Monday, March 03, 2008

“Furry Green Atom Bowl” / Robyn Hitchcock


Today Robyn Hitchcock turns a cool 55, so, you guessed it, here comes my First Annual Robyn Hitchcock Week. Just think, a year ago I didn’t even know who Robyn Hitchcock was, and now I’m a completely rabid fan. (Don’t come too close or I’ll bite.)

Forget about the hits -- as if he had ever had any– the beauty of Robyn Hitchcock lies in the weirdest tracks on his most obscure albums. Like right now I’m listening to “Furry Green Atom Bowl,” from his 1984 acoustic album I Only Dream of Trains, just one of the five tasty discs in his recent box set I Wanna Go Backwards. This song isn’t just acoustic, it’s a capella, and with a crew of mates singing the call-and-response (either that or Robyn double-tracking his own nasal, half-tuned voice). Whoever's singing, the fact that the song makes no sense doesn’t seem to faze anybody.

Ready for the lyrics? Fasten your seat belt. It starts out with a gross-out image -- "Furry green eye /In a furry green hole / It's a furry green atom bowl." And so on and so forth, a disgusting slide show of dust and verdigris and dead bugs and exploding casseroles. I'm starting to picture that old yogurt I took out of my fridge last week, the one that was a month past the sell-by date. Eventually the devil shows up, sniffing the casserole, and then "The black was hungry when it came down / So it ate the world for miles around." (Love the vocal klaxon effect on "around.") Now there's an apocalyptic vision for you.

"Sticky black meat / Will flood your street / Sticky black oil / Will boil your soil" - now he's just having fun, in his wicked droll way, playing with whatever rhymes. "Furry green eggs / On furry green legs" -- Dr. Seuss couldn't have done better. And while there's not much to be said for the melody, I can't help but get sucked into its singsongy cadences (it feels like men going off in the woods to smear mud on their faces and beat drums). "Gonna shake my pie, / Gonna bake my soul / It's a crusty old pie / But it's a crusty old world" and then we go beneath the earth's crust for gross close-ups of roots and bulbs, which somehow transmogrifies into the repeated chant "there's roots in the earth and kidneys in the body" over and over. And, er, that's where it ends.

It's one-third Le Chien Andalou, one-third a science-class film strip, one-third the Zappa-esque ramblings of that pothead down the hall from you in college. He even sings in funny voices, like characters out of Firesign Theater. If the guy was trying to be arty, it would be obnoxious -- but he's just being Robyn, free-associating and messing around, and finding a peculiar jazzy pleasure in it. Why I love it, I don't know, but I do.

Furry Green Atom Bowl sample


Dave K. said...

Interesting choice :-) . It's part perverse nursery rhyme, minstrel song and 50's doo wop tune. Robyn's a genuine original. Thanks!

Mark said...

Somehow, Robyn makes all the disparate elements of this song come together and gel. Thanks for dedicating a whole week to Robyn, he's a unique talent that more people should check out. Like you, I didn't know who he was until just recently either. I just posted a short piece on my blog about Robyn's album Moss Elixir, it's a great CD.

Holly A Hughes said...

I agree, Mark! My question is -- could Robyn Hitchcock ever reach a mass audience? Don't most people like their pop songs to make a leetle more sense than this stuff? I also know people who're put off by his voice.

Do you know how hard it was for me to write about this guy for five days and not use the word "quirky" ten times in every post?

Mark said...

Haha, I bet your thesaurus was worn out! Yes, it's difficult to not just keep calling Robyn "weird," "quirky" or "eccentric." In his interview with the Onion's AV Club, he talks about how he's annoyed that people always call him "eccentric." He said something like, "People always call Michael Jackson eccentric too, does that mean I'm like him?" (Thankfully, he's not!)

I think that Robyn will probably always remain a cult figure, I can't really see the mainstream embracing him. Or Robyn embracing the mainstream, for that matter. I'll admit, it took me a few listens to get into him. I think it's tough for people to get into surreal lyrics, despite the popularity of Bob Dylan's surreal lyrics. (Of course, Dylan had become popular before he started writing in a more surreal style.) I like Robyn's voice, but I can see how it might not be some people's cup of tea. Of course, I like David Bowie and all those other people who sound British when they sing, so Robyn's voice didn't put me off at all.

Oh, here's a fact I learned, Robyn actually did have a number one hit! "So You Think You're In Love" reached number one on Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks chart in 1991! It didn't chart on the Hot 100, though, according to Which means that Robyn is on a compliation called "90's Rock Number 1's" with artists like Semisonic, The Wallflowers, and Smash Mouth. It's definitely a case of which one of these is not like the other?