You know that saying, the devil is in the detail? I think the devil runs the show, and God is in the detail.
Robert Wyatt’s music has been a source of nourishment for me since the very first time I heard it, one day in a Brooklyn apartment, getting stoned and spinning records with a musician friend. Within the space of a few weeks my friend had turned me on to innumerable jazz and outside composers and albums, but few have been as enduring in my heart and mind as Wyatt. The album was Rock Bottom and by the end of the first side the music had transported me out of my body; I was completely swallowed by that recording.
Wyatt has been a companion ever since but I had never thought to write about him. The immensity of his inspiration has always combined with my general insecurity concerning writing about music. Now, with the new authorized biography, Different Every Time by Marcus O’Dair, I have a convenient way of beginning to articulate my love of this artist.
As far as reviewing the book, I’m compelled to report at the beginning that O’Dair’s writing is competent if not dazzling. I couldn’t recommend Different Every Time on its literary or historical merits the way I could de Kooning by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, for example, even though Wyatt’s story is every bit as interesting as de Kooning’s. But it does tell the story and I like the fact that, as with the Stevens and Swan book, Wyatt’s standing as a great artist, while it certainly can’t be ignored, does not color the story in its unfolding. We see Wyatt in his plain humanity, a person with depressions and suicidal periods, insecurities, fears and money concerns. It’s important to know what the Robert Wyatt experience is from his point of view and from those closest to him. O’Dair does very well what a biographer should do: he gives us the unadorned facts so that we can decide how we feel about them. So, if the subject interests you, I can wholeheartedly endorse this book. But if it doesn’t, I’m not sure this will win you over. Better instead to go straight to the music. Start with Rock Bottom, and then check out the first three Soft Machine albums.
I learned some things from Different Every Time. I didn’t know, for example, that Wyatt has struggled with periods of deep depression, or that he attempted suicide several times. I didn’t know how profoundly damaging it was to have been squeezed out of The Soft Machine. I had seen his solo career as a triumph and the subsequent Soft Machine as devoid of interest. But from Wyatt’s point of view it was devastating. It should not have come as a surprise though, since I had identified the deep sadness of Rock Bottom immediately, beneath its playfulness and sonic power.
Likewise, I had known of Wyatt’s interest in pataphysics, but Different Every Time gave the idea body, for me, almost as a general artistic stance toward musical situations, or at least as a way of talking about his music. Two related concepts of Jarry’s particularly apply: examining the laws that govern exceptions and the pataphysical view of antinomy, which recalls Whitman’s cry, “I contain multitudes!”
In the first case one might compare music making to the examination of laws in the sense of becoming the master of a craft, while each musical situation is of course an “exception” in the sense that it’s unique. In Wyatt’s case the pataphysical flavor comes from his approach to improvisation. He says, “I’ve always worked with two kinds of musician—some that were into improvisation as a process, and some that weren’t. And I’ve always kind of played the devil’s advocate to all of them.” [p 174]
This idea, or attitude, branches into other aspects of Wyatt’s artistry, in particular the pataphysical view of antinomy and Wyatt’s sense of balance. He continues, “If something is alright, being well looked after, I don’t feel the need to nurture it. Whereas if something is OK but it’s somehow more marginalized or threatened, I will try and redress the balance.” This becomes clearer when it is compared to Wyatt’s view of jazz-fusion:
To me, fusion jazz was the worst of both worlds…. It was rock rhythms, played in a rather effete way, with noodling, very complicated solos on top. I rather fancied the reverse: the light fluidity of a jazz rhythm section, but keeping the almost folk simplicity of popular songs. [p 125]
In fact, from my experience as a listener, any kind of successful musical “fusion” in the sense of combining genres is very rare, and Wyatt is one of the big successes. In doing so, his music is very hard to characterize. But it contains multitudes. This eclecticism is one of the things I admire most about Wyatt, combined with the fact that it does not exist for its own sake, but always serves the music. As does virtuosity, but, as Wyatt says,
It’s all in the service of. And, to that extent, it’s neither better nor worse than Johnny Cash, who can hardly sing a note in tune. Johnny Cash, to me, is just as good as Lee Morgan. [p 126]
And so Wyatt could be very complex or very simple, sometimes at the same time! While we’re on the subject of antinomy, I’d like to mention that it doesn’t just cover the stylistic aspects of Wyatt’s music, but its emotional tones as well: melancholy is always balanced out by playfulness.
Balance also means a proper understanding of art’s place in life (it serves life, not the reverse). Wyatt is very engaged politically but thinks that art is a result and not a cause of politics. This is something I strongly relate to. It keeps the artist grounded and maintains the dignity of the work, which is always in the service of.
*Different Every Time, Marcus O’Dair, Serpent’s Tail, London, 2014, page 40