Very few artists, musicians in particular, can recover from an accident that leaves them paralyzed from the waist down. If the unfortunate artist is a drummer, a skill that requires one’s feet in equal measure to the upper limbs, then said drummer has most likely seen the better part of his career. However if you are Robert Wyatt, one of the Canterbury scene’s most prominent musicians, who at the age of 28 dropped from a 4th floor bathroom window after imbibing large quantities of southern comfort, tequila and whiskey, you use this horrific event as a turning point and embark on a new career.
Wyatt started writing the material for what would become his second album prior to the accident. In early 1973 he spent time in Venice, Italy with his then girlfriend Alfreda Benge who was assistant editor to Nicolas Roeg. The film director was shooting the excellent psychological thriller Don’t Look Now, based on a book by Daphne Du Maurier. Wyatt was left with a lot of time to kill during the filming process and started jotting down ideas for a number of songs.
A few months later, after the accident took place in June 1973, the concept of the album started to crystallize during the lengthy time he spent in the hospital. Within a few months he gained some mobility with a wheel chair and found an old upright piano, on which he kept working on the tunes, many of them love songs to Alfreda. I use the term love songs loosely, for they are as far from your average sugary 3-chord I-Love-You pop songs as you can get. Alfreda, or fondly Alfie to Robert, was not only his muse but played a critical role on his way to recovery and new musical expression. They have been a team ever since, with Alfreda contributing lyrics, drawings to album sleeves and artist management duties.
After leaving the hospital Wyatt spent time in a country house and recorded the songs using a mobile recording studio. He later invited friend musicians such as Mike Oldfield, Fred Frith and Richard Sinclair to add parts to specific songs. Even more importantly he asked Pink Floyd’s drummer Nick Mason to produce the album. Mason has never been a busy virtuoso drummer. His skill is in the amount of space he provides and letting the music breathe, a quality that defines many of Pink Floyd’s classics. That was his exact advice to Wyatt upon listening to the newly recorded material, and it helped shape the minimalistic approach for the album. The result was Rock Bottom, a record you must listen to with undivided attention if you want to experience all the nuances it has to offer. To top it, it includes one of my favorite songs in all of music, Sea Song.
Rhythmically, Wyatt provides the bare essential accompaniment in the form of half notes played on a toy drum. The sleeve notes list it as James’ drum, James being the country house owner’s son. Wyatt also plays piano and a Riviera organ, a very simple keyboard that was popular in the late 60s: “The organ I used on Rock Bottom is called a Riviera. Alfie got it for us, it cost about ten bob in an Italian toy shop. It’s a three or four-octave toy organ.”
The lyrics combine the imagery on the front sleeve of the record, depicting life on the surface and bottom of the sea, with the character of his love, her changing moods and all the reasons he adores her. Quite good poetry for a non-poet. However it is the second part of the song, where the rhythm stops and the vocalization begins, that sends chills down my spine. I love all the pieces of music I write about on this blog, but few of them move me that deeply.
Sea Song is not an easy song to cover but attempts have been made a number of times, including Tears for Fears who gave it a good interpretation, although Roland Orzabal’s vocals are a tad too sweet for this kind of a song. The interpretation I like the most is by one of my favorite bands of recent years, The Unthanks, from their 2011 album Diversions Vol. 1, the songs of Robert Wyatt and Anthony & the Johnsons. Robert Wyatt concurs, as he stated in various interviews.
So without farther ado, here is the song as it appeared on Rock Bottom in 1974:
For those interested in learning more about Robert Wyatt, I highly recomend reading his biography Different Every Time: The Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt, by Marcus O’Dair.
You look different every time you come
From the foam-crested brine
Your skin shining softly in the moonlight
Partly fish, partly porpoise, partly baby sperm whale
Am I yours? Are you mine to play with?
Joking apart – when you’re drunk you’re terrific when you’re drunk
I like you mostly late at night you’re quite alright
But I can’t understand the different you in the morning
When it’s time to play at being human for a while please smile!
You’ll be different in the spring, I know
You’re a seasonal beast like the starfish that drift in with the tide
So until your blood runs to meet the next full moon
You’re madness fits in nicely with my own
Your lunacy fits neatly with my own, my very own
We’re not alone