Robyn Hitchcock talks America, comedy, Dylan, Bowie and his upcoming tour with Eugene Mirman (BV interview)
by Aug Stone
English eccentric pop genius Robyn Hitchcock is — as always seems to be the case with him — in the midst of a string of solo dates with Emma Swift, to be followed in April by a handful of co-headlining shows with comedian Eugene Mirman. “The tour started in 1985 and it still seems to be going well, thanks,” Robyn quips when I ask how it’s all going. When not on the road, he’s currently based in Tennessee, where he’s at work on a new record. “The songs mostly look at the world I used to live in, and some of those who lived in it, thru the prism of Nashville.”
After his performance at the David Bowie Tribute at Carnegie Hall, he’ll be playing two nights at Brooklyn’s Grand Victory with Swift, and tickets are still available to the second night (4/3). Robyn kindly took the time to email me about his thoughts on America, comedy, Bowie, and just what it is about cover songs that make him such a master of the form.
You’re here a lot. How do you feel about America?
Robyn Hitchcock: America has the best and worst of everything. It’s a catalogue where everything is available. It’s tantalized by the myth of freedom, but it has an optimistic attitude that I envy and admire – being a damp, nihilistic Brit.
Over the years America has developed into several cultures that occupy the same space but don’t really communicate. The ugliness of HUAC, McCarthy and Nixon is now in hideous, vulgar bloom in Trump and his fans.
Tell me about your upcoming gigs with Eugene Mirman.
RH: Eugene has been a gatekeeper at all the portals in my recent life, and I’ve really appreciated his company. He is a kind of psychic midwife, helping me out of one world and into another. He’s also a comedian. A great and gleeful comedian.
I was re-reading that interview with you in the Peter Cook book How Very Interesting. You say you ‘never liked art that didn’t have humour’. Can you talk some more about this?
RH: If Bob Dylan hadn’t appeared in my adolescence, I would have probably been Peter Cook Part Two. Piety and earnestness turn me off; religion as it’s peddled in general is a joyless way to hi-jack our spirituality. That’s an earnest sentence. Cook saw through everything, and all there was to comfort him was poison.
How do you feel about the relationship between music and comedy? How does it work?
RH: Timing is important in both. Jokes don’t often bear repeating, but try taking all humour out of a song or a performance and it just dries up. It’s the jokes that always make me cry at funerals.
You’ve got the David Bowie tribute coming up at Carnegie Hall. Anything you’d like to say about the great man?
RH: He really was a great man, a great artist. Bowie had the same momentum in the 70’s that Dylan had in the 60’s. He was, as Emma Swift says, a magician. He breathed life into a dead land and made people feel like they mattered, and that – like children – they could invent their own worlds. He was a mysterious uncle and an old soul, with a cheeky smile and a gracious authority. Bless him, universe.
I always say that hearing a really great song is similar to the feeling you have when you first kiss someone you’ve really fancied for a while. Any thoughts on this? What does a great song do to you?
RH: That’s a lovely thought. It often takes me a while to recognize a great song, though. Kissing is quicker. A great song redeems my life and justifies my existence.
What makes you decide to cover a song?
RH: I have to like it enough to learn it. I cover songs that say things in a way that I can’t, but wish I could. Every writer has their own emotional spectrum and mine is fairly narrow.
How do you feel about covers in general?
RH: Dean Wareham recorded an attractive version of my old song ‘Love’ recently. I really enjoyed hearing that. Tanya Donelly has set some of my lyrics to music for an upcoming project; that sounds glorious.
I like the covers I did on ‘The Man Upstairs’, though I got the the third chord wrong in every verse of ‘The Crystal Ship’ – having known it for 45 years. Not so classic, Hitchcock.
You don’t have to write a song to make it your own; you just have to put yourself inside it. Or embed it in you. I’ve been singing Dylan’s ‘Visions Of Johanna’ for all my performing life. It’s a work in progress. I don’t think the song matters to Dylan any more – he’s discarded it and moved on. To me, it’s the matrix — it’s where I come from.
And of course Dylan’s covered songs brilliantly: ‘Mr. Bojangles’, ‘Spanish Is The Loving Tongue’, ‘The Cheese Alarm’ – just kidding on that, but I’d love to hear him do it.
And my final question is always – say you’ve stolen a space shuttle and were flying it directly into The Sun. What would you want to be listening to?
RH: I’d fly the other way – out to Pluto. Listening to ‘Before And After Science’ by Brian Eno.