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Q&A: ROBERT WYATT (Unabridged)

SS: I’d like to ask you about a few specific songs.

RW: Sure. Go ahead.

SS: Where did you get the nerve to sing “Strange Fruit”?

RW: Alfie asked me that same thing. But, you know, why not? I first heard it as a teenager in the ’50s. The words were written by a young Jewish radical, a white guy, Lewis Alan. I did feel tentative about singing it, but at the time black music was the Three Degrees and glitzy showbiz stuff. I thought, Hang on, white kids think they’ve invented the protest song. Disco was part of the mainstream then. I wanted to point out that protest music wasn’t just saying fuck on a record — there’s a long history of this stuff, way back before World War II. There’s some advanced protest poetry coming out of America long before the folk movement of the ’60s kicked in. An example of this was “Strange Fruit.” I was representing a piece of black and communist history to a generation that didn’t associate black culture with protest music anymore. And although the lyrics were written by a white guy [Abel Meeropol] it was written specifically for Billie Holiday, who wrote the actual music. She didn’t have to sing it. But she sang it a lot, especially during her old age — and a few people picked up on it, like Nina Simone. Musically, it’s extraordinary. If you write music to words that aren’t really written for music, you have to make strange music to fit the words, because the words are untidy rhythmically. “Strange Fruit” is an odd piece of music; there’s this interlude before the piece begins and then there’s this tune that doesn’t really repeat itself. It’s such a unique, odd shape. There’s no real repetition, it’s one thread that starts and carries onto the end.

SS: John Lennon’s “Love” (From an Uncut magazine Lennon Tribute album, 2003)

RW: I was asked to sing a John Lennon song, and I thought the one that I could sing was that. I didn’t know afterward that it was one of his own favorite songs. I just tried to sing it as faithfully as I could, according to what I felt it meant to be. I thought the Beatles were okay. I would never have bought their records. As white musicians go, I found some of them the least embarrassing. I did buy Lennon’s Imagine album at the time.

SS: “Soup Song” (From Ruth is Stranger than Richard, 1975)

RW: I was singing about being some bacon in that song. What I’m complaining about is the way bacon was used as mere wobbly bits in other meals. It was also used in quiches, which I thought, What the fuck was that all about? If you’re going to eat a slice of pig, then eat a slice of pig. Don’t piss me about with your little wibbly, wobbly bits of bacon.

SS: “Memories of You” (B-side of Shipbuilding, 1982)

RW: This is a song by Eubie Blake, an American pianist born around the beginning of the 20th century. He died at 102. He invented a lot of the stuff before jazz, like the Charleston. He wrote this tune and I wanted to do it, but I didn’t really understand the chords. So we got the sheet music and Alfie played them to me. I couldn’t have got my head around it if Alfie wasn’t able to read the sheet music.

SS: “At Last I Am Free” (From Nothing Can Stop Us, 1982)

RW: Around that time there was something happening, historically, that was quite wrong. There was a pattern forming where young white singers were singing serious stuff — political stuff, punk. Black people were assigned the role of popular entertainers who just did disco music. This was not my experience when I was a youth. It was the other way around. The whole idea of music — of opposition, of music, of seriousness — that rock inherited, actually came from black music. So the idea that the historical consciousness of the history of popular music was so short that young white punks could claim seriousness as their own. Any white group who grew their hair long and wore jeans when they could actually afford corduroy is acting poor. Whereas black people at that time weren’t doing that because young black people weren’t hoping, like young whites, to drop out of the system. They were people from working class origins aspiring to belong. So the idea was to get away from the raggedy ass stuff of the blues and to present a more sophisticated veneer. So they would wear shiny suits, ties, nice haircut, smart stuff. Chic. It was an aspiration toward what 19th century white people aspired toward. A kind of chic European, end-of-empire poshness. This was completely against the grain of what white kids were going through, which was to ostentatiously behave in a vulgar fashion that didn’t glorify their parents’ postwar aspirations toward suburban respectability. So the great white thing was: Fuck our great suburban ancestors, we’re going to grow our hair, not bathe, we’re going to say swear words in public, we’re going to try and look like the Rolling Stones and all that kind of stuff.

So this absurd Alice in Wonderland contradiction had arrived in pop music whereby black pop musicians as epitomized by say Michael Jackson were respected bourgeoisie. They were respectable people to be laughed at by the rebels, who were the white long-haired people. This is a complete reversal of the historical truth of their music. I didn’t want to lose my grip on the fact that the only reason America is any more significant culturally than New Zealand and Tasmania is thanks to the black American contribution. I wanted to say even in the degrading position of having to be circus performers in Las Vegas, they come out with better tunes than you lot. Here’s one. [“At Last I Am Free”] It was filler track on one of Chic’s LPs. A throwaway. I thought, What a lovely phrase. I was a kind of hangover from a Martin Luther King-era consciousness transmuted into a smooth love ballad. It’s something that only a black person of that time would have written that time and in that way. So you have that chorus: “At last I am free / I can hardly see in front of me.” That struck me as one of the most moving couplets I’d ever heard. It’s like a fantastic blues couplet, and it doesn’t sound like much unless for years you’ve been in some kind of struggle where for ages you’ve longed to be free. Then suddenly you were and you think, “What the fuck do I do now?” It had been constructed from various mindsets that had been going on in the battle for the brains of young Americans at the time. I’m not saying that this is what they intended, but this is what it meant to me. Their version was so clean and neat — it wasn’t presented in a rebellious way. It was presented in a kind of way that aspiring pop wannabes presented themselves in — and still do — which is, “We don’t want to be drop-outs, we want to be allowed to drop in.” It was a completely different mindset than punk. I wanted to take a thread out of that.

SS: “Raining In My Heart” (From Cuckooland, 2003)

RW: I did try and sing this, but it wasn’t good enough. The reason I put it out as an instrumental was because — say you did a tribute to the Mona Lisa, and you couldn’t paint it, you couldn't pull it off. Well then, maybe do a reproduction of the frame it was in and left it blank just to say, “I remember that painting.” Plus, the piano I used was from an old ship from the ’30s and it was designed to play background music. I tried to imagine the two people who wrote it. She was a lift operator and he was a jazz violinist. I was trying to imagine the early rock and roll atmosphere from when they wrote that song, when they would have met. They would have been horrified by rock and roll — all that sex and nastiness. But they were deeply conservative, weird and children of immigrants — respectable working class provincials. But they wrote nice little tunes that you’d play in a Victorian parlor. They were covered by people like Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers. So I wanted to go before that to this little couple from almost pre-rock and roll American history. The kind of people you might see in the background in a film with Katharine Hepburn. So I did it as an instrumental. But it’s my little piece in the middle of my record — my little thought about my roots. I have a reputation for being knowledgeable about Bartok and Stravinsky and Charlie Parker and all that. I wanted to point out that it wasn’t the roots of my music. My roots are simple, popular, pre-rock and roll rebel songs. But there’s nothing perverse or ironic about it. I’m not like that.

SS: “Heaps Of Sheeps” (From Schleep, 1998)

RW: Alfie wrote the words to that one.

Alfie Benge: “I realized my fists were clenched / I stretched my fingers to relax / Still not sleeping / I tried counting sheep.” I’m not an insomniac. It was written one morning in Spain after I’d spent the night trying to get to sleep, and I tried counting sheep and the fuckers were just piling up in some terrible heap. I thought it was funny, so I wrote it down. It’s one of many poems I wrote in Spain. When Robert started getting word-starved as it were, he pinched my poetry book and started doing things to them. I thought it was so banal and trivial that it was beneath him to actually do that song. I always felt it was a bit vulgar.

RW: It’s my job as a songwriter to find things that will work.

AB: He’s the insomniac, and he hasn’t written about that.

RW: That piece took years. The actual piece of music was a piano exercise, which I had on bits and pieces of tapes for years and then I combined it with a drum exercise I’d had — a Bo Diddley thing. I took it from there. The only battle was with Alfie, who is quite posh about which of her words get used for lyrics. That’s one of the two or three times when I’ve taken words she’s written from her notebooks.

AB: My notebooks only exist when I’m somewhere else. I don’t get a lot from home. When we're in Spain and Italy, I take bits from my diaries, have a few brandies and make little poems. I had about 20 or 30 from Spain. The fait accompli was that some of them got turned into songs. But he didn’t ask me. That was the beginning of it. I thought you’d hear it once, laugh, and then not want to hear it again.

RW: Yes, but when Brian Eno came into the studio and read your lyrics, he laughed and laughed and laughed. I thought, It’s nice to see Brian laughing. It was a happy moment for me. He came in and got really stuck in. So, that’s a trio performance at the end.


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