Robert Wyatt is one of the last survivors of the 1960s pop music scene in Britain. He has been recording for nearly half a century. He was said to be reckless and unfocused for most of his life, but he’s also the best sort of slow-burner moving along at his own pace. Having gone for it late in the day, he hung on to his ‘tankie’ party card – Communist Party of Great Britain – beyond the call of duty, but only because he’d steered his very own Centurion into a deep thicket, opened the hatch and taken a lengthy breather before deciding the game was up.
His music is like the smell of rain on pavement: you’ve got it at once. Nearly seventy, he grumbles about the world failing to change – he’s been doing this for years – but his songs and compositions have a lustrous continuity that makes him unlike many celebrity pop stars (by now it’s fair to call him that): there’s no epiphany, no spell of stormy weather, nothing that causes the music to veer away from its long, exhilarating course. That’s all the more remarkable because he was unhappy about leaving the Soft Machine, a band (named for a Burroughs novel) in which he’d played a central part in the late 1960s, and then in 1973 he fell from the fourth floor of a house in Maida Vale and lost the use of his legs. Most musicians can get by without their lower body, but Robert Wyatt was a drummer.
Once he’d acquired wheels his pace quickened. There are fewer than a dozen albums since then, but he began appearing everywhere, live or guesting on recordings – with Carla Bley, Brian Eno, Fred Frith and his colleagues in Henry Cow. He was also learning a new bag of tricks: a sort of oral percussion based on breathing, all manner of hands-only drumming, including on a tea tray, fiddling around with keyboards, and returning to the trumpet, which he’d learned as a boy. In Rock Bottom, the album released after his fall, everything seems conceived from scratch, yet much of it was composed earlier when he was hanging around in Venice. It’s this constant attention to noises-in-progress – stuff in the works even if it’s not in the bag – that’s given Wyatt’s music the consistency of an oeuvre. It may also explain why his accident, which should have produced a hiatus, resulted instead in an album that picks up a lot of threads from his days with the Soft Machine and Matching Mole, while anticipating the music he went on to make. So even if Rock Bottom marks a career change from drummer to composer/all-rounder – a ‘year zero’, Wyatt calls it – it’s plumb on the Wyatt continuum.
Then too, everything from the first recordings in the 1960s to his recent work has a ‘Robert Wyatt’ hallmark, conferred by his faux soprano-saxophone pitch and his semi-frivolous delivery. In the 1960s it was already the vulnerable, facetious voice of someone who ought to have grown up, and so it is now. His accent, in song or conversation, has never acquired the received American twang that went with the contract for other British pop stars. He likes to sing ‘fairly close to how I talk’, but drives at times for something more emphatic, at which point his voice – a head voice constrained for years by seriocomic deadpan – seems on the verge of faltering: it stays with you in ways that big voices don’t, and if a Robert Wyatt song never sounds like it’s actually over, that’s probably because he decided early on not to let the fat lady out of her dressing room.
Different Every Time, Marcus O’Dair’s fascinating authorised biography (Serpent’s Tail, £20), explains how much Wyatt had going for him at the outset and why the music is good. For a start there were his parents: his mother, Honor Wyatt, was a BBC producer (she worked on the first Woman’s Hour), later a freelance journalist; his father, George Ellidge, an industrial psychologist whose life and earnings were greatly reduced by MS and confinement in a wheelchair (‘It is very odd, isn’t it?’ Wyatt remarks to O’Dair). They were an open, interested, bohemian couple, Fabian socialists with enough money to get by. George passed his love of jazz to Robert like a transfusion. At the age of 15, Robert was approached at his grammar school by a haughty senior boy: ‘Ellidge, I hear you have a Cecil Taylor record. I wondered if I could borrow it.’ The ‘spindly prefect’ was Mike Ratledge, later the keyboard player for the Soft Machine and the band member with the worst haircut, part Cilla Black, part Norman Bates as mother. Through the family’s connections Wyatt met Braque in Paris and stayed with Robert Graves: he left for Mallorca in the aftermath of a suicide attempt and a terminal estrangement from his father, who couldn’t forgive him for ducking university.
Wyatt was a jazz child in an age of hippie rock, which helped even if it meant a kind of liminality. Like most groups doing the rounds in the 1960s, the Soft Machine had a guitarist or two – Daevid Allen and the wonderful Kevin Ayers, who also stayed with Graves and settled for a time in Deià – but no one would have called it a guitar band. The Soft Machine’s horizons extended well beyond the blues and R&B: they preferred jazz, poetry and cinema, and an unpretentious avant-gardism that nodded to Jarry and Dada. Three members including Wyatt had provided live music for the first UK production of Ubu enchaîné at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1967. The band was big in France, not great for sales but good for a laugh: after a gig on the Riviera Le Nouvel Observateur hailed them as ‘les nouveaux Beatles’.
Another of Wyatt’s winning cards was his aversion to illegal drugs. No pulling on joints or messing with hallucinogens, not much in the way of poppers. Instead he became an alcoholic, propelled slowly through his working weeks – months, years – by booze. It was far from ideal: drinking led to the accident in the first place, and, we learn later in the book, he’s been obliged to give it up, but throughout his career alcohol held the inner critic at arm’s length (most guitar bands had never heard of this figure) and kept the possibility of music afloat.
There’s always an old leftie in mid to late-Wyatt, often explicit even when leavened with irony: Greil Marcus got very cross when Wyatt did a cover of ‘Stalin wasn’t stallin’’ in 1981. In his introduction to this book Jonathan Coe remembers Old Rottenhat as the album that ‘crystallised the emerging ruthlessness of the Thatcherite tendency’. The best of Wyatt’s tell-it-like-it-is songs is ‘Born Again Cretin’: ‘Let Mandela rot in prison/… Read him George Orwell, explain about Naipaul.’ That was released about ten years before Mandela. Wyatt had been playing for years with members of the exiled South African jazz sextet the Blue Notes.
Since Cuckooland (2003), he’s been drifting on the wilder currents of anti-Zionism with the saxophonist Gilad Atzmon, an Israeli-born Jew. Atzmon is an exciting musician and a celebrity outcast, inflamed by the Palestine question to a very public vilification of Jewishness that scares most people off, including Palestine solidarity committees across Europe and the US. Wyatt thinks Atzmon is driven by an ‘intrinsically non-racialist philosophy implicit in jazz’. But that’s a puzzle: either Jews aren’t really Jews or jazz isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Unlike Soviet artists in the 1930s and late 1920s, Wyatt can have it both ways, and so can we. No one’s denounced him for ‘muddle instead of music’ – Pravda on Shostakovich in 1936 – and so for Wyatt, raising the red flag must be a personal choice. He’s free, of course, to include difficult, unproletarian noises in the mix, and he’s clearly sceptical about radical projects announced from the writer’s desk or the artist’s studio, even though he’s a child of the modernist aesthetic who spent years at the barricades of sensibility, redesigning pieces as dense, continuous, solo-free landscapes, collapsing voice into sound with his partner Alfreda Benge, using body and breath as instruments, lapsing into Pooh Bear idiom, humming Charlie Parker solos (he’s famous for his note-perfect renditions), and resolving language back to prelinguistic utterance. Who’s to say you can’t be an interesting musician and an old-fashioned proselytising Marxist at the same time, in the same medium?