Words Take The Place of Meaning

‘Words take the place of meaning’: sound, sense and politics in the music of Robert Wyatt

Pre-publication draft of chapter published in The Singer-Songwriter in Europe: Paradigms, Politics and Place, edited by Isabelle Marc and Stuart Green (London: Routledge, 2016), 51-64.

The body of work produced by British singer and composer Robert Wyatt over the course of more than four decades shows a fascination with the ways in which words, music and sound can be made to interrogate each other. While he has been a writer of songs from his early days with the jazz-rock group Soft Machine onwards, in his solo career Wyatt has used his song lyrics as ways of exploring the borderlines between direct, ‘intimate’ address and more distanced, cryptic or coded styles. His music, which has drawn on numerous genres and styles, has aided in this blurring of boundaries, and Wyatt has often focussed on sonic experimentation, even at the seeming expense of conventional ‘songwriting’. Then there is Wyatt’s voice. When we speak of singer-songwriters we tend to consider voice as both literary tool and musical instrument, and of the resulting persona(s) of an author and a vocalist. In Wyatt’s case, both writing style and vocal instrument are utterly distinctive and this combined ‘voice’ has served to mediate, and occasionally muddy, the already playful relationship between words and music in Wyatt’s work.[1] Much of his own songwriting, with its predilections for nonsense and the absurd, is articulated via a childlike sense of wonder at the world and a desire to cling to domestic comforts. This is supplemented by a more explicitly political body of work, reflecting Wyatt’s engagement with left wing politics and an ever-increasing geo-political outlook. This political work takes the form of both self-written material and cover versions of work by international singer-songwriters, a process which contributes to a global network of committed music.

This chapter discusses songs from both these sides of Wyatt’s repertoire – innocent playfulness and political engagement – to explore the relationships between the cultural geographies of singer-songwriters and protest as articulated via words and sound. I begin by considering Wyatt in light of dominant definitions of the singer-songwriter, particularly those that seek some kind of transparent mediation between the artist’s life and their work. As I argue, Wyatt does at times seem close to the popular notion of the singer-songwriter as a model of clear communication and direct, personal (‘confessional’) address. More often, however, he challenges this position by using word games, coded lyrics or languages that are foreign to him and which arguably lack the sense of authenticity required for the direct address of the confessional singer-songwriter or the protest singer. This raises interesting questions as to what Wyatt is showing fidelity: his own vision; that of other writers for whom he is a channel; or a politically committed aesthetic. Furthermore, Wyatt’s art has been as much about sound in general as about music (and in ways that challenge rather than reinforce distinctions between these terms) and, to this end, I include a brief discussion of sound poetry as a way of considering the sometimes problematic relationship between sound and sense. I link this discussion to one of Wyatt’s political songs, ‘Gharbzadegi’, which takes its name from an Iranian term meaning ‘Westernitis’ or ‘infected by the West’ but which Wyatt’s non-Iranian listeners are unlikely to make sense of without additional guidance. A line from that song epitomises, and acts as a reference point, for my thoughts about the role of understandable communication in the art of the singer-songwriter: ‘Gharbzadegi means nothing to me’, Wyatt sings, ‘words take the place of meaning’ (Wyatt, 1985). This suggests a tension between language terms and their meanings which is of interest to discussions of confessional or political singer-songwriters, where we would probably expect there to be a more transparent sense of meaning in the words being sung. This aspect of transparency of meaning, also understood as direct communication, is key to the discussion that follows.

 Robert Wyatt as singer-songwriter

At a basic level it seems unproblematic to describe Wyatt as a singer-songwriter. Since his departure from Soft Machine in 1971 and the dissolution of his subsequent group Matching Mole two years later, Wyatt has been known primarily for a series of records put out under his own name and on which he sings material that has largely been written by him. Furthermore, although his work is marked by collaboration, his most frequent collaborator in the writing of songs has been his wife Alfreda (Alfie) Benge, allowing for a sense of personalisation of material that might be less easy in other professional writing partnerships; in terms of artistic production, ‘Benge/Wyatt’ might be thought of as a unit (Alfie has also provided the artwork for Wyatt’s albums since 1974). Wyatt’s songwriting is also recognised through the respect shown it by other musicians whose cover versions have enhanced his status as an author-figure. Yet in other ways Wyatt doesn’t appear to fit the popular singer-songwriter image, especially that of the guitar-toting, folk-based performer or the piano-playing, intimately confessional artist. Even though Wyatt’s songs have a remarkable intimacy to them, they are presented in a manner that seems to be coded differently to those of other singer-songwriters. This may be due to his use of coding and symbolism in his lyrics, his emphasis on jazz experimentation, or a whimsical approach to words and music that seems at odds with the classic era of the American singer-songwriters around which the genre has largely been defined.

Wyatt certainly seems to fulfil some of the criteria of the singer-songwriter as defined by John Potter in Grove Online, such as political awareness and introspection (Potter, n.d.). He is a socially aware performer whose politics have influenced his music for a number of decades, even if his most ‘political’ work has been, at times, his most elliptical. Introspection, meanwhile, can be found in a number of his songs, from ‘O Caroline’ (a single released by Wyatt’s group Matching Mole in 1972) to the existential meditation ‘Free Will and Testament’ on the 1997 album Shleep and ‘Be Serious’ from 2007’s Comicopera. There is also the issue of the ‘symbiotic relationship’ between the singer-songwriter and the instrument upon which their work is composed (ibid.). In the liners notes to the 1998 reissue of his most acclaimed album Rock Bottom (originally released in 1974), Wyatt writes of composing the songs in Venice, using ‘a very basic little keyboard with a particular vibrato, that shimmered like the water that surrounded us’ (Wyatt, 1998a, n.p.). This keyboard, elsewhere identified by Wyatt as a Riviera toy organ, plays a vital role in creating the soundscape of Rock Bottom, a suite of songs with very personal themes that create the impression, as with much singer-songwriter material, of being ‘about’ the person who has composed and is singing them. The sense of compositional intimacy and the relationship between composer and instrument is highlighted in another comment Wyatt makes about the Riviera: ‘I was able to tune in with the kind of vibrato I wanted, and I was able to play rather like I would sing if I could be a little choir. I could set my voice right into it, and it was like stepping into a warm bath of sound. I felt really at home’ (Hoskyns, 1999, p. 45).

Another aspect highlighted by Potter in his description of the rock- or group-based singer-songwriter is the extent to which the artist takes responsibility for the whole concept and sound of a particular set of songs. Although Wyatt’s authorship has often been dispersed in collaborative projects, there is still a sense of creative control in his post-Soft Machine work (including the first Matching Mole album). The music produced during this period tends to be associated with the authorial figure ‘Robert Wyatt’ even when it is collaborative; this extends to the authorship of Wyatt’s songs, as evidenced in the way in which his material has been anthologised. If two of the signs of having produced a significant body of songwriting are its compilation in written form (as literature, or poetry) and its interpretation by other musicians, then Wyatt scores again as an authorial figure. His lyrics, along with those written by (or with) Benge, have been collected in volumes published by Æncrages & Co (collected in Wyatt, Benge and Marchetti, 2009) and his work has formed the basis for a number of musical projects, including those by trombonist and bandleader Annie Whitehead, rock group Mop Meuchine, the French Orchestre National de Jazz, British folk group the Unthanks and the group of covers compiled by members of Italian rock group Consorzio Suonatori Indipendenti, or C.S.I. (Various Artists, 1998, 2000; Mop Meuchine, 2010; Orchestre National de Jazz, 2009; Unthanks, 2011). And while these projects may take away from the crucial aspect of the singer-songwriter’s own performance, it should be noted not only that Wyatt has been involved in some of these projects as singer and/or advisor, but also that he is a valued guest vocalist on other artists’ projects (the list is extensive, with examples including work with David Gilmour and Nick Mason of Pink Floyd, jazz composer Michael Mantler, and British electronic music duo Ultramarine). As vocalist, Wyatt has also performed memorable versions of work by other singer-songwriters, a point to which I will return. In the case of the 1982 song ‘Shipbuilding’, Elvis Costello crafted a lyric for Clive Langer’s melody with Wyatt’s voice in mind and, though Costello would record his own version, it is Wyatt who has become most identified with the song, taking on an authorial role through his interpretation.

These aspects of Wyatt’s art exemplify certain traits of the singer-songwriter and/or are strongly connected to the genre through authorship, interpretation and collaboration. Yet there remain crucial aspects that challenge such traits. One that has already been noted is the tendency to define the genre in Anglo-American terms. It is telling that many of the signs of Wyatt’s prestige – for example, the aforementioned collection of lyrics and some of the musical projects based on his work – have emanated from non-Anglophone European countries. Wyatt is a quintessentially ‘European’ singer-songwriter partly due to the fact that his music exudes a distinctively non-Americanised Englishness, but also because he is critically revered in other European countries such as France, Italy and Spain. While many British and American singer-songwriters have been absorbed in the pop-rock canon that emerged contemporaneously with the classic era of the singer-songwriter genre, Wyatt has tended to be considered by the Anglo-American music press as a revered British eccentric, not unlike his former bandmate Kevin Ayers. It is not surprising to find Wyatt written about in Richie Unterberger’s book Unknown Legends of Rock ’n’ Roll, where he appears in a chapter on ‘rock enigmas’ (Unterberger 1998). Wyatt’s enigmatic position outside the mainstream rock canon means that even his most classic work is unlikely to be considered alongside more knowable (because explicable) singer-songwriter albums, even when the latter emanate from such ‘enigmas’ as Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. Part of Wyatt’s outsider status doubtless stems from the whimsical nature of his lyrics, which have diverted attention away from the earnest and/or confessional mode of address towards a sense of playful intimacy. Another important aspect is Wyatt’s involvement in groups and collaborations. Even though, as already noted, Wyatt has enjoyed a level of creative control in the various projects he has been involved in, there is nonetheless a sense of his being ‘distributed’ across a potentially confusing number of recordings, many of which feature significant sonic experimentation that stretches the boundaries of traditional song forms. It is easy to lose sight of Wyatt the singer-songwriter amidst the various sonic works with which he has been involved.

Playing with sounds

Although he had been a member of the 1960s group The Wilde Flowers, Wyatt first came to wider attention as a drummer, singer and composer in the jazz-rock group Soft Machine, with whom he appeared on four acclaimed albums. In 1971, by which time he had already released his first solo album The End of an Ear, Wyatt found himself at odds with the group and, following a period of increasing acrimony, was forced out by the other members. He formed Matching Mole (a play on the French for ‘Soft Machine’) and released two albums with them in 1972 (Matching Mole and Little Red Record) before disbanding. In 1973 Wyatt broke his back in a fall and was confined to a wheelchair, ending his career as a drummer. With the release of 1974’s Rock Bottom, he resumed his solo career, releasing a series of solo albums that continues to the present day. These albums saw Wyatt switching instruments to the keyboard (and occasional trumpet) and focussing more on singing. While still often drawing on jazz and experimental music, and engaging in lengthy instrumental sections, Wyatt started working in more explicitly song-like forms to a greater extent than he had in his earlier work. Even so, Wyatt’s love of sonic experimentation—which had become apparent with the avant-garde sound collages of The End of an Ear and the second Matching Mole album—suggested that he was unwilling to give himself over completely to ‘song’. In contrast to those singer-songwriters for whom music was seen as a relatively unimportant backdrop to the delivery of clearly enunciated lyrics, Wyatt would tend to use words as just one element of a larger sonic palette, sometimes by the use of extended instrumental sections, at others through the distortion of the vocal itself. Because his paralysis had made touring impractical, Wyatt became known predominantly as a studio artist, meaning that he changed from being a highly energetic and visible ‘back seat’ musician (as a drummer) to a more invisible ‘front man’. This lack of onstage visibility has no doubt further removed him from consideration as a singer-songwriter, where onstage visibility is often used to enhance the communicative channel between performer and audience. Working primarily in the studio also enabled, and perhaps encouraged, Wyatt to focus on sonic experimentation.

Even before this, however, Wyatt was fascinated by sound and often used the concert stage and the recording studio as laboratories for experiments into various sonic possibilities. In 1972, he told an interviewer that he considered songs he was working on as ‘props for making noises’ and the words used in them as ‘outside intelligible conversation’ (Wyatt cited in King, 1994, n.p.). The kinds of noises Wyatt has made during his career have been varied, from extending his singing via nonsense language, sound poetry, overdubbing, whistling and scatting to placing his voice(s) alongside an eclectic mix of musical instruments and studio technology. His contributions to Soft Machine included ‘A Concise British Alphabet’, in which he sang the alphabet forwards and backwards, and ‘Dada Was Here’, where he sang and scatted in nonsense Spanish. The End of an Ear, technically his first solo album, was an extended experiment in sound collage, with conventional song form abandoned in favour of texture, layering and what Wyatt calls ‘an aural wildlife park’ (O’Dair, 2014, p. 134). For Rock Bottom, the album many consider to the first of Wyatt’s real solo career, he found the particular sound he was after with the Riviera keyboard and used the instrument as one of many layers in the album’s dreamlike sonic palimpsest. Also important to the album’s unique sound world were the use of peculiar lyrics that both harked back to a tradition of nonsense literature (from Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear to Edward Gorey and Ivor Cutler) and incorporated the private language of relationships via playful exchanges between Wyatt and Benge.[2]

One of the aspects of singer-songwriters highlighted in Potter’s Grove article is the tendency to make private issues public and, in this sense, the release of an album such as Rock Bottom, with its sense of exposed privacy and personal language, seems to fit the bill. This singer-songwriter ‘type’ might be described as ‘stream of consciousness’, as exemplified by Van Morrison. Comparisons have been made between Rock Bottom and Morrison’s critically revered Astral Weeks, not only in terms of shared intimacy, but also in the way that sound is used; Morrison’s album, with its mix of jazz and rock styles, was reportedly an influence on Wyatt, via Benge’s suggestion. As O’Dair writes, ‘Rock Bottom shared the unhurried spaciousness of Astral Weeks: the willingness, in Robert’s words, to just let things unfold’ (O’Dair, 2014, p. 205). On the one hand Wyatt’s album could be heard as removed from the social world, with the singer addressing his partner rather than us; at the same time he seems to be inviting us, via his soundworld, into the most intimate of spaces, and we are drawn to witness as unique and affecting a world as that presented on Astral Weeks. In songs like ‘Alifib’ the use of nursery rhyme and nonsense language summons an intimacy that is enhanced by the realisation that the song is about Wyatt’s wife and that hers is the voice that can be heard responding to and reproaching him later in the song.

In Lewis Carroll’s first Alice book, the Duchess advises Alice to ‘take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves’ (Carroll and Gardner, 2001, p. 96). Carroll here makes a joke that itself relies on sound in the form of rhyme (playing on the proverb ‘take care of the pence and the pounds will take care of themselves’). As Mladen Dolar points out, the Duchess’s words seem to be inverted, for her pronouncements, like many proverbs, ‘make more sound than sense’ (Dolar, 2006, p. 147). There is a surfeit of what Jacques Lacan called ‘lalangue’, the ‘non-communicative aspects of language which, by playing on ambiguity and homophony, give rise to a kind of jouissance’ (Evans, 2001, p. 97; see also Lacan, 1999, pp. 138-9; Dolar, 2006, pp. 139-51). If, as Susan Stewart has suggested, the fascination with nonsense resides in its being ‘language lifted out of context, language turning on itself, language as infinite regression, language made hermetic, opaque in an envelope of language’ (Stewart, 1989, p.3), then it is worthwhile considering the importance of sound in all these processes and in sense-making more generally. It is striking how well Stewart’s description would work as a description of sound poetry, of what might be called ‘vocable art’ (non-semantic singing, vocalese, scatting, some forms of rapping) or of the manipulation of sonic communication by mechanical means (tape loops, sampling, mixing and remixing). It is also notable how Stewart’s use of ‘envelope’ echoes and anticipates work on what has been called ‘the sonorous envelope’ (Silverman, 1988; Rosolato, 1974). One of the more focussed applications of such ideas to music is David Schwarz’s Listening Subjects (Schwartz, 1997), in which the author analyses a range of twentieth century musical examples from a psychoanalytic perspective. At one point in the book, Schwarz explores the notion of the sonorous envelope in an analysis of the early tape loops of Steve Reich, noting how the obsessive repetition and breaking down of everyday language leads to an estrangement of sense. Mechanical manipulation allows for a kind of reversal of the process by which infants learn to make sense of the world, first as fragmented, non-meaning and later as increasingly meaningful sound elements that can be combined in order to communicate with others.

Such processes can also be detected in what has come to be known as sound poetry, a world of verbal and sonic experimentation that Steve McCaffery has divided into three main phases or ‘areas’: the first comprises ‘archaic and primitive poetries’ employing incantation and ‘deliberate lexical distortions’; the second includes the ‘diverse and revolutionary investigations into language’s non-semantic, acoustic properties’ undertaken by the Russian and Italian Futurists and the Dadaists; the third consists of mainly post-1950s explorations into ‘the micro particulars of morphology, investigating the full expressive range of predenotative forms: grunts, howls, shrieks, etc.’ (McCaffery, 1978, p. 6). For Dadaist Hugo Ball, sound poems were ‘devices for inducing the dada state of mind’ (McCaffery, 1978, p. 6). Much like mantras where the repetition of magical words is affective, moving someone or something from one state (of consciousness) to another, so sound poetry aimed to ‘free vowels from syntax and meaning’ and to find the ‘inner essence’ of the word (Green, 1998, p. 61, v; see also McCaffery, 2009). While Dadaists like Ball, Richard Huelsenbeck and Kurt Schwitters helped to launch the sound poem as performance art, the tendency was taken to more vocally ambitious stages by poets such as Henri Chopin, François Dufrêne and Bob Cobbing. Cobbing’s ‘ABC in Sound’, dating from around four years before the second Soft Machine album, is anything but a ‘concise British alphabet’ being instead an epic poem of more than twenty minutes duration in which Cobbing explores a variety of unusual words, names and sounds as he progresses through the alphabet (Cobbing, 2009). Beyond a shared interest in the lineaments of letters and the sound of phonemes, Robert Wyatt is connected to Cobbing by the fact that they both appear on Morgan Fisher’s 1980 album Miniatures (Fisher, 2008) This project, which consists of ‘51 tiny masterpieces’, is an example of music-making under constraint; each contributor was asked to record a piece of one minute’s duration, which Fisher then edited into ‘bands’. Joining Cobbing, Henri Chopin, Ivor Cutler and George Melly (reading Schwitters’s sound poem ‘Ursonate’), Wyatt provides an excerpt of him singing the Frank Sinatra classic ‘Strangers in the Night’. His recording is then looped and repeated until it leads, as with Steve Reich’s tape experiments, to a breakdown of the message. The resulting piece is titled ‘rangers in the nightst’ as a way of reflecting the reformulated phonemes, another signal of the difficulty of matching the written word against the sounded word.

Politics and the place of meaning

If sound rather than sense has often seemed to drive Robert Wyatt’s songwriting, a large part of his work has also dwelt on more semantically specific communication. His work in the 1980s was dominated by explicitly political song choices, including cover versions of other writers’ material, that reflected his active engagement with left wing politics. Early in his career, while still a member of Soft Machine, Wyatt had included a section in ‘Moon in June’ that asked his band and listeners to pause ‘before moving on to the next part of our song’ and to consider that ‘music-making still performs the normal functions – background noise for people scheming, seducing, revolting and teaching’ (Soft Machine, 2007). This sense of music as peripheral to activism was reiterated in later recollections of his time with Soft Machine:

I don’t remember musicians being in the forefront of political consciousness […] The groups were reluctantly being dragged along in the slipstream of the audiences’ consciousness. On the Continent – particularly in Germany – we had to realize that our function was to allow thousands of students to get together in a hall so they could have a meeting.

Wyatt cited in Denselow, 1989, p. 94

Direct political commentary was still lacking by the time of Matching Mole, despite the group’s second album being titled Little Red Record and bearing a cover based on a revolutionary Chinese propaganda picture. The song ‘Gloria Gloom’ contained a question about whether music was ‘more relevant than fighting for a socialist world’ (Matching Mole, 2012) but there was little explicit political language beyond this and the words were difficult to make out amidst the sonic collage. Ruth is Stranger than Richard, the 1975 Wyatt album that followed Rock Bottom, contained a version of Charlie Haden’s ‘Song for Che’, which, though wordless, was a more obvious connection to ‘political music’ than Wyatt’s previous catalogue. By the end of the decade, Wyatt had joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and his music started to more accurately reflect his political views.

This development was most noticeable on a series of singles released on the Rough Trade label and which were collected together as an album entitled Nothing Can Stop Us in 1982. Among the songs Wyatt recorded were Violeta Parra’s ‘Arauco tiene una pena’, a key song from the Chilean nueva canción catalogue, and a version of the Cuban song ‘Caimanera’ with lyrics by Carlos Puebla, arguably the chief pro-Revolution songwriter of the Castro era. The practice continued with the 1984 EP Work in Progress, on which Wyatt released two more Latin American songs: ‘Yolanda’, written by the Cuban nueva trova composer Pablo Milanés; and a version of Chilean cantautor Víctor Jara’s ‘Te recuerdo Amanda’. In a liner note to the 1982 album, Hannah Charlton writes that the songs ‘bear witness to people and events, they serve as a musical shorthand, a reminder of actions and emotions as folk songs have done throughout centuries, carrying the communal experience whether it was to mourn or celebrate’ (Charlton, 1998, n.p.). For his 2007 album Comicopera, Wyatt recorded another song by Carlos Puebla about Che Guevara, ‘Hasta siempre Comandante’, placing it after other non-Anglophone songs: ‘Del Mondo’ by the Italian group C.S.I. and ‘Cancion de Julieta’ [sic], an adaptation of a poem by Federico García Lorca. Wyatt has claimed that he enjoys singing in other languages because it allows him a certain freedom from the words, giving him the opportunity to focus on singing.[3] That said, the foreign songs that Wyatt has chosen – such as those by Parra, Puebla, Jara and C.S.I. – have been serious, political works, originating in cultural contexts that place great emphasis on poetic style and the clear communication of message. It is important to affirm that Wyatt’s choice of material connects him to an international network of committed performers involved in raising and maintaining public consciousness and political conscience. Internationalism itself is another favoured theme of Wyatt’s in his songwriting, public pronouncements and artistic collaborations and he has been a notable figure in this respect since the 1970s.

Between the Rough Trade singles of the early 1980s and Comicopera in 2007, Wyatt recorded four ‘solo’ albums that mixed his longstanding interest in nonsense and whimsy with the later desire to reflect his political opinions in song form. Of these, 1985’s Old Rottenhat was the most consistently political, including songs about US foreign and domestic policy, East Timor, class consciousness, colonialism and the compromised merging of British political parties. Even here, though, Wyatt playfully included a song entitled ‘P.L.A’ whose two brief lines referred to ‘poor little Alfie’ (his wife) trying to draw and sleep (Wyatt, 1985). Noting the influence of Beckett and Mondrian on the minimal narratives of Old Rottenhat , Wyatt said that he wanted to pare the material down to the ‘essential song’, an exercise he admits was as much aesthetic as political (Cross, 1999). Wyatt has made similar comments about singing in foreign languages (O’Dair, 2014, p. 254) but, as already noted, his selections have been politically meaningful as much as they may have been aesthetically pleasing for the singer. In the case of Old Rottenhat’s pared-down songs, it was at this point that Wyatt decided he wished to make music that was ‘non-misusable’ (Cross, 1999) and that ‘couldn’t be appropriated by the Right’ (O’Hagen, 1985). Whether he succeeded in this is debatable given that the concision of his lyrics on the album, combined with specific and unexplained references to hot political topics of the day, results in a series of quite cryptic observations. As noted at the start of this chapter, this is the album which contains the song ‘Gharbzadegi’ in which Wyatt uses a Persian term to describe ‘Westernitis’ or ‘Westoxication’ (Hanson, 1983) and in which he sings that ‘words take the place of meaning’. This last phrase becomes something of a mantra as the song develops, with Wyatt repeating and layering the words until they start making ‘more sound than sense’. They become ‘just’ words, part of the toolkit that vocalists can use to make their creations sonically pleasing. The repetition and layering of the words, combined with Wyatt’s high, gentle singing and the woozy instrumental palette which he deploys, lead to a lulling, hypnotic and rather beautiful sonic palimpsest in which it is quite easy to lose track of, or altogether forget, the political commentary guiding the song’s lyrics. Here, then, we see a synthesis of the clear message associated with the singer-songwriter and the muddier aesthetic that Wyatt is drawn to as an artist enthralled to the play of language, sound and sense.

One way to distinguish between the different subject matters Wyatt has sung about, as well as the ways he has sung them, might be to claim some as nonsense and some as absurd. While nonsense might more frequently be thought of as a celebration of communicative play for the sake of it, the absurd could be seen as more often focussed on the real world, as reflecting a social disorder (Holquist, 1969). At the same time, we might just say that disorder and the absurd are varieties of nonsense, a claim made by Susan Stewart in her study of nonsense in folklore and literature (Stewart, 1989). The closeness of the relationship can be seen and heard in many of the songs on Wyatt’s recordings from the 1980s onwards as he starts to mix the private nonsense language of his domestic material with left-wing anthems and critical observations on global imperialism and the need for postcolonial independence. Absurdity as non-meaning and nonsense is a theme of the 1991 album Dondestan, in particular its title track. ‘Dondestan’ is an orthographic abbreviation of ‘dónde están’, the Spanish for ‘where are they?’ and a politically loaded demand in many Latin American societies that have had to endure the unresolved terror of political prisoners being ‘disappeared’. Wyatt has said that running the words together creates a new word that sounds like it could be a country (like Pakistan or Afghanistan). This would certainly fit the song’s content, which concerns the plight of the displaced people of Palestine and Kurdistan. The song proceeds via a childlike rhyme, with the trochaic meter often found in such rhymes – ‘Palestine’s a country, or at least used to be’ – emphasised by a repeated, one-finger keyboard line, its message drilling itself into the listener’s memory (Wyatt, 1998b).

The song is given a more complex treatment on a later album which Wyatt made in collaboration with saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and violinist Ros Stephen. This version, titled ‘Where Are They Now?’, features Arabic rapping by two Palestinians, Shadia Mansour and Abboud Hashem. The familiar ‘Dondestan’ melody is first rehearsed by Atzmon’s horns and Stephen’s strings in a distinctly retro manner, the warm fuzziness suggesting jazz of a bygone era. This feeling is then continued via the application of analogue hiss to the recording, a temporal and spatial rejigging that in turn is displaced by the hip hop beats and assertive rap. ‘Palestine’s a country’ becomes a small, sample-like element in the mix, a more subtle assertion of a country’s right to exist (Wyatt / Atzmon / Steven, 2010). For me, this track calls to mind the work of the Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman, who, like Wyatt, has made extensive use of absurdism as a way of raising questions about particular political issues. For Suleiman, absurdity in art is a valid political response to an absurd reality. In a discussion about the open nature of his imagery and his minimal use of verbal narrative, Suleiman makes a point that seems to confirm the difficulty of making ‘non-misusable’ art but which, for me, seems close to the mark in describing both Suleiman’s and Wyatt’s work:

I’m simply raising questions. If I had an answer to even one image when I started making it, it would not be on the screen. If you have answers for an image, there’s no poetic space for it—there’s already a closure of some kind. In order to remain vital, I think that all art, not just cinema, needs always to exist in a kind of present, so that you can come back to it, re-read it.

[…] Of course this also carries the risk that it might be misread, misjudged, but this is what democracy always has, this risk. So this is one of the functions of the images I try to create, which is not to have any kind of a linear reading.

Suleiman, 2003, p. 66

In his films Chronicle of a Disappearance and Divine Intervention, Suleiman presents a series of loosely connected scenes rather than straightforward narratives. The scenes are often surreal or absurd in nature, such as the ‘ninja scene’ that comes near the end of Divine Intervention and which offers to resolve the restriction and oppression faced by Palestinians through the realisation of the fantastic. It is both humorous and deadly serious; as Linda Butler writes, ‘despite the humor, moments of tenderness, and laugh-out-loud sight gags, the film presents an all-too-realistic picture, pitiless and meticulous, of the devastating impact of occupation on Palestinian society both in Israel and in the occupied territories’ (Suleiman, 2003, p. 64). Paralleling the ways in which Wyatt and Benge often seem to write away from clear sense, Suleiman says, ‘I speak near the subject, I never really talk about it’ (ibid., p.72). This proximity to the subject allows scenes and vignettes to be built up from impressions and perhaps to allow a narrative to emerge. For Wyatt and Benge, the songs of Old Rottenhat and Dondestan seem to be scenes, represented as much by imagery and wordplay as by music, and narratives emerge at the level of the song, the album and the ongoing career.


Work by artists such as Suleiman and Wyatt forces us to ask questions about whether linear narrative is the ideal form for the communication of meaning or whether it is just as effective to have space left open for interpretation and play, even in the most political of messages. Such questions seem relevant to the consideration of the art of the singer-songwriter more broadly: are singer-songwriters defined by the fact that they compose and sing their own songs or are there additional expectations concerning the directness of communication, of the use of understandable words clearly articulated in the native language of the artist?

The explicitly political songs that Wyatt released as singles for Rough Trade and the cover versions of songs by international political singer-songwriters that he has released on EPs and albums since then could be heard to represent a kind of antithesis of the more whimsical, domestic material that comprises much of his other work. It might seem a difficult task to reconcile the experience-born political rhetoric of one part of Wyatt’s output with the dreamlike narratives which have dominated the other. Indeed, if one of the key skills of the ‘classic’ singer-songwriter is to communicate in ways that allow the sharing of a group consciousness – embodied forcefully in the clear enunciation of the Latin American singer-songwriters Wyatt has been drawn to – what might it mean to note the way that many of Wyatt’s messages seep rather than sear themselves into a listener’s consciousness? Yet, like any good dialectical process, each side of Wyatt’s output can be heard to contain its opposite and he succeeds in presenting a uniform, committed persona that allows for both absolute clarity and muddiness, clear political critique and domestic nonsense.

A seeming dispute between words and meaning lies at the heart of much of Wyatt’s work, from public surrealism and private nonsense to the choice of singing in languages other than English and even on to his most avowedly political songwriting. On albums such as Old Rottenhat, Dondestan and Comicopera, Wyatt and Benge often write away from what we might call ‘transparent sense’, achieving instead more impressionistic effects. Such results sometimes impede Wyatt’s stated desire for ‘non-misusable music’, and certainly offer challenges to a common expectation of political and confessional song (in which clarity of message is more important than aesthetic ambition). What we seem to hear on these albums are snapshots of Wyatt and Benge’s very personal take on the world. Throughout there is a sense of profound curiosity, wonder and surprise about the world, mixed with hard-nosed condemnation of atrocity and injustice, a mixture that suggests these are songs of innocence and experience. For Wyatt, whimsy and politics are combined in a complementary relationship, as related by his biographer Marcus O’Dair: ‘He lists Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – along with bubble and squeak, the Spanish city of Granada, the saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and the Morning Star newspaper – as one of the five things that make his world a better place’ (O’Dair, 2014, p.19). Thus Wyatt fashions a highly particular brand of authenticity as singer-songwriter. This is captured and elaborated by O’Dair, who describes the singer’s ‘conversational delivery’ (ibid., p.313) as being key to the success of his singing. Wyatt has a down-to-earth quality which removes drama while still retaining absolute sincerity and which is playful rather than solemn. This quality keeps him closer to Dylan than to the Latin American singer-songwriters whose work he has covered. And, like Dylan, there is a realisation that being ‘younger than that now’ can actually be more effective than being ‘older then’. A youthful sense of wonder and a willingness to underline the absurd can be as effective a set of techniques for the singer-songwriter as the solemn condemnation of injustice. Messing with the meaning of words can be a powerful reminder that, too often in politics, words are all there are.


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[1] By using the word ‘muddy’ here, I am following Wyatt’s biographer Marcus O’Dair, who refers to Wyatt’s singing and songwriting style as ‘muddy mouth’, after the title of a song from Wyatt’s 1975 album Ruth is Stranger than Richard. The song’s placing on the album provides typical evidence of Wyatt’s verbal and vocal playfulness in that it follows three shorter fragments entitled ‘Muddy Mouse’ (O’Dair, 2014; Wyatt, 1975).

[2] As I have discussed elsewhere (Elliott 2014), much of the imagery to be found in Wyatt’s Rock Bottom bears a strong echo of the work of Carroll and Lear. Scottish nonsense poet Ivor Cutler appears on two tracks, ‘Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road’ and ‘Little Red Robin Hood Hit the Road’. Wyatt and Benge also collaborated with Michael Mantler on his 1976 album The Hapless Child, which set the work of American nonsense writer Edward Gorey to music.

[3] Wyatt has shown a particular predilection for songs in Spanish, no doubt influenced by time spent in Spain as a youth (when he stayed for a while with the poet Robert Graves – a friend of his parents – in Mallorca) and later in the 1980s (when Wyatt and Benge spent two winters in the Catalan town of Castelldefels). Wyatt has also claimed flamenco as a musical influence. For more on Wyatt’s Spanish connections, see O’Dair (2014), pp. 41-3, 296-7.