Monday, December 17, 2007

"Queen Elvis" / Robyn Hitchcock

I'm still trying to figure out why more people aren't into Robyn Hitchcock. He has at least half a dozen songs that deserve to be instant classics, with entrancing hooks and contagious melodies; his lyrics are arresting, poetic, often funny as hell. True, half the time I can't figure out what's happening in his songs, but hey, that's actually a selling point with me. I guess some people might be put off by his nasal vocals and broad English accent. Not that I am, but like I said, I'm trying to solve this mystery.

Consider, then, "Queen Elvis," from his 1990 album Eye. It's such a great title, changing Elvis's title from The King to The Queen; even before the song begins we know we're in the land of the sexually confused. And like Lou Reed's "Walk On the Wild Side," it's full of sympathy for outsider lifestyles. The melody is Lennon-esque, repeated notes vacillating within a narrow range; the lyrics are ambiguous, leaving you groping for the code. As a result, the song quivers with dynamic tension, throwing out lines and then reeling you in.

"People get what they deserve," Hitchcock begins (does he means "deserve" like a punishment or a reward?) followed by the cryptic observation "Time is round and space is curved." Two lines into the song and we're already getting surreal. Then he gently asks his song's protagonist, "Honey, have you got the nerve / To be Queen Elvis?" He knows there's pain involved in coming out ("It could break your mother's heart / It could break your sister's heart"); he says he's jealous, but he's also repelled -- hear the snide flourish in lines like "Justify your special ways" and the bridge "Oh and I'll sculpt you /So very hard" ("sculpt" makes me think of Michelangelo and Svengali and personal trainers all at once). While he's at it, he'll sneer at the nature of celebrity ("getting blowjobs from the press" and hangers-on "babbling beside the throne")--yep, it's all in here, swirling around in an edgy stew of feelings.

His voice sounds slightly strangled and lonely, over a dead simple acoustic strum--earnest and yet dodgy too. Does he identify with Queen Elvis, or is he attracted to Queen Elvis? It's neither and both; anyway, he's not giving anybody a straight answer. "Two mirrors make infinity," he muses later on, "In the mirror you and me / Find out just what love could be / Queen Elvis." Wha?

Usually I like my pop songs tightly crafted, and yet I'm dizzy in love with these surreal rambling Robyn Hitchcock concotions. Of course his slightly sinister, schoolboy-in-disgrace good looks help--I'm just mentioning that for you ladies, because we all know it's part of why we enjoy our rock and roll. He's got a whole pack of these absurd, allusive gems -- "Jewels for Sophia," "I Saw Nick Drake," "The Devil's Radio," "If You Know Time," "I Often Dream of Trains," "Madonna of the Wasps," "My Wife and My Dead Wife" -- all dredged up from some subterranean realm of mad genius. I'll take as much of it as I can get, thank you, and anyone else who wants to join me is welcome.

Queen Elvis sample


Ron Kane said...

It's a Cambridge thing, Holly! It's also why Hugh Cornwell and Syd Barrett aren't 'more mainstream'. Americans got used to Liverpool and Birmingham accents in the 60's - not so much the Cambridge twang.

Holly A Hughes said...

And let's not forget Newcastle!

Well, I went to Oxford myself, so I sympathise. And apparently Mick Jagger went to Ole Miss, if you're judging by singing accents.

searchingsearcher said...

Not this American! Love Robyn and have seen him live at least 5 times, (and I have to drive 5 hours to see him, as he rarely plays anywhere closer). Been listening to him since 1988.

searchingsearcher said...

Not this American! I love Robyn - been listening to him since 1988.

I've seen him live at least 6 times (and drive 5 hours to do so).

And he certainly is handsome! Love his white hair.