Click on the links for Part One and Part Two of the interview.
That “Rock Bottom” was partially written before accident is fascinating, because it’s so often stereotyped as a post-traumatic record.
It’s a funny thing, I always feel embarrassed to say this, but I don’t mind being in a wheelchair.
There’s aspects of it that I find quite novel and entertaining. I didn’t see it as a record about a tragic trauma . It’s actually quite euphoric, it’s an equally melodramatic image I suppose, but to me it’s more like the phoenix out of the ashes. Just having the nerve to play my own keyboards, having played with all these brilliant keyboards players and just trying to get away with it was exciting. I had done it before on a couple of records, but taking the whole responsibility for the keyboards and setting the tone on my own was sort of exciting really.
My interpretation is it’s about the possibilities of love. What someone who loves you will do, and the gratitude that comes in response.
That’s much more like it. I’d been with Alfie a couple of years, and I’d been quite rotten to her while I was in hospital. I remember another bloke next to me, his fiancee kept visiting him and he was horrible to her, he kept saying, ‘bugger off, I’m not interested in you any more, I don’t care,’ and what he was actually doing was setting her free. It was a very brave little thing he was doing. They were much younger than us, and he said, ‘she’s not going to have babies or anything.’ Me and Alfie had already been married before, we’d had about three decades each of bipedal life. I say it’s alright for me, but for a lot of people they come out of hospital and it’s not alright at all; there’s no work, nowhere to live, they can’t go anywhere, they might be stuck with their parents who they don’t get on with, all sorts of terrible things. I had Alfie, and Alfie with her friends really helped.
I felt more like life was making sense afterwards than it had done before. I was actually very unhappy through the ‘60s, to be honest. Being thrown out of Soft Machine, the damage it did to my confidence was far greater than the physical damage of breaking your back. So coming out and being with Alfie and working with people that I really got on with, I mean feedback was nice and all that stuff, but it was like being washed up on a really nice desert island from a ship that had come from a port in a grubby cold northern town. It’s terrible, but it’s not that terrible [laughs]
Maybe with the exception of “Old Rottenhat”, “Rock Bottom” is your least playful record. And no matter how serious the issues you’re dealing with, there’s usually a playfulness.
I accept that completely. Alfie has suggested a couple of times that in fact I’m much sadder and more traumatised than I make out or than I allow myself to think. I don’t know. How can I know if I’m kidding myself? If I’m kidding myself, almost by definition I wouldn’t know, would I? My concern isn’t so much with the meaning of things, as with how to play the bloody things and get the music right. And it has no relationship to any other kind of meaning. Music has its own meaning to me, its own demands, and just trying to get the records to sound as right as I can for what feels right is almost without connotation to me. It’s almost a different dimension to me from daily philosophising and anxieties. Consciously, all I’m trying to do is make the most listenable record I can, and that’s all I know about.
So what happened after “Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard”? Maybe thatw as a more typical Wyatt record than “Rock Bottom”?
Yeah well also I wanted to thank some of the musicians who played on “Rock Bottom” and give them a bit more time in their own right. I did a whole Fred Frith tune on “Ruth”, I gave Gary Windo a whole solo feature on it. It meant a lot to me at the time. I was just doing what came naturally. What went wrong after that was the deal with Branson.
Because they wanted you to make more “I’m A Believer”s?
I don’t know. The way deals were in the end, you have to make so many albums in so much time and I thought, ‘Blimey, I don’t know if I can.’ I hadn’t been a songwriter – I’d never claimed to be, so i didn’t know how many records I could make. They just said, ‘Do you want to make a record when you come out?’ I said yes, but it turned out I’d agreed to make five in a row or something. I thought I couldn’t do that, they’d been paying me a minimum weekly wage and I stopped it, but then after doing that album and a couple of singles, I was in vast debt to them, the way they worked the money, because they didn’t share the cost.
You had to pay for everything out of your advance, but you had to use their studio, which were very expensive. You had to sign to Virgin Publishing, and any profit you got, you couldn’t get it until their subsidiary companies had recouped their money from your project. So if you wanted to make another record, you were just getting further into the debt you hadn’t paid off. So I thought to myself, I’m not going to make another record until I’ve paid off the £16,000 that Virgin have charged me so far. I don’t like living in debt, I can’t bear it, I don’t want to owe money. I just thought I’ll make another record when I’ve paid that off. And indeed about 15 years later they went even. But it’s a very hard way to earn a living [laughs].
We hadnt got any money out of Soft Machine ‘cos that was a racket, so we were still a bit stuck and it wasn’t really until I met Vivien Goldman as an acquaintance of Brian Eno’s and she introduced us to Geoff Travis that I found a way of operating on our scale without those kind of rules, and Alfie by that time was so horrified by the economic cowboy culture of rock’n’roll that she and Geoff worked out a much more humane deal where I was able to make a decent living without having to sell rock’n’roll type numbers of records.
Maybe Richard Branson, for all his hippy airs, was always a venture capitalist, whereas Geoff Travis and the post-punk indie model was. . .
To me, Geoff is still an idealist, he’s a lovely man. They’d get into hot water and they weren’t always the smartest machine out of the lot, but they always had a good heart. I like Branson, we got on fine, and as he said in his hurt way, ‘well our contract’s just the same as anybody else’s.’ I thought well yeah, I suppose it is. We never got any money out of anybody else, either!
How did you feel about stopping making music?
Well I didn’t. I did various things for foreigners, French and Italians, then Carla Bley got us on to some Mike Mantler records and Nick Mason got us singing, and there were a few things with Brian Eno like “Music For Airports”. So I was doing stuff but it just wasn’t necessarily LPs under the banner of my name.
It’s ironic that after all the collaborations on the early solo albums, the next were the most authentically solo records of your career.
Well partly that was because of simple things like I don’t really like expecting musicians to work for nothing. Studios are very expensive and I like to pay musicians MU rates, so that prompted me to do as much as I possibly could myself. So that was one thing, and also not being in circulation with a group. My record collection by that time, what I was listening to, was so far from even the alternative rock mainstream. I was listening to Bulgarian music, Cuban music and Radio Moscow and black Londoners, a lot of calypso. I was very very far away from anything being covered in NME at the time.
Did you socialise all old comrades?
No, not at all. We used to have meals sometimes at Nick [Mason]’s place, and that was very nice. Nick’s always been a good pal. But it was quite difficult because there’s a lot of places that a wheelchair won’t go in in London, but Alfie learned to drive when I was in hospital, so she had a car, and a friend of hers who was a model, well-off, gave her her little car. We didn’t socialise with other musicians. Most of the people I used to meet at that time, we would be going to things like Ken Livingstone’s GLC events, go and get plastered on Cuban rum at a Nicaraguan solidarity meeting, or we would go to Kurdish nights, things like that. And a lot of people in the party. I’d be more likely to go and see Tony Benn speaking at a rally than going to see a group. The Anti-Apartheid movement took up a lot of time.
Is this why you were drawn to cover versions?
Well Geoff said make some records, and I hadn’t really been writing many tunes. Elvis and Frank Sinatra didn’t write any tunes, so obviously it’s possible to just be a singer and do tunes that you love. So I started doing a few of the tunes on the record that I’d been listening to that I could do. Apart from French, I always liked the sound of Spanish, so I did a few songs in Spanish, and got my friends to play and we did it our way.
And with your voice they’re never going to sound like a facsimile. . .
It’s funny, that, because that is the case. I don’t particularly try to change things. So when I did “At Last I’m Free” by Chic, I actually followed the women’s phrasing almost exactly, almost every little twist and turn. But I just don’t do the American accent. The tempo is almost exactly the same as the original and the structure is the same, as far as I remember. I’ve actually done literal cover versions where I’ve recorded the tune on one track and just covered it, and taken away the original, and even then people don’t recognise it.
Maybe the first time I heard you was on “Shipbuilding”. Were you aware that that record introduced you to another generation?
“Yeah, it was a confirmation of having met some of these people via Geoff. Incidentally we made the singles because Virgin had refused point blank to let me make another LP for anybody else because I hadn’t fulfilled their contract, so Geoff said ‘let’s make singles’. So we did and then they put them together on an LP [“Nothing Can Stop Us”], which was a bit sneaky. I think Virgin realised it was just pride on their part, because it wasn’t much money. I don’t sell a lot of records, the same sort of amounts as a folk act or a jazz act, but not a rock’n’roll number. No record company is going to stand or fall on my income. It’s just enough for me as long as I can get my cut, y’know?
“Old Rottenhat” was pretty much all solo songs.
“That was pretty much all a solo LP. I played everything, and “Dondestan” was also totally solo in terms of performing. And I’ve done bits and other pieces on my own.
In the middle of that period you must have moved up here to Louth?
Late ‘80s, Alfie said, ‘I don’t want to die in Twickenham’. I thought, yeah, I know what you mean. So we started househunting, and it’s very hard to find a place for sale that’s wheelchair-accessible in a town that I can use. But there was one and this was it.
Looking back, it seems very odd to come here, given the cultural and political life you had. From the global perspective that you were living, to a county [Lincolnshire] that’s about the whitest in Britain.
Henry The Eighth called it ‘this brute and beastly shir’e, hanged a few recalcitrant Catholics and went back home. He’s not entirely wrong, but he’s not entirely right. I’d better not say I know what he means ‘cos they’ll read it, wont they?
You’ve said before that this place could do with a few more asylum seekers
It could do. There’s a village up the road where they’re saying ‘we don’t need any Kosovans here’, and I’m looking at the women thinking, ‘oh yes you do’. And I’m quite happy to be quoted on that.
However it has become more cosmopolitan. I miss London life, the cosmopolitan thing, and we do go back there several times a year. We don’t have anywhere in London any more – in fact we’ve just lost the last hole in the wall which we had which was in Bermondsey, where it’s being yuppiefied. We can’t afford that any more, so I’m not sure what we’ll do.
It’s a local joke that life is cheap in Lincolnshire, and we can have a house here for the price of a flat in the south. I can make all the racket I like and no-one’s going to bother about it. There’s an alleyway to the right, there’s this entrance hall to my left, there’s Alfie’s studio upstairs, the back of our house behind me and a car park in front. It doesn’t matter what time of the day or night I play and I’ve never had that before. So in terms of working and living in a place where I can get everything I want just around the corner, it’s like toytown but it’s even smaller than that. Where we live, the centre, it’s like the imaginary community in a child’s play train set, and I’m as happy as a sandboy just bowling around town.
Everyone seems to know you.
Well you know I’m just one of the local derelicts that hangs out. I like buzzing about town, it takes me away from the prison of the keyboard.
Click on the link for Part Four of the interview.
Robert Wyatt Part Three
Click on the links for Part One and Part Two of the interview. That “Rock Bottom” was partially written before accident is fascinating, because it’s so often stereotyped as a post-traumatic record. It’s a funny thing, I always feel embarrassed to say this, but I don’t mind being in a wheelchair.
Click on the links for Part One and Part Two of the interview.