By Jochen Markhorst
In 2017 he releases his 21st studio album, simply titled Robyn Hitchcock. It rightly receives good to enthusiastic reviews, is filled with beautiful songs, psychedelic pop and even a country song (“I Pray When I’m Drunk”), and respected names like Grant Lee Phillips (from Grant Lee Buffalo), Pat Sansone (from Wilco) and the praised country greatness and Dylan interpreter Gillian Welch participate.
However, the first question from interviewer Tom Lanham (San Francisco Examiner, 23 July 2017) is not about the music, but about the cover, and more specifically about the cat that Robyn holds on his arm.
You’re holding a fluffy Persian on your new album cover. So you’re a cat person?
“Yes, And she’s my late cat, unfortunately, Tiny. Tiny Montgomery, and she only lived six months. She had a rare feline stomach disorder, and they couldn’t save her. And it was horrible — it’s the death that has affected me most in my life. I was more upset by Tiny dying than my father passing.”
The British eccentric makes a name with the weird, jumpy and irresistible band The Soft Boys, who recorded their first album in ’76 in Hitchcock’s living room, Give It To The Soft Boys. The title of the first single does justice to the oeuvre:”(I Want To Be An) Anglepoise Lamp.”
Their best album, A Can Of Bees (1979), has song titles like “The Pigworker”, “Leppo And The Jooves”, “Ugly Nora” and “Wading Through A Fan”. The picture is clear: songwriter Robyn Hitchcock floats somewhere between John ‘I Am The Walrus’ Lennon, the Basement Tapes and Syd Barrett. The band peaks slightly too early to really break through, but successful bands like R.E.M. and The Replacements later make no secret of their indebtedness to and their admiration for the inspirational Soft Boys.
As a solo artist, Hitchcock, in his turn, remains faithful to his examples. In addition to his quirky, absurd and infectious own songs, he also builds up a nice reputation as a cover artist of Syd Barrett, Lennon and especially Bob Dylan. His double album Robyn Sings (2002) consists exclusively of Dylancovers – sixteen more and less successful covers of mainly the usual suspects like “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Like A Rolling Stone”, and a few more original choices (“Dignity”, “Tell Me, Momma”).
On the stage, he just as easily reaches for the stale, lowest shelf warmers: “The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest” for intance, and “Tryin ‘To Get To Heaven”, songs that hardly anyone, including Dylan himself, has in the repertoire. In addition, he naturally plays neglected Basement pearls, such as “Nothing Was Delivered” and “Open The Door, Homer”.
It goes deeper than just admiration, Robyn reveals in a radio interview in 2009, it is a raison d’être:
“I followed Dylan into this business when I was fifteen, I wanted to write songs, I wanted to write “Million Dollar Bash“ or “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowands“ or “Visions Of Johanna“.”
And fifty years after the awakening of the adolescent Robyn, the songs of The Basement Tapes are evidently still so deep under his skin that he calls his regretted cat “Tiny Montgomery”.
The song order on The Basement Tapes Complete (2014) seems to be largely chronological, ‘based on the numbering system of Garth Hudson’. By that logic, “Tiny Montgomery” is one of the earlier songs and marks the point where Dylan’s creative vein regains its connection with the source from which also a “Farewell Angelina” or a “Memphis Blues Again” rise – the six originals before this song (“Edge Of The Ocean” for example, and “Under Control”) are compared with this still searching and rather rudderless.
For that connection, the poet apparently has also been scrolling through his own, officially still unpublished Tarantula. Word choice (obsolete idiom as squeeze, scratch, suck, pick, drip, base and legged) and the compelling rhythm of accumulated short words (just like Tarantula, “Tiny Montgomery” is characterised by mainly monosyllabic and virtually no words of more than two syllables) can be found pretty much one-on-one in Tarantula and are truly Dylanesque again, completely in line with the mid-60s work of Dylan.
The content is subordinate. The approach seems scatological, Tiny Montgomery being a self-invented nickname for the man’s penis. Initially, Dylan’s associative, and from the sound of it, slightly fuddled mind drives him there, towards ambiguous coarseness. All the boys and girls are going to ‘get their bang’, Tiny ‘shakes his thing’ and is coming. But already in the second verse the bard leaves that track, apparently images of an old black-and-white gangster film come to the fore, and he sings a ‘Half-track Frank’ and his buddy ‘Skinny Moo’ who escape from prison by means of a crowbar, no, make that a crow and a buzzard, the two jailbirds are determined ornithologically – with the help of the bird book, indeed.
Accordingly, hopping from association to suggestion, it might unfold when a relaxed Dylan lets the écriture automatique flow again, when The Band lays down a nice weary tune on two chords and the glasses are filled. When publishing the lyrics, among others in Writings & Drawings, Dylan does change a few trifles (Half-track Frank is actually called T-Bone Frank, for example), but that does not change the improvised, surrealistic impression that Tiny makes.
Real recognition there is from the third verse, when the poet approaches the ideal of Alexander Pope in his Peri Bathous (1728):
A master of this will say, Mow the beard, Shave the grass, Pin the plank, Nail my sleeve.
A master in catachresis, Pope means in his essay, in which he actually intends to ridicule poetry writing contemporaries – but he does it so masterfully that he ends up writing a kind of manual for comical and / or effective use of literary figures of speech. With his explanation and the examples of the catachresis, the ‘wrong-use’, Pope lays down a theoretical basis for style errors that will later become stylistic figures to surrealists, dadaists, beat poets and Dylan.
Dylan opens that part in his brain roughly from “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (Maggie comes fleet foot / Face full of black soot / Talkin’ that the heat pit / Plants in the bed), explores it further in “Farewell, Angelina” and especially “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (with ‘wrong’ but completely familiar sounding word combinations like seasick sailors, empty-handed painter and the saints are coming through) and excels in “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”, where almost every line contains such an abusio, such an associative metaphor (matchbook songs, warehouse eyes, geranium kiss).
But in “Tiny Montgomery” Dylan comes closest to the source, to that template from the eighteenth century by Alexander Pope:
Scratch your dad Do that bird Suck that pig
Gas that dog Trick on in Honk that stink
… word combinations that avoid the reversals of Pope’s example, but are rhythmically and on a (non-)semantic level almost a copy of them.
The last words of the last verse suggest that Dylan has thought about structure: with the hardly ambiguous three-legged man and hot-lipped hoe he does return nicely to the scabrous opening lines, and thus makes the whole thing neatly round – it almost looks like a real poem.
The song is part of the set of songs that are offered, through music publisher Feldman, to eager fellow musicians, in that legendary summer of ’67. Grateful, the colleagues run off with “This Wheel’s On Fire” (Brian Augers and Julie Driscoll), with “Quinn The Eskimo” (Manfred Mann), with “Million Dollar Bash” (Fairport Convention) and the other songs, but “Tiny Montgomery” is left behind – no one sees any benefit or, for that matter, beauty in the song.
It is not until 1972, when he is a contributing and acting producer for the hairy quartet Coulson, Dean, McGuinness, Flint, that Manfred Mann remembers the song again. He convinces the men who, for their crisp debut album Lo And Behold, edit seven, at that time still unknown Basement songs, and with that the first serious cover, five years after the creation of the original, is a fact.
It is, like all covers on that beautiful album, a very successful operation. However, the unshaven four cheat a little (the chorus is transposed, so the cover has more chords and as a result more variation than the original), but that is actually an excellent find; unlike Dylan, the men do not aim for a comical effect, they do not wish to re-work a novelty song, but they want to render it into a cheerfully pounding, infectious rock song.
That works out great, but they themselves seem to have doubts. In the first instance “Tiny Montgomery” is rejected for the record and stashed away as a B-side on the single “Lay Down Your Weary Tune”. But with the reissue in 2007, it is – fortunately – saved from oblivion.
With Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Robyn Hitchcock plays the song in 2007 (in Nashville, at the Belcourt Theater) and they do it beautifully. Meanwhile, however, it has been removed from his playlist – but that of course has everything to do with the short life and the tragic fate of his beloved long-haired Persian Tiny Montgomery. Robyn does not want to burst into tears on the stage, obviously.
Footnote from Tony: in this case we are stuck for recorded versions available on the internet to accompany this article. There is a version by Invisible Republic on Spotify (at least it appears on Spotify in the UK) and Robbie Fulks has done a live version. These are not the versions mentioned in the article – sadly we cannot find these on the internet and are included simply because I found them, not because of their excellence.