It was fitting that a Robyn Hitchcock DVD arrived in the mail the same week as the Monty Python documentary debuted on the IFC channel — I'd bet a dead parrot that the two share a lot of the same audience. Both Hitchcock and Python cloak a certain degree of self-revelation in a dense, droll smokescreen of Anglocentric absurdism, but to his credit, Hitchcock has occasionally let down his guard, most notably on his 1984 album I Often Dream of Trains.
Stark, drumless and acoustic-flavored, its relatively straightforward lyrics a far cry from the obfuscatory non sequiturs that would soon characterize Hitchcock's songwriting for years to come, I Often Dream of Trains has become a cult favorite — and on the 25th anniversary of its release, why not indulge in the current vogue for replaying one's old albums in concert? Hence the DVD I Often Dream of Trains in New York (out November 10th on Yep Roc). But the concert — bare bones and shot on video — isn't the most intriguing part of the disc.
That would be the lone DVD extra, a 12-minute short that Hitchcock made in 1984. "Beyond Basingstoke" isn't just a low-budget reverie, a hopelessly elliptical home movie by a playfully arty young man, a visual poem about Englishness, or a misty watercolor memory of the way we were; this amateurish little film is an evocative little memoir about creativity.
Leading up to I Often Dream of Trains, Hitchock's life and career were between stations. He'd left his old band the Soft Boys but his bid for some sort of stardom, 1982's Groovy Decay, flopped aesthetically and commercially. Now 30, Hitchcock felt alienated from both the severe post-punk musical landscape and the huge, glossy '80s mainstream sound. And it was just a grim time, politically and culturally. "[The 1980s] were a baleful future that we refugees from the 1960s were marooned in," Hitchcock once said. "I never thought I'd get out alive, from Reagan, Thatcher and shoulder pads." He was surviving by writing lyrics for former Damned bassist Captain Sensible — an amusing gig, but not what Hitchcock wanted to do with his life. Hitchcock wasn't even sure he wanted to continue being a musician; he dropped music for a while and worked odd jobs, including a stint as a gardener and even — say it ain't so — a journalist. He was nowhere, and nowhere incubated some of his best work.
Not coincidentally, he's nowhere in "Beyond Basingstoke" too. As recorded on grainy Super-8 film (by filmmaker, author and photographer Tony Moon), flickering early morning light plays on Hitchcock's much younger face (and vintage '84 haircut) as he sleeps or just daydreams out the window of a virtually deserted London commuter train a lot like the one in A Hard Day's Night.
Although the soundtrack doesn't include the title track of I Often Dream of Trains, the film is clearly a companion piece to the song — the tip-off being that it depicts, well, dreaming and trains. The song begins, "I often dream of trains when I'm alone/ I ride on them into another zone." Which recalls Hitchcock's description of his working style: "You put yourself in a void. Once you're in that kind of a void, all sorts of things become possible." Funnily enough Basingstoke is the last stop on the line before the countryside gets rural. So "Beyond Basingstoke" is about getting to that place, or, rather, lack of place.
Nothing much happens in "Beyond Basingstoke" — truth be told, it's kind of dull. But that becalmed sensation is exactly what it often feels like when you're actually hatching something. The soundtrack — some lustrous and meditative guitar playing somewhat undercut by some spoofy, murmured monologues about an invisible chemical and an unusual erotic encounter — is like the relentless subconscious buzz behind even the most uneventful moments, when nothing outwardly seems to be happening, or even trying to happen.
Breakthroughs often come when you're just spacing out, peering out of the window of a train — or standing in the shower, washing your hair, and suddenly it occurs to you what you want to say about a 25-year-old short film by an erstwhile alterna-rock demigod. Sure enough, Hitchcock emerged from that lacuna in his life and career with I Often Dream of Trains. As he says during the concert film, the genesis of that album was "a place that was not so much a refuge as a crucible." But for an artist, perhaps the distinction is meaningless.