Chinese White Bicycles

Dear Mailing List, 

I’m setting off this weekend for Great Malvern and the Big Chill Festival. Robyn Hitchcock and I are bringing our ‘double-act’ on Sunday afternoon at 1700 to the White Rabbit Lounge there. If any Mailing-Listers are present, please say hello! 

Meanwhile, you can all see the miniature version of the show we did in Washington DC earlier this year in the office of National Public Radio – the American equivalent of the BBC, sort of…

We’ve been doing this ‘dialectic’ for a few years now, off and on, and great fun it is, too. It began at SXSW in Austin, Texas over four years ago, when Robyn came to a Q&A for the US launch of White Bicycles and invited me to read something about Syd Barrett at his web-site broadcast the next afternoon. He sang the relevant song and the audience seemed to like the combination. We’ve done it in all manner of locations and regions since then. 

I particularly enjoy the memory of performing “in the round” at a sold-out Poisson Rouge in New York (the old Village Gate). I circled the stage with a wireless mic telling stories of Greenwich Village in the Sixties, some scenes taking place in bars less than100 yards away. I told of my minor role in the Lovin’ Spoonful story, setting Robyn up for his performance of “Daydream”. On “Back in the 1960s”, his opening song, Robyn had approached the mic stand from one side, then straight ahead, then moving to the other side as he glanced anxiously at the section of the audience behind his ‘front-on’ position.  Now, as he strummed the opening chords to “Daydream”, he suddenly fell down on his back, guitar across his chest like Gregor Samsa in a rock ‘n’ roll version of “Matamorphosis” and motioned with his eyebrows for me to crank the microphone down over his mouth. At least this way, no one would be facing his back!

We’ve done the show we sometimes call “Chinese White Bicycles” or “Live and Direct From 1967” about 15 times now, from Norway to Los Angeles. We’re bringing it to London on December 1, at the Purcell Room on the South Bank. Some October dates in the US southwest are currently under discussion. And we’re going to slip out the side door of the Sydney Opera House and do it during the Australian “Way To Blue” tour in November. (More info on that to follow.) 

Robyn explains that, as a provincial teenager with his nose pressed up against the glass of the Sixties, he relied on Incredible String Band, Pink Floyd, Fairport Convention and Nick Drake Lps (and Dylan, of course) for his education. I became his “Frankenstein” and he my “monster”. All I know is that Robyn channels the spirits of those records I made and the music I heard back in the decade of our Glorious Revolution and sings them all with the vivid and authentic spirit for which he is so renowned. 

We always try to include “local content”. New York was a breeze, but other cities have been trickier. I wanted to read my chapter about Bob Horne’s Bandstand when we performed in Philadelphia and Robyn recalled vaguely that he had sung the doo-wop classic “To The Aisle” by the Five Satins. His brilliant version was preceded by a speech concerning the song’s relevance to everyone in the audience, charting as it does the progress from “a little conversation” to procreation. He then forced all of us to ponder the fact that our presence was proof that our parents had committed sexual intercourse at least once and that said act had provided satisfaction for “at least one of them.” 

I have forced Robyn to refresh his memory of Chicago blues, the Move’s version of “I Can Hear the Grass Grow” and, at a festival in Egersund, Norway, to learn “Sunny Girl”, an early Hep-Stars hit composed by Benny Andersson. He never complains, although he did refuse to learn Jesse Colin Young’s “Hippie From Olema”, a piss-take of Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” from the ill-fated Medicine Ball Caravan film during our visit to Los Angeles. 

White Bicycles is being published this autumn in Russia. I am trying to persuade the Muscovites that bringing “Chinese White Bicycles” to Moscow, St Petersburg and Perm would be a wonderful idea. I’m sure some interesting additions to Robyn’s repertoire would result. 

I don’t just talk on these tours, of course, I also listen. My favourite story came from Joe Thompson, founder of the wonderful Museum of Contemporary Arts where we performed in North Adams, Massachusetts. Having started the project under the benign, arts-encouraging regime of Governor Michael Dukakis in 1988, he was being thwarted by the new budget-cutting Republican Governor William Weld – sound familiar? He managed to clean up one small room in the immense derelict mill complex he had acquired and installed an exhibition of David Byrne photographs, complete with a specially composed, completely obscene tape by Byrne which accompanied the viewing experience.

Weld had, over a couple of years, warmed slightly to the project and had taken to stopping by occasionally on his way to hunt ducks in the Adirondacks. Shortly before the exhibit closed, on a deserted Thursday afternoon, Weld appeared and asked to view the exhibit. Terrified at the idea of this rather right-wing Republican hearing Byrne’s foul-mouthed tape, he tried desperately to put Weld off the idea. Then, as he ushered the Governor in, he began planning for his future as an insurance salesman. Weld emerged, sat down, fixed him with a beady stare and said: “name a David Byrne song”. “What?” “You heard me, name a David Byrne song, any David Byrne song.”  Thompson threw out a title from Remain In Light and Weld sang it, beginning to end, word for word. 

“Name another”, said Weld to the speechless Thompson. He sang that one, too. The governor, it seemed, was an obsessive fan. Mass MOCA got the funding and is now a flourishing hub with exhibits, concerts, restaurants etc, which has rescued the moribund mill-town of North Adams. What are the odds against a member of the Tea Party being a David Byrne fan these days…..

Come see the show, buy a book afterwards and tell me a good story. 

Ciao for niao