From Dirty Linen #118 (June/July 2005).
Black Cat, Washington, DC
March 23, 2005
Some singers ply their craft, onstage, with closed eyes, as if channeling old memories or distant deities. Robyn Hitchcock keeps his eyes open, darting around the room with the fly-catching intensity of Dracula’s Renfield.
It can be a little creepy when they settle on you, but rest assured that the former Soft Boys member is merely gathering details. His songs are full of them: They pop at you like flashbulbs, their effects accumulating in your mind’s eye. He opened his solo set at the Black Cat with “Globe of Frogs,” his John Lennon-like voice intoning: “And when she feeds the flowers up they rise their pretty little heads/ And when she waters them they glow and smirk and smile in their beds…”
“Most music is either invocation or exorcism,” Hitchcock later told the crowd. “It’s either ‘fuck me’ or ‘fuck off.’ The best songs combine both.” There was probably more invocation in his set list at the Cat (“I’ve never been inside a Black Cat before,” he noted delightedly), though what with the creepy insect-sex reverie “Ole Tarantula” and the droll “My Wife and My Dead Wife,” it had its own exorcising quality for most listeners. One of his newer love songs, “Television,” blends a sweet, sensual melody with an opening in which Hitchcock sings “Bing-a-bong-a-bing-bong, bing-bong”; its lyrics, at first seeming merely a bunch of double-entendres about someone obsessed with the tube (“My remote is in my hand…I’m so sorry if I turned you off back there”), ultimately reveal a melancholy meditation on loneliness—in part because it’s so clearly an unrequited love.
“Television” was one of several songs from Hitchcock’s most recent album, Spooked, to be offered on this solo tour. Another, “If You Know Time,” furthered the album’s agenda of blending folk, rock, and psychedelia with a slightly larger helping of folk than usual. (The album featured Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.) Over a raga-like acoustic-guitar line, Hitchcock droned lyrics that ultimately took the force of a jeremiad; he got so worked up that he slipped over into a Hendrix tribute, declaring, “Move over, Rover, and let Jimi take over!”
Hitchcock’s skills on both acoustic and electric guitar are too often overlooked in the face of his quirky lyrics. (He’s also a skillful and judicious user of the harmonica, taking its sound far from the boxcar-and-prison-cell clichés.) Like Richard Thompson, whose songs he’s covered in other shows, he can evoke a whole band of guitars. Another gift he shares with Thompson is the ability to blend dark and light, both in his music and between songs. (His preoccupations at the Black Cat involved Karl Rove and emperor penguins.) It’s not so much that he delights in inscrutability; he figures he’s laid it all out for you. Or, as he said in introducing the richly sensual “Vibrating,” “The best way of describing this song is in the lyrics.”
— Pamela Murray Winters