"Hurry For the Sky"
/ Robyn Hitchcock
Turning 56 today, Robyn Hitchcock -- a.k.a. "eccentric British rocker Robyn Hitchcock," as the music mags like to label him -- happens to have a new album out, Goodnight Oslo, which he recorded with R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and Bill Rieflin and the Minus 5's Scott McCaughey, performing under the name The Venus 3. Their last outing together, 2006's Ole Tarantula!, was where I first jumped on the Hitchcock fan wagon, and it's been a joyride for me ever since. I've now seen him four times in concert, though only once with the Venus 3; I have to say, I do love the way they stir up the rocker in him.
This two-chord song sounds to me like the theme from some absurdist western; underneath it all runs the insistent shush-shush of brushed drums and strummed guitar, clipping along at a hustling pace like a steam train, while lonesome steel guitar twangs whistle in and out like tumbleweed. All very Ennio Morricone, minor-key and moody. In fact, the song it first made me think of was "Perfect Crime," my fave track from the Decembrists' The Crane Wife album; and lo and behold I discover that the Decemberists' singer Colin Meloy is doing a guest-turn here on backing vocals. Niiiice.
Like many a Robyn Hitchcock number, though, "Hurry For the Sky" is not clearly about anything. Verses one and three are all platitudinal self-help advice ("Knock yourself out yesterday / Tomorrow will be fine"; "You can easily confuse / Money with success.") It helps, of course, to imagine the dark-eyed glitter with which Hitchcock is wont to deliver such adages; they're not meant to be taken seriously, except when they are. And just to throw you off course, verse two takes a sharp left turn into the Egyptian imagery that's a familiar Hitchcockian leitmotif: "Pharoah's tomb is empty now / You can come right in / Bandage up your grin / Bandage up your sin." I can imagine him writing that one after watching The Mummy on late night TV -- that "bandage up your grin" line kills me.
"Oh I," he intones in the chorus, his nasal voice sliding teasingly into that sustained note (another trademark device), "I'm in a hurry for the sky." I see big western horizons, and a silhouetted cowboy galloping into it; but no, wait, I also picture a cartoon heaven of fluffy white clouds and this reckless soul landing abruptly at St. Peter's gate. (I also think of the Kinks song "Big Sky," but maybe that's just me.) Whether he's hurling himself toward big dreams or the Big Sleep, he's clearly a restless questing spirit. While we're still riddling over that evocative phrase, he repeats it, this time swooping upward on "sky-eye," resolving the chord. But the way the tempo hurtles on without missing a beat, it doesn't feel resolved at all.
The final verse contains yet more koan-like teases: "Number two said to number one/ You fix this up or you're finished son / Number three said to number two / I wish I could trade boots with you / Number four said to number five /How does it feel to be eaten alive" -- who are these "numbers," threatening and cajoling each other? Naturally I recall The Prisoner, the cult 60s TV show, with its creepy group-think The Village inhabited by numbered strangers, all out to get each other. And somehow it loops back into the chorus: "Number five said / Oh I / I'm not an integrated guy / Oh I / I'm in a hurry for the sky." Not an integrated guy -- this from the fellow who brought you the song "Uncorrected Personality Traits" -- you gotta love it.
I don't care about "solving" this song, in the end. It's about mood, and the almost Cubist clash of images; it's about the song's texture, the faint sneer at the edge of Hitchcock's voice, and that hypnotic thrumming groove. For reasons I can't begin to explain, this song lifts me right out of myself, re-orders my thought patterns, and sets me down again in an ever-so-slightly altered state, not visible to the naked eye. But I know now.
Hurry for the Sky sample