The British surrealistic played a sold out show at Gasa Gasa Saturday night until he finished his drink.

robyn hitchcock photo
Robyn Hitchcock

Robyn Hitchcock showed his hand late in his set Saturday night at Gasa Gasa. After two or so hours of surreal, psychedelic rock played solo on his acoustic guitar, Hitchcock sang Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna,” The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence,” and The Doors’ “The Crystal Ship.” Over the course of the night, he also nodded to Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry (“the most gorgeous living organism”), David Bowie and Syd Barrett, but almost everything Hitchcock played that night could be understood as what happens when Blonde on Blonde and The White Album meet.

Hitchcock hasn’t made a secret of his love of Dylan and The Beatles. He has covered Blonde on Blonde in concert and recorded his “Outlaw Blues” with The Soft Boys in 1982, and he’s so indebted to The Beatles that SXSW included him in a panel discussion on 50 years of The Beatles in 2013. Dylan freed Hitchcock from unnecessarily linear lyrics, while The Beatles clearly influenced his musical ideas, and that dynamic played out through the night. His lyrics have always been impressionistic, often with blithely macabre shadings—he is British, after all—but he has set them in songs so bulletproof that they land and stick. It helps that he finds phrases that speak directly and add emotional weight to his songs, as happened when he played “52 Stations.” 

The song starts, “There's fifty-two stations on the northern line / None of them is yours, one of them is mine,” and it continues in a similarly stream of conscious way until it hits the phrase “in sorrow not in anger,” which becomes a touchstone he returns to, putting a compassionate note at the song’s heart. “Madonna of the Wasps” similarly breaks from his unlikely character sketch to ask again and again, “Is this love?” “Mad Shelley’s Letterbox” is punctuated by the observation, “Oh god you were beautiful.” These unadorned thoughts stand out and gain resonance when nestled into his playful, word-dense lines.

The sold out crowd was up for whatever Hitchcock had to offer that night and respectfully refrained from shouting requests until he asked for suggestions. Once he did, it became clear everybody had favorites they were still waiting to hear. The set went back as far as The Soft Boys’ “Tonight” and “Queen of Eyes” from 1980’s Underwater Moonlight, visited the mid-‘80s when he went solo and became a college radio darling, and continued to pull songs from all phases of his career. The result was the longest show he had done in a while, Hitchcock later admitted, though that was in part driven by a generously poured plastic glass of wine that he drank during what served as the encore—a glass of wine he seemed to feel compelled to finish before leaving the stage. 

One running joke of the night came in the form of Hitchcock’s improbable requests of the sound man, asking him in imagistic ways to re-tweak the settings on his voice and guitar. They were as fanciful as his lyrics, but like his lyrics they worked, with varying degrees of echo and other effects punched in to everybody’s satisfaction on cue. 

He also took a couple of unexpected swings at the president. Such pedestrian matters seem off-brand for Hitchcock, but it’s a measure of Donald Trump that he can politicize the most unlikely people against him. It helps that the British Hitchcock now lives in Nashville and feels the license and/or the need to say something, but he introduced one song, saying, “You might think ‘grapefruit’ and get pineapple. Or assassination. Or impeachment if you’re lucky.” Later in the set, he asked, “Which president shall we dedicate this song to?” before starting “Uncorrected Personality Traits.”   

I’m often slow to connect to shows by artists who were big at some point in the past because nostalgia more than the performances feel like the driver. People are so excited to see someone they once loved that they hear everything to rose-tinted earbuds, but Hitchcock’s show never felt like a celebration of who we were and the world we loved because his songs have never been on trend. Punk and post-punk helped The Soft Boys find an audience, but Hitchcock’s songs existed in their own world then as they do now, a world no closer to the one The Clash lived in or the one inhabited by The Minutemen, The Replacements, or Sonic Youth. They live in an eternal present tense, and that comes with some questions. What do we make of songs that don’t reflect the passing of time, or seemingly any relationship to the world we live in? Is a hermetically sealed song a good thing? 

Big picture: yes-ish in Hitchcock’s case because even though the songs are eccentric, the craft behind them is obvious. It’s as easy to imagine him trying to work out his lyrics just like any more conventional songwriter. “Said I'm a willow bending in your mind. / I’m a mirror cracked from side to side. / I'm …” what? “A toy left out in the rain”? No, too done, and dolls are Courtney Love’s thing. “A wart on the back of love”? I don’t even know what that means. “ A snow-covered mountain”? That’s it!

And just as “Visions of Johanna,” the luminous version of “Dear Prudence,” and “The Crystal Ship” remind us of the real world roots of his music, they hint that the words themselves may reflect his life in ways only he can decode. The show itself and his gaunt, physical presence further hinted at that possibility. That, as well as the personal vision he made clear Saturday night, made the show feel as beautiful now as it ever would have.