When I win a large amount of money on the Premium Bonds and the biographical film of my life comes to be made, many of the best bits of the soundtrack will be to the music of Robyn Hitchcock who has provided much of the soundtrack to my adult life. When my good friend Mr Goold told me therefore that Robyn would be performing at Norwich Puppet Theatre, a venue a mere 24 kilometres from Mr Goold’s abode, I was obviously quick, well in truth not that quick, to buy a ticket (£18, plus £2.30 to anonymous middle men) and invite myself to sleep on my good friend’s floor for the night. My other good friend Pete decided he would also like to come along on what his consumption of American popular culture and resultant outlook on life told him would be a road trip in the style of Hunter S Thompson.
It’s a dreamy drive through the Norfolk countryside on a September evening in Mr Goold’s golden 2004 Nissan Micra, the sun is setting to our left casting long shadows. Reaching Norwich, having been driven for the first time in my life through Poringland, I am struck by how much like a proper city Norwich is, from its riverside roadways, medieval cathedral and monumental County Council building to its elevated four lane highway; a pity about its football club. Mr Goold’s Nissan Micra comes to rest in Magdalen car park in the shadow of a concrete flyover, our ultimate destination less than 200 metres away. We walk through the fading light to the 15th/16th century church of St James the Less, now re-purposed as the Norwich Puppet Theatre. I muse on St James the Less being appropriate given that puppets are like miniature people. At my behest ⁹Pete poses with the cathedral as a backdrop; I photograph him but fail to make the spire give him the appearance of a man wearing a tall, pointed hat; I can’t helping thinking that it’s an opportunity missed. My life is full of regrets.
Inside the theatre we drink at the bar, Mr Goold drinks coffee, Pete drinks Adnams Ghostship, I down Adnam’s Broadside. We check out our fellow audience members; people in late middle age like us, Norwich’s arty set and younger people dragged along by their elders against their will. I make assumptions about people. Eager to get ‘good seats’, when we see the first people departing the room we follow, hoping we’re not just pursuing them into the toilet. The auditorium has been dropped neatly into the nave of the church, and the interweb tells me it has over 150 seats, my eyes tell me these are split either side of a central gangway; it is steep giving a good view of the stage.
At 8 o’clock the support act, Jessica Lee Morgan and Christian Thomas play a set of unfortunately forgettable songs very competently indeed and they seem very nice. Jessica is the daughter of Mary Hopkin and Tony Visconti and she tells us so in case we didn’t know. After the set, as we wait for Robyn Hitchcock to appear I tell Mr Goold that from now on I might be begin telling people that my mother is Daphne Brooks and Reg Brooks was my father. In spite of the snidey implications of the previous sentence the support act are alright.
At nine o’clock Robyn Hitchcock appears, being helped onto the stage and to a seat at a Clavinova digital piano, a product of the Yamaha company. Robyn explains that the previous evening he fell over and whilst not damaged in terms of breakages to bone and sinew, he is clearly in pain and standing up and moving about is a problem for him. In an unfortunate way however, this is a good thing for his paying audience as we receive the rare treat of hearing Robyn playing piano and sounding not unlike the Plastic Ono band. I can’t now wholly remember which four songs are played, but ‘Ted, Woody and Junior’, a song about three men lathering each other with soap is one, and by way of an apparent insight into this song Robyn tells us about his grandma’s Ray-Bans, which were comparable in a competitive way to those owned by Andy Warhol, and how her wearing them at home on the Isle of Wight was concomitant to and therefore related to the meeting of Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan and Brian Jones in New York. Many of Robyn’s songs are about moments in time such as this.
After four songs on the piano, Robyn shuffles out from behind it to a stool, where he is handed his acoustic guitar by Chris Thomas of the support act who has been pressed into the role, hopefully only temporarily, of carer. Again, the audience is in luck as a less than satisfactory pick-up on the guitar causes Robyn to come to the very front of the stage to perform un-plugged and un-miked.
The first of five songs Robyn plays on his acoustic guitar is ‘I’ve got the hots for you’, a tune dating back to 1980 when Robyn existed in a previous incarnation as member of the Soft Boys, but still wrote excellent songs. ‘Hots’ as I have stupidly decided to call it here for the sake of brevity, although these words of explanation have of course taken longer to type and read than the full title is on the life-enhancing LP ‘Underwater Moonlight’, and is a song of which I have always been especially fond. My fondness for ‘Hots’ is in a good part due its reference near the end of the song to “a piece of Hake”. I have always enjoyed this lyric, ‘Hake’ being such a fine word and few artists ever mention fish in their songs. Tonight this song has extra poignancy as I have recently returned from Brittany where I had a particularly good time watching FC Lorient, a football team who call themselves Les Merlus, and have a mascot called Merlux; Merlu is the French word for Hake and Merlux therefore translates approximately as Hakey. Incidentally, Lorient beat FC Nantes, a team known as the Canaries just like the local team in Norwich. I don’t think Robyn has any knowledge whatsoever of football or its mascots, but it’s as if he knew. It’s a situation not unlike that of Andy Warhol and Robyn’s grandmother.
Also within the acoustic set, Robyn plays a new song entitled ‘I am this thing’, a song which has appeared on-line but is so new it has not been played live before. Robyn tells us that this song has been requested this evening and after the show Mr Goold tells Pete and me how he was particularly taken with the track when hearing it on-line, and it was he who had asked that Robyn play it tonight. Whilst secretly grateful to Mr Goold, we don’t let on too much and I admit to thinking the song sounds a bit like another of Robyn’s songs, although typically I can’t remember which one, but obviously it’s a good one.
After the five acoustic tunes, Robyn hobbles back to be handed his electric guitar on which he plays four more songs including a reverberating version of ‘I often dream of trains’ and the almost-title track from his new album Shufflemania, which is entitled ‘The Shuffleman’. Robyn remarks how his fall has resulted in his becoming the Shuffleman himself, although alternatively, given the venue, his movements could be said to be puppet-like , as if Thunderbirds had had a member of the International Rescue team who just sat about and rescued people by playing groovy music.
The final quarter of the gig sees Robyn joined on stage by Jessica and Chris for another four songs, with Robyn managing to stand up to play his electric guitar. After a beautiful rendition of ‘Queen of Eyes’, which almost brings a tear to my eye as it again takes me back to 1980 and my lost youth, Robyn advises that these songs are the encores, which whilst disappointing is understandable unless Robyn can somehow be magically lifted up from the stage and then set down on it again like some sort of over age Peter Pan. The ‘encore’ also comprises the stonking ‘Brenda’s Iron Sledge’ which includes the lyric “Please don’t call me Reg, It’s not my name”, the galloping ‘Oceanside’ and finally ‘Airscape’, probably a favourite of Robyn himself.
Applause for Robyn and his band is not thunderous, because there aren’t enough of us in the puppet theatre for that, but it is heartfelt and enthusiastic and barely ends before the lights go up confirming that that was indeed the encore. It has been a fabulous evening and possibly a unique one, what with Robyn both playing piano and going doubly unplugged.
As a final act before departing the puppet theatre, which has been an excellent venue, I purchase a copy of a seven-inch single entitled ‘Mr President’, which I like for the picture on the cover of Robyn on the telephone against a back drop of overhead trolleybus or tram wires. Such records and CDs along with his weekly shows on-line will now have to suffice until we can see Robyn play live again, and driving back to Mr Goold’s abode our happy reminiscences of the evening inspire us to resolve to get tickets for Robyn’s seventieth birthday concert at the Alexandra Palace next February.