Making Me Understand: Robyn Hitchcock

(Making Me Understand is an occasional blog feature where I analyze, in brief or at length, what a particular work of art or an artist means to me right now.)

I wrote this post months ago. It fell victim to a slip of the finger in my mobile WordPress app and got deleted. So I’m finally getting back to rewriting it now. Sorry for the delay!

The primary musical landscape in my home growing up consisted of Classical sprinkled with some Folk (Pete Seeger), Jazz (Louis Armstrong), and Spirituals (Paul Robeson). There was exactly one Beatles record in my parents’ collection, which they bought when they lived in Israel in the early Sixties and wanted to know what all the fuss was about.

However, my parents were not the only musical influencers in my home. I had two older brothers, quite a bit older. One had musical tastes that were less mainstream, which led to my listening to King Crimson and Brian Eno at age five. (The latter album has become one of my favorites. The cover art of the former continues to terrify me.) The other brother had tastes that tended towards classic rock. There was a lot of Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who and representing the US, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jackson Browne, and The Beach Boys.

I got a hand-me-down clock radio in fourth grade, and at that point was able to determine my own musical destiny. I started with the classic rock station (which, I recall with horror now as a parent, had Howard Stern as its morning drive time DJ). I veered towards Top 40 towards the end of elementary school as a means of having common ground with my classmates. In junior high, a time of Peak Alienation during which I spent three mostly miserable years in private school, I vacillated between Top 40 and a station that played “Urban Contemporary” (which encompassed everything from Luther Vandross to rap). An influential friend taped me a Boomtown Rats album, and I began to gravitate towards music from the UK, helped along by the weekly radio broadcast, Rock Over London.

In tenth grade, I switched back to public school. I had to start from scratch making friends and carving out a place for myself. My brothers and their musical influence were long gone from the house. Tell me, what did you do on your fifteenth birthday? On mine, I wound up going out with my parents that evening to see an important documentary about the Vilna ghetto. On the way home, we made a stop at a hospital to check whether a friend of a friend had died of cancer. When we got home, I was beside myself with frustration. I knew I needed to do something drastic. Of course, I headed straight to my radio. At school, I had heard about another station that I had been meaning to check out, so I tuned it in and never switched it back again. (“I think they’re playing John Lennon,” reads the journal entry in which I recorded the fateful turn of the dial.)

From then on, my pace of music discovery quickened, and my meager income from part-time and summer jobs was immediately absorbed by record purchases. As a budding poet, I was attracted to music with compelling lyrics, and one of the best discoveries I made during that time was Robyn Hitchcock.

Invisible Hitchcock (1986)
Invisible Hitchcock (1986). (I think of this album cover every time I buy a big bunch of radishes.)

Okay, so I was also a teenage girl, ergo not impervious to the effects of his deep English growl and that dark, mysterious glower. I didn’t realize then that I’d be entering into a lifelong relationship with his music.

A ticket to a Robyn Hitchcock concert guarantees the bearer more than just excellent live renditions of his songs. He is just as famous for his between-song patter, which he elevates to the level of what looks like improvised storytelling meets stream of consciousness meets acid flashbacks. Even his communication with the person at the mixing board is conducted at this level. Hitchcock is a born showman, but not in the way that one might say the same thing about Danny Kaye.

I have probably enjoyed forty Robyn Hitchcock shows over the years, possibly more than that. I’m always hoping the arc of his next tour will swing by me. He takes requests for his shows today via Facebook, but many years before that was an option, he’d either do it from the stage or when running into fans outside the venue. I still remember a much younger RH outside of Gaston Hall at Georgetown University, walking away from the building with his girlfriend. My friend J and I greeted him and he said with a huge smile, “Got any requests?”

Here, then, is a brief and incomplete history of my life punctuated by Robyn Hitchcock:

  1. I see him for the first time, performing with his band, The Egyptians, in D.C. I am transfixed.
  2. I see him while living in Michigan after grad school, and most vividly remember a show at the Magic Stick in Detroit. I went alone, as I sometimes did because I didn’t have many friends. I was feeling smug that night, though, because I had just interviewed for a job in NYC, and it seemed to me it wouldn’t be long before I was living there. (I was wrong, it took me another nine months to get there.) This was the first time I saw orange traffic cones with Robyn’s drawings on them for sale at one of his gigs. They cost $20. I told the person at the merch table that was ridiculous. “No, it’s not!” they sing-songed. (Yes, I kind of wish I’d bought one now.)
  3. A feature length film of Hitchcock performing in an empty storefront on 14th Street in Manhattan, directed by Jonathan Demme, was released a few weeks after I moved to NYC. It’s streamable, so you must watch it. I have a copy on VHS I’m hoping to eventually get to watch again. My friend T heard about a “secret” show in conjunction with the film release at the Mercury Lounge, so we showed up there at midnight, and got to see Robyn perform. At one point he decided to play “Electrolite” by R.E.M. Michael Stipe stood on stage to hold the lyric sheet for him. In that moment I knew there was no more exciting place on earth to be living, and I felt that way for twenty years. (Even though I have now left, I still feel that way.)
  4. Very early on in my relationship with J, it was his birthday. We went to see a Robyn Hitchcock show to celebrate. I bought J a copy of one of his albums, Eye. He already had a copy. I already had a copy. Now we had three copies between us. When we moved in together, we eventually got rid of one of them. (The third had different cover art and we couldn’t decide between them.)
  5. Fast forward to the early bleary-eyed days immediately following the birth of Young J. He was born in late December 2006. After a couple of days it was apparent I wasn’t getting anywhere with nursing. J went out to buy me a breast pump on Christmas Eve day. Robyn had recently released Olé! Tarantula with his group, the Venus 3. I cannot listen to that album without having very strong sense memory of listening to it while sitting on my bed, painfully attached to a pulsating breast pump, frantically trying to figure everything about motherhood out all at once.
  6. I have small kids and get pneumonia and never sleep for a bunch of years. Probably missed a lot of Hitchcock shows during that time. Or I went to them but don’t remember them. I do buy 2009’s Goodnight Oslo. Actually, my calendar says I saw Robyn at the Bell House in Brooklyn that year. I think that was the show where he performed Eye in its entirety.
  7. We reconvene with 2013. April 24: Melanoma surgery and sentinel lymph node biopsy. April 26: Robyn Hitchcock’s 60th Birthday Show at Webster Hall. I had bandages on my back. I had been given strong painkillers which didn’t help, so I weaned myself off of them in time to have one drink at the show. I stood with my back to the wall so no one could knock into me by mistake. I felt lucky to be alive, and lucky that Robyn was still alive and that we were in the same room. Robyn had just released Love From London. I got pathology results: Melanoma in transit.
  8. Fall 2014: Lung metastasis. Lung biopsy. Collapsed lung. Radiation and immunotherapy treatment and treatment-induced colitis which stops the treatment. I had bought The Man Upstairs, released in August that year, and the song “Ferries” from that album forms the basis of one early post here. On November 10, we go to see Robyn perform at City Winery. This is the point where I am just starting to have to accept I am probably very sick. He plays “Trouble In Your Blood” and I feel he has written it just for me. I lie in bed for a few weeks, in agony and unable to eat. I daydream about being able to eat Brussels sprouts without pain. And I listen to The Man Upstairs over and over. By Thanksgiving I am miraculously better, but immunotherapy is no longer an option.
  9. 2015: I recover. I get a job. I get a clean bill of health for my lungs, and the very next day am diagnosed with almost a dozen brain tumors. I quit my job. I take high doses of dexamethasone which frankly made me a totally different person, one I’d be afraid to live with today. In the midst of the crisis, I decide that we need to take a safari tour of South Africa with Robyn Hitchcock that was being organized by an Australian travel agency. It was going to cost well over $7K per person, and the kids weren’t necessarily going to be welcome, but we were hoping to bring them anyways, and I somehow thought we could crowdfund this trip. I cut my steroids dosage just in time to realize that the whole endeavor would have been insane.
  10. I’m not sure whether Robyn toured in 2015, but I made up for missing any dates in 2016, when I saw him perform three times. At the last, at City Winery in November, he played my request!
  11. While my father was hospitalized for two weeks in early 2018, I could not stop listening to Robyn’s beautiful and elegiac song, “No, I Don’t Remember Guildford.” It deals with memory loss and death in a hospital. It somehow helped me, even though it also tormented me, since my father met the same fate. This recording (taken from the end credits of “Storefront Hitchcock”) is one of my favorites. In thinking about my own fascinating and complex father this year, I have also thought about Robyn’s relationship with his father, which is chronicled or mentioned in a number of his songs.
  12. The only remarkable thing about this list is, I am sure every Robyn Hitchcock fan of long standing could compose their own.
  13. Robyn Hitchcock is now sixty-five years old. I wish him a long and healthy life. I wish myself the same.
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