Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Different Every Time: The Authorised Biography of Robert WyattDifferent Every Time: The Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt by Marcus O'Dair
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...]Robert has achieved spectacular success by another definition: longevity without compromise. In politics as in music, he has become a byword for integrity [...] In fifty years of making music, there seems not to have been an insincere note."

For once I agree with the critics. Marcus O'Dair's Different Every Time: The Authorized Biography of Robert Wyatt (2015) won accolades from British music critics: it was selected as the music book of the year by Guardian and Times, among other British newspapers. Indeed it is an excellent book, extremely informative, well-written and captivating.

Robert Wyatt, "one of the greats of English music," is mostly known as the drummer for Soft Machine, the extraordinary British band, during their 1966 - 1971 period. The detailed history of Soft Machine can be found in another outstanding book Out-Bloody-Rageous , which I review here on Goodreads.

Different is remarkably rich in details: we read about the artist's bohemian childhood, how he met his future bandmates in the secondary school, and we learn about his interest in Rimbaud's poetry, Thelonious Monk's and Igor Stravinsky's music, and paintings by Georges Braque. In 1965 Mr. Wyatt becomes a member of Wilde Flowers, one of the founding bands of the Canterbury Scene characterized by "jazz-tinged, pastoral and very English psychedelic rock." In 1966 Soft Machine is born and the band creates some of the best music of the era (to me absolutely the best - but then I am heavily biased).

Yet soon the musical trajectories of Mr. Wyatt and Soft Machine diverge: in fact he is basically fired from the band. The separation is not all the band's fault - Mr. Wyatt has always wanted to play songs rather than the cerebral music based on jazz, avant-garde influences, and technical virtuosity. Depressed and suicidal he creates the Matching Mole band, its name being a superb pun, based on the French translation of "soft machine". He meets a Polish émigré Alfreda Benge, the woman of his life, but then a horrible accident happens: he falls out of a window and gets paralyzed from waist down for the rest of his life. Thanks to Alfreda he survives and spends 40 further creative years in a wheelchair making wonderful music - which includes recording eight successful albums - on the boundaries of pop and avant-garde.

While one needs to distinguish Robert Wyatt the artist from Mr. Wyatt a person, the biography makes it clear that certain amount of crossover cannot be avoided. Usually the artists' strengths come from their force of conviction and in Mr. Wyatt's case the conviction is mainly political in nature: he has always been a left-winger, and quite radical at that. However, even being myself on the left side of the political spectrum I am unable to understand Mr. Wyatt's long-time membership in the Communist Party of Great Britain. Joining the party in 1970s, when the extreme range and depth of Soviet crimes against humanity were well known, can only be treated as lunacy. The author calls Mr. Wyatt a "Marxist jazz fan" but to believe that any communist party is guided by any ideas other than grabbing and wielding total power is akin to hallucinating. Still, even if I am eager to call Mr. Wyatt a complete idiot for his communist sympathies, I admire his music and his singing.

A very good book, meticulously researched and referenced. A great source of information not only about one of the most important and serious artists of British popular music but also about the times from the early 1960s to the current day. No gossip, no tabloid stuff, no name dropping. A sincere and focused book in which the author is basically invisible: almost a five-star book - maybe I will change my rating over re-reading.

Four and a half stars.

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