Words by Nigel Williamson
The life and work of the much-loved art-rocker
Robert Wyatt may not be a core artist in terms of the music this magazine covers, and over a perennially hip, fashion-transcending career lasting half a century, he’s been most closely associated with art-rock, free jazz and the avant-garde interstices between them. But he’s a committed internationalist who has frequently collaborated with world music artists, including South African jazzers, Bengali band Dishari, the SWAPO singers and Lo’Jo and he has covered songs from Cuba, Chile and other points around the globe, often with a radical political motivation. Like Björk – a fellow traveller with whom Wyatt has also performed – he is a musician with an insatiable curiosity, for whom culture has no borders.
O’Dair has written a fine study of the man and his work, avoiding most of the pitfalls of being written by a genuine fan. There’s a detailed appraisal of Wyatt’s classic albums such as Rock Bottom, Old Rotten Hat and Shleep, not forgetting his work with Soft Machine and Matching Mole; but the book is also rich in anecdote and doesn’t shy away from the more difficult areas of Wyatt’s life – suicide attempts, the accident that left him paralysed and confined to a wheelchair and his alcoholism. What emerges is a portrait of a man who is full of contradictions but intrinsically warm and passionate about both his politics and his music. Rather like one of his political heroes, Tony Benn, he has become something of a national treasure – or as close to one as someone so uncompromisingly left-wing will ever be permitted to be.
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