The Fall Guy

Cult legend Robyn Hitchcock delivers on latest “autumnal” album, The Man Upstairs

Robyn Hitchcock
Robyn Hitchcock

Robyn Hitchcock, the British singer/songwriter whose intimately resonant, raspy voice and mysteriously peculiar worldview were shaped by such skewed troubadours of his youth as Nick Drake, Syd Barrett and the Incredible String Band, has long been said to make “autumnal” records. As in, “songs or singing that reflect on life with a bittersweet, melancholy wisdom coming from age and experience.”

The term has been applied to his 1984 classic, I Often Dream of Trains, and has been used for his latest record, last year’s The Man Upstairs. It’s his 20th studio album, including those he recorded with his backing bands the Egyptians and Venus 3. And it is an acoustic, sparsely recorded mix of original compositions and covers of such songs as Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost in You,” Roxy Music’s “To Turn You On,” The Doors’ “Crystal Ship” and others.

But he’s also a truly idiosyncratic, unpredictable person. So when asked in a phone interview about being “autumnal,” he uses a peculiar tack in answering. He takes the question literally.

“I’m not really a midsummer guy; not a midwinter person, either,” he says. “The twinkling of distant stars, frozen constellations, the crackling of ice underfoot — I’m most likely to lose my footing and slip.

“Spring is usually very dismal in Britain or very aggressive — it’s harsh. July is very bland. I feel everything goes very dead in July. In Britain, the three months of the year that can’t go wrong are August, September and October. In August, the leaves have been out for three months and already are starting to think about dying. In September that begins, but it’s still quite warm. And in October the leaves are starting to fall and the nights have crept back in and it’s beginning to fall into winter darkness. But the light, the way everything feels and smells and way the dew hangs, you can’t really beat it.”

As he finishes his poetic musing, he adds, “Sorry, just rambling on about weather conditions.”

As a youth, Hitchcock, who’ll be 62 in March, listened to British Folk Rock records produced by Joe Boyd, an American who helped the Incredible String Band, Nick Drake and Fairport Convention create their distinct, memorable musical approaches. Boyd wrote a very successful memoir about it, White Bicycles, and has since made public appearances to share his stories.

In recent years, Hitchcock and Boyd have formed a friendship and toured together. And The Man Upstairs is essentially a collaboration — Boyd produced it and suggested the artistic approach.

“He said, ‘I’m tired of recording singer/songwriters. No offense, but there are too many records by singer/songwriters these days,’ ” Hitchcock says. “He said, ‘Why don’t you make a record like Judy Collins did?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean? Go out with Stephen Stills?’ ”

What Boyd had in mind was an album like Judy Collins’ 1967 Wildflowers and 1968’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes (neither of which he produced), which mixed original compositions with covers both familiar and little-known.

“I really liked the idea because it gave me a chance to do some covers without doing the dreaded ‘covers album,’ ” Hitchcock says. “Also, it gives people a chance to listen to me as an interpreter, rather than just a songwriter. I’ve never really taken myself seriously as a singer.”

The originals provided by Hitchcock for the album often shimmer with foreboding lyrics delivered with haunting, deep-voiced gravitas. On one, “Trouble in Blood,” Hitchcock sings, “You’ve got a well-constructed shell/Deep inside, you’re deep in hell/You can’t be satisfied/God knows how much you just try.”

Who might that tortured soul be? Himself, Hitchcock reveals. This and a lot of his other compositions are “internal songs,” he explains.

“It’s one of those things where you have a voice in your head that’s like a negative app,” he says. “Sometimes these are voices of doom, naysayers, very English voices just kind of wagging fingers and telling you that something won’t work and you’re wasting your time.

“Very often, they’re dictating my songs. And they are apt to be merciless. I don’t understand my songs as such and I can be quite passive about them. I simply act as a mouthpiece for what’s appearing.”

But while Hitchcock’s songs are, as he describes it, internal, there can be some unusual external stimuli.

For a slow and spooky one on The Man Upstairs called “San Francisco Patrol,” the inspiration is the 1973 violent action film Magnum Force, a sequel to Dirty Harry set in San Francisco and starring Clint Eastwood. The song impressionistically recounts a scene from the film where two cops are staking out a drug dealer involved in an orgy. Sound simple?

“It’s a bit more complicated than that,” Hitchcock says. “It’s basically a rather ponderous early-1970s action movie, an extreme example of what happens in a world entirely populated by men.”

“I saw the film five times by accident,” he continues. “I don’t know how because I don’t really watch television, but somehow I kept seeing fragments of it. And somehow that flipped over into becoming an obsession. So I would overlay seeing Magnum Force with my own memories of San Francisco, and I started writing songs. I think I internalized Magnum Force. Very rarely do I write a song about the outside world. Pretty much everything happens within my own territory.”

As should be clear by now, Hitchcock occupies an unusual niche in the world of popular music, one that weirdly yet fearlessly mines the subconscious. And he has lasted there — thrived — since The Soft Boys, a group he was in before going solo, made its first record in 1976.

“I’ve never wanted to do anything else but this and with any luck this will see me out,” he says. “And I’m reasonably proud of my work. It’s me singing what I want to hear, not necessarily what other people want to hear. In a way, my songs are all written based on the assumption that everyone listening to them is Robyn Hitchcock. I don’t look at myself through the eyes of the world.”


ROBYN HITCHCOCK plays Tuesday at Southgate House Revival. Tickets/more info: southgatehouse.com .
UPDATE : This show has been postponed due to inclement weather. Ticket purchasers can save their tickets for a possible rescheduled date or get refunds at the point of purchase.


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