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The Boston Phoenix Stagefront Hitchcock

Robyn hooks up with the Flaming Lips

By Brett Milano

AUGUST 23, 1999:  One of my favorite Robyn Hitchcock albums is one that never actually came out, though it's findable as a promo-only item or a bootleg. In May 1996, exactly 30 years after Bob Dylan's epochal Royal Albert Hall concert (and two years before the Dylan show got officially released), Hitchcock got a band together, booked a pub in the Albert Hall area, and performed the entire Royal Albert Hall show, both the acoustic and the electric sets. The surprise wasn't just that he covered the difficult material but that he managed to personalize it. Listening to it on tape, you can tell where Hitchcock got some of his love for imagery -- he's one of the few songwriters who can cover "Visions of Johanna" and not get boggled by the lyrics.

One moment on the bootleg stands out, when the band are about to launch into "Like a Rolling Stone." Taking their cue from history, a few wags in the audience yell out, "Judas!" This is the point where the performer is supposed to deliver Dylan's famous riposte: "I don't believe you . . . You're a liar . . . You're a fucking liar!" But Hitchcock doesn't take the bait: instead he nudges the audience with "Any more?" and then slides into the song -- a version fueled more by regret than by the undiluted venom of Dylan's version.

"The problem was that they were shouting 'Judas' at the wrong points," he explains by phone from Oklahoma, where he's on a tour with the Flaming Lips and Sebadoh that comes to the Roxy this Friday. "They started shouting it after the first song. And I'd decided not to do an absolute replica of the Dylan show." Still, I'd offer another possible reason why the shoutback didn't happen: Hitchcock just isn't the misanthrope that Dylan was, and his writing has taken on a generosity that Dylan didn't have (or much need) in 1966. It's hard to imagine him being that nasty to an audience, even in jest.

Generous is the word for Jewels for Sophia, Hitchcock's third album for Warner Bros. and his best since 1991's Perspex Island (the last fully electric album with the now-disbanded Egyptians). On the surface it's just your basic Hitchcock album with a stronger batch of songs: some of it rocks and some is acoustic, and the tunes slalom between openly emotional and wildly surreal (usually within the same song). What's new is the amount of warmth he's able to show without flinching. The last time he attempted an album of love songs, the result was Eye (1990, now on Rhino), perhaps the creepiest disc of his catalogue. But this time the love songs are open-hearted and more in the classic-pop vein. Still, instead of doing the obvious and writing a mid-'60s Burt Bacharach homage, "I Feel Beautiful" harks back to the ballads that Ray Davies was writing around the same time. And with the title track, he's written something close to his own "Visions of Johanna" -- a dense, dream-and-rhyme ridden account of a midnight vigil. In this case, however, the love object is more attainable. One would think that the central guitar riff, played by Peter Buck on his trademark 12-string, would be enough to coax her out of hiding.

"The songs are always messages to myself," Hitchcock notes. "They're like fortune cookies from the unconscious, little notes that have been jotted down -- 'Remember to feed the cat, remember to steer your life in a better direction.' That's another facet of getting older -- there's only so long you can maintain that adolescent gloom. And life really has been very good to me. Maybe half of one percent of the world has been able to get a better life than I have. Whatever success I've had hasn't become a burden or made me into a monster. I've been able to carry on as a sort-of ordinary person, and I've been very lucky relationship-wise. But it's not very rock-and-roll to say so."

Not that his perspective has changed all that much. "I still think humanity sucks, but it doesn't need me to point that out. There's no point adding to the sum of human misery; you have to make the best of what you've got left. I'm also a bit less suspicious now. I came up during the punk phase, when the audience's way of acknowledging you on stage was to throw things at you. That's one reason I was leery of audiences. The other was that Groucho Marx thing, that I wouldn't want to be a member of any club that would have me. I was quite ungracious of compliments, because I found it hard to appreciate that people liked what I did."

Hence the birth of one of Hitchcock's trademarks -- the free-associative monologue that he does on stage, which has become as much a part of his live shows as the music. These were captured for posterity in Storefront Hitchcock, the limited-release concert film that Jonathan Demme directed two years ago. But they also turn up between the cracks on the new album. Many of the tracks were recorded live-in-studio, with Hitchcock directing the band as he might do on stage. During "NASA Clapping" he cues the solo with "Take it, Buzz," as if Buzz Aldrin had just stepped in to play guitar. And on "Antwoman," he tries to lead a sing-along at exactly the wrong moment -- "Being just contaminates the void . . . Come on, everybody!" The moment is priceless enough to redeem the album's only weak track.

I ask whether the stage patter originally developed as a defensive move. "Well, partly. You can attract people and drive them away with the same gesture. Bob Dylan's always been good at that -- 'Look at me -- no, don't look at me.' I think Stipey [Michael Stipe] had that going for a while too. In my case it was a fear of silence as well, or fear of the embarrassment of being in front of people. I used to think that I'd better come up with something quick to keep them entertained. I'm probably more concerned with humor now, or with politics and social statement. I'm not very good at that, but I want to do more of it. You've got to watch out for people who just use the stage to preach, but I still think there's a lot of points to be made, as long as you don't harangue. Someone like Bragg does go on a bit, but the points he makes are very sound. I don't know about writing snarling political songs, but I would like to write something compassionate. Going back to Dylan, I would love to write something a 10th as good as 'Chimes of Freedom' or 'The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.' "

As for Storefront Hitchcock, it remains in limbo. The film was released last year but has yet to play in Boston, or in most parts of the country. "The trouble is that MGM don't tell anybody where it's showing, and they don't communicate with Demme's office. They've been quite good overseas, but in the States they're just not interested. It does exist, and it's been wandering around slowly. I'm sure it will at least turn up on video."

Meanwhile, the new album's rockish sound is a surprise, since Hitchcock noted after his last album (1997's Moss Elixir) that it was unseemly for anyone over 40 to hoist an electric guitar. He's since relaxed that viewpoint a bit. "I still think that bands over 40 should have to have a permit. In fact there are two things that should straightaway be made legislature: one is that rock guitarists shouldn't be allowed to play above the 10th fret on the top three strings for more than eight percent of the time. And the other is that rock bands over 40 should be required to have a permit to tour together; and over 50 it should be completely illegal. I'm not sure how much of a rock act I ever was, really -- the Egyptians were very good musicians, but I never thought they were exactly rock musicians. I think that most of my last 10 albums have been quite somber in one way or another. Even Perspex Island, which was supposed to be a rock album, was really kind of polite. It was me gliding serenely into middle age. But maybe now that I really am middle-aged, I don't have to be quite as frightened about it anymore."

He's scheduled to perform acoustically this Friday on the Flaming Lips' "Rock Against Brain Degeneration" tour, but he hints that he and Sebadoh should have worked out at least one joint number by then. And he's planning a band tour for the fall, likely to include Kimberley Rew, who appears on two Sophia tracks but has otherwise been out of the picture (and in Katrina & the Waves) since the Soft Boys broke up, in 1980. For long-time fans this is something on the level of a Velvet Underground reunion when you consider the supposed bad blood between Rew and Hitchcock. "We've really been on quite good terms, but he gets very shy, and I suppose I'm getting more relaxed myself. I still have fun doing that [rock] thing, but I don't know how seriously I should be allowed to take it. I never knew if people came to my shows because they enjoyed the music or because they wanted to get physical. To me it was never a very physical thing. So if I do come out with a band again, I'm going to try to make it as physical as I can."

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