“Come and have a look at this, Chandlowe,” said the entomologist to the art detective.
Chandlowe shuffled over to the library table and the circle of light from the one lightbulb that still worked on the fourth floor. Behind him, in the dimness, library patrons stumbled like zombies and held book spines to their faces trying to make out the titles. “What have you got, then?”
The entomologist squinted at an origami grasshopper he’d just unfolded. “Eggs,” he said, pointing to the tiny paper rolls like grains of rice clustering in a valley crease. “I told you it was pregnant,” he said, and threw up his hands.
At one point, I was working on a tally of all the concerts I’d ever been to. It was like a tag cloud, with more concerts equalling bigger type and a darker color. Dwarfing the rest, clobbering Tori Amos, the next largest and darkest name, was Robyn Hitchcock.
I’m pretty sure I learned about him from MTV. From about 1989 to 1992 or so, I listened to the radio less and less and watched 120 Minutes and Postmodern MTV more and more. I didn’t like every song, but I liked most of them, and all of the ones I liked were somehow exactly the kind of music I liked. The pop I’d listened to up to then was great, but it felt like it belonged to everybody, and the pop-metal was someone else’s world in which I was having an exciting but slightly uncomfortable vacation. But this stuff was the tops.
So my first Robyn Hitchcock video was “Madonna of the Wasps.”
“Oh yes, this is her all right,” said Chandlowe, taping the last scrap of unrolled grasshopper egg into place. The bits of paper fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, revealing a reproduction of an oil painting of a woman with a vespiform head, cradling a puffy white larva with a halo behind its end.
The entomologist breathed out, now that the danger of scattering the pieces had passed. “Who — ?” he asked, meaning the woman, but Chandlowe answered the next question instead.
“A student of De Chirico’s,” he said. “For three months, before De Chirico kicked him out and pretended he’d never heard of the kid. You can see why.”
The entomologist couldn’t. “She’s beautiful.”
“Get a hold of yourself, Wilbourne,” rumbled Chandlowe. “She’d sting you as soon as look at you.”
Wilbourne’s head snapped up. “She’s real?”
“Real as houses. This was painted from life.” Wilbourne started, and Chandlowe grabbed his arm. “Was. Now we’re looking for her descendant. In the right place, it seems.”
Behind them, the other patrons were peering peevishly at the table, not to see what was on it, but to stake a claim on it. Finding books in the dark was one thing, but they wanted to read.
“We’d better go,” said Wilbourne.
“To the basement,” said Chandlowe.
I hightailed it to the library. They didn’t have Queen Elvis, the new album from which “Madonna of the Wasps” was the first single, but they did have the previous album, Globe of Frogs, on vinyl. At that time I still had access to a turntable (my dad’s), so I could play it. I fell in love instantly.
I’m sure the surreal, psychedelic imagery played a big part in my fascination. Hitchcock has written some of the most heartfelt, incisive, raw, intelligent, literate, powerful songs I’ve ever heard, so much so that without the frogs, squid, birds, lizards, fish, insects, balloon men, lightbulb heads, wax dolls, and abandoned brains, many of those songs would be too intensely emotional to listen to. It just so happened that the metaphors which appealed to him appealed to me too, drawing me in and holding my attention while I slowly figured out what he was talking about. And it was all set to such great music — arpeggiated guitar, some provided by REM guitarist and longtime Hitchcock fan Peter Buck, most from Hitchcock’s own talented fingers, and the liquid but sure-footed rhythm section of the Egyptians. Add to that the museum-ready album covers, usually painted by Hitchcock himself, and the eccentric short stories and manifestoes that often appeared in the liner notes, and I was hooked like a midnight fish.
Every song on Globe of Frogs is fantastic. It starts off transcendent, with “Tropical Flesh Mandala” and “Vibrating.” Then there’s the song you know if you only know Hitchcock a little, “Balloon Man,” followed up by “Luminous Rose,” a slow-motion lament for soldiers and sailors lost in the war and drowned at sea. “Sleeping With Your Devil Mask” is a typically ambivalent Hitchcock love song, and when you flip the record (as I had to do in those days) you’ll hear “Unsettled,” a song I’ve (wisely, if Wikipedia is to be believed) never tried to make sense of. “Chinese Bones” is my favorite these days, a chiming bit of heaven containing one of my favorite Hitchcock lines, “Something Shakespeare never said / Was ‘You’ve got to be kidding.'” Then it’s into the fireflies-in-the-swamp-at-night gorgeousness of the title track, so good I named my college radio show after it. The tension of “The Shapes Between Us Turn Into Animals” is finally broken by the sunshine of “Flesh Number One (Beatle Dennis)” which sports the cheery line “There’s nothing happening to you / That means anything at all.” Well, I find it cheery.
The floorboards creaked and oozed and moaned as the entomologist and the art detective tried to tiptoe across the library basement floor. Chandlowe’s flashlight caught Mrs. Watson, the librarian, as she straightened and stood. Glowing pink and blue fish leapt and swam in the small pond behind her, sunken in the floor between bookshelves. Behind the pond was a forest, too large and dark and outdoors to belong in the basement of a building in the middle of Fourth Street.
“Something is wrong with the geography in here,” muttered Chandlowe.
“Something is wrong with her head,” said Wilbourne. Chandlowe swung the flashlight up. The beam made Mrs. Watson’s compound eyes glitter as though she had an impish secret, and her antennae twitched.
“Can I help you gentlemen?” she asked.
“We’re here about the skull,” said Chandlowe.
“And the suitcase,” added Wilbourne.
“Not to mention the long red bottle of wine,” said Chandlowe, and his .44 Magnum was in his hand.
Mrs. Watson’s antennae lowered, and her mandibles twitched. “A man’s got to know his limitations,” she snarled, her wings lifting her a full foot off the ground, and charged at them.
I don’t have enough space or time to tell you the rest of my Robyn Hitchcock saga — I’d need another whole blog. “Queen Elvis” may have been the first song I learned to play from start to finish on guitar (minus the solo, which was beyond my skill at that point) and the first one I performed live, in college at a cabaret-style show. Of course I tracked the other albums down eventually, which was quite a job considering how prolific he’s been. Later in college I befriended the most interesting person in my science fiction writing class and she taped me a few of the albums I didn’t have yet; I’ve since bought legit copies of the albums, but I still have the cassettes because of her irreplaceable surreal hand-drawn illustrations on the liners. I never stopped liking him, but I had a resurgence of interest after 1996’s Moss Elixir, whose song “Sinister But She Was Happy” helped me get my girlfriend into him too.
I first saw him live in the fall of ’96, and my girlfriend and I saw him again early in 1997. I played his music constantly on my college radio show (more about which in later entries) and went to see him live every chance I got, especially after we moved to Northern California and it seemed he came around every year or two for a while. I saw him play both Eye and I Often Dream of Trains start to finish; caught his Soft Boys reunion tour (and was too chicken to say hi to him in an in-store event at Amoeba Records); and even spent a few years meeting other fans from a mailing list (which is what we had in the early days of the internet, before, I dunno, Reddit?) at various other shows in the area, big and small. My biggest Robyn Hitchcock regret, other than not ever trying to talk to him after any of his concerts because I would self-combust from trying not to say something stupid, is that I bought a ticket to his 60th birthday concert, wrote the date in my calendar wrong, and missed the show. I may never forgive myself.
My Robyn Hitchcock CD shelf is the widest stack I have. Mixed in with all the official albums are tributes and covers and even one of those CD-sized booklets (Middle-Class Hero). Collecting him is a serious investment, because he started making albums back in the late 70s, and he’s still putting them out today, one every couple years or so, and they’re still pretty fucking great.
I’ve tried over the years to make top ten lists of my favorite artists. The two who invariably own the top are the aforementioned Kate Bush and Robyn Hitchcock, the yin and yang of my musical heart. Bush writes about love and death and the world through the ethereal, the paranormal, the spiritual; Hitchcock does it through the physical world, the phantasmagorical, the weird; but both are talking about real things that matter, and bringing the richest of musical and lyrical vocabularies to bear on their subjects. And both are creating worlds I would happily live in, and do, given any chance.
If there’s one artist on my list you probably don’t know and should definitely check out, it’s Robyn Hitchcock. Odds are he’s going to stop by your city. You’d be mad to miss him.
“Can you move your arm, Wilbourne?” whispered Chandlowe.
The entomologist shook his head sadly. “Not an inch,” he said, straining against the thick ropes that bound him to the Eames chair.
The art detective, similarly bound, peered about. Light diffused dimly but steadily through the papery walls of the hive. “At least it’s not dark anymore.”
“Not yet,” Wilbourne agreed. “Here she comes.”
Mrs. Watson buzzed into the chamber carrying a tray, her golden-hued larvae oozing behind her along eccentric paths. “Hello, gentlemen,” she said, setting the tray down on a table in front of them. “I thought you might like some tea.” She bent over the two of them in turn, freeing one arm each, and sat down in the third chair, wings folding back into her floral-print dress.
Wilbourne and Chandlowe reached forward awkwardly and took one steaming cup of Darjeeling apiece with their free hands. They sipped gingerly, and discovering it was already the perfect temperature, sipped twice more without stopping.
“Quite good actually,” said Chandlowe.
“Thank you very much,” said Wilbourne.
“Now then,” said Mrs. Watson. “Let’s discuss those overdue fines, shall we?”
Pet Shop Boys, Introspective
Probably my favorite Pet Shop Boys record these days. “Domino Dancing” had to grow on me (and did), but “I’m Not Scared,” “Always On My Mind,” and “It’s Alright” are fantastic, and “Left To My Own Devices” is in some ways the ultimate PSB song. My only quibble would be with the lyric from “I Want a Dog”: “You can get lonely / And a cat’s no help with that.” As I write this, one cat is next to me and the other has draped herself across my legs. Your move, bichon frise.
The first REM album I really got into at the time it came out. “Stand” is weirdly incongruous in the middle of an album the otherwise comes on so hot, heavy, and hazy; to me it’s more characterized by “Orange Crush” and “Turn You Inside Out.” Like Lifes Rich Pageant and Document, it also starts out with two solid, driving tracks, in this case “Pop Song ’89” and “Get Up.” I eventually lost interest in these guys about two or three albums before they did, but for a while they were one of my favorite bands, and this record is one of their best.
Siouxsie and the Banshees, Peepshow
It’s not the only Banshees record whose lyrics read like a horror anthology, but it’s the one that exemplifies the approach. Around this time a great-aunt of mine was urging me to put down the Stephen King and Clive Barker and get me into real literature like The Turn of the Screw, which wasn’t really scary at all. Who knows what she would have urged on me if she’d known I was listening to this stuff?
- Talking Heads, Naked
- The Smiths, Rank
- Erasure, The Innocents
- a-ha, Stay On These Roads
- Scritti Politti, Provision
- Book of Love, Lullaby
- Joy Division, Substance
- Cocteau Twins, Blue Bell Knoll
- They Might Be Giants, Lincoln
- The Bangles, Everything
- Roxette, Look Sharp!
- Dead Can Dance, The Serpent’s Egg
- Julian Cope, My Nation Underground
- The Primitives, Lovely
- Peter Murphy, Love Hysteria
- Guns ‘n’ Roses, G’N’R Lies
- ’til Tuesday, Everything’s Different Now