INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Independent JUNE 26, 1998 - by Lucia Appleby
THE SLEEPING MAGICIAN
For a man that has never had a Top 20 hit, hasn't played live for years and last released a record in 1991, Robert Wyatt is not short of admirers. In fact, he commands so much respect within the British music industry that Brian Eno and Paul Weller both featured on his last album Shleep.
Widely regarded as one of the foremost innovators in contemporary music, Wyatt is one of England's most enduring singer-songwriters and has remained on the fringes of pop, rock and jazz for decades. Best-known for his work with Soft Machine in the '60s and '70s, he went on to form Matching Mole after he left the band.
In June 1973, Wyatt's life was turned upside down when he fell blind drunk from a fourth-floor window and broke his back. Confined to a wheelchair and looked after by his devoted wife Alfreda (Alfie) in rural Lincolnshire, touring became largely out of the question. Instead, he devoted himself over the course of twenty-four years to a series of searching, intense, poignant albums. He also established himself as one of the more politically vociferous figures in British music during the '80s, his songs waging a one-man war against apartheid, the CIA and the Tories. He was a member of the Communist Party until he lost faith in it, and jokingly asserts that he was so depressed when Major got back into office in 1992, that he didn't make a record under his own name the entire period he was Prime Minister.
Today, Wyatt's surprising self-effacement and tortured self-criticism hide a man of hungry curiosity with a political conscience that can still generate outbursts of indignant anger: "Since I've been in a wheelchair I've become almost frantically concerned wit h the whole world. When the French workers were on strike obstructing British lorries, I was on their side because I've always liked to strike. It doesn't occur to me that I ought to support our side because it's English. I always love it when foreigners beat us in cricket. I have more in common with Che Guevara than Peregrine Worsthorne." Wyatt attests that his heavy depression, which lasted for years, was brought on by a feeling of dissatisfaction about life itself and a nostalgia for the "stardust" '70s. But one thing is for certain, it wasn't until Shleep was released last year that he re-emerged once more into the outside world.
His loyal fans, who had been waiting outside in the cold all this time, asked "What took you so long?" But what they failed to see was that Wyatt wants to escape time and its attendant constraints. He is more than happy suspending himself hammock-like in a dreamlike state between the sleeping and waking worlds, comparing himself to crepuscular animals like foxes that are around at dawn and dusk: "That's actually the time I like - that moment between sleeping and waking. I think the imagination is at its most vivid then. I prefer to be totally asleep, of course." There are references to sleep throughout his work and Wyatt confesses that sleep is indeed a major preoccupation: "I think it's wonderful. And as I get older, I love it more and more. I was always incensed at things like alarm clocks - and saw them as violations of my deepest spirit. I thought that anybody seriously interested in human rights would ban them." This may go some way to explaining Robert's reluctance to perform live. As a man who likes to set his own pace and slip in and out of the world at his leisure, gigs are obnoxiously demanding. As Wyatt explains, performances that take place in the evening are geared up to the audiences, rather than the performer's, biological clock: "They just get the timing wrong. I'd rather be in bed with a cup of cocoa at that time." We pause. I suggest that perhaps a live webcast at sunrise would be a solution. He laughs. "Yes, maybe that would work."
While the split from Soft Machine damaged Wyatt's confidence, developing his solo career allowed a unique musical style to emerge that was very much his own. His music, in fact, reflects his character. Humorous, mischievous, mocking, intimate, open, vulnerable, whimsical, serious - it combines plaintive drones with childlike repeated musical phrases, creating a happy balance of simplicity and complication, frailty and resilience. But it's Wyatt's voice that is most distinctive and magical, turning everything he sings into gold. Wistful, sad and emotionally naked, at times his voice strains so much he sounds like an abused choirboy. Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto described him as having the "saddest voice in the world" - others have described him as "quintessentially English". Wyatt, in typically self-derisory fashion, describes the way he sings as "Jimmy Sommerville on Valium." It is perhaps the yearning and melancholy in his voice that is most English, his deceptively simple ruminations on subjects including insomnia and bird-watching, harness our secret thoughts and give them flight. His sad but beautiful music gives voice to a reflective and vulnerable nation. This is perhaps why Shleep received such an overwhelming response when it was released, being heralded as one of the albums of the year. I wonder how he feels about himself now that he has achieved cult status, at the age of fifty-three, and considering the way the music press has applauded his work over the past year. But when I ask him what the most important thing is in his life right now he re plies without hesitation, "Alfie. It's very simple. My wife, Alfie. We're like two halves of one organism. Apart from that, sitting around getting pissed, listening to old jazz records. That just about covers it."