“Belltown Ramble” / Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3
Life is GOOD. I know this because, just when I thought my music-fan dance card was totally full, some kind soul said, “You really should check out Robyn Hitchcock, you know.” Yeah, yeah, another artist on my favorite label, Yep Roc; another boyish-looking white-haired British rocker. Well, I kept intending to…and then finally I saw him perform two weeks ago. I’ll tell you, it was love at first sight. Straight away I bought three albums; I listened to nothing else on my vacation last week. I felt like Alice, free-falling down the rabbit hole. A new obsession, just in time for spring.
Robyn Hitchcock’s often dismissed as a cult artist, or an acquired taste. All I know is that his psychedelic free-associations make perfect sense to me; I dig that idiosyncratic nasal English singing voice. On Olé Tarantula!,his newest album, he’s working with three musicians – guitarist Peter Buck, drummer Bill Kieflin, and bassist Scott McCaughey – whose day job is backing up Michael Stipe in the Very Important Band R.E.M. If I were these guys, I’d prefer working with Hitchcock; they sure were having a blast on stage when I saw them.
This particular song instantly hooked me that night. Whatever you’d call the folk-music equivalent of talking blues, that’s what this is -- a rambling series of three-line verses (the rhyme scheme is vaguely a villanelle, but you don’t need to know that), drifting along the Hitchcockian stream of consciousness. It rides a jazzy loop of acoustic strumming, with Scott McCaughey twiddling a piano counterpoint, minimal bass and drums; the melody’s light-hearted, like a vintage Donovan number. The chorus – or at any rate, the only lines that repeat – seems like a Zen koan: “And you want to know what is / And also what is not / Don't you, girl? / It's an independent life / And you want to see your eyes / Reflected in the world.” Okay, fair warning -- altered state of perception ahead.
The narrative starts off in an actual Seattle neighborhood, with specific geographical references – 4th Avenue, Blanchard Street, Denny Way, the sites of the Crocodile music club and the old Claremont (he can’t resist spelling out Claremont, emphasizing the REM in the middle) – but soon things slide into a parallel universe. Suddenly we’re consorting with the Uzbek warlord Tamerlane, aggressively astride the revolving pink elephant at a Seattle car wash (“you’re in your element,” a delicious rhyme for “elephant”). And then, just when you’ve gotten your bearing in that fairy-tale world, it turns into a medieval parable pageant, starring a modern version of the Seven Deadly Sins: Ignorance, Opportunism, Greed, Fundamentalism, Haste, Waste, and the deadliest of all, Escapism -- “Reclining in his chair / He's got his headphones on / His head is full of paradise / He isn't there.” The way this slips in, carelessly, where you’d never expect trenchant satire – that’s the sort of thing I’m learning to love about Robyn Hitchcock.
Then, poof! Here comes Tamerlane again, and we’re drinking at the Two Bells Tavern, schmoozing with (I assume) a real bartender named Kenny. Everything’s mellow, everything’s relative. “You can walk a square / You can walk an oblong / Even just walk straight / You'll still be standing there,” Robyn points out, slyly wrapping things up with another cryptic koan. “Though you think you did the job wrong / You did it.” I can just picture his mischievous grin, that complicit wink. Devastating.
What does it all signify? If you’re asking that question, you’re on the wrong track. And me, I’m so far down this rabbit hole myself at the moment, I'm no use at all.
Belltown Ramble sample