The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, September 25, 2002
ROBERT WYATT'S ROCK BOTTOM: THE SECOND GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE

It was his fault, of course. He was pissed. Trying to get out of a party via the kitchen window, forgetting that he was four floors up. The end result: paralysis, unable to play his beloved drumkit. He mused for a long time, listened for a longer time. Nick Mason from Pink Floyd, a long-standing mate of his, visited regularly, helped him out financially and urged him to go in the studio and record his thoughts when he was well enough. After long months, he was ready to marshal his thoughts in both lyrical and musical terms, and went into the studio with Mason as producer to make the 1974 album Rock Bottom.

On the original Virgin Records sleeve the cover illustration, by his wife the artist Alfreda Benge, shows a rear view of what is clearly meant to be Wyatt, his back to us, holding up a balloon in his right hand. Above the water you cannot see below the waist - he could be waving or drowning. Below the water you see, not a pair of legs, but a mass of octopus-like tentacles drifting widely into the ocean. So the inability to function "normally" in the world is replaced by the urge to return to the maternal waters. Or the urge to fly (the balloon) is frustrated by his earthly anchor (the tentacles/wheelchair).

Why, after nearly 30 years of familiarity with this barely 30-minute long record, does it still speak to me and cut me like no other record, with one exception (and you can read about that one exception in Stylus Magazine later this year), has ever managed to do? Even as a child, even if I had known nothing of his Soft Machine history or what he would later go on to do, I would have immediately known Wyatt to be a person of genius.

Perhaps it's because the subject matter of the record manages the extraordinary feat of being almost intolerably harrowing and yet hysterically whimsical at the same time. Perhaps it's because the record is a dissection of Wyatt's soul following his accident, and yet there is not one nanosecond of self-pity on it. He is reaching out to you and you cannot help but cling to him.

On a more prosaic level, it succeeds in uniting a pop framework with avant/improv elements as no other record (again, with the same one exception) has managed to do.

The opener "Sea Song" is literally an oceanic torch song. Wyatt expresses his thoughts in a stream-of-consciousness style, the music having to flow around where he wants the words to be. "Joking apart, when you're drunk you're terrific; when you're drunk I like you mostly late at night - you're quite all right. But I can't understand the different you in the morning, when it's time to play at being human for awhile. Please smile." The music then eddies into an unresolved sequence of whole tones; Wyatt's piano solo, and indeed his piano style, were unforgettably described by Steve Lake as "Cecil Taylor meets Monk at 16 rpm," here expressing the quiet fury fermenting beneath the waves, before Wyatt's voice placidly re-enters and says with resignation: "You'll be different in the spring, I know - you're a seasonal beast...your lunacy fits neatly with my own," answered by an Escalator-type choir before sailing off into the phenomenal finale where Wyatt finds words insufficient and breaks into his unreproduceable slow-motion vocal scatting (as he called it, "the theory of the longer line," the diametric opposite to the quick-fire syllabic pointillism employed by most "jazz" singers, Torme etc.) which touches upon Asian quarter-tones and at one powerful moment rises to a wailing crescendo which sounds like a newborn baby as the synthesisers swell up behind and around him.

(The make-do-and-mend choice of instrumentation throughout Rock Bottom is crucial to its overall impact. Wyatt mainly sticks to vocals and keyboards, and of the latter the most prominent is an odd Italian organ which he apparently bought dirt cheap and which I have never heard anywhere else, although some have tried to copy the sound. Unable to play his drumkit, he resorts to using whatever odds and ends he can find in the studio - on the sleeve, he is credited with playing, amongst other things, "Delfina's wineglass," "James' tray" and "a small battery." And largely he prefers to stick to this - a full drumkit, played by Laurie Allan, appears on two of the six tracks only)

The second song, "A Last Straw," is a more animated continuation of the same lost-at-sea theme. Here, as with elsewhere on the album, instead of indulging in lyrical cliches in order to obtain cheap poignancy, Wyatt sticks to his Lear-esque wordplay and can still manage to strike your heart with punctum - "reminds me of your rocky bottom/please don't wait for the paperweight" followed by "into the water we'll go head over heels" over a heartbreaking minor chord change to remind you that, physically, he can't do this any more. A rudimentary guitar appears (also played by Wyatt); he slides the notes to replicate the waves about to embrace or engulf him.

The track then goes straight into the deeply harrowing "Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road" punctUMed and powered by the multiple, hall-of-mirrors trumpets of Mongezi Feza. Poor Mongs, his soul already splitting into pieces, who was, barely 18 months after this record was made, to end up in Horton Hospital and die, unattended, of double pneumonia after wandering around the grounds in his pyjamas at night in the dead of winter. After smashing up a taxi with hallucinations that he was back in SA and the car was taking him back to be shot. Whose death hit Wyatt so hard that he barely did anything for the next five years. Here his trumpets explode, chuckle, caress and harass from all directions while the rhythm gathers and the lament begins "Don't say...oh gawd don't tell me...oh dear me...heavens above...oh no...I can't stand it STOP ME oh dearie me..." Wyatt working his way through banal, cliched expressions of pain, the face we put on to hide our real suffering. Finally it is all too much: "OH STOP IT STOP IT!" he screams

and then the track immediately starts going backwards with a new melody automatically created. This runs uninterrupted for a while and then Wyatt's voice creeps back in, improvising on the new melody:

"You see sometimes I know, I know. So why did I hurt you? I didn't mean to hurt you. But I'll keep trying, and I'm sure you will too."

This record's eye of the hurricane, what it actually must have felt like right at the moment of impact which paralysed him. At the song's death (with a new bassline added), Ivor Cutler surreally comes in with a mock-backwards recitation of part of the Wyatt poem which will be used to bring the album to an end.

After the storm, comes the contemplation. "Alife" (a life? Alfie? dedicated to his wife of course). Performed by Wyatt and Hugh Hopper, as well as a guitarist who isn't identified (is it a speeded up keyboard, or Hopper's bass speeded up? It actually sounds a lot like Mike Oldfield, who does make an unexpected appearance later in the album). After the soft billowing unhurried major-chord instrumental prelude, the song inevitably and smoothly evolves into a minor-key lament: "Na nip nop/Nip na noop/Nip nip folly balolley" he sings and continues in the same vein: "I can't forsake you or forsqueak you/Confiscate or maculate you you." How can someone sing what sounds like outtakes from Jabberwocky and make you weep uncontrollably? It is as if he's singing a lullaby to his Other in their own private language. In its superficial nonsensical veneer, this music comes awfully close to "the truth."

And if this is bliss, then it has to be subverted or negated; enter "Alifib" and first the bass clarinet, then the tenor sax, of another doomed bastard and future Carla Bley/Todd Rundgren right-hand man Gary Windo. The song starts boiling into a sardonic rage, Wyatt now spitting out and snarling the same words, mocking them as Windo squeaks behind him and finally emerges with a chaotic, screaming, howling tenor solo which acts as the point of release for the real grief. As the saxophone vanishes into high-register thin air, enter, suddenly, the Other (Alfreda Benge) arrives to sardonically but amiably deflate Wyatt's paradisical ideal: "I'm not your larder, or Alife your guarder...I'm your dear little dolly." The music resettles into brief repose, Windo's sax now purring with post-orgasmic satisfaction.

Then we go into the grand finale, "Little Red Robin Hood Hit The Road," where Wyatt solemnly sings of an unspecified disaster "in the garden of England," while here Mike Oldfield's guitar acts as his alter ego. Unsettlingly, as Oldfield comes to centre stage, the record momentarily does turn into Tubular Bells, but any cosiness is quickly seen off by Allan's restless drumming and Wyatt's closing fading lament of "can't you see them, can't you see them? Bridge can't hold them, rats control them." A children's nursery rhyme of experience - Hilaire Belloc rescripted by Edward Gorey (a similar sepulchral feel is conveyed by Wyatt's vocal work on Michael Mantler's album of Gorey adaptations, The Hapless Child and Other Stories, a couple of years later). The pain fades, the chaos fades, we see the crash now only from a distance as we are left with a John Cale-esque viola drone (actually Fred Frith). And for the final closing punch, enter Ivor Cutler and his "baritone concertina" to declaim an unremittingly silly poem by Wyatt, which still manages to end with him smashing up both the 'phone and the telly. As the multiple violas howl atonal pain, Cutler lets out a bloodcurdling "HA HA HA HA HAA!" laugh and the music stops dead.

Coda
A few weeks after finishing the recording sessions for Rock Bottom, Wyatt and Mason returned to the studio to record a single. Wyatt fancied doing "I'm A Believer." The ecstasy of regenerated faith expressed on the Monkees' original is subtly subverted, and you do feel a very deep vein of irony running through Wyatt's vocal. And yet the single proved to be a hit, and Wyatt and band were invited on TOTP, but unforgiveably tried to persuade Wyatt not to appear on stage in his wheelchair as "this might upset viewers." A furious Wyatt stood his ground (metaphorically) with the end result that the entire band appeared in wheelchairs, and Wyatt spat out the lyrics with barely concealed venom and even more naked irony. The performance has never been shown anywhere since.

And a mention too for the B-side, Hopper's song "Memories." With Frith's viola crying in the background, Wyatt contemplates what his life is now and where he is going to end up, while knowing that he must end up somewhere. It was later covered by Laswell's Material on their 1982 One Down album with Archie Shepp the featured sax soloist. The singer was a teenager called Whitney Houston.


posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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SOME THINGS DON'T NEED TO BE SPOILED BY WRITING ABOUT THEM

For instance: Westwood Presents Volume 3 - as with 2 Many DJs, this has to be DANCED to, celebrated PHYSICALLY. The punctum here is all around you and does not need to be drawn out; in fact, multiple puncta draw in upon you and embrace you. 47 tracks; apart from Truth Hurts, the unhurtful truth is that this represents pop as it should be known today on buses all over the land. And - at the moment and for the moment - I would much rather have Westwood Presents Volume 3 than Sea Changes in my world.

SOME THINGS CANNOT BE WRITTEN ABOUT FURTHER
"Golden Boy" by Res has been definitively assessed by the Belgian lass and the Australian skykicker, so there is little for me to add, except perhaps that the vocal reminds me somewhat of Carole Bayer Sager, whatever that may imply. But what exactly do "the girls" know about this "prince," and will they grieve or exult at his downfall?

The album How I Do - maybe Ronan "I Love It When We Do" Keating is the "Golden Boy," though probably not - is a puzzle to sort out. It's what Pink would sound like had she paid more attention to Sam Phillips (that's the Cruel Inventions/wife of T-Bone Burnett Sam Phillips, not the Sun Records one) than to 4 Non Blondes; lots of odd guitar twinges over what is essentially another AOR analysis of who I am/do I/don't I need love which frankly has been done more purposely and/or deliriously elsewhere. Her backdrop will sometimes be an un-guitar drone which brings to mind MBV rehearsing Reich's Electric Counterpoint five rooms away, but sadly not for long enough. Good in its first half, extraordinary when it comes to "Golden Boy," but finally settling for the safest way in. Still I would rather have this in the house than Vanessa Please Please HIT ME Carlton, were I of a combative nature, which happily I am not.


posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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