I saw Robyn Hitchcock for the first time at South By Southwest 2004. Just him and his guitar. No band. At first I thought the frat boys in front of me were going to ruin it. They talked, clinked their beers together, yelled during the songs — you know, basic meathead behavior. But then in between songs, Robyn compared his guitar to a javelina, talked about how the world didn’t exist if you never went outside, talked about the German doppelganger myth: “If you see someone coming toward you who looks just like you, it means you’re about to die, or you just met an identical twin no one told you about — or both.” Really weird and funny. And the meatheads in front of me chuckled, shut the hell up and listened. He totally won them over. Very impressive.
It took a bit longer for me. I was already a big fan by 2004, but when I first heard Robyn’s music in the mid-’90s, I hated it. Several of his songs were included on the mixtapes that eventually turned me onto postpunk music. Before that I was pretty much a hard rock guy, though I was somewhat open to things like blues and classical and was starting to check out world music. But the radio sucked, and I could tell the music on those tapes had substance, so I kept listening.
Robyn’s were my least favorite at the time. First of all, I didn’t like his voice. Second, the lyrics were just too weird and disturbing. Because some of his songs were mixed in with stuff I did like right away — Chameleons, Shriekback, Peter Murphy, etc. — I heard them occasionally and tolerated them. “Leppo & the Jooves” and “Balloon Man” first started to grab my attention, and I would think okay, let’s give this guy a chance, and would pop in a tape my friend made of his favorite Hitchcock tunes–and I was lucky if I made it five or six songs in before I turned it off. I was like, blech, what’s wrong with this guy?
Then for some reason about two or three years later, something just clicked. I think it was “She Doesn’t Exist” that caught my attention. All of a sudden I realized he was absolutely brilliant. My friend’s Hitchcock mixtape seldom left my stereo. I played it over and over. From that point I couldn’t get enough of him. I had to get every CD of his I could find and thanks to SXSW I got to see him perform a couple of times.
If you’re not familiar with Robyn’s music, it can vary a lot in terms of energy and style, but all of it is influenced by the psychedelia of the ’60s. Syd Barrett is obviously a big influence. His early band The Soft Boys influenced REM (that band’s guitarist Peter Buck later joined up with Robyn in The Venus 3). In addition to being a wonderfully idosyncratic songwriter and multi-instrumentalist (guitar, piano, bass, harmonica), Robyn is also a visual artist. Some of his psych art wound up as album covers. Explore his website a bit if you want to get an inkling of his many talents: The Museum of Robyn Hitchcock.
My favorite Hitchcock songs change depending on when you ask me, but my custom mix goes something like this:
“Leppo & the Jooves”
“Man with a Woman’s Shadow”
“Into the Arms of Love”
“Where are the Prawns?” (from Soft Boys – Underwater Moonlight” – Matador Records release, an extra, I think)
“Chinese Water Python”
“Driving Aloud (Radio Storm)”
“Old Pervert” (an extra from Underwater Moonlight)
“Wang Dang Pig” (ditto)
“Only the Stones Remain”
“America” (from Gotta Let This Hen Out)
“When I Was Dead” (from Alive Not Dead live EP – I don’t like the one on Respect quite as much)
“Egyptian Cream” (from Gotta Let this Hen Out)
“Ted Woody & Junior”
“Brenda’s Iron Sledge”
“Let There Be More Darkness”
Not sure if that fits on a standard CD-R…
If you want to dive in and buy some albums, I would start with one of these: I Often Dream of Trains, Birds in Perspex, Storefront Hitchcock, Gotta Get this Hen Out, or Fegmania. I really can’t recommend against any Hitchcock album, but those are my favorites and I can’t imagine anyone who “gets” him not enjoying them.