Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Man Who Invented Himself

Author's Note: This is the companion piece to an article I wrote for BitchBuzz. It was way too easy to spill several thousand words about this man's music so I split it in half, King Solomon-style. The 'Buzz got the album review and you get the concert, with a bit of a Rough Guide to Robyn thrown in by way of introduction.

The first time I heard Robyn Hitchcock, I was a college freshman with oversized pores and an ill-advised perm who'd scored a ride to the Record Exchange to swap a stack of Mighty Mighty Bosstones CDs for some other band whose members have long since started selling real estate. Before I made it to the cash register, I heard "Oceanside" through the store's speakers and almost smacked the Salem Light out of an employee's hand in my rush to find out who was singing. I dropped $8 on a used copy of Perspex Island and immediately transferred it from its cracked case into my stereo where it remained for the rest of the semester. That album twisted my brain around in a way I've never forgotten--or never recovered from--and ensured I'd spend unsettling amounts of time roaming the H aisle of countless music stores until I'd collected his entire catalog.

Since then, Hitchcock's subsequent releases have each provided a waypoint as I navigated the tangled mess of my twenties. I fell in love to A Star for Bram (1999) and managed to sustain a reasonably healthy relationship for the rest of his solo career. He’d formed a new band by the time my heart was incinerated to Ole! Tarantula (2006) and I scorched someone else’s after casually peeling the plastic from a vinyl copy of Goodnight Oslo (2009). I got fired to Robyn Sings (2002). And to Spooked (2004). And in time for the B-sides of the I Wanna Go Backwards box set (2007). And to...moving on.

For those of you unfamiliar with the musical stylings of Mister Hitchcock, there’s never been a better time to add him to your iPod. His latest release, Goodnight Oslo, features ten genre-hopping tracks that range in style from Big Star-ish power pop to country-tinged stomps but never skimp on the stellar wordplay that has become his trademark. Hitchcock’s band, the Venus 3, is composed of longtime R.E.M. lead guitarist Peter Buck, as well as bass player Scott McCaughey and drummer Bill Rieflin--also known as the other members of R.E.M. not named Mike or Michael.

Hitchcock’s live shows have developed their own reputation based on his epic between-song banter—he's dubbed them "word solos"—that are as hilarious as they are provocative. Sometimes they’re an obtuse introduction to the songs, sometimes a comment on the social climate, or an anecdote that seems unrelated until you think about it…and you will. The seemingly spontaneous monologues have always reminded me of the animations Terry Gilliam dropped between Flying Circus sketches, straddling the same line between comedy and “Holy crap, where did that come from?”

Last Wednesday night, I had the chance to catch Robyn & Peter & Scott & Bill at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, NC. As I watched the decidedly middle-aged crowd file in, it seemed that everyone could be neatly sorted into three groups. The audience was one third J.Crew cable knits who had recently pledged to PBS, dropping three digits for a canvas tote and the promise of additional airings of The Old Grey Whistle Test; it was one third slightly disheveled former college DJs who cursed the recent smoking ban and swapped stories about spinning "So You Think You're In Love" to a mention on the Modern Rock chart; and it was one third people who just wanted to see Peter Buck.

Around 10:15, Hitchcock strolled onstage—still-steaming cup of tea in hand—picked up his guitar and kicked off a setlist that covered his entire thirty-three year career. “This is a reverse birth trauma song,” he said before launching into an electric version of “I Often Dream Of Trains”, the title track from the 1984 acoustic gem that has been widely praised as the highlight of his massive discography.

“This song is in the same key as the one we just played. It’s like two rabbits with the same colored fur, but thinking different thoughts.”

The band was in excellent form for the twenty-two song, double encore set. Buck and Hitchcock have shared stages and studios for two decades and their guitars intertwine perfectly, each playing with a style that manages to be distinct yet interchangeable. What struck me during the live show was how essential Bill Rieflin’s percussion is, noting that he counts in the songs before anchoring the band in a solid rhythm. Hitchcock seems to appreciate it, giving a lengthy introduction to “Saturday Groovers” that compared Rieflin’s drumming to a sailor who single-handedly dragged a whale onto the deck of a ship, which I assumed was his Melville-drenched way of saying “Swell job”.

Other highlights included the ethereal beauty of “Airscape", a scorching version of “Somewhere Apart” and “Up to Our Nex" a song Hitchcock wrote for--and performed in--the Oscar-nominated Rachel Getting Married. “This is a song with a message,” he said, “So we won’t introduce it.” The song perfectly captures the overwhelming feelings and frustrations of relationships, while summarizing the film with the devastating stanza “Forgive yourself and maybe/You’ll forgive me.”

With over 400 (!!!) compositions to chose from, Hitchcock can easily surprise you with his song selection. During the first encore he dusted off the Soft Boys’ “He’s a Reptile”, which he said he hadn’t played onstage since 1979. He also dedicated it to “that famous British reggae outfit The Police”.

Early in the show after finishing A Star for Bram’s “The Underneath”, he lowered his voice to ask and answer his own existential questions. “Where do we come from? The Dark. Where are we going? The Void. Why are we here?” He waited long enough for one enthusiastic woman to shout “TO HEAR YOU!”

Without pausing, Hitchcock replied, “Thank you. That gives my life meaning, purpose, and renewal.” I could say the same thing about his songs.
Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3 have another week of tour dates scheduled in April. Next month finds them opening for The Decemberists before rolling into that great unwashed clusterfuck called Bonnaroo. If you can’t see him live, I encourage you to check out Storefront Hitchcock, the intimate acoustic concert film directed by Jonathan Demme and currently streaming on

As for the tunes, depending on how you classify them he's either released sixteen albums (the originals) or upwards of thirty (counting rarities and box sets). iTunes has a decent selection but eMusic has a huge chunk of his back catalog--including stuff from the Soft Boys--as does his record label Yep Roc. Where to start? As I said about 10,000 words ago, Goodnight Oslo makes for a great square one. After that, my personal favorites are Element of Light, I Often Dream of Trains, and Moss Elixir.


Michael said...

I think you just sold a CD for Venus 3.

As always, well done and lovely.

ronbailey said...

Oh man, The Record Exchange. Does that ever bring back the memories.. I can't even begin to tell you how many Saturday afternoons I spent digging through the bins at that place.

starpower said...

I love reading about how much other people love music, too, and you're great at it. Keep it up! If you want some free MP3s of some great indie stuff out there, check us out at for the shameless plug; I have been reading your site for a long time (love it) and really do think you'll like it.)

Mike said...

I'm not quite done reading this and all the links yet. I'll have a final comment ..... Tuesday.

emmysuh said...

Great article. I'm always looking for more/new music, so I'll check him out on iTunes on my next shopping spree.

Skye said...

Girl, you can WRITE. Damn!

Mw said...

Going tonight at the Logan Auditorium in Chicago on your recommendation. Never heard Robyn but at least Peter Buck will be there :)

Alya said...

The only time I ever heard of this guy was on this blog. I think he should thank you for all the attention you're bringing to him!

By the way, I've got a fab GIVEAWAY over on my blog. Check it out and maybe you'll win!

J-Money said...

michael: You won't regret it. And if you do, I'll feign ignorance.

ronbailey: You and me both! I still hit it every once in a while, just to hear the clack clack as I thumb through the used CDs.

starpower: Thanks for the link... I'll have to check it out because, absolutely, music is my most favorite thing. Other than Oreo Cakesters.

mike: That's kind of what I was going for. I'm not writing anything new until you've finished reading this.

emmysuh: See, if we were roommates, I could let you borrow my CDs.

skye: Aww...thanks!

mw: Very cool. Let me know what you thought!

alya: See? Now someone asks you about Robyn Hitchcock, YOU'LL BE PREPARED! Thanks for stopping by!

Mw said...

Unrivaled show last night in Chicago. He was even in the same shirt as the photo on this post. :) I'm a new fan.

And I met Peter Buck as he stood in the back watching the opener. A J-Money moment.

Thanks for destroying my Orioles this week. oriolesinsider dot com.

Carebear said...

Wow. Great review. You've definitely convinced me to search him Hitchcock out on iTunes. How are you not already being paid to write regularly for some big magazine like Rolling Stone?! I'm really only a casual music fan and even I highly enjoy reading your music-centered posts.