Against all odds

October 21, 2007


For more than 40 years, Robert Wyatt has made wonderful music showcasing one of the most distinctive voices in rock history -- an astounding instrument that simultaneously expresses desire, despair, anger and enduring optimism. But he didn't set out to be a singer.

The English art-rocker first made his name on the music scene as a co-founder of the Soft Machine, the Canterbury band that explored an influential merger of jazz and psychedelic rock. His dexterous rhythms powered that group from 1966 to 1970, when it shared bills with the likes of Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix, before Wyatt went on to drum for his own band, Matching Mole. Then, in 1973, a drunken fall from a third-floor window rendered him a paraplegic, and he's been confined to a wheelchair ever since.

Wyatt's solo career began with the 1974 album "Rock Bottom," which chronicled his recovery courtesy of musical contributions from friends such as Mike Oldfield ("Tubular Bells"), Fred Frith (of Henry Cow) and Nick Mason (the Pink Floyd drummer who produced the disc). It remains an incredibly powerful recording, finding catharsis in the aftermath of his accident as well as joy in his relationship with the poet Alfreda "Alfie" Benge, whom Wyatt married the day the album came out. And it puts the focus firmly on that amazing voice.

"I don't listen to it, but I can," Wyatt recently said when I asked about the album. "I get a feeling of great relief from the fact that it exists, because it's the record that helped make me realize that I wasn't dead yet in '73, and that in fact, I just had to reinvent how I had to make music. It settled my unease quite soon after getting out of hospital, showing me that I could function without having a group -- though it would be difficult without Alfie. It was the feeling of surviving a shipwreck but ending up on a desert island, a bit cut off from the world, but with enough to eat and a nice friend to be with."

In many ways, the same could be said of all the music the artist has made since, from "Ruth is Stranger than Richard" (1975) to his much-acclaimed 1982 cover of Elvis Costello's Falklands War-inspired "Shipbuilding" through "Cuckooland," the 2003 release that was nominated beside the Streets, Basement Jaxx and Amy Winehouse for Britain's prestigious Mercury Prize. Like his friend and frequent collaborator, Brian Eno, Wyatt has never sold millions of records, but the people who've heard his music have been hugely inspired by it. Now, as he approaches his 63rd birthday and celebrates the release of the new "Comicopera," he finds himself lauded as a venerated elder statesman and enjoying a new audience courtesy of England's hippest indie label, Domino Records, the home of Franz Ferdinand and the Arctic Monkeys.

"I don't really know what to make of that," Wyatt confessed. "I feel like Rip Van Winkle, and there's a whole new world out there. I look out the window, and somebody I saw as a 5-year-old girl is suddenly wheeling a pram and she's got a 5-year-old girl of her own. It's all spinning past me faster than I can take it in, and I sometimes I just feel like a tree amongst it all -- a tree with wheels!"

This wry sense of humor is another hallmark of Wyatt's work, and it's certainly in evidence on "Comicopera." Featuring contributions from Eno, Paul Weller (of the Jam and the Style Council), Phil Manzanera (Roxy Music) and his wife Alfie, the disc is divided into three "acts" -- "Lost In Noise," "The Here and the Now" and "Away With the Fairies" -- moving from the personal (with tunes such as the gorgeous love song "Just as You Are"), to the political ("Mob Rule," "A Beautiful War") to the fantastic (with quotes from the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca). In a way, it spans the three strains running through all his work, synopsizing a life's accomplishments on one handy disc.

Like all of Wyatt's music, "Comicopera" originated with him improvising melodies in his bedroom in Lincolnshire, either on the cornet (a brass instrument related to the trumpet), the "Enotron" (an instrument of his own design featuring notes sung by Eno and sampled on a keyboard) or with vocals sung karaoke-style over old recordings by Nat King Cole. "The moment I talk about the process too much, it's slightly fraudulent, because it is so instinctive when I'm doing it," he said. "It's like a cook: He doesn't do it from the point of view of 'I've got to add so many vitamins and proteins and carbohydrates to this meal.' He cooks what he feels is a really nice meal, and he may just instinctively put a salad with it because it needs a bit of green to balance it."

This improvisational approach may seem at odds with the conceit of crafting an opera, that most structured form of Western music, but it all makes sense in Wyatt's skewed view. "I cover the whole territory from chaos to order; I just sort of do it backwards! I got something wonderful from listening to improvisational jazz records, which was that a structure emerges in an organic way, because it's being made by an organic animal -- a human being. If you actually tune your body up right, there will be a sense that the only job your mind has to do is to kind of look back on it and organize it to see what you've done. What I love about jazz is this sense of trust: That the moment isn't just of the moment. When it's right, it will have a kind of permanent value to it."

The attitude that making music should have the gleeful, wide-open approach that a child brings to play is one element of Wyatt's life and work that many younger musicians find so inspirational. Another is his steadfast refusal to accept that there is anything he cannot do, regardless of his physical or technical limitations, or to romanticize his difficulties or any other element of the past.

"You know, there is a great nostalgia thing in my work, but it's not a nostalgia for something that is lost, and it's not a sad nostalgia," Wyatt said. "It's a kind of evoking in my head of the memory of the first discovery -- the first splash of things when the paint was wet on modern art or you'd never heard anything like Ornette Coleman or punk before -- that moment of the fun and the thrill of it all. I can't do anything worthwhile unless I can sort of get back to that, which is why I can't really have a system or worry too much about what other people think of me.

"I know what I'm trying to do, and I know how difficult it is for me to do it, and I know how far short of what I'm trying to do that I always seem to fall. Mind you, I'm not romanticizing the idea of the 'struggling artist.' A lot of that romance is still particularly strong in rock 'n' roll, and it's part of the 19th-century sense of the young hero who goes off and dies for the cause. It's almost a kind of ersatz version of the suicide bomber -- the kind of romantic death of the young man for some glorious outcome that nobody quite understands. I've never really had that; I've always felt quite old, even since I was about 11. And I've always felt, 'It will be really good when I'm old -- I'll be able to get away with more stuff!'"