You’ll be different in the spring
I know, you’re a seasonal beast
Like the starfish that drift in with the tide
With the tide
(“Sea Song”, 1974)
On 1 June 1973, Robert Wyatt fell from the fourth floor of a building during a party. It will never be known whether this was a suicide attempt or an accident that came at the height of a long period of excesses and depression that had worsened since he had broken up with his band, Soft Machine, two years earlier. Paralysed from the waist down, the Bristol-born artist, then 28 years old, was forced to make the most of his (numerous) talents. He himself would say that losing his freedom of movement began to make him “think through music”.
This was a tiring, uphill journey, a feat that might have been impossible had it not been for his wife Alfreda Benge (his life and artistic partner) and the affection of the musical community, which organised a concert to raise funds and enable him to return to the stage in Drury Lane on 8 September 1975, a year after the release of the album that had defined Wyatt’s musical and expressive world, Rock Bottom. But as the years went by, he would devote himself more and more to experimenting with unfamiliar musical territory, taking militant left-wing political positions, which even included deciding not to play live anymore. Talking about artists like Robert Wyatt-Ellidge is like trying to capture a free and adventurous spirit – as amazing as the flight of birds, as elusive as the sea breeze – in a few still shots. The verses of one of his sublime songs – “Sea Song” – transport us to the shores of Great Music, gathering all the starfish Wyatt has given the world over the course of half a century of music.
A central figure in Canterbury’s progressive music scene with Soft Machine and Matching Mole, after the accident, Wyatt somehow managed to assert the value of free creativity – the freedom that was physically precluded by his near-fatal flight. Half a century during which his personal story expanded like his music, culminating in works whose originality has preserved it from the ravages of time: Rock Bottom, Dondestan and Shleep are tangible proof that every person can and must make use of their innate talents (in his case, as a composer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist), even under the most difficult conditions.
Wyatt also left his mark in Italy. In 1981, he worked for Radio3 on a long, improvised piece. The year 1998 saw the release of the tribute album The Different You – Robert Wyatt E Noi, followed by the documentary Little Red Robin Hood. I carry with me indelible memories of the long period during which I worked for him as the Italian label manager for Rykodisc, experiencing first-hand the status he achieved through the sheer force of his music and human coherence, a talent sublimated by a supernatural voice that transports us to an eccentric galaxy we never want to leave. Listening in no particular order to songs such as “Sea Song”, “Free Will And Testament”, “Dondestan”, “Heaps Of Sheep”, “The Sight of the Wind”, “Left On Man”, “O Caroline”, “Little Red Robin Hood Hit The Road” or enjoying the self-deprecating album that collects his “failures” (His Greatest Misses), forces us to think about the surprises destiny brings us. And to listen to his repertoire we have Soupsongs, Robert’s songs performed by the Annie Whitehead Group (sung by vocalists Sarah Jane Morris and Cristina Donà, among his favourites). After “Comic Opera” (2007) he said he was done.
But the starfish, when it appears to be adrift, sometimes re-emerges from the waves without warning:
“I can’t know what I would be if I wasn’t myself… Because when I say I know myself, how do I know? What spider can understand arachnophobia?”
(“Free Will And Testament”, 1997)