Where Are the Prawns?

When I go see Heart of Goldthis weekend, I wonder how many of my fellow Neil Young fanatics in the audience will know that in between Stop Making Sense(1984) and Heart of Gold(2006), Jonathan Demme directed another concert movie: 1998's Storefront Hitchcock, 77 minutes of Robyn Hitchcock playing in a New York City storefront. In many ways, Storefront Hitchcock has more in common with Demme's 1987 Spalding Gray performance film Swimming to Cambodiathan it does with Stop Making Sense.Whereas Stop Making Senseis an elaborate stage show with costumes, set changes and an enlarged live-band version of Talking Heads (featuring Bernie Worrell of P-Funk), Storefront Hitchcockis just Robyn Hitchcock alone in the sort of downtown venue where Gray once delivered his monologues. Aside from Deni Bonet, who joins Hitchcock onstage to play violin on two lovely songs, and the passersby who stop to peer in through the giant picture window behind the stage, Hitchcock holds the stage alone for more than an hour, saying whatever comes into his head, singing in all reaches of his considerable range and playing psychedelic guitar.

Robyn Hitchcock's first band, following some years he spent as a Cambridge (England) folkie, was the Soft Boys, who emerged in the dread year 1977 with the EP Give It to the Soft Boys.The band remains difficult to categorize and was not beloved of the English rock press. Already in 1977, Hitchcock, the Soft Boys' singer-songwriter, was crafting a persona out of what he found in British comedy, Syd Barrett and Captain Beefheart that was too whimsical to connect with a politicized rock scene, though that doesn't explain how the gorgeous harmonies and killing guitar on songs like “The Yodeling Hoover,” “I Wanna Destroy You” and “There's Nobody Like You” went largely unnoticed. Still, I suppose it is understandable that a nation of people facing extreme poverty, racist violence, gender issues and the threat of mutually assured destruction would overlook the work of an artist whose consuming obsessions were tomatoes and crabs.

Certain ideological blind spots among the band's audience notwithstanding, it is true that for every indelible, perfect recording the Soft Boys made—and there are many—there was at least one bewilderingly dull piece of shit. “Where Are the Prawns?” Now, come on, what the fuck was that all about? I have long suspected that Robyn Hitchcock shares a certain kind of perversity with XTC's Andy Partridge, the same quirk that (in a more virulent degree) led Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley to bury tracks that (had they been played on the radio) could have incited riots in grocery stores for cheaper booze, instead releasing and energetically promoting garbage that would have made Judy Garland puke an opioid rainbow. Like: Did the Soft Boys really have to release three versions of “Have a Heart, Betty (I'm Not Fireproof)” when version #1 is one of the most thrilling rock records I have ever heard? And that version didn't even surface until 1993, on the excellent and abominably out-of-print Ryko collection The Soft Boys 1976-81. The other versions are total dog slop.

After the Soft Boys broke up, Hitchcock released two remarkable and very different solo albums: the Bowiesque Black Snake Diamond Röle and the mostly acoustic I Often Dream of Trains (in the manner of my Stalinist enemies, I am eliding the unlistenable Groovy Decay). I Often Dream of Trainsis the only album of Hitchcock's I know that approaches the consistency of his live sets, which never disappoint. His live guitar playing is as inventive and surprising, if not as technically proficient, as Richard Thompson's; his voice is in top shape; and he is more than likely to pull out something supremely holy and unexpected, like his cover of the Byrds' “Draft Morning.” The music on Trainsis so beautiful, the playing so controlled and seemingly effortless, the sound and mood so bare and so timeless, it's easy to forget that Hitchcock is singing “Oh Vera, my sweet/I would offer you some meat/in exchange for a good loaf of wax.” If, up till now, you've never heard of Robyn Hitchcock and you're wondering why, well, that's probably as plausible a reason as any.


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