The alternatives are not placid servitude on the one hand and revolt against servitude on the other. There is a third way, chosen by thousands and millions of people every day. It is the way of quietism, of willed obscurity, of inner emigration.
READIN started out as a place for me
to keep track of what I am reading, and to learn (slowly, slowly)
how to design a web site.
There has been some mission drift
here and there, but in general that's still what it is. Some of
the main things I write about here are
listening to (and playing) music, and
watching the movies. Also I write about the
work I do with my hands and with my head; and of course about bringing up Sylvia.
The site is a bit of a work in progress. New features will come on-line now and then; and you will occasionally get error messages in place of the blog, for the forseeable future. Cut me some slack, I'm just doing it for fun! And if you see an error message you think I should know about, please drop me a line. READIN source code is PHP and CSS, and available on request, in case you want to see how it works.
So there you are with about sixty other Fegmaniax sitting on
folding chairs in
Mark C.'s studio in Freehold (Central Jersey -- just around the corner
from where Springsteen went to high school), everybody's introducing
themselves and chatting and feeling psyched for the evening's show. And
Robyn Hitchcock comes in! He notes as he walks up to the stage how this
venue is a bit like an airplane cabin -- five seats on each side, please
keep the center aisle clear; take time to locate the exit nearest you, and
if you need to use the restroom, please use the appropriate one for your
class. If you think somebody else paid more for their ticket than you did
for yours, defer to them. "So everybody was here last time, right? ..." He takes off his coat and picks up his
guitar; wearing a hot pink shirt with embroidery and a green scarf that
gets tangled in the strap as he takes it off. "I don't wear glasses when
I'm performing, I just wanted to see you for a moment -- now I'll return to
my womblike state of myopia," and hangs his specs off the side of a lamp
next to the mic stand, and starts to play. "You'll never have the damned
thing out," he sings, and you sink into the beat of Surgery
(Gotta Let Ths Hen Out!, 1985†).
"This is a song about the emotional baggage you carry with you from
one relationship to another. I didn't figure that out for about 20 years
after I wrote it. Could you give me some delay on the vocals here, Mark,
this is sort of a rock & roll sea chanty." The Ghost
Ship (You & Oblivion, 1995). I wonder where my love has
been, tonight -- "Just imagine I'm Art Garfunkel:" Swirling
(Queen Elvis, 1989), which "I wrote when I was in the middle of
splitting up with someone, and also splitting up with with the second
person... it was a memorable experience." He explains how we
have to be angry, or we wouldn't be alive -- so "do you indulge
your quite justified rage at existence, or bite the bullet and inherit the
From here he moves straight into The Devil's
Coachman (also from Queen Elvis). A bit of a digression
here about how his guitar strings are all worn out -- just yesterday they
were fresh and new, like tulips! "But thrash on tulips for a few hours,
they're not tulips anymore. You're just beatin' on that daffodil, baby! ...I
see we're just over Iceland now." Travel in the future, you learn, will be
much easier: just reduce yourself to a powder and FedEx yourself to your
destination to be rehydrated. "Wilbur! You're here! Welcome to Marin
County." All you've got to do is Ride... (Perspex Island, 1991) "Oxycontin
for mama, baby Jesus for the rest of us:" Madonna of the
Wasps (Queen Elvis again), going out to P. Buck.
"The practice known as vudu has been around for a long time. (Like
most things.) When you wish ill on somebody, a tiny grain inside you dies.
But you can't wish well on everybody -- can you? What do you think when
you look in the mirror? -- besides wishing for a face lift..." Wax Doll (yes,
And now the harmonica is out! Drink a little coffee! ("We proudly brew
Starbucks™! ...How else can you brew Starbucks™?
shamefacedly?...") And a bit of tuning, tuning "as an agent provocateur,
pushing the string farther out of tune and then bringing it back so it
sounds better," leads into Queen Elvis (Eye, 1990) A bit of a digression
here asking whether the lamp by the mic stand (not the one he hung his
glasses on, a different one) is a Tiffany lamp... What distinguishes it
from a Tiffany lamp? Could it be made into a Tiffany lamp? Various
people from the audience are throwing in commentary, differing on a
variety of points, which is good -- "Consensus is very disturbing; if
everyone thinks along the same lines it usually means there's some kind
of fascism afoot." Maybe tonight you're dreaming... Arms of Love
(Respect, 1993). "If you're in Nashville, be sure to stop by the 5
Spot... especially if you like smoke and alcohol, like I do. (I'm from the
past, where it's not dangerous.)" More tuning -- "this guitar took a fall
today, coming into Amboy, South Amboy, it might be a problem..." -- and One Long Pair of
Eyes (Queen Elvis!) is the last of the back-catalogue tunes.
He closes out the set with two covers, Oh Yeah by
Roxy Music and She Belongs to Me by Tubby the Evangelist, and a
new song not yet released*, with the lyric "A window of bliss/ that
opened just once/ for the price of a kiss."
The encore happens in Mark's dining room next to the potluck supper,
and is 100% Basement Tapes tunes -- "Tiny Montgomery", "Lo and
Behold", "Quinn the Eskimo", and "Open the Door, Richard". You have some
baked beans and some pasta salad and a beer, and marvel at the glow of
happiness on everybody's faces.
†(On the video tape of GLTHO -- It was not released on a record until You & Oblivion)
* (as far as I can tell -- not able to find anything about it on Google or in conversation with other fans.)
Knight from Presto MusiCo in Point Pleasant was at the show in Freehold and made some lovely, ghostly videos of a couple of songs. Look at his YouTube channel for "Crystal Ship" and more. The impressionistic quality of the video -- its pixellations, its lacks of focus -- is really key to capturing the weary feeling of "River Man". Watch it full screen.
This afternoon's show was fantastic. I have really been anticipating it for a month or more now, and it was worth the waiting for. The whole concert was acoustic, no amplification at all, just Robyn and his guitar, about 50 people in the audience -- his amazing voice and his guitar. (There was a pleasant cognitive dissonance between that and the much larger, packed Bell House show last night. Both shows were in best-ever territory but the two could not have been more different.)
He comes in to Mark's garage where we are sitting and starts talking about the show, says Thank you so let's see what it sounds like... I'm going to play as many of your requests as I have time to play. First a little context, I'd like to play a couple of cover songs. "In the unlikely event of a water landing, please locate the exits nearest you..." and starts strumming, blocking out chords, "Mark and Elaine will equip you with flotation devices should you not feel sufficiently buoyant.But remember... God wants you just the way you are..." His Dylan cover takes you away, seizes hold of you -- the music and the voice will have complete control over the events of the coming hour.
Thank you he says, and without a beat lost continues laying out his context -- "Dear Prudence" he dedicates to Michele and Montague, he plays a Barrett tune -- Thank you he says Thank you, that's what I'm all about. That's what I've been aiming for and missing all these years. What you're hearing today is what I've come up with over the years, how I've fallen short of my aspirations. But this is a collection of Robyn Hitchcock songs. And here starts playing his own music. He tells us that a song is always, properly considered, a form of invocation or of exorcism, a summoning up or a getting rid of. Plays for us devotional songs. (Last night's songs had been more of the exhortative genre.) After the set we went out to Mark's back yard and he played a few more cover tunes in the unseasonably pleasant outdoors. (It felt as my friend Jeanne remarked, "like being extras in Rachel Getting Married.")
The whole afternoon had a pleasant patina of starstruckness to it. It was weird and enjoyable to be chatting with and eating dinner with one's musical idol, to be able to listen to his music in such an intimate setting. Many thanks to hosts Mark and Elaine Costanzo. Set list below the fold.
I'm counting the hours going by until this weekend -- have tickets to see Robyn Hitchcock at The Bell House on Saturday night, and tickets to see Robyn Hitchcock at Mark and Elaine Costanzo's studio on Sunday! This is going to be a great weekend... Here is some classic Hitchcock to tide us over in the mean time.
I've been listening to "All I want to do is fall in love" a lot lately, it is on its way to replacing "Birds in Perspex" as my favorite love song. John and I covered it the other night and I think we did a really good job... The studio concert is being billed as "requests only" -- this is a strong candidate for my request.
Update with some further posts about the Sunday show -- the Food Pie I brought along for the potluck; my notes and set list (which he signed for me!)
"This music is a place that cardinally does not and never has existed." -- Robyn had opened the concert with some pure music, "Sometimes I wish I was a pretty girl" playing on a tape recorder as he walks in wearing a top hat, sits down at the piano and starts playing with the tape speed. He quickly tires of that, turns off the tape and plays "Nocturne"; then Terry Edwards walks out carrying some wind instruments and they perform "Flavor of Night" together. It was kind of a somber opening, I found -- but after Robyn started talking about his music, things warmed up a lot. Captain Keegan came on stage while he was describing the process of dissecting his lyrics as similar to looking at magnified pictures of rotting tomatoes online, wasting valuable time when you could be sending e-mails, and they launched into "Sounds Great When You're Dead" -- this is Photo by Dave Kaufman when the dim blue lighting became bright and red, and everybody started smiling and moving. "These songs are basically subtitles," said Robyn, "they flash up underneath while life is going on" and serve as a means of translation between understanding and feeling, or words to that effect. And played "I Used to Say I Love You." He had some technical difficulties with a loose wire during this song but recovered from it very gracefully -- the final line of the chorus is "And I've lost my illusions about you now", but instead he said as his amplifier crackled and retched, "And I've... ah, really fucked up this guitar, keep it going for a minute you guys, I'm just going to plug this in really deep here,..." and came back to reprise the chorus. There was a lot of chat about editing thrown in at various points during the show, because it was being filmed for inclusion in a documentary of the tour, for instance IIRC Robyn said something about editing out that bit with the recovery from the technical difficulties. I hope they would not; that was one of the really key lovely moments in the show. (Also lovely: in the program was a chronology of Hitchcock's life and work from his POV, similar to this one but expanded through 2009.) Robyn made his first of many references to the recent election when he said of November 4th, "suddenly the scheme of things did not suck." He talked about how he wrote IODOT during the Reagan/Thatcher years when there was not much to feel hopeful about, but he had flashes of hope such as the one that led him to write this song: and played "This Could Be The Day", with "Nubian slaves" inexplicably edited to "Nubian Dave". Then Edwards gets up from the piano and takes Robyn's electric guitar, the black one with white polka dots that matches his shirt, and Robyn says "This is gonna be in C. C, the mother of all keys..." and talks for a while about key signatures and editing -- "We've just survived 8 years of faith. Let's see where a little disbelief can get us." And the three of them sang "Sleeping Knights of Jesus", with some great edits to bring the song up to date a bit. Talked for a while about railroads as an embodiment of love as an intro to "Trams of Old London", and then talked about the physical skeleton of the city, as an intro to "My Favorite Buildings". "Catholicism is best described as a form of insurance. ... Oh crap, did the Lord cut off my mic? -- It's back, someone must have given him something." And they played "Mother Church", and Terry and Tim left the stage, and Robyn played a solo "I Often Dream of Trains" on electric guitar with all of his enormous personality focused into the microphone -- this song was stunning and brought a standing ovation, one which brought everybody back out for some encores. In the encores they played a song I didn't know but which I loved, and have asked the Fegs to identify for me;* and both songs from "Rachel Getting Married" (which Ellen hopes gets an Oscar for its music); and "Listening to the Higsons". And a special extra encore, after everybody had gotten up and started moving toward the exits, of "Goodnight I Say" -- which was funny and nice, because I had been thinking before the show about how this would be the ideal closing number. Anyway: too long and too unfiltered a post; I just wanted to get some of this down while I still remembered it.
(Oh, I forgot, something I really liked: the last thing Robyn said at the end of the first encore, and I think as all the musicians on stage were playing the final notes of "Higsons", was something like, "Things never end. But for the purposes of editing, we're going to stop here." And the sound cut off, and the musicians exited. The extra musicians playing on the encore were Gaida Hinnawi on vocals and Amir El Saffar on horn, both from the cast of Rachel Getting Married.)
(Another thing I just remembered: After Terry and Tim had left the stage at the end of the set, before Robyn played "I Often Dream of Trains," he spoke for a bit about the concert ending -- "This is the needle lifting from the dusty groove" -- he likened the end of a record or concert to the transition from sleep to wakefulness, the music being a remembered dream, and the transition from "then" to "now." "But this is still then," and started playing.)
*And the responding Feg says, Robyn played this song on Wednesday too (at World Cafe Live), and she thinks she has never heard it before. Which I take to mean it's a new composition.... Another Feg says, it is called "I'm Falling" and is written for the soundtrack of The Fifth Beatle. It will be track 4 of Goodnight Oslo.
That's what Robyn Hitchcock's grandma used to say, or so he told us this evening -- he said nobody ever turned into his grandma, so he dedicated "I'm Only You" to her. This was the second song, after "The Museum of Sex" -- I was happy to hear him open with this song after I had opened my mix tape with it.
"I'm Only You" was followed by a long digression on digestion, and whether and under what circumstances we would feel comfortable discussing our digestions, leading into "a digestion song", viz."The Cheese Alarm", which made Ellen (and me) laugh out loud with its urgency. "Please! Somebody ring the cheese alarm!" Robyn conducted a dialogue with the audience after, asking if WALL-E is any good -- "Yeah!" -- "That's good to know... Can you all hear this?" -- "Yeah!" -- "That's good to know -- it's reassuring to think this is all not just going on in here..." and played, with much dancing during the solos, "I Got the Hots for You" and "Glass Hotel".
"Thank you --" and as he started playing "Idonia", "This is about someone who left a hole the shape of themselves in somebody else's life." As he was retuning to play his next song, people in the audience were calling out requests, and he said with just enough of an edge to get them to stop, "You know there's a thin line between a devoted admirer and a creep... To be a slave to love -- what a thing!" and sang "The Idea of You".
A long digression about the Victorians -- "It's possible that the Victorians were frightened by sex... Victorians wrote mostly in longhand, no e-mail. But biologically they were much the same as us..." reflecting on the possibilities of interbreeding between modern humans and Victorians, getting particularly interesting if the Victorians in question are your own ancestors; "Screw your great-grandparents! Whole empires have been founded on worse. But this song is not really about that:" and launched into the hilarious "Victorian Squid". "Thank you -- it's all true."
The next song, "Creeped Out", went out to "a friend of mine -- it's her birthday on Monday. Happy birthday, friend!" and while he tuned up for the next song, he said: "There's something insanely simple about watching somebody perform songs he's written -- it's like somebody sending you YouTube videos of cats..." and dedicated the song, which was "I Feel Beautiful", to "Michèle and our cat". Ellen thought this was a really smart lyric, and I agree.
"How many people find the idea of eternity relaxing?" Not many -- mostly we want finitude. Robyn played "Oceanside", which was maybe the only song of the evening that really had me wishing for a band behind him. "This isn't exactly about Arthur Lee -- it's just around him..." and sings "The Wreck of the Arthur Lee", which I guess I had not realized was about a person. "It's a funny thing about eulogies -- essentially it's sad -- ... what really makes people cry at a funeral is the jokes," by way of explaining why he had written "Underground Sun" so upbeat -- it's about a friend who died, who was "definitely not a dismal person." "When people are dead they don't have an age."
"I'll leave you with a blast of folk-rock sound," Robyn tells us as he dons his harmonica, and plays "Only the Stones Remain" with a downright amazing harmonica part. But we clapped and clapped, and he came back out to perform a long encore -- wearing his purple shirt with iguanas rather than his orange shirt with dingbats. "You've Got Heaven"* was the first song in the encore, and Ellen's favorite song of the evening. Then a song I don't know (and can't find at The Asking Tree), with the chorus "I'm gonna see you in the afterlife." And finally, after a long digression about cones (during which he wished us all "an incredibly long rest of your lives"), Olé Tarantula.
Nice -- a totally satisfying evening. The level of energy he projects from the stage just takes my breath away.
*Wow! "Heaven" is from the early eighties -- somehow I had got fixed in my head that it was from a recent record. I think it sounds much more like late-nineties Hitchcock than do any of the other songs on "Gotta Let This Hen Out".
I got into the theater and discovered it's a lovely room. Who knew there was a beautiful ballroom on the top floor of Manhattan Center? I did not. My seat was in the front row -- the dance floor had been covered with rows of seats -- about 15 feet away from the performers. The crowd was mostly white, but exhibited a wide diversity of age and of fashion sense.
Robyn walked out onto the stage and informed us the building was originally an airship, until it was taken out of comission in the thirties, "around when many people believe the Marx Brothers peaked." -- From there he segued into a story about Groucho Marx traveling cross-country on ducks, "very long ducks that moved on rails and belched coal;" this was by way of introducing his first song, "Heaven," which I did not recognize though I believe I've heard it before -- it is a sweet love song. Next was "Daisy Bomb," which I'm sure I've never heard. It is startling and catchy, and I thought, Awesome, this is going to be a night of new songs for me.
Sometimes a bomb is not enough To express the way I feel
Robyn spent a minute tuning his guitar and explained how tuning as part of the show is very important, "tuning up a guitar is the sex part of" sex, drugs, rock n' roll. You see, if you as the audience absorb the tuning-up vibes through your coccyx, you will be able to radiate them outwards later on, when you go up to the tower to feed your pet hamster, or gerbil, or rodent. Be careful, you don't fall over and set fire to his straw! And he played "I Got the Hots," beautiful and funny. He seems to play this very frequently and that is alright by me. A lovely pantomime with his guitar at the beginning of it.
Robyn talked about his being "Nick Lowe's psychedelic younger brother," and how that was reflected in the shirts they buy and wear. Then he played "Wax Doll" and "The Cheese Alarm," two more songs I was not familiar with. I guess a large area of his catalog remains for me to explore!
A little more tuning -- Robyn talked about how he was "tuning by consensus -- you see if two strings agree, I will tune the third to match them, even though the third might have been the one that was correct all along... like the people who thought we should not invade Iraq. The majority rules." He played "Full Moon in my Soul," which I love, love, love, and "One Long Pair of Eyes," and then talked about how Gandhi kept a Stratocaster and a Marshall stack next to his bed, but never played -- it was an exercise in resisting temptation -- "He never even touched the strings..." and played "Glass Hotel," which I think he plays nearly as often as "I Got the Hots," and which I like, but not quite as well as the other.
The last song of this all-too-short set was a new song, possibly called "I declare that we are free," written for the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights. Robyn said he had been asked to write it on short notice "because David Crosby was not available," and that it is going to be performed in a stadium in Holland, so we should imagine that it is "produced and in tune".
And he left the stage! But, came back out for encores after Nick Lowe did his set. The final two encores were just tremendous, the best thing in the whole show: Robyn and Nick and surprise guest Elvis Costello playing "If I Fell in Love with You" and "Mystery Train", the whole audience was a single body. Robyn took lead vocal on both, totally appropriate given that he has the best voice of the three.
Lowe's set was, well, a little corny it must be said. He is a handsome man and an excellent, charismatic showman; but his songs are lacking in the spark of genius. He played "Cruel to be Kind," "What's So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding," "All Men are Liars" and some other tunes I thought I recognized, plus some new stuff. Some lovely tunes but just a bit corny.
Update: Here are some pix from SketchGuy... who blogs about the show here.