Different Every Time: the Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt
Serpent’s Tail, 460pp, £20
Robert Wyatt, with his high, reedy voice, is an acquired taste for some. “Shipbuilding”, a song written for him by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer, was released in 1982 shortly after the Falklands war and questioned the validity of Britain’s conflict with Argentina. Its jazz-inflected piano and other-worldly melancholy were unlike much else committed to vinyl in those post-punk years. Over the half-century of his career as a musician, Wyatt has belonged to no musical coterie; at his home in the market town of Louth in Lincolnshire, he has simply ploughed his own furrow.
In 1973, severely drunk, he fell from a fourth-floor window at a party in London and was left paralysed from the waist down. Confined to a wheelchair, Wyatt might have renounced music altogether but, bravely, he appeared on Top of the Pops to sing Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer” the following year. Paraplegia has not often, if ever, been a source of misery or complaint to him (“I’m a sit-down comedian,” he says). His 1974 solo album, Rock Bottom, was a work of rare, shimmering beauty and emotional candour. Rarely has British pop communicated such a hushed intensity of emotion.
According to Marcus O’Dair, jazz was a mainstay of Wyatt’s life growing up in Dulwich and Kent in the 1940s and 1950s. His parents, New Statesman readers, played bebop and kept open house for beret-wearing jazzniks and artists of one stripe or another. As a teenager, Wyatt went to London to see the “saxophone colossus” Sonny Rollins, and in 1969 he and his four-piece brass section supported the pianist Thelonious Monk at Ronnie Scott’s.
O’Dair’s impressive biography – based on conversations with Wyatt and interviews with musicians from Brian Eno to Björk – celebrates him as a maverick songwriter and contriver of strange, lo-fi soundscapes. His enquiring mind was fortified by his parents’ intellectual example. His mother, Honor Wyatt, worked as a BBC radio journalist on Woman’s Hour and was related to the political commentator and Labour MP Woodrow Wyatt, who notoriously defected to the political right under Margaret Thatcher. With his Little England bow ties and cigars, Woodrow was the antithesis of the left-leaning Robert (who calls him an “appalling man” here).
Robert Wyatt’s father, George Ellidge, was an industrial psychologist who was also eventually confined to a wheelchair from multiple sclerosis. Having moved to Lydden outside Canterbury in 1956, the Wyatts took in an Australian-born hippie named Daevid Allen as a lodger. Allen introduced Wyatt to beat literature, Motown and quantities of pot. At his grammar school in Canterbury Wyatt had already met Hugh Hopper and Mike Ratledge, future members of the avant-jazz outfit Soft Machine; the older Allen helped set up the band.
Named after the William Burroughs novel, the band had its roots in the so-called Canterbury scene that spawned quintessentially English groups such as Caravan and Hatfield and the North. In Soft Machine, Wyatt played drums and shared vocals with the smooth-voiced Kevin Ayers (who died last year in France after a lifetime of sun and sangria). Wyatt and Ayers together lent Soft Machine an unpredictability and humour lacking in later incarnations of the band, when a portentous, jazz-rock identity prevailed. The first three albums swung at times like Ellington, with Wyatt’s nimble timbale work and brushwork to the fore. The band played alongside Syd Barrett’s interstellar Pink Floyd at the UFO Club in London and sounded loud and dangerous.
Like Barrett, Wyatt borrowed from a tradition of English vaudeville and the rueful melancholy of Edward Lear to create his own surreal world. But the self-mockery and choirboy sweetness of his voice began to grate on the keyboardist Ratledge and the bassist Hopper and in 1971 Wyatt left to form Matching Mole (a pun on the French machine molle, “soft machine”). A year later,
in 1972, he met his future wife, Alfie Benge, an illustrator, lyricist and film assistant born in Austria in 1940.
Alfie was working in Venice on the set of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now when Wyatt fell from the window. The supernatural film, with its disorientating use of cross-cutting and aquatic imagery, may have influenced the making of Rock Bottom. Certainly, Alfie’s contribution to her husband’s music is “woefully underappreciated”, as O’Dair notes. She is responsible for a good many of the lyrics, designs the album artwork and, not least, gives moral support.
Not every woman would have stayed with Wyatt after the fall, O’Dair suggests. In the course of making his solo albums (Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard, Shleep and Comicopera among them), he suffered from depression and became increasingly alcoholic, even suicidal. It appears one day in 2007 he realised that liquor had got him well and truly licked; he enrolled at Alcoholics Anonymous and is now (in AA terms) a “dry drunk”. Drunk or sober, Wyatt has redefined the sound and scope of popular music and we are lucky to have him.