This Saturday, Robyn Hitchcock plays a solo acoustic set at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. (Look for him at 12:25 p.m. on the Rooster Stage.)
Since 1976, Hitchcock has been writing and performing top-flight psychedelic pop, first with the Soft Boys and then as a solo artist often augmented by sturdy bands like The Egyptians or the Venus 3. Playful yet passionate, soaring yet intimate, lovestruck yet often preoccupied with the squishiest bits of biology, his music, as he puts it, mines the sound of 1967 -- but with many more lyrics about vegetable matter.
Those lyrics, often surrealistic or sensual in the spirit of Andrew Marvell's slow-swelling "vegetable love," have expanded the purview of pop. His guitar playing, meanwhile, is spidery and distinct, often so delicate it seems to be silking out of a spinneret. We spoke with Hitchcock ahead of this weekend's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, where he will perform Saturday at 12:25 p.m.
You've spent a lot of time in San Francisco, right?
I have fond memories of it in the early days of coming out there. I would hang around the Haight a lot. I even had a girlfriend on the Haight. It was sort of the mid-period, twenty years after the place had first exploded, but it wasn't quite as touristy as it is now.
The T-shirts weren't $30 yet.
There were young people who had come to become human compost, to melt down, from all over the world. They had been since 1967. As a psychedelic tourist, I loved it. I was very keen to come to feel a part of it. Then, perhaps inevitably, I came to realize that I was just a Brit and that I could come as often as I like, but I would always just be a tourist. I know my place my now. I don't think I could go native.
Is that who "Saturday Groovers" is about?
"Saturday Groovers" are the original, first generation groovers, the first wave of hairy people there in the '60s of whom I was a junior part. I don't know how many first-generation hippies are alive on the Haight, but you still see them. We played the old folks' stage in Glastonbury this summer, where all these people were doing what they'd first done forty years ago -- they haven't given it up.
In some ways, I'm like that, too. But I'm very aware of how you can't necessarily transport your lifestyle and your habits through time. And I suppose whether you like it or not, your attitudes age. They date.
I have a chronic sixties attitude which is also implicit in Monty Python and Bob Dylan and all the things I love. I know that my attitude is as dated as the attitude of my parents' generation. People with my surrealistic mindset, if you like, are a thing of the past -- so, all the more reason for me to hone in on San Francisco.
But your music is awfully fresh for someone who feels his attitude has dated.
Thank you. It comes from the fount of pop/rock. My stuff comes from the sound of 1967. I don't mean it has sitars and bright colors and everything flowing backwards. Pop/rock/folk/psych or whatever you want to call it was very fresh back then.
I'm sort of mining it, delivering things that, although they come from a long time ago, paradoxically seem sort of fresh. They come from the surviving vein or seam of freshness.
Has guitar-based pop/rock become like jazz, a once-popular music for a small audience?
I suppose like jazz it peaked. I don't know enough to say whether jazz has gone any further from Coltrane and Miles Davis. And in a way, I don't know how much further rock has gone. It is mutating the whole time. There are things coming out that have never been heard before, but there's lots coming out this is variations on old themes.
I suppose I am particularly guilty of that. My excuse is that's what I grew up with. That's the music I wanted to make. I wasn't interested in pioneering a different kind of music at all. I wanted to write whatever lyrics I wanted to write, but in terms of the way melodies go or the sound of the songs, there's nothing I've done that the Beatles couldn't have done.