Thursday, November 20, 2008

My Favorites : Robert Wyatt - Rock Bottom (2)

This alternative cover art was designed by Alfie, Robert's wife, for the 1998 reissue of the album. Much more colourful and reminding that this album is not so depressing as it seems...

A lot (and its countrary) has been said about Rock Bottom. The story behind it is so strong (the accident) that it turned into a legend. I remember, as a kid (well I was 19 or 20), when I came across this record and started to like then love then worship it, I was told amazing stories : he was high on LSD, thought he was a bird, jumped out the window, woke up in the hospital with his lifeless legs and then wrote the whole thing out of the blue. Seen from this point of view, of course the album, with its title, looks very desperate and depressing.

But the reality is much different, and I have led my investigations for you, going through my own (physical and virtual) musical library, reading Wrong Movements - A Robert Wyatt History by Michael King when it was released in 1999, and the very helpful liner notes in the 1998 reissue, and -Oh God, I just discovered a goldmine, a site called Disco-Robert Wyatt in French, but with an interviews section with articles in English.

Anyway, the first two sources have been compiled in a very good Wikipedia article about the album. Le me quote the main point about the making of Rock Bottom :

Although the music itself is intense and often harrowing, and the lyrics to the songs are dense and obviously deeply personal, Wyatt has denied that the material was a direct result of the accident and the long period of recuperation. Indeed, much of the album had been written while in Venice in early 1973 prior to Wyatt's accident, where his partner and future wife (the poet Alfreda Benge) was working as an assistant editor on Nicolas Roeg's similarly haunting and intense film "Don't Look Now".

But I think the best would be to let Wyatt himself tell that story. So here are his commentary on the 1998 liner notes :

This music began to emerge in Venice, during the winter of 1972, on the tiny island of Giudecca in a hugh old house overlooking the lagoon.
For a couple of months I spent the days alone, while Alfie and a bunch of friends spent their days working on a film. After years of constant work, in groups and on the road, I was uneasy about doing nothing all day. To keep me occupied, Alfie bought me a very basic little keyboard with a particular vibrato, that shimmered like the water that surrounded us. The basic structure of the music was written there, in between watching the lizards on the walls of the house and visiting the local bar to listen to out-of-work gondoliers practicing 'O Sole Mio'.
'Don't Look Now', the film that my friends were working on, centered around a series of unforseen disasters in the life of a couple. Venice itself featured as a sinister presence in the film. Alfie always remembers Nic Roeg, the director, reiterating the theme of the film;

Back in London, during the spring of 1973, I began to organise a new group to perform the material I was preparing. I continued work on the music, and wrote the words for 'Alife', 'Sea Song', and 'A Last Straw' in Alifie's flat on the 21st floor of a recently built council block in the Harrow Road. This block was demolished a few years ago. It was a health hazard, riddled with flaking asbestos. The space that we had occupied, where we'd got to know each other, is now just part of the sky. We often look back at that air, and imagine our ghostly young selves suspended there, unprepared for what was to come.

On June 1st 1973, the night before the new group was to have its first rehearsal, I fell from a fourth floor window and broke my spine. I was sent to Stoke Mandeville Hospital for eight months, where they saved my life and taught me how to live in a wheelchair.
I spent three months lying flat on my back, gazing at the ceiling of a surreal public dormitory amongst twenty others whose lives had also radically changed in a split of a second; victims of bad driving, industrial accidents, a misjudged somersault on a trampoline, a wrong-footed escape during a burglary. We all had to think about our future.
I came to terms with the fact that I was no longer a drummer, and that going on the road would be very problematic. I no longer needed to prepare music for a permanent group, I'd have to concentrate on recording, and I'd have to sing more. I would be able to choose different musicians for different songs. I didn't need to have the same instruments on every song. The loss of my legs might give me a new kind of freedom. (The cat burglar was considering fraud as a new career).
Between visitors, operations and hospital bustle, I began to think about the music I'd been preparing in a different way. At the end of three months, I was given my wheelchair, and discovered an old piano in the visitors' room. I played truant as often as I could from the activities that newly paralised people are given as therapy (archery, and glueing mosaics on bottles to make weird lamps), and escaped to the piano, whenever the room was free, to develop the songs I'd begun with the lizards by the Venice lagoon.
By the time I left the hospital, I was ready to record, but we now had nowhere to live. A kind friend, Delfina, lent us a wheelchair-friendly cottage in Wiltshire. There, at the beginning of 1974, I began to record with Virgin Records' Mobile Studio parked in the adjoining field, while a donkey brayed in the background. In the spring we found a home in London where I prepared for the contributions from the other musicians which were recorded and mixed at the Manor Studio and CBS.
On July 26th, 1974, (the 21st anniversary of the attack on Moncada, which was the first action that led to the Cuban Revolution), Rock Bottom was released, and I married Alfie,and we lived happily ever after.

And also, this, from an interview with the Guardian :

When I was in hospital after the accident in 1973 [which left Wyatt paralysed] , I was writing stuff in my head. I'd started writing what became Rock Bottom and, after a few months, when I was up in my wheelchair, I found an old piano in the visitors' room, which luckily never had any visitors in it. I was trying to remember what I was writing so I wouldn't forget it when I left hospital. I was listening to the record I hadn't made yet, running these things over in my head so I wouldn't forget them as I had no access to recording or anything like that. In fact, it's a great way to write, to constantly go over things in your head. It got to the point where I felt I'd already listened to it before I'd even recorded it.

OK, that's all for the moment, because I have a lot to read on this new site. If something interesting comes up, I'll let you know.

I leave you with another demo, the beautiful and moving love song, Alifib

Robert Wyatt - Alifib (demo) (buy)

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