INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Dream SPRING 2005 - by George Parsons
ROBERT WYATT & ALFREDA BENGE
It was a rare treat to speak to Robert Wyatt by phone for this interview, I'd like to gratefully acknowledge Joyce at Cuneiform Records for kindly setting this up. When I first dreamt of doing Dream Magazine, Robert Wyatt's name was near the top of the list of folks I wanted to talk to. I've been tuned into his stuff since the first Soft Machine album, though he had recorded as early as 1962 as a member of The Wilde Flowers, and as a solo artist, continues to this day as one of the most artistically vital avant pop composer/singers of his, or any generation since. His angelic lighter than air voice is one of the most unique and lovely ever recorded, his continuing creative flow reveals some of the finest work in a forty-plus year career. His open armed embrace of jazz, folk, pop, socialist politics, intelligence, wit, minimalism, progressive rock, compassion, psychedelia, several different international musical forms, and his own distinctive vision is a singular contribution to the history of recorded music. He's worked with folks that range from Jimi Hendrix, Syd Barrett, and Brian Eno, to newer artists like Björk, and Hood. It was also great to get to talk to Alfreda Benge, who is: illustrator, instigator, inspiration, co-conspirator, often lyricist, and painter wife of Robert Wyatt, (also the subject of many of his songs). Robert and Alfreda deserve a book, not just this truncated chat; though we talked for over an hour, I felt like we were only scratching the surface.
• • •
George Parsons: Hello Robert.
Robert Wyatt: Can you hear me OK?
George Parsons: Yeah.
Robert Wyatt: This is a different phone. Maybe it's because a blizzard is coming, or maybe it's just weather stuff going on.
George Parsons: Could be. I'm hoping we can also talk to your wife and frequent collaborator Alfreda later on, if that's possible.
Robert Wyatt: A good idea. She's upstairs right now, but will be down later. I'll ask her if she's up for it when she comes down.
George Parsons: You've worked repeatedly with certain folks; you worked with Michael Mantler, and Carla Bley, and now their daughter Karen.
Robert Wyatt: Right. (laughter)
George Parsons: She contributed quite a bit to Cuckooland. What is it about those folks that you found such an affinity with?
Robert Wyatt: Well they're a great family. I think each of them is really unique; you can't really describe the genre of music they're into. It's really fascinating; the parents are very disciplined for jazz players, and it's interesting to see Karen coming out of that background. Although I'm of the same musical generation as her parents; the fact that Karen makes her music out of recognisable notes, and songs and like that; makes her music much more like mine, than her parent's is. But, she brings that kind of careful and astute knowledge of music to it.
George Parsons: Her pieces work really well on Cuckooland.
Robert Wyatt: Well I'm glad you think so. The other thing is she's so... I mean Karen went through a punk period, kind of as a teenager. But the fact is she's learned a lot of discipline compared to me; and I was sort of interested in playing the role of kind of wicked uncle; and kind of messing it all up a bit. (laughter) Getting some of that dirty noise in there.
George Parsons: It also feels like you're sort of a member of the extended Pink Floyd family.
Robert Wyatt: Well, I don't know. It's actually rather distant, the thing about Pink Floyd is that it's actually another planet really; the planet "rich" for a start. Not the undeserving rich, they're rich because other people buy their records.
George Parsons: You have worked with most of those people though. Can you tell me a bit of what Syd Barrett was like as a person?
Robert Wyatt: Well, he was very nice.
George Parsons: Not a loon huh?
Robert Wyatt: In those days how could you possibly tell? (laughter) I mean what would have been unusual about that?
George Parsons: (laughter) That's true. What did you work on together?
Robert Wyatt: I played drums on a few tracks of The Madcap Laughs.
George Parsons: I really enjoyed the album Songs by John Greaves, it featured you on three tracks. How did that collaboration come about?
Robert Wyatt: I've known John a long time, and Peter Blegvad is one of the great wordsmiths of our time.
George Parsons: Oh yeah.
Robert Wyatt: Anyway they just asked me if I would sing a few things. [Lengthy response that is inaudible].
George Parsons: Who or what are some of your conscious song-writing influences?
Robert Wyatt: You know I have no idea, I can tell you what I enjoy. American writer Ogden Nash for one, the best songwriter that I can think of is Randy Newman.
George Parsons: Ah, he's incredible.
Robert Wyatt: There are a lot of people that kind of get to me and John Lennon was one of them, but for the rest I don't really know. I can't separate influences from things that I've enjoyed. I forget to mention this but a great deal of what used to be called , the "hep talk" of the '40s and '50s, like Cab Calloway and Slim & Slam, maybe you don't remember that.
George Parsons: Sure I do.
Robert Wyatt: Alright then, you'll know what I'm talking about. Like the mad lyrics that Dizzy Gillespie used to do like "sh'bam, a gloog a mop" which I think is a very good line.
George Parsons: (laughter)
Robert Wyatt: (laughing) I think that's as good as anything Little Richard came up with.
George Parsons: I really enjoyed your contributions to the Winged Migration film; how did your participation happen on that project?
Robert Wyatt: They pretty much just asked. Composer Bruno Coulais does music direction for that filmmaker's (Jacques Perrin) various subjects. This time they wanted to do the thing you're not meant to do; which is to anthropomorphise the subjects. So in other words it's not a straight nature film. The original title in French is Migrating People.
George Parsons: Oh really?
Robert Wyatt: And I think that's a good title really. And uh, so anyway they wanted some singing on it and they asked. And I said "I don't normally do things like this." They said: "It would really only be your voice and our lyrics". And when I heard it they had me.
George Parsons: Well, they really sound like pieces that you might have written.
Robert Wyatt: Yeah, well that's what he was trying to do. It was part of his way of getting me to do it.
George Parsons: What did you think of the finished film?
Robert Wyatt: Oh, it was very nice. The words were originally written in French, and had to be translated into English in a singable way; so Alfie; as is often the case; uncredited, but she's really shy about getting credit. But on the other hand she does all this stuff. She actually rewrote the whole thing to make it singable for me. I couldn't have done it.
In fact when I first got the lyrics, I said "I can't sing this." But she reworked is so that could. So she's the hidden ingredient there; the catalyst that made that work.
George Parsons: You have long been a supporter of animal rights, what would you say to someone to raise their awareness regarding animals and their treatment?
Robert Wyatt: Well, not to proselytise; but as far as I'm concerned we're all animals. And anything that's got a beating heart, it's just trying to live like you are. So if you're going to eat it or use it, go ahead. But just sort of think about that for a moment. Try to be nice to it while it's alive at least.
George Parsons: Tell me about your album Cuckooland and how it came into being?
Robert Wyatt: Well more than anything, as you may know about the last couple albums; were sort of kick-started by taking some of Alfie's lyrics and putting them to music, or occasionally; as is the case with Alien, from my previous album Shleep, where she actually wrote words to my music. But in this case I don't think the record would have interested me without Alfie's words. I just haven't got enough coherent material, I had sort of scraps of tunes knocking about for years literally. And Alfie said we had to just get on with it, and do it. It's how we earn our living for a start; I get a pension, but this a large part of our income.
George Parsons: Well it's interesting how it feels so coherent; it doesn't seem put together it feels like a piece.
Robert Wyatt: Well I think that's why it takes me so long to get things together. Everything has to be sort of re-tailored and remade so that it feels natural and organic. But I think in this case; the musical ideas I had, reduced the lyrics to sort of mantras and things, and I really was getting nowhere. And Alfie just went through stuff of mine. I dug out some tapes; pre-digital stuff that I'd done. And she wrote words to things, and came up with words for Old Europe, and Forest, and Lullaby For Hamza. And then she had some poems that she was working on that became songs. Alfie's here at the moment; she's been upstairs, she's been working on all kinds of stuff, but just came down for a bowl of soup. So if you did want to speak to her, this would be a good moment.
George Parsons: Yeah, I would like to.
Robert Wyatt: OK, I'll hand you over to Alfie.
Alfreda Benge: Hello.
George Parsons: Hello, well I kind of wanted to talk to you about your part of the musical thing and your paintings too. Who were some of your influences as a painter, or do you have them?
Alfreda Benge: Well I wouldn't call most of what I do for Robert paintings really; they're sort of illustrations. Ever since I've done paintings and drawings, I draw from life and I paint out of my head. So all these images are out of my head really. They're kind of narrative, most often, sometimes they're more graphic, because I was into graphic design. So I sort of apply various bits of my training, according to what I think or feel the subject is. So, in that sense they're illustrations.
George Parsons: There seems to be a sort of surrealist sensibility to some of them.
Alfreda Benge: Well, I don't know. They're not surrealist; they're more jokey. They're almost paintings of cartoons really.
George Parsons: Uh huh.
Alfreda Benge: My favourite painters don't paint like me at all.
George Parsons: Well, who are they?
Alfreda Benge: (laughing) Well, I like Bonnard. I like the use of paint by Matisse and Bonnard; all the old, boring old masters of the twentieth century really. I like Kurt Schwitters. I like painters that use paint to paint what they see. I like painters that use space nicely.
George Parsons: Lately I've been obsessed with Charles Burchfield.
Alfreda Benge: I don't know him.
George Parsons: Oh, try to find something by him. He did some wonderful watercolours, he's unlike any body else.
Alfreda Benge: Alright.
George Parsons: When you work on lyrics for Robert; is it a poem set to music, or do you hear the music first?
Alfreda Benge: Well they vary. On Dondestan they all already existed and Robert just set them to music. They were from a sort of diary, and he thought they had music in them. And the same with the stuff on Shleep; except for Alien which is the first one actually where he got stuck for lyrics. For Alien he actually gave me the music, and I sat about and listened to it for a few days. I shut my eyes and tried to think what the story of the music was. So bits of words would come in with the music. With the music I think where am I in this picture, and sometimes a series of notes will suggest a word, like Lullaby For Hamza; I just heard 'lullaby'.
George Parsons: Have you ever thought about doing an album of your own?
Alfreda Benge: (laughter) Well, I'd love to do that, yeah. I'm a musical ninny; I could get the odd tune, the lyrical tune, but I think, no. I have actually just been asked by a French producer to write some lyrics for him, so I'm branching out. I'm becoming the Grandma Moses of lyrics.
George Parsons: (laughter)
Alfreda Benge: (laughter) I find it extreme fun, I've never found anything more enjoyable actually. Because it's not like dealing with a piece of blank paper. With a painting you've got this big white space and have to put something on it. But to be given a piece of music and to try to find the words in that is real fun!
George Parsons: It's like somebody's done half of the work for you sort of.
Alfreda Benge: Yeah, yeah. They've done all the work really, so the rest is just absolute fun. It's like if you do a painting and get half the way through, and you know you've got it, from then on it's plain sailing; it's that kind of fun.
George Parsons: Yeah, but you've gotta go in there and find that thing.
Alfreda Benge: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, that's horrible.
George Parsons: Yeah it is; that's scary.
Alfreda Benge: Also with poetics it's that blank page, but it has some music to it too, and they all suggest visual things to me anyway. They suggest places. I mean like Forest; there was a forest, a river, some trees. Which is not to say that it's always easy; because when you get down to the details; the vowels that go to the right notes, and Robert's ability to sing them. So it's not always easy, but it's always fun.
George Parsons: Have you had any shows of your paintings?
Alfreda Benge: Yeah, well when I was actually doing painting. I don't really paint anymore; I mean I do stuff for Robert, I do stuff when there's something to do it for. Yeah, I had a show about twenty years ago. But I've never actually joined the art world in that sense. A bit like Robert never actually having joined the music industry. (laughter)
George Parsons: (laughter)
Alfreda Benge: We just do what we do.
George Parsons: Yeah.
Alfreda Benge: But in fact it's lovely to do it for records because so many more people will see it than would if it were at a gallery.
George Parsons: Yeah it's a great portable gallery.
George Parsons: No.
Alfreda Benge: So it's nice when it happens, but it's not too connected to the real world.
George Parsons: (laughter) Not directly anyway.
Alfreda Benge: No, not directly. Only as being a kind of leech on Robert.
George Parsons: (laughing) Oh God!
Alfreda Benge: (laughter)
George Parsons: How parallel are your political views?
Alfreda Benge: Oh absolutely; except, I was born an anarchist, so I would tend not to join things. Robert's more of a conformist; he like the idea of belonging to something. But in terms of world-view, and how things happen, and why they happen; I mean we both it read between the lines in exactly the same way.
George Parsons: Right.
Alfreda Benge: We both scream in horror at exactly the same lies, and I think we're pretty similar.
George Parsons: How do you feel about the current US presidency, and their foreign policies?
Alfreda Benge: (silence)
George Parsons: You don't have to answer this.
Alfreda Benge: Yeah, no I'm just thinking what to say really. Shocking, appalling, extraordinary, just horrible.
George Parsons: Yeah, me too.
Alfreda Benge: Yeah, but you know in a way really I'm more shocked by ours.
George Parsons: Oh really? The Tony Blair complicity?
Alfreda Benge: Yeah, well because he's supposed to be on the our side. I'm not surprised when people on the right behave according to their beliefs, I can understand them. But he was supposed to make things better for us. He's been shocking here as far as being sort of power crazy, and proud of the fact of being Bushy's best friend.
George Parsons: Oh yeah.
Alfreda Benge: It's just so horrible.
George Parsons: Yeah, it's nightmarish.
Alfreda Benge: Well do you want me to give you back to Robert?
George Parsons: Yeah I guess. It's been great to get to talk to you.
Alfreda Benge: Okay, bye.
Robert Wyatt: That was a good idea.
George Parsons: For a sense of perspective. You said something about her sort of being the dark side of the moon to your work.
Robert Wyatt: Yeah exactly, which is funny in a way because she gets embarrassed as far as anyone drawing attention to themselves, including me. If I get noticed at any kind of social event she just dies on the spot of embarrassment. But this is how I earn a living, somebody's got to get up there and show their face occasionally, that's how it is.
George Parsons: Well some people are not extroverted in that way.
Robert Wyatt: Well I'm not very either. I mean the bit about music I like is the solitary activity of making it. Anyway; it's just that she is very shy. She speaks so well you know, because she didn't start learning English until she was seven. (laughing)
George Parsons: Oh yeah, where's she from?
Robert Wyatt: Poland, her mother's Polish, well she's a mixture of all kinds of things really. She's from the land, and the forest, and about. I think that's why the Forest song came up really. She has ancestral; or at least childhood memories all mingled up with the forest, but also the whole world being a sort of a bombsight; as it was when she was a child.
George Parsons: That's a great song!
Robert Wyatt: Yeah, well it's pretty heartfelt I think. The stuff about Alfie that comes out, probably paradoxically enough, the truth is true of what she does.
George Parsons: And it's always nice to hear Brian Eno singing.
Robert Wyatt: Isn't it eh?
George Parsons: I wish he'd do that more!
Robert Wyatt: Oh I know, l know! I tell you he's been working on some stuff, and we've been seeing quite a lot of it during the last year; and his studio is quite near Phil Manzanera's. He's been making such interesting stuff; but he has the same problem I have, of finishing things. But he's the very opposite to me, in the sense that he's very very high tech, and digital. I mean he's got hundreds of things carefully filed and stored, and making more every day. And he buys every new Japanese toy there is.
George Parsons: (laughing)
Robert Wyatt: He's here one day, there the next. It's on and on; he's out there. It's Barcelona on Thursday. He gets around and sees things, and he's always so on top of that kind of stuff. But maybe that's part of his thing, but here we're all able to talk about Brian Eno's thinking; his ideas and so on. I mean just as a pop musician; I think he's terrific, you know. Songwriter, singer...
George Parsons: Oh yeah! And he's got such a lovely distinctive voice.
Robert Wyatt: He has, he has, and funnily enough for all his high tech, he's very old fashioned about it. He stands there full sway like an opera singer, and delivers, and it's really strong. (laughs) He's terrific, a terrific singer. The stuff he did was sort of backing vocals and you will have gathered, we sort of managed to take away the top layer, to reveal what he was doing underneath it, you know. And then David Gilmour, he provides the magic fairy dust on Forest for me.
George Parsons: Yeah, it's a beautiful piece of work.
Robert Wyatt: Because he obviously contributes his guitar solo, but also his pedal guitar all the way though it is just terrific you know. He did a lot of work on it, you know. And I hadn't asked him. We met a few times again after twenty, thirty years or so, and he and I get along well, and I like his band members. But I get along better with the blokes than the gang. You know groups have a thing that way. Four young men in a box, you know.
George Parsons: Did we cover the making of Cuckooland; what inspired it?
Robert Wyatt: I knew we had enough stuff; the key to it came when Alfie came up with the words to Lullaby For Hamza. And the rest is just getting into gear and getting on with it. And Phil Manzanera who produced the opportunity to work; the way he did it was; he just had a budget for the making of the record, and he just said; "However long it takes." And it won't bring the price up, which is an amazing thing.
George Parsons: That's sensational!
Robert Wyatt: Well it was incredible. I mean he's always had money troubles; but he's just like that. He said "I don't do something by a written company's name, because I don't want to put up with that." In the past so much he'd been part of ended up owned by some alien reptilian...
George Parsons: Corporations.
Robert Wyatt: That's right. Luckily some people from that era, have rescued that era. Lovely folks like Steve Feigenbaum of Hannibal Records, or the folks at Hux Records in England; but on a whole it's as easy to get buggered about by people of that era. There are some nice people to work with; the Ryko lot leading the way in America. They're conscientious, and hard working. These things aren't terribly romantic, but they are absolutely vital. Because apart from everything else this is a job, this is what we do for a living. It's really hard; it does take a bit of time and attention. It just doesn't get the kind of massive sales that like commercial releases get, so they can't really be indulgent in the way that musicians might tend to want them to be. As for myself, I haven't paid anybody like Brian, David, or Paul Weller; because I couldn't afford them. But I pay the regular professional musicians; like Annie Whitehead.
George Parsons: You've chosen some interesting songs to cover over the years: the Neil Diamond/Monkees song I'm a Believer, Chic's At Last I Am Free, and recently the Bordeleaux/Felice Bryant song Raining In My Heart; what is the criterion for choosing covers for you?
Robert Wyatt: Well really I always want to remind myself and anybody who's interested, that I do have a great love and respect for pop music and what it can be beyond just being music for teenagers. And I wish to disassociate myself from those elements of the avant garde, and experimental music scene that have openly expressed their distaste for pop music.
George Parsons: Well that snobbery seems kind of foolish to me.
Robert Wyatt: Well it's particularly distasteful coming from a culture that's meant to be a kind of alternative to an antique established establishment. You don't want to see a kind of conservative, elitist, snobbishness re-emerging in the avant garde. It just doesn't belong there
George Parsons: You sang with Brian Wilson on a Ryuichi Sakamoto cover of The Rolling Stones We Love You, did you actually meet during that recording?
Robert Wyatt: No, no I didn't know he was on it. Ryuichi just wanted me to sing it; and yes the reason that I did it was because Ryuichi asked me to. The Japanese have such a nice way of asking; I thought, this is such a nice letter, I really ought to do this for him.
George Parsons: It's really a nice version of that song.
Robert Wyatt: Well it is; but the idea that I would ever sing a lyric by that songwriter. I don't know; I wouldn't, myself have chosen that song. But that said; I don't really feel at home in rock culture. But it wasn't because of the song; it was because of Ryuichi has such an amazing, sensitive expressive musical ear. He has a fantastic musical knowledge.
George Parsons: Ah, he's a wonderful musician.
Robert Wyatt: Well he's actually a great musician in the sense of a being a classically trained musician. That kind of refinement of technique; he has it. I didn't know Brian Wilson was on it till I heard it. And you can't fault that.
George Parsons: (I turn over the tape. As I do I tell Robert that I hope it's all recording; part of his reply gets recorded)
Robert Wyatt: Well then you might have to do it back from memory. Like a dream, which seems fitting. (laughter)
George Parsons: Well I can try! (laughter) Do you think it's surprising that you might be doing some of your best work at your age?
Robert Wyatt: Well I'm very relieved to hear you say that because one of the things I felt uncomfortable about was the relentless emphasis... It's a bit like the aesthetic today is that it's only a youth thing. You know it's a wonderful stage to go through; but it's really amazing if you have any luck, how much of your life, isn't youth. It's decades and decades of watching and learning, and finding things out. And you're quite lucky if you survive long enough to really have time to have thought about things, and worked through your ideas. So really it should be the case that, that when you come up in age, you should benefit from that.
George Parsons: Well I think part of the problem is working from the template of a pop artist is erroneous; when looking at artists in other fields their later years are often their most fruitful.
Robert Wyatt: Well that's sort of acknowledged in many arts, but for some reason it's kind of doesn't sit comfortably with the way pop music is promoted; which is fine. I think the kind of central thing of rock, and of pop music is it's a celebration of youth. It's wonderful and I think every generation should happily have it's own sort of coded language, and it's own haircuts, and it's own group sounds, and it's nobody else's business. On the whole pop culture is a wonderful thing and it is about youth. And the fact is that it comes from a much wider and older tradition, which is sort of folk music really. And if you look for the origins of rock & roll and pop, it's sort of Irish and American country music, and then the Black equivalent, and the Italian equivalent, and so on, and so on. And that's the roots of it; and that's a much bigger river. A bigger broader river.
George Parsons: And connected to a lot of other rivers.
Robert Wyatt: Yeah. And there's a lot of music that isn't pop music at all. Still I think the life's blood is singable songs and danceable rhythms. I think Charles Mingus said that.
George Parsons: So are you a jazz artist or a pop artist?
Robert Wyatt: I can't place myself in music at all really. The kind of people that I relate to, if anybody; I'm not comparing myself with the quality of the work of these people, just that I identify with as people who are working their way through their lives; over decades and years. The painters that I like; from the early part of the twentieth century. Some of the ones that Alfie mentioned; and Van Gogh or "Van Go" as they probably say in America.
George Parsons: No we can pronounce it right here sometimes.
Robert Wyatt: (laughing) Well it's (correct pronunciation) in Dutch.
George Parsons: Yeah it's got that (throat sound) it's hard to do.
Robert Wyatt: It's like Flemish; it's unsayable.
George Parsons: You know Jonathan Richman wrote that song about Vincent Van Gogh; you may not have heard it.
Robert Wyatt: I like Jonathan Richman.
George Parsons: He said he was really lucky that he didn't know how to pronounce it when he wrote it. Because Van "Go" rhymes with a lot more stuff
Robert Wyatt: (laughing) Yeah, right. Very good. Anyway, you know who I'm talking about. And Marc Chagall, who's original name was Moishe Shagal.
George Parsons: Oh yeah? He's wonderful, very magical.
Robert Wyatt: Great great, and part of the wonderful part of the great Russian Jewish tradition that has given us stuff in every field. I can't imagine what the world of music, or ideas, or science, would be without their contribution. And yeah, I don't know; sorta Joan Miro. Yeah I was very interested in Joan Miro of Catalan, and how those people, grew old interested me. Late Picasso, late Miro; where all of the apparent elements of craft are just gradually discarded, and we just get this sort of like hieroglyphic, childlike scrawl that they would have started out with. And I find that quite a moving process. So those are the sort of people I feel on the same planet as; let's put it like that.
George Parsons: Could you tell me a bit about the BBC documentary, Free Will And Testament?
Robert Wyatt: Well that was suggested to me by a man called Jez Nelson, who does a jazz program on radio BBC 3, and had the opportunity through the participation of BBC 4. And I was surprised that he'd ask me, because his main work is in new jazz; but he does other stuff as well. Anyway he asked Mark Kidel, who is a very good filmmaker, a very good director who works in England. And he'd approached us a few years ago anyway about making a film, but hadn't gotten anyone to back it; so then Jez Nelson gave him that. So they went to me; well "What do you do?" Well I got so embarrassed that I don't do anything that I said well; "I could sing some of the songs that Annie Whitehead's band does, and I can sing them with Annie." And it ended up getting done on film.
George Parsons: Well I hope that it gets shown over here.
Robert Wyatt: Well Mark, I think he put it together very well. I think it's difficult work to do, because I just sort of sit here like a cactus in the desert really.
George Parsons: (laughter)
Robert Wyatt: Like some kind of Andy Warhol film really, like the Empire State Building. (laughing) But he made it; he sort of condensed things so that it seemed like lots had happened. I remember they were making a TV film about Quentin Crisp here in England; and John Hurt was playing him. He was talking to Crisp and said "I hope we can get an accurate picture of your life." And Quentin replied "Oh I hope your film is far more exciting than that." (laughter)
George Parsons: (laughing) That's great!
Robert Wyatt: (laughing) Yeah, I hadn't realised till I saw Mark's film how uninteresting I am.
George Parsons: What are some of your thoughts regarding , the current US president and his foreign policies?
Robert Wyatt: I don't know, you see. There are so many great Americans that I get very upset when people say that people like me are being anti-American. I say "No I'm not anti-Michael Moore, I'm not anti-Noam Chomsky." I probably more immersed in great American culture, than most of those people who claim to be representing it. You know what I mean? I could talk to any of those people in his cabinet about Mingus and Charles Ives, and they couldn't catch me out on a detail. So don't talk to me about being anti-American. I can't imagine my life without the American cultural influence; which I attribute to the fact that it's a country of mass immigration from all around the world reconfigured. That's the magic of America to me; and a great gift to the world. I mean looking at American history which is rooted in part in English history, which is why the language that were speaking is called English. And people think that it's something fake, or sort of wishful thinking that the point of America is that it's the land of the free. ln fact the freedom that the British settlers, as I understand it; were looking for. Was the freedom to form these very tight strict religious sects, away from the kind of liberalising influences that were spreading through Europe. So although it was a freedom; there was embedded in it a freedom to be more conservative than their European ancestors. Rather like the Afrikaners who left Holland precisely it was becoming free and easy. They wanted to stay strict to the Calvinist type rigidity; you know tribal rigidity. So it's always been kind of ambiguous in that sense. My message to America is "Look we love you already, so leave us alone!" (laughing) You know what I mean, you don't have to keep knocking at the door saying "Love me more, love me more." You know I think , it's an embarrassment for the Americans I know; what's going on right now. Who just sort of sit back and watch this stuff. Well you know, Noam Chomsky was asked "What would you put in it's place?", and he said "It's very simple; to start out. Stop doing bad things." (laughter) "Start there."
George Parsons: (laughing)
Robert Wyatt: That's a pretty good one isn't it?
George Parsons: It pares it down to something pretty simple and understandable.
Robert Wyatt: I think he's great, I love Chomsky.
George Parsons: Oh he's great; and it's nice to hear you mention Michael Moore; he's actually got relatives here and has visited a few times.
Robert Wyatt: Oh really? Well we were lucky enough to see Michael Moore in action on stage in London where he got a full house every night. As great as the films and the books are; the stage performance was uh... I felt "I'd witnessed someone in the great tradition of Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl; you know what I mean?
George Parsons: Yeah, he's brilliant.
Robert Wyatt: That's the dark side of the moon that we hope gets spun 'round to the front one day.
George Parsons: How inspirational was your early meeting with Daevid Allen?
Robert Wyatt: Well the main thing about Daevid was he was older, and hadn't been through the stuff; that me as a schoolboy had been told that I was gonna have to do. You know, passing exams and all that. Well I was rubbish at passing exams, I was rubbish at school. (laughs) Daevid showed me that you are allowed to fail exams really. He was already in his twenties when we were schoolboys.
George Parsons: A sage old fellow.
Robert Wyatt: And he was already out there doing stuff. He already had contacts in Paris and London with some people in the avant garde scene. So that was the influence there really.
George Parsons: How did you and Alfreda meet?
Robert Wyatt: Well we met sort of before we knew we met. She had actually worked at the bar at Ronny Scott's club in London; for starts I must have seen her quite a lot there. I think actually I noticed Alfie at the Roundhouse, which is one of the venues that groups played in those days. In fact it's the same venue where we saw Michael Moore. In fact when we went to see Michael Moore, we went up to the pillar on which she was leaning when I went and spoke to her that first time. (laughter)
George Parsons: (laughter)
Robert Wyatt: I just saw her; as it were for the first time. And she was so different from the kind of charming sort of stoned wilting flowers around the place. She had a kind of upright dignity; and kind of like a... I don't know, she just looked really good to me and that was it. And the fact that when I did visit her flat she had the hippest record collection you can imagine! And it was all right there; Sly Stone, Coltrane...
George Parsons: And that tells you a lot right there.
Robert Wyatt: Well you know right there I thought "What's this?"
George Parsons: Yeah, you know it's a good sign. That record collection tells you a lot.
Robert Wyatt: Well it's a start; and then she had these art books of the German expressionists. But mainly she just looked fantastic. She looked sort of like Jean Seberg the great actress.
George Parsons: Oh, I loved Jean Seberg!
Robert Wyatt: Well Alfie was sort of in that mould. I guess I was the lucky one there.
George Parsons: I guess!
Robert Wyatt: It's timing they say.
George Parsons: Well Robert I've gotta tie it up.
Robert Wyatt: Okay. (laughing) Thanks for your interest; and I think your magazine is extraordinary.
George Parsons: I just talked to Terry Riley for the next issue.
Robert Wyatt: Oh he's a great man. Please include somewhere in this my great gratitude to Terry Riley. He was very much an important part of Paris; and while we're talking about Daevid Allen. It was though Daevid Allen that I discovered Terry Riley; and he's been a benign and discreet source throughout our lives. Say hello to him through this interview. A lovely man.
George Parsons: Okay Robert, well thank you for your time.
Robert Wyatt: Okay, it's a pleasure, and thanks for your interest in me.
SELECTED ROBERT WYATT DISCOGRAPHY
The End Of An Ear (CBS 1970)
Rock Bottom (Virgin 1974)
I'm A Believer/Memories (Virgin 1974)
The Peel Sessions (Strange Fruit 1974)
Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard (Virgin 1975)
At Last I Am Free/Strange Fruit (Rough Trade 1980)
Arauco/Caimenera (Rough Trade 1980)
Stalin Wasn't Stallin'/Stalingrad (Rough Trade 1981)
Shipbuilding/Memories Of You (Rough Trade 1982)
Nothing Can Stop Us (Rough Trade 1982)
With Ben Watt - Summer Into Winter (Cherry Red 1982)
The Animals Film (Rough Trade 1982)
Work in Progress (Rough Trade 1984)
4 Tracks EP (Virgin 1984)
The Wind Of Change/Naimibia (Rough Trade 1985)
Old Rottenhat (Rough Trade 1985)
Dondestan (Rough Trade 1991) - A completely remixed and revised version of Dondestan was released in 1998 by Thirsty Ear/Hannibal
A Short Break (Voiceprint 1992)
Mid-Eighties (Rough Trade 1993)
With John Greaves and others - Songs (Resurgence 1995)
Shleep (Hannibal 1997)
Free Will And Testament/The Sight Of The Wind (Island 1997)
Solar Flares Burn For You (Cuneiform 2003)
Cuckooland (Hannibal 2003)