1984 was as much in need of a shakeup of the popular music status quo as 1977 was. But by 1984, everything was just too big. So I had to go looking for it in the corners. I was fortunate enough to have some guidance along the way.
Look, it’s not as though the songs at the top of the charts were BAD SONGS. Kenny Loggins, Phil Collins, the omnipresent Lionel Richie, they all had their gifts as songwriters. In fact, I always tend to think of 1984 as the year everything blew up for the 80s’ pop’s Big Three: Madonna, Prince and Springsteen. But if you look at the list of top singles from 1984, it’s Richie who outpaces everyone with multiple entries.
I found it all growing remarkably safe. It wasn’t as bad as some of the mainstream pop that came before. I never felt like writing, as I did about Annette Funicello’s version of “Let’s Twist Again,” that “if this song had a video, it would be Miracle Whip being spread across Wonder bread.” But I was in my mid-20s, and I wanted at least a little danger. I didn’t want to be standing in line at the record store with my mother’s peers as they bought Rod Stewart albums. Not to mention Cyndi Lauper, while insisting “She Bop” was just a cute and comic little song.
It was as though they’d never really LOOKED AT the video, which is as subtle as a sledgehammer, and brilliant. And a clever parody of/tribute to Madonna’s “Dress You Up” video with the staircase at the end.
Had there been more Cyndi Laupers and fewer Lionel Richies, I might never have gone off searching. But had there been more Cyndi Laupers and fewer Lionel Richies, music wouldn’t have had its 1980s explosion, either.
Trouser Press magazine had been my guide to the wonderful but hidden. Unfortunately, it dwindled and vanished by 1984. I still had my vintage copies, the ones I’d been buying (or had sent with my subscription) for five years. So I mined those pages for more obscure things I’d missed or ignored earlier, and I was also armed with the periodic copies of Buckettful of Brains magazine, which exposed me to wonders like the Long Ryders, Green Pajamas, and (most significantly for the purpose of this story) Robyn Hitchcock.
I picked up Hitchcock’s “Gotta Let This Hen Out!” around the same time I was discovering Shriekback, Beat Rodeo and the 4AD label (particularly Cocteau Twins, whose gorgeous “Treasure” is No. 66 on The Big List). I was taken first by the stranger elements like the a capella “Uncorrected Personality Traits” (which posited that Marilyn Monroe was a man) and “Brenda’s Iron Sledge,” in which number of people pile on a sled going down a hill, until it hits a tree (“and disintegrates”).
I was immediately taken, and more so as I caught up with Hitchcock’s history. On the album released just before the live recording “Gotta Let This Hen Out!” Hitchcock sang about “The Man With the Lightbulb Head” and “My Wife and My Dead Wife.” This was my kind of surrealism.
(It’s worth noting, I suppose, that “My Wife and My Dead Wife” followed “Brenda’s Iron Sledge” on “Gotta Let This Hen Out!” The calm nature of the studio recording is jarring, and the same could be said for “Uncorrected Personality Traits” when I got around to finding the original version of that.)
(It’s also worth noting, again I suppose, that the first compact disc I bought was Hitchcock’s lovely “I Often Dream of Trains,” No. 58 on The Big List.)
I was fortunate enough have discovered Hitchock at a time when he was scrambling in clubs all around the United States to make some kind of dent in our market. I was also fortunate enough to have discovered some of the sites of Minneapolis’ exciting music scene. It was a 75- to 90-minute drive to get where we needed to go, but we were young and willing to sacrifice rest and sleepwalk through the following day’s work in order to enjoy a little late night live music.
In early 1986, I learned of a Hitchcock show at First Avenue (yes, THAT First Avenue) in Minneapolis and made plans with my friend Tom Weber to attend. We also learned that Hitchcock planned an in-store appearance, which sounded marvelous. An autograph AND a bonus performance? Count me delighted.
I had built my Hitchcock selection significantly. I was acquiring live tapes of his performances (as I was wont to do at the time, via a pretty underground and sadly illegal community), and picking up variations and re-releases of the Soft Boys, the band he led before becoming a solo artist. I wanted desperately to show Hitchcock I was not a Timmy-Come-Lately. I also wanted his signature on something not everyone else owned.
I grabbed “Groovy Decay,” which all these years later is still in my top five of favorite Hitchcock albums.
As we jammed into line to have our mementos defaced on March 26, 1986, I looked with contempt upon the items my fellow fans brought. Just ahead of me in line, a guy pulled out a bank deposit slip. He shrugged, told Hitchcock that was all he had, and the artist proceeded to fill out the bank form and sign it.
Seconds later, the guy just ahead of me produced a light bulb from his pocket. (A reference, of course, to Hitchcock’s song “The Man With the Lightbulb Head.”) To my surprise and delight, Hitchcock took the light bulb nonchalantly, as though this was how he was confronted on a regular basis. (And what did I know? Maybe he did.) Hitchcock drew a little face on the bulb, and handed it back.
I approached the way Ralphie approaches Santa in “A Christmas Story.” I knew actually seeing one of his own recordings would thrill him. Tom had a similar advantage because he had a record with him as well. But I was ahead in line.
Hitchcock grabbed my album and flipped it over a couple of times, looking at the front and back covers. Without saying anything, he took his gray marker and scratched out his eyes from the cover photo, scrawled the word “CRAP!” and emphatically underlined it.
I was stunned. It was definitely not the reception I expected or desired. I felt mocked, marginalized. Tom and I stood in the record store, which suddenly felt crowded and hostile. I turned to Tom and said I didn’t really want to hang around for the in-store show. We dropped our records off at the car, and went to a newsstand to kill time before the show.
I was ready for my first Robyn Hitchcock in-person experience. Even though as we walked away from the record store, I said to Tom, “You remember what Tommy Smothers said when John Lennon was drunk and interrupted their show? That thing about being disappointed when someone you really admire turns out to be a jackass?”
I wasn’t in the best of moods.
And somehow, Hitchcock changed my mind back within an hour of taking the stage. I wasn’t sure whether his stage stories were prepared and memorized or extemporaneous. I still can’t. The three times I’ve seen him and the dozens of shows I’ve listened to offer me no real solution. But experiencing them in the moment was thrilling.
I was taken by the complex story that wound into the absolutely terrifying plague story-song, “Lady Waters and the Hooded One.”
(It’s worth noting at this point, I suppose, that Tom didn’t share my enthusiasm for “Lady Waters and the Hooded One.” He once noted something along the lines of “I could like Hitchcock a lot more if there were more songs like ‘Acid Bird’ and fewer like ‘All the Monks and the Queen of France.’ Has he ever written a song with that title?”)
And then he played another song, another one that would end up on his next studio album. He stood alone in the middle of stage, single spotlight, the entire band offstage, and begin picking an introduction on his guitar.
(The studio version adds a bass guitar and a percussion rhythm. It doesn’t need it.)
I wrote about the moment 23 years later when writing about my favorite concert experiences:
We were hearing a song we’d never heard before.
We were in the midst of hundreds of people, many of whom had polished off one too many adult beverages and most of whom seemed uninterested in hearing any new material from the artist on stage.
Yet my friend Tom Weber and I found ourselves for all intents and purposes alone with Robyn Hitchcock as he played the unreleased and previously unheard (by us) song “ Raymond Chandler Evening .”
As the song concluded, Tom and I exhaled and leaned back in our chairs. It was at that point we realized we’d both been leaning forward, elbows on our knees, straining to get closer to the stage, to attempt to INHABIT what Hitchcock was singing.
We had been literally holding our breath. Time has stopped for us.
The concert was literally my favorite concert until 2010, when I saw the Roger Waters’ “The Wall” production in person.
He played another song that always had Tom shaking his head, “Sounds Great When You’re Dead.” In an interview, Hitchcock discussed how great it would be to have a Walkman coffin that played heavy metal over and over. Again, the surrealism was delicious. And the song contains one of my favorite Hitchcock lines: “We’re at our most together when we’re at our most apart.”
No one else in my world was writing stuff like that. Even Elvis Costello, I imagined, would listen to that line and think, “Whoa…”
Hitchcock went into another world with his next song, another one new to us. He described what we quickly realized were images from gay magazines of the 1950s. In a bath together, “they cover each other with soap.” In the forest, “they cover each other with leaves.”
Frank Zappa said one of the reasons he wrote about the things he wrote about was because he thought they deserved to be preserved as much as other things he heard being preserved. I’d like to think Zappa heard “Ted Woody and Junior” and thought, “Glad somebody did that one.”
(It’s worth noting at this point, I suppose, that Tom’s wife did not share the delight Tom and I shared when I’d call their house and ask to speak with “Woody.”)
It was a conflicting experience. A miserable face-to-face encounter, but a brilliant concert, far and away the best I’d seen. (And, as noted earlier, remained exactly that until a quarter-century later.)
Not everyone shared my analysis of the record store incident. Immediately thereafter, The Lovely Mrs. Cain was laughing about it, and said, “It sounds exactly like something you’d do.” I didn’t grasp what she was saying. I could find people as appalled as I was, but I also came across too many who said, “That’s kinda cool.”
I continued to be a fan, and continued to read Hitchcock’s interviews. It eventually became clear he was unhappy with something about “Groovy Decay.” It seemed to be, I gradually pieced together, dissatisfaction with the songs, the sound, the production, and even his relationship with his art. It was after this that Hitchcock took all his unpublished paintings, drawings, lyrics and demos, shoved them in a trunk, took them to a beach and burned them.
At the time, it seemed to me a tragedy, and senseless destruction. It started in my head a debate that’s rarely stopped since. What does an artist owe to the community they create? Anything? What does that artist owe to society? To posterity? To themself?
My mind has flipped any number of times pondering those questions. At this point, I’m happy for Hitchcock, and sad for myself. There may have been something he burned that would have evoked something enjoyable to my experience. But if the decision freed Hitchcock’s artist, fantastic for him. If “I Often Dream of Trains” was borne from the ashes on that beach, it was a worthy death for that work.
I’ve also slowly come around on Hitchcock’s decision to deface my album cover. Maybe he signed it that way because he couldn’t take it to a beach and burn it. While the memory of the experience still stings, maybe he didn’t mean in as viciously as I took it. And at the very least, he gave me an experience and a memento shared with no one else.
It’s an original Robyn Hitchcock piece of art.