There is a fascination here with writers and their relationship with music. Partly this is about what music authors work into their books, but also what they do with music in real life. Many writers, for example, find it difficult to work if they have music on. Other authors talk explicitly about what music they were listening to when writing a particular book.
In his introduction to Marcus O’Dair’s biography of Robert Wyatt, Different Every Time, Jonathan writes about how in 1991 Robert’s LP Dondestan provided some necessary inspiration when writing What a Carve Up!: “It was an ambitious book, and the main ambition was to write something intensely political which didn’t make readers feel that they were being harangued. To combine anger with warmth and humanity. Could it be done?” Yes, for Dondestan seemed to show the way to do so.
In a 2007 article for the Guardian newspaper about the 1980s Jonathan picks out Robert Wyatt’s album Old Rottenhat, from 1985: “It amazes me, now, to see how prescient that record was about its own era, even as it was unfolding. Most of us need the benefit of hindsight.” It is something he returns to in his introduction for the Wyatt biography, describing Old Rottenhat as “the album that had, for me, crystallised the emerging ruthlessness of the Thatcherite tendency better than any other, as well as foreshadowing the rise of New Labour ten years before Tony Blair tore up Clause 4 (‘If we forget our roots and where we stand / The movement will disintegrate like castles built on sand’).”
Jonathan has also acknowledged that Robert’s ‘Sea Song’ was one of the pieces of music that helped him when writing his novel House of Sleep. Very shortly after that book was published Jonathan got to interview his hero Robert for the New Statesman: “By the most superficial standards Wyatt might look like a marginal figure; his sales figures in this country have never been big. But at the same time it's astonishing to realise how often he has quietly risen to the occasion, what a diligent musical witness he has been to the key events in our recent history.” This was just before the release of Robert’s 1997 LP Shleep, part of a pattern of making a record every half a dozen years or so. The fact that Jonathan’s House of Sleep was only just out must have seemed a special coincidence.
Jonathan’s fondness for Robert’s music stems from growing up in the 1970s, and it would be fascinating to study different people’s relationship with the Wyatt world depending on when and how they first encountered his work. Here he is always associated with the period just after punk, when he was recording singles for Rough Trade, and working with people like Scritti Politti, Raincoats, Ben Watt, Elvis Costello and Working Week.
In the new millennium he has become a sort of national treasure, but this, no matter how justified the reverence is, can be off-putting and there is a huge temptation to rebel against the sense of being expected to like Robert’s music, as used to be the case with Captain Beefheart. Similarly, there is also a sense of feeling out of step with other people who like Robert’s records, and perhaps liking particular things which others are more uncomfortable with, like the beautiful covers of ‘The Whole Point of No Return’, ‘It’s Raining’, ‘Insensatez’, and Hasta Siempre Comandante’. And the old standards Robert sings from time to time, like ‘Laura’ and ‘What A Wonderful World’.
The whole nonsense with Wyatting is a perfect example of what is intensely irritating about some people who say they love Robert’s work. And it is brilliant that Alfreda Benge or Alfie’s response to this was to say it made her angry "that Robert should be used as a means of clever dicks asserting their superiority in pubs ... It's so unlike Robert, because he's so appreciative of the strengths of pop music. So that, I think, is a real unfairness. The man who coined it, I should like to punch him in the nose."
If, as Jonathan suggests about Marcus’ book, “this fine biography will tell you all that you need to know about the story of Robert Wyatt,” then what it does leave space for is far more about Alfie, or more about the life, loves and work of Alfreda Benge. Her artwork, especially the cover of Dondestan, is magical, and it added a whole new dimension to Robert’s music when with that record she started contributing lyrics. Her poetry is wonderful, and that is another reason why it is so offensive that people should presume to use this record as a weapon to disrupt other people’s pleasure.
The idea of Paul Weller sitting down with Alfie to listen to her stories about when she used to go to the original London mod club nights, and dance to things like John Coltrane’s ‘Olé’ is lovely. There is actually a fantastic quote from her in Paolo Hewitt’s book, The Soul Stylists, which always bears repeating: “What was great about The Scene as well was that it was very democratic. It was really cheap to get in, there was no alcohol, just coke, a lot of pills, and this great music. But later on when these hippies came along to save the world, what did they do? They started opening up The Speakeasy, and places where they didn’t let anyone in. It became utterly elitist and all the good places died a death. I thought it was middle class colonization”. Have we ever seen any photos of Alfie from those days? Robert has mentioned that when he first met her she looked sort of like Jean Seberg.
Alfie’s words are one of factors in why Robert’s work has improved with age. That means his old records sound better as time passes, and when new records have come along sporadically there has always been the urge to argue that each one is better than the last. Part of why Robert’s music has continued to grow is that he is so open to ideas and different forms of music, while creating a style that is uniquely his own.
It is tempting to suggest that many people who love Robert’s work might not listen to similar records that are on occasion so close to being easy listening vocal jazz, like on parts of the beautiful Wyatt / Atzmon / Stephen collaborative effort. But then there sadly does not seem to be (enough) other people who make music like Shleep, Cuckooland and Comicopera.