scaling musical heights
'Towering genius disdains a beaten path," Abraham Lincoln once said. "It seeks regions hitherto unexplored."
Robert Wyatt hasn't physically been able to go too far in his wheelchair but his music – the stuff of towering, bona fide genius – has taken him, and us, to emotional regions hitherto unexplored.
A major influence on the likes of Thom Yorke, Jarvis Cocker and Damon Albarn, among many others who consider themselves innovative in their field, artrock prog-behemoth Wyatt is possibly one of the most wilfully dogmatic artists in British music.
Born Robert Wyatt-Ellidge on January 28, 1945, in Bristol, "at the end of the Second World War," he says, adding, as a consequence that his first "awareness of the zeitgeist was this sense of elation I could see in the adults around me. For the previous five years, they thought they were going to be bombed, and their neighbours had just been bombed, and they weren't sure who was going to win. The idea of being overrun like Holland or France or Austria was very, very scary for them. People say we were poor then, but that sense of relief put a spring in people's step, I think."
Anyone who listens to Wyatt's canon – his version of Elvis Costello's anti-Falklands War masterpiece Shipbuilding from 1982 is one of my favourite songs of all time – could argue the gifted curmudgeon has put a spring in people's step with his often-brilliant music.
His music isn't easy but it is powerful in its eccentricities, as you can tell from listening to his former band Soft Machine or his solo work (recently released on box set). You can see why Björk in 2004 collaborated on Submarine with avant-pop godhead Robert for her album Medúlla. You also see why Tears for Fears wrote the song I Believe about, and dedicated it to, Wyatt.
He has something of a reputation, well earned of course. When a photographer at a session for a magazine told him, "I see you as a wise Buddha," his reply was accurate in every sense: "No, I'm not – I'm a punk in a wheelchair!"
In 2006, the term "Wyatting" started appearing online to describe the particular practice of putting on especially weird or esoteric tracks on a pub jukebox to irritate the people in the pub. Wyatt, delighted at it all, was quoted in the Guardian as saying: "I think it's really funny. I'm very honoured at the idea of becoming a verb."
Indeed a gentle perusal of those he has worked with, in some shape or form, over the past 40 years will give some indication of not just his stature but his epic talent: Hot Chip, Brian Eno, Scritti Politti, the aforementioned Elvis Costello, Paul Weller, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd.
On November 4, 1973 – four months after Wyatt was paralysed after he drunkenly fell from a fourth-floor window at a party – Pink Floyd performed two benefit concerts for Wyatt in one day at London's Rainbow Theatre supported by Wyatt's band Soft Machine. (Gilmour sang Comfortably Numb with Wyatt in June 2001 at the Meltdown festival, which Wyatt curated. Wyatt returned the compliment in 2006 when he sang, and played cornet, on Gilmour's 2006 album On An Island.)
"I broke my back when completely drunk," he recalled of that dreadful night, "and spent most of that year in the hospital." He has said he can remember what happened. He was at a party. He'd had a lot of punch. When a friend brought out a bottle of whiskey, they split it between them.
"After that, all I know is I was trying to climb out of a window," he says. "I thought I'd get out of the party for a bit – and for some reason I thought the best way to do this would be to go down the drainpipe. There was a rusty bit on the pipe, I was OK with that. But then, because my hands started sweating, it got slippery on the shiny paint, and I lost my grip. And I landed. I don't remember the pain at all, although I do remember hearing somewhere, miles away, a scream and thought, I wonder what that is?"
"I was drugged for weeks," he added. "When I was in the hospital, unspeakable things were happening to me – many operations. It's like the dentist where you just think about sex or something: you just don't think about what they're doing. So I sat and just imagined a record, which was very nice. That was how Rock Bottom came about – it's a consequence of sitting in a hospital bed month after month, trying to imagine music I couldn't play, yet I didn't fancy the life of a disabled person just struggling with it."
Even allowing for hyperbole for one of my favourite artists, Robert Wyatt has done anything but struggle.