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Locked out with Robyn Hitchcock

Who has the key to the train's bar car?


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If you're familiar with British singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, you know he's a little eccentric. Actually, the patients they used to send to Bedlam, were a little eccentric. If Hitchcock's songs are any indication, he's a daft bugger, a crazy-pants, a six pack of Guinness with at least four bottles missing. He writes great songs, of course, but they're about strange, amphibious creatures, antwomen, dealing with his wife and his dead wife. A song that makes you long for strange, amphibious creatures.

Yes, Hitchcock, is daft, a berk, a half-empty bag of chips. And other terms that, being an American, I'm sure I'm not using correctly. However, I once met Hitchcock on a train. And he was a strange fellow, but quite lovely and endearing, even if he's crazy as catshit. It went a little like this.

I was riding the Amtrak from Washington, D.C. to Manhattan, in the spring of 1989. Passing through Delaware, I decided I needed a beer. After a debate with myself that took at least 40 agonizing seconds, I headed for the bar car which, in those days before the smoking ban, was like a yuppie version of a Chinese opium den.

I walked through several cars, pulling those doors that seem designed to be opened only by George "The Animal" Steele. After opening two (and calling my doctor, saying I'd be in tomorrow to be fitted for a truss), I came to a most unusual door. For two reasons. One, the damn thing wouldn't open, no matter how many abdominal muscles I ruptured. And amazingly, standing there, having already tried this hopeless task, stood the great, strange, singer-songwriter, Robyn Hitchcock.

I'm not kidding.

The whole scenario was so surreal, the scenery rushing by, being on a fast moving train, going through a tunnel (Oh, the Freudian imagery!), I thought I was in, well, a Robyn Hitchcock song.

I stood there, foolishly pulling on the train door and adding scoliosis to my vast array of symptoms. When I noticed this other passenger standing at the gate to paradise — the room that held the alcohol, the pretzels and three girls who looked like The Ronettes. I couldn't help but feel that the fellow looked familiar — not friend familiar; album cover familiar.

I don't usually bug my favorite artists, but the door to the bar car was locked. I had nothing to else to do, short of killing myself.

"I don't mean to bother you," I said, sounding as calm as Barney Fife about to make an arrest, "but are you Robyn Hitchcock?"

With barely a nod of the head, he acknowledged he was.

On the Amtrak? Robyn Hitchcock? They were now appealing to a much better class of people. Either that, or my acid trip from 1986 was making a really convincing return.

We talked a bit — about his records; that I'd become a fan sort of late (mostly because of 120 Minutes on MTV); his band The Soft Boys. I asked him whether his ad hoc supergroup, Nigel And The Crosses (with Peter Buck), was planning on making a record.

Hitchcock talked little, but what he said was practical. In other words, the man who wrote about dead wives, balloons and bugs said, "Really mate, first things first. We need to get this bloody door open."

The way he said it, with such calm, insightful authority, made it seem as if Mr. Hitchcock, that stranger on a train, had just uttered the Secret Of Life. Desperately needing a beer, I couldn't help but think this was, indeed, the most important thing in the world.

Hitchcock stood there calmly, after I tried two more times to open the train door. Once I checked my pocket calendar, to see what would be a good day for abdominal surgery, Robyn just stood and stared off into the distance, probably wondering about birds and flies, larvae and conjoined twins.

After what seemed as long as the Director's Cut of Dances With Wolves, more people joined us. Nobody recognized the great British singer-songwriter. They just wanted to know why the damned train door couldn't be opened. Considering the red faces of some of the men, if they didn't get a drink soon, something terrible was going to happen. It was no worse than, say, a recreation of the 1968 riot at the Chicago Democratic Convention.

Hitchcock remained still. He didn't hum any of his songs or do what John Waite once did in my presence — he sang "Missing You" while on line at a bookstore so people would know who he was.

But today, Hitchcock, this great English songwriter, just stood stock still. No one seemed to recognize him. I was disappointed. "Isn't he going to do anything Hitchcockian?" I wondered, as we stood there, waiting to get into into the bar car. Perhaps talk about Egyptology or the most efficient way to kill somebody?

Then, I got more than I asked for.

About 15 minutes into this horrid scenario, we heard the jingling of keys and turned to see a conductor, in full regalia coming to help us. "I've got it," he said. "No problem."

It was not 10 seconds later, that Hitchcock turned to me and said, looking at the conductor, "This world is held together by men who wear hats."

I smiled and tried my best not to get all English and say "cheers." But I wanted to. It was the perfect Robyn Hitchcock thing to say.

The conductor approached, got the right key out — which was no bigger than Paul Bunyan's ax — and put it in the keyhole. With a mighty effort, he opened the door which we all so wanted opened.

We hit the bar, all of us, no thirstier for drink than, say, the road company of The Days Of Wine And Roses. Hitchcock had an English ale. I think I had something stronger. As he tipped his glass toward his mouth, the slightest smile crossed his lips. "Cheers," he said.

I don't remember what he said next. And I didn't know if it was my scotch or my emotions that made me feel so warm and toasty inside, but the whole thing — the dreaminess, the zooming of the train, the wonderfully-surreal feeling — was so Robyn Hitchcock-perfect.

Blimey, dear readers, it was one of those moments when everything comes together so beautifully, you don't care what caused it. Not at all. Not one little bit.


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