a note- for-note vocalise version of Charlie Parker's solo on "Donna Lee".

Despite the collapse of communism, Wyatt's political allegiances haven't really altered. "A lot of us have become bird-watchers, apparently, but I haven't changed at all. I shall die with Marxist-Leninist imprinted on my spine, like the letters in Blackpool rock. It's not a question of what I do or say; it's how the world feels to me. I don't expect other people to go along with it, but I will never recant - or whatever it is you do. I still don't see any other serious analysis of the world, and for me to abandon Marxism would be like the creationists deciding to ignore Darwin. I'm very grateful for it, and for me it was invaluable in the struggle against apartheid, which was one of the reasons I got involved, and Joe Slovo, I just think he was a giant among men really, a successful communist who saw it through."

Wyatt's parents were also important in helping to determine his political beliefs. His father, George Wyatt, was an industrial psychologist, and his mother, Honor Wyatt, was a producer for the BBC, on Woman's Hour among other things. "They were liberals, I suppose," he says, "and they always warned me about washing my hands after I picked up a copy of the Daily Express. For my parents, the Welfare State was the whole point of the century, what everything had been fought for since the dismal 1920s." His commitment to communism, however, came about in the Seventies, as both a response to the anti-apartheid struggle and as a reaction to the breakaway of the SDP from the Labour Party. "David Owen, Shirley Williams and that lot... when they peeled off, they seemed to take the intellectual establishment with them, and they left me with the GLC and Arthur Scargill, who I much preferred."

Though in no way a tract, the new album rings with images that unite the personal with the political, although Wyatt looks back on the hippie politics of the Sixties with disdain. "A mass narcissism that allowed people to forget the whole thing. The personal is political therefore if I'm nice... it just shades off into Barbara Cartland really." Nevertheless, he has begun to limit his own intake of reality, for reasons of self-preservation. "For example, I no longer read Amnesty International reports, I just can't bear to, and I've blinkered myself a bit; I just cannot allow this to happen to me, or to Alfie, again. I try to look on the bright side, and it's a desperate move, but I really like watching comedy on television: Father Ted and Frasier. It's like when Princess Diana died and you see all the flowers and you think, well, there's a nice side to the English, it makes a change from wanting to go out and kill the Argies. It makes you want to savour the moment, whereas 10 years ago I might have thrown it away."

`Shleep' is released on Hannibal Records this week

Robert Wyatt born 1945

The Soft Machine: Vol 1 (1968, re-released with Vol 2 on Big Beat CD). Amazing semi-lost dead sea scroll of English psychedelia

Matching Mole: Matching Mole (CBS, 1972) Wyatt's prog-rock outfit. The album features the love song `O Caroline', recently covered by Gorky's Zygotic Mynci

Rock Bottom (1974, Virgin) `An unqualified masterpiece' according to Mark Ellingham in The Rough Guide to Rock

Nothing Can Stop Us (1982, Rough Trade)

Classic `Red Thames' GLC-era recording

Dondestan (1991, Rough Trade) The last full Wyatt album, featuring arrangements of poems by Alfreda Benge

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