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Baker's Dozen

Grit In One’s Third Eye: Robyn Hitchcock’s Baker’s Dozen
Julian Marszalek , February 11th, 2013 11:14

English songwriter and frontman of The Soft Boys, The Venus Three and The Egyptians, Robyn Hitchcock leads Julian Marszalek through his most played LPs

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Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited
I remember when [The Byrds'] ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ came out and my cousin, who was nine years older and was one of my gurus, said, “Some pop group’s done ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and I don’t know about that!” Because to him folk and jazz where the cool things. He liked Dylan and he like John Coltrane but he wasn’t necessarily going to go for The Beatles or The Byrds because he thought it was a little bit vulgar, that stuff.

And that all changed with Highway 61 because Dylan had got hold of The Beatles and they’d got hold of him. Now you realise that The Byrds were simply The Beatles and Dylan mating and they were their offspring, but I heard them before I’d heard Dylan so I’d worked my way upstream to Dylan. Then, I just hadn’t heard anything like it. It sounded like this voice was speaking directly to me. This voice was like coming out of a cloud and saying, “Listen here, Robyn Hitchcock, you will go forth and play the guitar for the rest of your days! This is what you are going to do!”

He didn’t know he was sending us all off to do this but loads of us did and like tadpoles some of us turned into frogs! Others just got eaten by herons and got straight jobs, man!

But there it was and now, 46 or so years later there’s still nothing like it. It was kind of music that had never happened before because he brought Brecht and poetry and a whole load of things from one medium to another like Bowie brought theatre into rock. But with Highway 61 he brought in Mike Bloomfield and The Butterfield Blues Band and he brought in Bo Diddley, essentially. It was kind of the template for what he does now but funnily enough, what he does now is more old-fashioned than Highway 61; he plays kind of jump swing these days and I think he kind of sees himself as a cross between Howling Wolf and Jimmie Rodgers.

But back then there had been nothing sonically like Highway 61 or like ‘Tombstone Blues’. What The Rolling Stones and The Beatles were doing, he’d obviously listened to it but his stuff was much more intense and, up to his bike crash, Dylan had the energy to make everything intense. Listen to Blonde On Blonde [adopts Dylan voice]: "Every. Word. Is. Em-pha-sised!" There’s not even a gap to put a punch line in. His timing is still great to this day but it was like Syd Barrett; it was undiluted talent and doubtless fuelled by the times and the dope. He was on the right side of his drugs at that point and everything was just enhanced and clarified and he was only 23 or 24. I didn’t write a decent song till I was 25 and by that age Dylan had peaked.

He did well. He was grounded in Minnesota iron ore so he’s always had a foot in reality but when you have that many people staring at you it’s hard to be an observer and Dylan was great when he was an observer. He was still an observer when he wrote Highway 61 and he wasn’t reacting to people reacting to him. You could feel him getting angry, that as he grew more successful he grew angrier at what was happening to him and perhaps that made him angry with himself. Maybe it was the toxicity of the drugs or the people that were surrounding him or contempt perhaps that he felt for the public and the fact that it took a while for people to catch up with him.

It led to him, by the 70s, being very self-involved and sounding rather petulant. You listen to ‘Idiot Wind’ and there’s a lot of anger in there but it’s like some animal that’s been woken up: “Oh fuck! What’s all this! Oh God! Go away!” It sounds a bit graceless but Highway 61 is really angry but it’s also really exuberant and he’s pointing his fingers and complaining about Uncle Bill and railing against the princess on the steeple and Mr Jones, I think, is Dylan. I don’t think you can have it in for somebody like that unless it was for yourself. To me, it’s the idea of being very paranoid and you’re stoned. There’s a great line in Dylan’s novel, Tarantula, where he says: “Zonk hated himself and when he got too high he thought that he was a mirror” and I think ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’ is like somebody’s got stoned and is having this terrible existential horror – “Oh my God! I exist! Aaaargh!” and then all these lines from Scott Fitzgerald start appearing. I read The Great Gatsby again recently and found all these lines in Love And Theft.

He’s angry but he’s exuberant. That’s what I love about Dylan. At his best, he’s such a mixture of contradicting emotions. You’re not just getting rage, you’re not just getting humour, it’s all mixed in and that’s why that stuff lasts.

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Feb 11, 2013 6:35pm

Excellent reading. Give this man his own spot on Quietus!

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Barthold Pelzer
Feb 11, 2013 6:35pm

One could moan: Yeah, a lot of predictable entries, few surprises (apart possibly from The Kinks are Village Green Preservation Society missing). But then there is this delightful and genuinely surprising last choice. And profound and entertaining musings about each and every entry, which make this an excellent and read. Thanks for presenting ever so enlightening music journalism.

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Feb 11, 2013 6:49pm

Funny isn't it? He selects the same bunch of records that a whole host of other aged musicians have chosen but I don't feel like groaning out load. Why? Because he has really really engaged with these and has some wonderful insightful comments to make. So thanks Robyn, this has been the best Dozen for a long long time.

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Feb 11, 2013 8:50pm

White people suck, especially the Beatles and fucking Bowie. Some people should never be allowed NEAR Captain Beefheart and it seems Robyn is one. (Oh yeah, Robyn made half a good album thirty years ago, I should be 'thankful'?)

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Post-Punk Monk
Feb 11, 2013 8:53pm

I have to say that this was engrossing reading! Could it be that it's time for Robyn to start writing a career sideline? As soon as I read this I looked to see if he had written any books that I might have missed! Anyone who can me care about the like of The Doors or The Beatles is an alchemist of words!
For further rumination on the Fresh New Sound of Yesterday®

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Feb 11, 2013 9:49pm

What a great read! Robyn's enthusiasm is totally infectious, & it's patently obvious that he's still a rabid listener to, & lover of, music. He always comes across as a stand-up gent who knows his shit &, consequently, I could listen to him ramble on for hours...

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peluche brutale
Feb 11, 2013 10:54pm

No revelations but, as others said, quite an engrossing read. it's good to share such a personal, passionate and well listened through selection of some of the best music of the last century. perhaps he should be invited to write more on the quietus about his mate peter buck, which seem to make him so proud.

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chris church
Feb 11, 2013 11:58pm

Robyn is just wonderful. Was listening to Ole Tarantula earlier. As said already nothing too surprising (Avalon excepted?) but his summation and insights are worth anyone's time Thanks for this!

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Feb 12, 2013 1:56am

In reply to :

Bitter, party of one...

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Fielding Melish
Feb 12, 2013 6:11am

In reply to :

Sparkling insight. I'm so glad you thought to write in!

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James McKeown
Feb 12, 2013 11:21am

What an absolute joy to read. At the first scan through, I thought some of the choices were a bit obvious, on further reading I understood a whole new level of explaination and tangents - which is a classic Hitchcock trait! I'm a massive fan of Robyn and his work. I would love to see him do a spoken word tour, just sharing anecdotes and stories of his life. Clean Steve Fabulous.

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Wayne Champagne
Feb 12, 2013 12:13pm

An absolute joy. Fresh and enlightening perspectives on well worn themes.

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Feb 12, 2013 9:54pm

A thundering good read! Since I’ll soon be taking to the trees too, I’d weave all of these into my nest.
I remember reading a top ten list by Robyn about 30 years ago. As I recall, a lot of the same stuff was on it. A few there that didn’t make this list: Martin Carthy’s “Shearwater,” Nic Drake’s “Pink Moon,” and Kinks “Village Green….” were there as I recall, though my memory of that essay is a little dim. I don’t think “Avalon” had been recorded yet though.
I ‘m interested to read of RH’s preference for a post Cale VU. To my mind, his ideas was what made their music interesting. His solo lp “Paris 1919” is singular in the same way that RH’s “I Often Dream of Trains” is: sparse, vaguely familiar but distinctly original.

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Rob Curry
Feb 13, 2013 3:56am

Very nice! This is one of the most engaging of the Baker's Dozen articles. I am not familiar with his music, but I am going to remedy that situation. And if any of it is half as witty as this piece, I shall be in for a treat.

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Orthodox Caveman
Jun 21, 2013 5:33pm

In reply to :

Troll detected!

Robyn is awesome. Like many others have said, he doesn't have particularly original choices, but his rationale for each choice and his way of communicating his ideas about music, life, and history are engrossing. This is one of my favorite Baker's Dozen entries.

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