by Neil McCormick, Daily Telegraph 24/07/97
Robyn Hitchcock has a hair problem. "Hair is one of the things you have to watch out for in this business," declares the 44-year old singer-songwriter, running a hand through long fair locks that are beginning to turn grey. "The hairs stay on the finger and then you put them on a microphone and then you get them in your mouth. So then you put them back on the microphone and when you come back in a week the hair's still there. And if you don't get it in your mouth then, it follows you around the world. So if you left a hair in San Diego, you'll get it in Winnipeg."
Of course you will.A poised, deadpan surrealist, it is hard to know when to take Hitchcock seriously. His conversation veers between eloquent discourse and sudden flights of fantasy with no warning and no change in his intensely serious demeanour. Back in 1978, when Hitchcock first came to the attention of the music business, he was asked by a journalist fromthe NME what his ambitions were. Hitchcock said he wanted to become an obscure cult figure. "I doubt it," said the journalist. But, on this occasion at least, Hitchcock was in deadly earnest.
"All the people I liked were routinely described as cults, so I thought that would be a nice thing to be," he says. "And nearly twenty years later, I find that I am."Hitchcock's appearance at the Womad Festival in Reading this weekend represents a rare opportunity for him for him to perform before a large audience. Normally,he can be found taking his acoustic guitar around the type of venues politely described as "intimate", where he talks and sings for a small but extremely dedicated following. Although he has sold more than a million albums world-wide, Hitchcock has never had a hit, and can walk the streets with little danger of being recognised by anyone. Oh, perhaps the odd zealous Japanese fan who has travelled thousands of miles to track him down to some cramped coffee house, where they will call out for songs with titles such as Queen Elvis, Madonna Of The Wasps or his early classic, (I Want To Be An) Anglepoise Lamp.
"I broadcast on a very narrow waveband," he explains in his elliptical fashion. "Unless you've tuned in to the frequency of what I do, it makes no sense at all. It's more like an etching than a billboard. You have to get right up close and look at it carefully. But the people who like me tend to really like me. Whereas, with enormously popular acts such as Phil Collins or Fleetwood Mac, I often wonder whether people really like them or if they all just don't mind them."Hitchcock appears rather proud of always being out of step with popular taste. His seminal
band, The Soft Boys, appeared in Cambridge in the late seventies playing "sedate hippie gibberish" when the music industry was being engulfed by punk rock. Confronted by widespread indifference, they broke up in 1981, though Hitchcock has continued writing and recording in much the same vein ever since. He draws on the psychedelic pop of the Sixties as the basis for melodic and emotional compositions, blending bitterness and wierdness in unusual settings. There are many who would argue Hitchcock's sprawling body of work (he has released more than 15 albums) remains one of the great undiscovered treasures of modern pop.
REM are among his biggest fans, although, as he points out, their endorsement in theEighties came at a time when they were only marginally less obscure than he was.Nevertheless, their support helped introduce him to American college audiences who remain his most loyal fan-base. His extremely middle-class Englishness may work against him in the UK's style-obsessed music scene, where he is usually dismissed as a harmless eccentric. In America, it is almost certainly an advantage. "They like that Old World thing, they think it gives a pedigree," he says.
Bizarrely, for someone who seems so (how can I put this politely?) unique, Hitchcock is actually carrying on a family tradition. His late father, Raymond Hitchcock, was a minor novelist with a decidedly quirky bent. Although none of the pulpy books published in his lifetime made much of an impression, Robyn (who's first novel will be published later this year) is the proud possessor of a number of his father's unpublished manuscripts.
"He wrote books about MI5 making Stonehenge invisible, until Merlin the magician turns up as a hippie traveller and sorts it all out. And there's one where a new God comes into power and puts people's sex organs in their armpits, and one about a woman who gave birth to a rubber tyre. Publishers didn't know what to do with it. My dad didn't fit into any marketing category, and to an extent the same thing has happened to me."Hitchcock's public profile may be about to change. After a show in upstate New York, he was approached by a man who said, "D'you wanna make a movie?" and left a cardbearing the legend: Jonathan Demme, Film-maker. The Academy Award winning director of The Silence Of The Lambs and Philadelphia had previously made performance-based films about author and raconteur Spalding Gray (1987's Swimming To Cambodia) and (the now defunct) group Talking Heads (1984's Stop Making Sense).Demme decided Hitchcock's humorous and individualistic performances would be ideal for a similar documentary. The initially incredulous singer says,
"I got my people to ring his people.Of course, he had more people than I had. But I got such people as I could muster and once it was clear there wasn't going to be a slaughter then he filmed me doing four shows in a shop window in New York."The result, Storefront Hitchcock, will be released this year, although Hitchcock does not expect it to make him a household name. "It won't be on at the Basingstoke Cineplex," he ays. "It'll be shown at the sort of places where they have real coffee and carrot cake."Which, Hitchcock is adamant, suits him fine. He has a pyramid theory of fame.
"It takes a billion nobodies to support one somebody, that's how our society is rigge=d," he explains. "Notjust in economic terms but in psychological terms. You've got all these people ploughing around with their noses in the dirt and at the end of the day they can go and get Hello! magazine and read about this small elite of creatures at the top who are leading a better life."The smart star will say, 'I owe it all to my fans, without them I'm nothing.' But it means that once you're really famous you are public property. And the real example of that is JohnLennon. He was owned by all these other people and one day one of them said, sorry, I'm not subscribing to you anymore. Bang!"So how, you might wonder, does the obscure object of minority obsession Robyn Hitchcock
fit into this pyramid? He pauses for a beat, before replying, "With extreme caution."