Diablog: Adventure Robyn Hitchcock

Did I just hear the words "wait till you see the statues in my bathroom!" shoot out of your home theater system?

Yes you did.

And a few minutes ago, if I am not mistaken, it was "Lucy put a bean in her nostril."

You are not mistaken.

And then there were "I can point to Norway with my fist," "I'm not a yam," and "please don't call me Reg, it's not my name."


Though my all-time favorite would have to be "A pox upon the media and everything you read/They tell you your opinions and they're very good indeed."

Somehow, I knew I Wanna Destroy You would be your favorite.

OK, I'll bite. Who is it and what is this stuff all over our livingroom floor?

It's Robyn Hitchcock. He's been writing surreal songs for about 30 years, mainly about love, death, and seafood. His models are Syd Barrett, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon, to whom he bears a vocal resemblance. You can't argue with that kind of taste. I'm trying to organize my sprawling collection of digital and analog collectibles for transfer to MP3. It's for Brian, our friend who sells guitars when he's not playing them. He called me up asking about Robyn and mentioned that used-record merchants are asking up to $75 for some out-of-print items. So I'm turning him into a Robyn Hitchcock fan.

Stealing from your hero? You ought to be ashamed of yourself.

Don't worry. Brian believes in supporting recording artists. He's one himself, after all. It's safe to say he's already addicted--four of the six CDs in his car changer are Robyn. I'm just sending him the things he wouldn't have been able to locate or afford on his guitar-salesman earnings. Unfortunately much of Robyn's impressive discography is out of print.

When you said "sprawling collection," you weren't kidding. Is there a square inch of carpet I can step on without slipping on a flexi-disc?

Robyn is almost as creative at marketing as he is at songwriting. He doesn't have millions of fans but the ones he does have are avid collectors. Even as far back as the Soft Boys, his old band from 1976-81, he was releasing singles with interesting B-sides. By the time the Soft Boys gave way to the Egyptians, there were 12-inch 45s and the occasional limited-edition cassette. With the onset of the digital era he got in the habit of punctuating major-label CD releases with companion releases. So Jewels for Sophia sits on the shelf next to A Star for Bram. And the bookend for Moss Elixir is Mossy Liquor.

Why did you buy the second one on vinyl?

That's the only way it was released. Robyn has a soft spot for vinyl. If you buy the two-LP edition of Storefront Hitchcock, the soundtrack from the Jonathan Demme film, you get several extra songs plus completely different takes of the spoken-word intros. But with his new CD, Olé! Tarantula, Robyn has outdone himself. He's gotten me to buy three products in a row: the main CD, also available on LP; a CD-EP called Sex, Food, Death...and Tarantulas; and a download of the latter with three extra tracks. You can download any of the tracks individually and there's also a ringtone. I passed on the ringtone but bought the CD, CD-EP, and download.

I don't get it. Why not just buy the main CD and the download? You don't need the CD-EP, do you?

I do if I want the two videos on it.


Robyn has always been an enthusiastic user of new technology. My Hitchcock archive includes CDs, LPs, 7- and 12-inch 45s, limited-edition live cassettes, DVDs, a VHS tape, and some true oddities like the 3-inch Balloon Man CD released in tandem with Globe of Frogs. And the flexi-disc you mentioned, though those tracks have since appeared on CD. Even the bonuses come with bonuses, like the 7-inch 45 that comes with deluxe 3-LP edition of Underwater Moonlight. Unfortunately, being an early adopter, I missed out on all the bonus tracks that came with the CD re-releases of various albums.

Something to live for. Is Robyn represented among your concert bootlegs, the collection that dare not speak its name?

As a matter of fact, those two shoeboxes are full of analog audiocassettes. But I won't get to them for awhile because I've found something even better. Perhaps acknowledging that his fans are good paying customers, Robyn his given his blessing to free concert downloads on archive.org. I downloaded eight gigabytes of stuff over the weekend.

You are absolutely mad. Or at least committed.

My old Sony Walkman Professional and ECM-909 mic don't hold a candle to the bootlegging rigs today's fans are using. They've got DATs, professional mics, and a degree of digital-editing diligence that make my old unedited cassettes look like absurd relics. Archive.org lists all those details and lets you download many items in your choice of FLAC, Ogg, MP3 at 64mbps, and MP3 at higher variable data rates. Entire concerts can be downloaded as zip files.

I smell an upgrade in the works. Before long you'll be plugging your own fancy mic into a new hard-disk recorder, right?

No, I gave up bootlegging concerts 15 years ago. I treasure a few of the tapes I made back then, but most of them I haven't heard since the day after I recorded them, and I came to realize that I was missing something by fussing with my recorder and checking levels every other minute. Today I prefer to listen in the moment, burning the music into my brain. Instead of dodgy tapes I have golden memories. It's more than a fair trade. My only regret is that of the two shows I saw at the Knitting Factory in March, only one is available for download, and the previous day's gig was the one with "See Emily Play," possibly the best of Robyn's many Syd Barrett tributes. Oh well...there's always YouTube.

Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater and tastemaster of Happy Pig's Hot 100 New York Restaurants.