Friday, October 2, 2009

Robyn Hitchcock: Sometimes Meeting Celebs Is Scary

I'm guess I'm lucky to have seen Robyn Hitchcock live two times in his prime -- well, not really his prime if you are a Soft Boys fan, I suppose.

The first time was in the summer of 1988 when he opened, solo, for 10,000 Maniacs.

Now, before I rip into that band let me say that I loved their early releases, notably the pre-Elektra Records stuff, as well as their major label debut, The Wishing Chair. However, even as early as 1988, they were getting a little bit precious, a misguided cover of "Peace Train" not helping dispel that image.

(To their credit, they removed that song from In My Tribe after Cat Stevens defended the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie.)

So, a guy I knew from Waxie Maxie's (who would later briefly work at The Record Co-Op thanks to a recommendation from me) met up with me and we met up with a friend and her friend at the show (one of these girls would end up in Velocity Girl, Unrest, and Air Miami but that's name-dropping and another story!).

Robyn Hitchcock is one of those guys who sounds just as good solo as he does with a full band and he ran through a set of his "hits" for a thin crowd of jaded do-gooder types. Even in the summer of 1988, as a new fan, I knew that he really should have been the headliner and not the opening act for this gig at the Warner Theatre (I think).

I recall vividly a segment of the concert where Natalie Merchant sat down at the piano and pretended she was Laura Nyro. The pretension and preciousness got the better of me and I faked a coughing fit just to annoy people and break the hushed silence during her song intros.

A few years later, I'd feel the same annoyance while watching Laurie Anderson at the Lisner, even seriously contemplating throwing my umbrella onto the stage during her gig.

I didn't but I've regretted not doing it ever since.

In 1989 Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians released Queen Elvis on A&M Records. The A&M college rep. was in a local band (Frontier Theory) and he was a pretty good friend of The Record Co-Op.

So I got free tickets and one of my best friends was offered the second one but he chose to go to Ocean City for a weekend of partying instead. My other good friend, the de facto assistant manager of The Record Co-Op, rarely went to live concerts in those days -- he was already as jaded as I would become -- so I went alone.

The concert at Lisner was decent -- I cannot remember the opening act -- and Robyn had a nice little stage set up with props, a phone box like in the video below, and a few other bits.

I still recall some middle-aged fan in my row yelling out for "Uncorrected Personality Traits" between all the songs -- the alt. rockers' "Free Bird"?

That's one of Robyn's most famous songs which it was a cinch he would perform live. However, I hated that song as it relegated a genuine talent to the status of novelty act. A similar fate happened to XTC after "Dear God" was a surprise alternative radio hit and the band were simply a one-hit wonder act according to the only stations that would play them in this area.

So the A&M rep. took me backstage at Lisner where I had only two years previously snuck backstage at a Husker Du concert with a guy from Tower Records who was in The Meatmen who knew one of my best friends at the time.

Robyn Hitchcock reminded me of John Cleese and he seemed dangerously tall. I don't want to give the impression that he was rude but he was a bit...odd.

As he was introduced to me and he leaned into my face -- like the "close talker" on Seinfeld -- I suddenly thought: "Geez, maybe it's not an act? Maybe he is as weird as he seems?"

In those days, I rarely got a picture with any of the rock bands I met and I almost never asked for an autograph, preferring instead to meet the people and have some sort of conversation with them rather than just be the sort of idiot fan who is simply looking to pad a library with trinkets.

But, looking back 20 years, Robyn Hitchcock is an artist who has managed to continue his career on his terms for nearly 30 years now and I think maybe a picture of me looking up at his British mug would have been a pretty funny thing to hang on the wall.

I'm now off to play "My Wife and My Dead Wife" -- the live version.

Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians -- Madonna of the Wasps