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Q&A: ROBERT WYATT (Unabridged)

SS: Did you have a university education?

RW: No. People are quite shocked when they find out about the number of people I haven’t heard of — people who are terribly important to know about. There are a few people I’ve read who really helped me when I’ve felt I was getting intellectual claustrophobia. These people tend not to be artists at all. People like Noam Chomsky. I’m not very good at repertoire. It takes me ages to think through what anybody says, which is why I wouldn’t stick by anything that is said in a conversation of this nature. I react quickly, and I’m just as stupid as everybody else. I’ve found this magical area where if I’ve written 20 or 30 songs. Those songs, from the last 30 years or so, will certainly stand up. I’ll defend them. But I won’t defend all the bullshit I’ve talked in the middle.

SS: As an American voice, I suppose Chomsky is unique.

RW: Oh yes. There was a wonderful period, from the American Civil War, or even before that, from the war with the British Empire. That’s an interesting one — it’s the one that seems to be dead and buried. It’s neither dead nor buried, to the extent that Americans retain an extraordinary envy not of Britain as a democracy, but as an empire. They are more intrigued by our imperialist past than by our democratic modern era. Whenever they make films about the European past they always romanticize royalty over the mob.

Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, for example. Even when they romanticize the [American] upper classes as evil, they are still considered much more interesting than the people they were oppressing. Even American intellectuals are quite unable, it seems to me, to transcend this crazy lust for imperial status, which you get from being Greek or Roman or British. People say, “Robert, everything you do is based on what happened on the American continent.” I don’t accept that there’s such a thing as the American people.

Speaking about this is so hard. I do it much better in songs. I get embarrassed by the differences between English culture and American culture when I’m trying to communicate with American intellectuals. The problem I have with intellectuals is that they start from a level of expectation so unutterably precious that it reminds me of the old French aristocracy. So, while seeming pluralistic, American culture has so far presented toward us a fake conflict between the squirearchy and the mob. They play this delightful game among themselves and it’s none of my business. They’ve got a democracy, they can vote for whom the hell they like and they can buy the books they like. But what I don’t like is when they apply this to everybody else.

There’s one great thing about me being as old as I am: I remember a wonderful thing that happened with the 20th century avant-garde. It blew the century off course, and I hope future centuries will be grateful. I sort of depend on the idea, intellectually, that they will be grateful, because something happened to European art when it transferred itself to America. It mixed with the rest of the world, particularly Africa. Constantin Brancusi was a sculptor from Eastern Europe. He was one of the late 19th century sculptors who set up the possibilities in his studios for the entire 20th century European art movement. He set up giant quasi-African sculptures and he turned the perception of the third world as a source of cheap materials, like oil and cotton, into a continent of peoples who had great imaginations. In the process of discovering and using these people, we have destroyed their imaginations. This gave me my political angle. And maybe it’s a given now, but the first person to whom this change of awareness occurred, so far as I know, was Brancusi. He started looking at these little artifacts that grave robbers and gold diggers had brought back from Africa.

The history of European art in relation to the third world is basically scalp-hunting. “Look at this nice pretty curved shape we have here. Turn it upside down and you have a little bowl.” What is it? Someone’s head. The history of scalping is that in fact, the Europeans in America basically used it. American soldiers were rewarded and praised for their conquest against the indigenous inhabitants. That is the origin of scalping. And then the American Indian picked up on that.

The most important thing in my life is the inspiration of black music in America. I was saying that this black music, which is dismissed as a kind of black underground, it’s the survival in the only way it knows how to survive, of the black culture which gave you the only valuable thing your civilization has come up with. So you can sit and snigger if you like but say thank you once in a while. I also have to like the tune. A piece of music can’t just be a bit of polemic for me. I can’t just make a speech and put music to it — that’s bollocks. I hate that. That’s why I don’t really like a lot of stuff that’s called folk music, just speeches set to music. Boring. I like music. Songs. Tunes.

Whenever critics put something down it’s because they don’t understand it. The only thing I would want to be noted for are the things I praised and loved and take no notice of things I hate — because they’re just things I don’t understand. And I’m burying myself here because I’m almost immediately discrediting everything I’ve just said. But I don’t care. I don’t have hubris. I stumble across occasional bits of beauty and truth. So if I describe myself as the quintessential anti-American, then I have to qualify that by saying, “Ah, but Chomsky, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk!” But then again, I don’t know the half of it. Like a lot of revolutionaries, I’m conservative in a hopeless way. I think that all the things I fought for have already been killed. So, I live in a strange twilight world. A ghostland.

SS: You sound quite alive on your records.

RW: It’s that Dylan Thomas thing: Go out whimpering or raging. I will go out fucking angry. All that beauty, all those different ways of living. Turning it into some kitsch shit, a cola-and-hamburger culture. How dare you? How fucking dare you!

SS: Yet you’ve covered many songs by American songwriters. Why?

RW: Many great Americans were anti-capitalist or involved with the left, like the lyricist of “Autumn Leaves,” Joseph Kosma. Or Yip Harburg, who wrote “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” and “Over the Rainbow.” Or Abel Meeropol, who wrote the lyrics to “Strange Fruit.” Many of them had sympathy with the left. It’s amazing how many of the young American Jewish and Italian radicals in the ’30s were against capitalism. During the Depression, it looked like capitalism had failed. Communism was a legitimate alternative until it was wiped out in the ’50s by Joseph McCarthy.

This is a good moment to ask, “Am I grateful that America exists at all?” I think if it weren’t for jazz, I would say it would have been better if America had not existed at all. But because jazz existed, personally I’m grateful for it. Because I don’t see how the rest of us would have quite broken through to that level of intense beauty without the existence of jazz. I think what the best people do is lose themselves in the greatness of everything else. It’s a pluralistic thing and it’s not a Western thing. The Western thing is the individual dominating the landscape. The greater thing is to lose yourself within the greater incomprehensible vastness, a collective majesty.


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