In 2004, Björk lands in the English town of Louth to record Robert Wyatt’s voice for her album ‘Medulla’. Wyatt is extremely nervous and asks his guest to leave the house while he sings his parts … It is but one of many striking passages in Marcus O’Dair’s excellent Wyatt biography ‘Different Every Time’.
A most modest national treasure
In the UK, Robert Wyatt is revered as a national treasure. But you‘d hardly encounter a more modest musician. A pioneering drummer with psych and jazz-rock ensemble Soft Machine, he ends up in a wheelchair and then starts building his masterful solo repertoire: genre-free music with a social impact, released at his own pace. Brilliant in its simplicity. Continuously veering between the sombre and the cheerful, thanks to Wyatt’s high-pitched, fragile voice.
A two-sided story
‘Different Every Time’ is an authorised biography. Meaning: the book has the blessing of Wyatt himself. Yet writer O’Dair makes no compromises. He manages to sketch the man Wyatt in all his complexity. And doesn’t shy away from delicate topics – even though Wyatt isn’t always keen to discuss them: his drinking problems and depression, his stage fright and painful split of Soft Machine, and of course the unfortunate fall that paralyses the lower half of his body …
The fall not only breaks Wyatt’s back, but also the course of his life. An insight that O’Dair masterfully integrates into the structure of his book: there’s a Side One and a Side Two. At the beginning of Side Two, Wyatt leaves Stoke Mandeville Hospital. It’s January 1974. The same year he releases his first solo masterpiece ‘Rock Bottom ‘ and marries Alfreda ‘Alfie’ Benge – his soulmate and guardian angel, lyricist and cover artist.
A two-people galaxy
Wyatt’s relationship with Alfie is life-changing. It runs like a thread through ‘Different Every Time’. Björk, who was allowed to stay in their mini-universe for a while, aptly sums it up: “They’ve got a little two-people galaxy that functions , and has its dark sides and its harmonious sides. And they’re not trying to hide anything.”
Socially inspired and self-deprecating
Marcus O’Dair takes you on board to show Wyatt’s musical odyssey: from the early influence of the recently deceased Daevid Allen (Gong) and his involvement in the colourful Canterbury Scene, past socially inspired songs like Shipbuilding and The Age Of Self to the mosaic-like albums’ Cuckooland’ and ‘Comicopera’.
O’Dair introduces the man behind the revered musician and doesn’t leave a stone unturned.
At the same time, he introduces the man hidden behind the revered musician: Wyatt’s womanizing, his socialist sympathies, his humour and pataphysical views on life, his fragility and (too strong) sense of self-deprecation, … O’Dair doesn’t leave a stone unturned.
Definitive Wyatt biography
O’Dair is a musician himself, and one half of electronica-outfit Grasscut. His biography unites sublime research with countless interviews of his own, not the least with Wyatt and Alfie. He doesn’t merely list the facts, but arranges them logically, interprets them and describes them in depth. That way O’Dair is a present biographer, pouring his story into a fluent, highly credible style.
I’m more than confident to say that ‘Different Every Time’ is Robert Wyatt’s definitive biography. Now let’s hope that the rumours of Wyatt’s retirement are nonsense. And that within a few years O’Dair has enough new material for at least one extra chapter.
‘Different Every Time. The Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt’ is published by Serpent’s Tail. Hypergallery offers hardback copies with a unique card signed by Robert and Alfie.