"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Uncut JANUARY 2015 - by Allan Jones
DIFFERENT EVERY TIME: THE AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY OF ROBERT WYATT
For Robert Wyatt biographer Marcus O'Dair, Wyatt's life can be split in two distinct halves, like the sides of an old vinyl album. Side One of Different Every Time therefore covers the years from Wyatt's birth in 1945 to the accident in 1973 that left him at the age of twenty-eight paralysed from the waist down, a paraplegic, in a wheelchair. Side Two continues the story into the new life he created for himself with the astonishing support of wife Alfie, who became his manager, carer and collaborator.
At first glance, Wyatt's childhood was as idyllic as he claims, carefree, happy and bohemian, although for the first six years of it his father, George Ellidge, remained married to his first wife and was largely absent, Robert growing up with his mother and her two children by a previous marriage. George, a jazz fan who passed on his enthusiasm to his son, was subsequently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the family moving into a dilapidated Georgian manor house in Kent, Wellington House, fabled hotbed of the Canterbury Scene. Wyatt describes these years as largely blissful, despite his father's degenerative illness, although over the Christmas of 1961, there was a suicide attempt, Wyatt's overwhelming sense of failure perhaps early evidence of the melancholic fatalism that would later manifest itself in periods of grim depression.
As much as Pink Floyd, Soft Machine became darlings of the London underground scene of the mid-'60s, toured America with Jimi Hendrix, Wyatt enjoying the attendant debauchery - "He and Noel Redding basically shagged their way across America," remembers first wife Pam Howard - more than the rest of the band. Original bass player Kevin Ayers left, allowing them to develop their increasingly complex instrumental music, a direction that eventually saw Wyatt estranged from the group he'd formed. "By then, we simply couldn't stand him," Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper rather brutally remarked, looking back at Wyatt's enforced departure from the band in late 1971. Following the collapse of his post-Soft Machine band, Matching Mole, in September 1972, Wyatt's drinking, already prodigious, became totally self-destructive. By the time he fell out of a window during a party in a Maida Vale flat in June 1, 1973, he was an accident waiting to happen.
For Wyatt, what happened was "fantastically liberating", the beginning of a new career that began with 1974's Rock Bottom. "It seemed to me he almost embraced it," says Brian Eno, whose droll commentary is a highlight of this excellent book, considering the accident. "I never saw any sense of anger in him. It was more that sort of melancholy about him, which I think has always been there."
O'Dair's account of the last four decades of Wyatt's life, music and growing politicisation in the 1980s, is detailed enough to exhaust the casual reader, but fans will be deeply moved and wholly absorbed by it, the book's publication assuming even greater poignancy by the coincidental announcement in last month's Uncut that Wyatt has "stopped" making music, a loss only made bearable by the albums he leaves us with.