Back in the day, Disneyland used to boast an atomic-era ride called Journey to Inner Space where visitors were supposedly shrunk to the size of an atom and taken on an excursion through a new and different world—one that exists all the time, but just can't be seen by the ordinary eye.
That's the closest I can come to explaining the wild, wonderful worldview of Robyn Hitchcock. While others bandy the term "eccentric" around like a badminton-playing bunch of hyperactive fourth graders who've raided the 7-Eleven candy aisle, I think of Hitchcock as a wise and gentle scientist—a man with extraordinarily sensitive perception who is simply revealing the world as it truly is to the rest of us.
Over the years, Hitchcock has gained a reputation for his peculiar brand of intelligent, whimsical, occasionally psychedelic, and profoundly surreal pop-rock-folk-whatever-you-want-to-call-it, first with seminal college-rock pioneers the Soft Boys and then as a solo artist.
But to stick him in the novelty/eccentric drawer is to miss the point. Hitchcock doesn't approach his subjects with contempt; he regards them with genuine compassion and curiosity, not to mention a uniquely sharp intellect and open mind.
For example, Olé! Tarantula (2006), the album he recorded with Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey, and Bill Rieflin (who are the Venus 3 and are backing him on this tour), includes both "New York Doll," a genuinely tender tribute to the late Arthur "Killer" Kane, and "Belltown Ramble," a surreal journey through the used-to-be-mean streets of Seattle that includes hang-time with an Uzbek warrior. The reason he can deliver both with equal conviction is that in his world, both obvious experiences and seemingly disparate elements that connect themselves together into a remarkable whole are equally real, valid, and deserving of airtime.
Seattle singer/songwriter Mark Pickerel has been opening the U.S. dates for Hitchcock. When asked to explain his tourmate, he struggles to answer, with pauses as pregnant as the spider in the title track of Olé! Tarantula.
"(His music) has all the melodic pop sensibility of early Pink Floyd and early Beatles, but with an element to it that's very unique and lyrically very intriguing," he finally concludes. "He's one of the most consistently strong songwriters I've ever known of." There's a pause. "And he's sexy."
"I've been buying him odds and ends on this tour just to hear him read it back to me," he laughs. "It's fun to watch him read something and ponder it, then read it back. He can turn the most normal, mundane phrase into something intriguing, with that deep voice and that English accent. I bought him a postcard of a pulp-fiction film. It was worth the 85 cents just to hear him say 'Magnificent Bastards,'" Pickerel giggles, sounding like a naughty schoolboy who just got away with a prank.
Experiencing that unique Hitchcock charm in the flesh might be the key, particularly with Buck, McCaughey, and Rieflin joining him onstage. There's a palpable sense of mutual respect and camaraderie between the four musicians, and anyone who's ever seen Hitchcock perform knows that the between-song banter alone is worth the price of admission.
Take the setup to "(A Man's Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs." Easily one of the highlights of Olé! Tarantula, the song is a perfectly crafted jangle-pop masterpiece, with melodies and choruses that are so contagious they should come with a warning and/or vaccine. The inspiration behind it, explained each night by Hitchcock in a hilariously inspired monologue, came from a pivotal scene in a Dirty Harry movie. Few other artists could turn a Clint Eastwood film into a profound (and profoundly catchy) treatise on diffusing self-defeat, much less connect the dots in a way that makes it all perfectly obvious in the end while even inspiring laughter in bandmates who've heard the story repeatedly.
That, in a nutshell, is the genius of Robyn Hitchcock. Through his eyes (and brain, voice, guitar, and the musicians he gathers around himself) the ordinary becomes something truly extraordinary and wonderful.
"That's the thing about Robyn," explains Pickerel. "There are always surprises. There's always a new adventure around every corner."