directed by John Edginton
William: The Venus 3—Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Bill Rieflin (formerly with Ministry) and Scott McCaughey (leader of the Young Fresh Fellows)—have been playing together since 2005. In October 2006 they released Olé! Tarantula with Robyn Hitchcock and visited London to record more material at Hitchcock’s house.
The subject of this documentary is the time they spent recording, then touring America. The camera follows the band from Hitchcock’s house in London to Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey, and then to the Crocodile Cafe in Seattle. Chris Ballew (Presidents of the United States of America), John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin), Morris Windsor (Hitchcock’s lifelong collaborator, usually on drums and harmonies), Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and Nick Lowe all put in appearances in this film, just dropping by to hang out or to lay down tracks in Robyn’s surprisingly normal-looking living room.
Robyn Hitchcock is one of my favorite songwriters. Now into his fourth decade of recording albums, he has charted an erratic and unpredictable musical path that has at times flirted with success, and other times plunged back into obscurity. To my mind his last peak happened around the turn of the millennium with the music recorded for Moss Elixir, Mossy Liquor (the vinyl LP released as a sort of B-side to complement the Moss Elixir CD) and Storefront Hitchcock (1998), the concert film directed by Jonathan Demme that was never widely distributed to theaters (the DVD, CD, and LP versions all feature different songs). After a subsequent string of less-inspired albums (Jewels for Sophia, A Star For Bram, Luxor and the worthwhile Spooked with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings), the album Olé! Tarantula was a triumph. In Food, Sex, Death…and Insects, Hitchcock admits to reaching out for whoever is at hand when it comes time to record, acting as more of a collaborator than bandleader—so a good rock band sympathetic to his material can make a big difference. And so Olé! Tarantula’s magnificence may owe as much to the attentive performance of the band as to the quality of the songwriting. This documentary captures Robyn at his best.
We see an alarming amount of yet-unreleased song material pass through this documentary—sometimes through Robyn playing us unfinished lyrics in his garden, at other times through the band recording full-on arrangements in his living room. He shares bits of his philosophy of songwriting, attributing his prolificness to a failure to separate stronger from weaker material, and claiming that the best way to write a song is sometimes to have just written one. It’s a delight to see the earnest, kind and gentle man behind the strange stage demeanor with the uncanny ability to generate disarmingly psychotic between-song banter. And many of his songs are authentically demented, with his distinctly haunting voice sounding like a cross between John Lennon and Vincent Price. The documentary, like the home recording sessions it depicts, is intimate, casual and full of easy-going musical fun. Peter Buck complains more than once about life in R.E.M. and seems to prefer working with Robyn. The mood is good all around, and it’s refreshing to see established, older rock musicians at peace, traveling to small gigs in a small van, quietly making loud music—genuine quality rock—and having a good time. I would recommend Sex, Death, Food… and Insects to fans of Robyn Hitchcock or to the curious, though the uninitiated would do better to start with the concert film Storefront Hitchcock.
Cristy: I thought it was strictly for fans, or at least people who were familiar with Robyn Hitchcock’s massive body of work. Initially I was under the impression that it was a documentary. I thought it might go into his childhood, his upbringing, his time with the Soft Boys and Egyptians, maybe some good drug gossip, you know. But it was definitely not a Behind the Music episode.
It was a very personal glimpse into a period of time in his life, almost like a reality T.V. show. He didn’t come across as a smug rock star, and I think that given his cult status and the reverence that fans offer him, he could very easily have done that. He seemed very normal. But at the same time you knew that he was not one of us. His brain seemed to go a million miles a minute, especially when he talked about his songwriting process.
W: I had inferred a certain amount about his songwriting from studying all of his music, and learned more from reading interviews, but this film provided the last piece of the puzzle. He’s not a perfectionist. He likes to move from inspiration to recording fairly quickly, without laboring over arrangements or production. He wants to move on to the next song. Which explains why the raw, low-budget I Often Dream of Trains is so successful, and why he would repeat that stripped down formula with the acoustic Eye even at a time when he had access to a world-class rock musicians (The Egyptians) and producers (John Leckie). In an NPR interview, he likens this to cooking swordfish: it’s better to throw the swordfish steak into scalding oil and sear it, serving it immediately, then slowly to cook it to a mushy consistency, its flavor diluted with myriad seasonings. Music and lyrics tend to come together, but when he has to write a song silently, like on a train, then the lyrics come first and tend to be more structured. He’ll write too many lyrics for a song and throw some out, but write too many songs and keep them all.
C: He was forthright. Some songwriters might be more guarded about what their songs meant.
W: True. He admitted to writing about what was in front of him, even if he might recontextualize it to make it strange. For example, the song “Belltown Ramble” turns out to be about a neighborhood in Seattle, and the revolving elephant mentioned in the lyrics is the rotating elephant-shaped sign of a carwash there. The surreal image turns out to be literal. In a BBC documentary on Syd Barrett, Hitchcock describes Barrett’s and Dylan’s songs as being like a movie camera in the mind that is kept on to record everything that passes through, whether or not it makes sense. He likes that psychological vérité style.
C: When I think of Robyn Hitchcock, I think of a demented musical genius like Syd Barrett or Brian Wilson (but without tragedy), and I think he could easily get away with being a smug asshole. People on a par with him, do act like that. I mean, would you want to get together with (XTC’s) Andy Partridge?
W: I wouldn’t want to share a dorm room with him, anyway.
C: Probably not. He’s probably really obtuse. I think that people who work with Robyn Hitchcock respect his humility. Would the members of R.E.M. hang out with Bob Dylan? Probably not, they would keep their distance. I think Robyn Hitchcock understand that the people who collaborate with him make his music better. And I think this in turn reflects his true confidence in his abilities. He thrives on his eccentricity, but he doesn’t thrive on his mystique.
W: It’s nice to think that Robyn Hitchcock’s apparent lack of commercial success is not an embittered ideological aversion, an addled ambivalence, or a failed attempt, but just a reflection of being well-adjusted. He doesn’t need the affirmation.
And that was what the film proved. To see him onstage with the Egyptians, or hear those live recordings like Gotta Let This Hen Out or Live at the Portland Arms, he comes off as totally insane. The things he says between songs are as fucked as anything you will hear a live human improvise onstage. You could believe anything about his mental health or drug habits from these moments. But I think he was just guarded: those bands and their audiences made him uncomfortable. But ten or twenty years later, in Storefront Hitchcock and in this film, we see him at ease, confident, and lucid.
It may come as a disappointment to those who idealize the excess tales of rock legends that Robyn Hitchcock is a true (to steal the title of one of his CDs) middle class hero. But to me it means that he has a decade or three more of promising music in him. He is finding out who his friends are, and they are good people too.