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Camping at Pop's Pinnacle : Rock: Singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock puts an absurdist spin on the issues that haunt him--and us. He performs in San Juan Capistrano tonight.

April 24, 1993|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are any number of pop-rock singers with greater natural talent than Robyn Hitchcock, although his thin, chesty-nasal voice is sufficient to get the job done, particularly with helpful harmony support from bassist Andy Metcalfe and drummer Morris Windsor, his confederates in Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians.

There also are better rock songwriters than Hitchcock, but not many, at least not lately. In terms of melodiousness, philosophical resonance, breadth of imagination and cohesiveness of vision, few have outdone the British musician's most recent albums, "Perspex Island" (1991) and the newly released "Respect."

It's as an extemporizer that Hitchcock stands at or near the pinnacle of pop. In concert, his impromptu spoken riffs can be as entertaining as his catchy musical ones.

Playing the Coach House last summer, Hitchcock carried on in the tradition of one of his big influences, Monty Python's Flying Circus, spinning an absurdist tale about trying to save a whale beached in a pond of soapsuds and somehow relating that to the Bosnian crisis. You had to be there.

Hitchcock will be back singing and, if the mood strikes, extemporizing, at the Coach House tonight, and on Tuesday at the Palace in Hollywood. Speaking over the phone this week from a hotel in Dallas, it was clear that he hasn't lost his knack for fanciful, simile-strewn descriptions leading to offbeat conclusions.

Ask Hitchcock where he is, and he won't simply say "Dallas" or "a hotel room." He'll draw you a picture.

"I'm on the sixth floor of a hotel in Dallas, which looks out over a shopping mall, and there are people ice-skating down below. It's like some huge, ghastly television set tuned to one channel and it occupies the whole wall," he said of his vista. "There are huge, glass modules sliding silently up and down the walls, a vision of the obsolete future."

On his new album, Hitchcock imagines himself dead and departed from this world of shopping malls with glass elevators, but still chattering away beyond the grave with his new acquaintances and prospective dinner partners, God and the devil.

Death has long been a favorite song topic for Hitchcock, who now has released 17 albums in a 15-year recording career. "My Wife and My Dead Wife," which dates from the mid-'80s, is one of his best, a comically imaginative but also deeply poignant song about a man haunted by a ghostly presence.

On that song and the others he wrote about death, Hitchcock was drawing primarily on imagination. But he says that the songs on "Respect" were written last year while his father was dying--the first time in the rocker's 40 years that death had intruded so personally.

The haunted protagonist of "Dead Wife" was fictional; but the haunted man in "Railway Shoes" is Hitchcock himself. "Then You're Dust," the album's penultimate song, is a dark contemplation of deathly finality that came to him while he was walking the grounds of his father's house. It's an unusual song for Hitchcock, who typically has written about death as one in a chain of magical transformations that repeatedly crop up in his songs.

Rather than end the album on such a bleak note, Hitchcock follows it with the comic novelty song "Wafflehead," a double-entendre-filled celebration of the sex drive--which is, after all, organic life's fundamental response to the fact of death.

"When somebody dies, you're posed with this problem: How do you relate to somebody who isn't there? You're in a relationship with nothing suddenly, and that's what you have to come to terms with," Hitchcock said.

"People talk about grieving and letting go. The deceased has to change, and your relationship has to change, and you have to carry on somehow. That's the problem with the dead. They clutter up your life. There are people as yet unborn in Northern Ireland who will kill each other because of the ghosts of their ancestors, the ghosts that keep the conflict going."

As for what lies in wait for us after death, Hitchcock entertains a hopeful vision: "In the afterlife it's very possible you review your whole life on a ticker tape or printout or floppy disc. You're judged not by the devil or God, but by yourself. It seems to me if you're judged by other people, the judgment is futile and you can't learn."

Hitchcock's interest in transformations of being has led to songs filled with fanciful creatures undergoing metamorphoses--although he has tried on recent albums to lock up his old menagerie of symbolic birds, fish and insects, and concentrate on more direct expression.

"I used to read a lot of Greek myths when I was young, and Roman and Norwegian. I never read the Egyptian ones until later. But I'm not intentionally mythologizing," Hitchcock said of his penchant for writing about things that change shape.

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