Boston Globe JANUARY 16, 1998 - by Jim Sullivan


In June 1973, Robert Wyatt's life changed irrevocably. Drunk at a party, he fell from a fourth-floor window. He ended up a paraplegic.

The English drummer-singer-songwriter had been one of the cofounders of progressive rock with the Soft Machine, a band he started and was booted from after five years and four albums. He then recorded two albums with the band Matching Mole and was about to start a third when the accident happened.

What could have ended his career, Wyatt has said, turned out to be liberating. The fall forced him to leave the confines of a group setting and embark upon what has proved to be a remarkable solo career - full of idiosyncratic, almost orchestral music, rich in atmosphere and texture; music that ranges from whimsical to melancholic to politically agitated.

"I don't actually mind being in a wheelchair," the fifty-one-year-old Wyatt says from his London home. "There's a sort of novelty to it, even after a couple of decades. And it's not like a progressive disease where I constantly worry about how it's going to be tomorrow. It's just that it's the practical problems of organisation. If the plugs come out of the machines in my music room, I can't reach around the back of them to put them in. I have to go and ask somebody, and that's sort of humiliating. There's the question of studio spaces and cables and whether I'll be able to get into the bathrooms. But, psychologically, I can't say it bothers me."

The music, after all, exists first in Wyatt's head. On his latest solo album, Shleep, (out Tuesday on Thirsty Ear), his first album in six years, he plays drums, keyboards, bass, trumpet, and violin. He sings in a high, keening, sometimes conversational voice, which Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto has called "the saddest voice in the world." His music is spacious, layered, uncluttered, employing meters both odd and familiar. If you had to put a word to it, you'd say Wyatt creates dream-scapes.

What we think of as real life, the state of being sentient, suggests Wyatt, is somewhat overrated. Dreams are where things get really interesting. Not that it's easy to get there - Wyatt's suffered from insomnia - and not that the dreams are always pleasant.

"Dreamland is a strange place," he says, "and, of course, it includes nightmares. But I think a lot of us, looking at our own experience couldn't necessarily neatly divide up dreams into happy or sad. They're just kind of extraordinary, surreal stories. They're there for us to use, as cultures in the past, from Australian aborigines to the {Egyptian} pharaohs, have done... The amazing things that happen in your dreams, somehow daily life seems so much more limited.

"I think in a way we're all half-dreaming all the time. There's an English writer who died recently who said eighty percent of all experience is hallucination, which I think is a wonderful quote and explains some of the terrible things that happen."

The cover of Shleep was painted by his wife Alfreda Benge, and it has Wyatt floating among the clouds, riding a giant dove. The first song, a collaboration with Brian Eno called Heaps Of Sheeps, has a floating-among-the-clouds feel to it. It's only when you pay close attention to the words do you find the proverbial fence-jumping sheep are landing on top of each other or refusing to move on, thus keeping the insomniac singer awake.

"When I started out," says Wyatt, "I never thought of myself as primarily being a singer or a songwriter. I saw myself composing as a cooperative, and the voice, the words, would be one strand of that." He references Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Duke Ellington - "I find that the voice is a unique instrument and a variable one, but I like a lot more about music than just what the voice can do." He's not big on individual virtuosos, but as a composer he tries "to make a sound with all the instruments together and I play the instruments with that in mind - like Ellington said, his real instrument was his orchestra." Wyatt says he shares with Eno that words can "contribute to a general atmosphere or feeling."

Wyatt's roots predate the rock era. He was brought up on Debussy and the avant-garde classical music of Schonberg; he later fell in love with jazz, then with rhythm and blues. All of these contributed to the free-form, no-barriers music of the Soft Machine, as well as Wyatt's solo efforts.

"All of these things are available to you," says Wyatt, "and, of course, they have meanings on their own, of their own time, but a good idea is a good idea forever. Otherwise, we wouldn't keep referring to the great philosophers."

On Shleep, Wyatt worked with the eccentric New York songwriter who goes by the name of Kramer (it's Mark, not Cosmo, by the way), along with ex-Jam/Style Council leader Paul Weller, saxophonist Evan Parker, ex-Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, among others. (He recorded the album at Manzanera's studio.) Wyatt considers a trip through the album much like a read through a magazine - "it holds together in some way or at least has some kind of momentum."

Wyatt says Shleep came out of a period of despair, yet recording it was a blast, all of which made him feel something of a fraud. "An absolute, complete fraud!" he says. "I'm very thoughtful and philosophical and tragic when I'm feeling sad, but the happier I get the more stupid and childish I get. When I'm really sort of drunk with happiness, I'm just singing children's nursery rhymes." Indeed, Wyatt laughs, that one of his heroes is Winnie the Pooh, because Pooh, like Wyatt, seems to spend his life relentlessly beavering away at one or two ideas: "Where is that honey pot? Where is that lost balloon?"

Wyatt's lyrics are often deeply personal, but they're not often linear or heart-on-the-sleeve emotional. "I don't really go for the idea of 'confessional' music, people using their records as diaries or getting revenge. Hopefully, songs should be more than one person's experience. They should resonate beyond the borders of their own skin."

On Shleep, he rewrites Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues as Blues In Bob Minor, both a tribute to Dylan and a stellar work in its own right, a cavalcade of cryptic images spun over a rushing rhythm. "I've always liked him and never found a way of expressing what I like about him in what I do," says Wyatt. "It's a very grateful tribute, that way of singing, piling those words up next to each other like that. Really few people you can think of do that quite like that."

Wyatt also has a knack for unearthing hidden treasures in others' songs. He's covered Chic and The Monkees. Particularly notable are his heart-wrenching renditions of Elvis Costello's anti-Falklands War ballad Shipbuilding, which, oddly enough became a hit in England for Wyatt in 1982, and Peter Gabriel's Biko. "It's like with clothes," says Wyatt. "You know, you can wear second-hand clothes and sometimes they're better than new ones. You can tailor them until they fit you and you're comfortable. That's what I try to do - move a shoulder pad here, a nip in the waist there, until it fits like it's mine."

Those two songs fit into Wyatt's political framework, which, he's never been shy about stating, comes from the far left. He was, in fact, a member of England's Communist Party and says he would still be had it not "committed hari-kari and taken me with it."

"I shall take my ideas to the grave with me," Wyatt says, with a laugh, "and I wouldn't expect anyone else to see things the same way because our ideas come from our experiences, and no one's had the same experiences. I still feel you cannot trust the stock exchange and the World Bank to run the world in the interest of the majority of the people in it."