At the time Rock Bottom was made, Wyatt's world had turned on its head. He had been the drummer of the prog-rock/jazz fusion group Soft Machine. A very free-spirited character, he was always prone to volatile experiences. He was fired from the group and dabbled in other jazz fusion projects. Around 1974 he started to contemplate recording songs for a solo project. He met 'the love of his life' Alfreda Benge. They were spending a sojourn in Venice when Wyatt, after imbibing a toxic cocktail of alcohol and drugs, jumped out of the third floor of a building. He paralysed himself.
Robert Wyatt and Alfreda Benge
He has since jokingly called this experience 'a good career move.' After being hospitalised, and awakening from a comatose state, he tinkered on the keyboard and wrote lyrics. The songs he wrote were influenced by his partner Alfreda, their experiences with their coterie in Venice and Wyatt resuming his life post-accident. The songs he wrote for this album spelled out the trajectory of his later career. It was a stripped down sound borne out of Wyatt's £40 keyboard. The songs are usually built from basic minor keys. A touch of instrumentalisation from guest musicians is added. There is some tribal drumming. And the most endearing touch of all: Wyatt's whiskery voice and idiosyncratic lyrics.
The tones from Wyatt's keyboard have a lugubrious quality (in a positive sense) and they have the quality of awakening from a dream. The music was also borne out of his experiences in Venice and there is also a nautical feel to the album. As such, it is somewhat reminiscent of the impressionistic music by Debussy and Ravel. The songs certainly remind me of Debussy's pan-tonal orchestral textures from La Mer. There are also abrasive sounds derived from free jazz. The album was borne out of Wyatt hitting 'rock bottom' and his later recovery.
In 'Sea Song' Wyatt reminisces about long nights in venice with Alfreda. He whimsically muses how when she's drunk, she's 'quite all right.' He goes on about 'how your lunacy fits neatly with my own.' He plays lovely sustained tones on his keyboard. When one hears the record, one feels as though one is in a trance, a kind of stupor. There are jazzy major chords at the end of the song and Wyatt scat-sings alongside the music. In 'A Last Straw,' Wyatt sings as to how plunges 'into the water we'll go head over heel' and becomes a sea creature. Water and dreams are synonymous in that both have are a transient and have a sense of profundity.
'Little Red Riding Hood' is a colossal track, with an overlay of trumpets either played in real time or reverb. Wyatt rambles on with some decidedly non-sensical lyrics. The next two tracks are especially stimulating - Alfib/Alfie. There are the same undulating tones from Wyatt's keys, which pulsate endlessly. There are brash tones added from a bass clarinet. Wyatt sings utter nonsense ('Nit nit not, folly bololey') The song gains some urgency and seagues into 'Alfie.' A saxophone squawks dissonantly. The song ends with menacing clusters from Wyatt's keyboard whilst Alfreda Benge tries to instil some sense of normalcy into the proceedings ('I'm not your dinner, you soppy old custard. (...) I'm not your dinner, you soppy old custard.')
In the final track, 'Little Red Robin Hit the Road,' Wyatt returns to England to lead a peaceful existence with his wife. There is a sense of renewal and rebirth. He talks about 'dead moles lie inside their hole,' a reference to his finished career as a jazz drummer and his defunct group Matching Mole. Fred Frith appears playing some quaint passages on the viola. Ivor Cutler recites some brilliant abstract lyrics. The album ends on a note of wilful lunacy, exaltation and optimism. So, there is some light in the tunnel after emerging from 'rock bottom.'
I have been thinking about my fondness for this record recently. I just finished my BA at University of Kent. This is where the Canterbury scene took place, where Wyatt and Soft Machine were its members. In my second year I lived in Herne Bay, by the coast. Every Friday I would take the day off to go for fish and chips and coffee at the adjacent town Whistable. In this town, full of quaint little shops, there is a vinyl store named Rock Bottom! Wyatt used to frequent the area to visit the cafés, like me!
Poignantly, in my graduation ceremony, Wyatt was given an honourary doctorate. Sadly, this took place in a ceremony the day after mine when I left Canterbury. (In my ceremony it was Harry Hill that received an honourary docorate...) I felt frustrated by this. Out of all the graduates, there is no doubt that out of I am his biggest fan. It is likely that no-one in the ceremony would have heard of him. I toyed with the idea of staying in Canterbury for another day. If I had stayed, I would have seen a guy in a weelchair and I would have been shy and reluctant to approach him. I would have said one of those platitudes like 'Geesh, I really love your music.' Still, it would have really been nice to let him know just how important his music had been during my difficult formative years in which I had also hit 'rock bottom.' I recovered, graduated with a First Class degree and very nearly met one my musical idols!