Ahead of his forthcoming solo album “Not Your Door”, Robert Rotifer, singer and songwriter with Gare du Nord band Rotifer, releases his EP “If We Hadn’t Had You” on vinyl CD and as digital download. We’ve the great pleasure in sharing with you the video for the lead track (album version).
On the EP If We Hadn’t Had You appears in two versions, the first featuring a spirited saxello solo by octogenarian Canterbury jazz legend Tony Coe.
When Rotifer, born in Vienna, but himself a Canterbury citizen for 12 years, picked Tony up for the session, he enjoyed the chance to quiz him on what it was like to “go see Robert (Wyatt) play” with Ronnie Scott or employ a young Kevin Ayers as a house-sitter, but was mostly honoured and thrilled to see the man himself play in his living room.
In his own illustrious career, Coe played under Pierre Boulez, in the John Dankworth Orchestra and in Derek Bailey’s Company. He performed with greats such as Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as appearing on John Martyn’s Solid Air. And yes, that’s him on the Pink Panther Theme.
Says Rotifer: “I’ll never forget Tony Coe’s reaction to ‘If We Hadn’t Had You’. He got a bit tearful when he heard the lyrics, and he certainly got the gist. He also told me about how, as a little child, he had been able to look into the eyes of the German pilots as they were bombing Canterbury. ‘I like to think they were aiming to miss,’ he said.”
Somewhat frustratingly and “after much painful deliberation”, Rotifer felt that on the album he had to replace Tony’s solo with his own guitar break, “just because Tony’s playing seemed to open a door into a room that the rest of the album never ventures into again. It felt like a red herring, albeit a rather jazzy and beautiful one.”
It was clear though that the special moment had to be preserved, hence the stand-out billing of the Tony Coe version as the “A side” on this EP release.
Robert Rotifer on Not Your Door
Assuming the name Robert Rotifer means nothing to you, I’m getting straight to the bit where comparisons are drawn and names are dropped in a way that will sound utterly immodest in the first person (forgive the awkward breech of etiquette, it will all make sense a few paragraphs down).
Until recently then, it was helpful to mention, both in terms of context and borrowed fame, that the last but one album of my band Rotifer (“The Hosting Couple”, 2011) was produced by Wreckless Eric, came out on Edwyn Collins’ AED label and had Darren Hayman (ex of Hefner) on bass.
Or that Uncut said in their review that the last Rotifer album (“The Cavalry Never Showed Up”, 2013) was “crammed with witty and sardonic lyrics”, while Robert Wyatt once wrote to me to say that my songs had “a rare intelligence, I think, with the advantage of you starting from such an unusual angle”, having previously sent me a postcard in praise of “The Frankfurt Kitchen” (2009), the self-painted video of which was acquired by MoMA in New York for their collection.
So far so marvellous, but then none of it really says anything about this new record.
For a start, “Not Your Door” is not a Rotifer, but a Robert Rotifer album.
Sure, Rotifer’s long-time drummer Ian Button (of ever-growing Papernut Cambridge notoriety) still plays all of the proper drums, and bass player Mike Stone (ex of Television Personalities, now of Rapid Results College) can be heard plucking the bass on three and playing the piano on one song. But apart from two more cameo appearances from within the Gare du Nord Records label collective (Robert Halcrow of Picturebox on the horn and Citizen Helene on backing vocals), the rest is all my own concoction.
Having had only one day in the studio together (Jon Clayton’s One Cat in Brixton), I recorded the rest piece-meal fashion at my home studio in Canterbury. I told myself this was all for practical reasons, but in truth it was because these songs come from a much more personal, autobiographical angle than almost anything I’ve written before.
And yet I’m hoping that they deal with an experience shared by all of us who were spewed out of our teens into that tantalising 1990s lull between the fall of the Iron Curtain and the ongoing nightmare of the post-9/11 world, playing our part as giddy young couples testing beds in the aisles of suburban sheds, lunching on Swedish meatballs, only to wake up as neurotic smartphone addicts two-and-a-bit decades later (“Meanwhile in my Machine”).
We couldn’t and didn’t stop the war when it came our way in the early 2000s, and we had or never had babies to make us feel better or worry about (“If We Hadn’t Had You”).
I’ll never forget Tony Coe’s reaction to the above-mentioned song. In case you haven’t heard of Tony, he is an 80-year-old British jazz legend around Canterbury, and when I asked him round for a session he played the most beautiful saxello solo in that gap before the last verse which, after much painful deliberation, I eventually had to replace with my own guitar solo, just because Tony’s playing seemed to open a door into a room that the rest of the album never ventures into again. It felt like a red herring, albeit a rather jazzy and beautiful one.
The Tony Coe version of “If We Hadn’t Had You” is now appearing as the lead track on a special EP together with “The Flapping of the Wings”, a song I wrote and recorded the night they decided to bomb Syria, and a cover of “Tip of Your Shoe” from last year’s John Howard & The Night Mail LP (Tapete Records) that I played a part in, with a tune by John Howard and my own lyrics about the racism bubbling to the surface on social media since the refugee crisis.
But back to Tony’s reaction, listening on his headphones, saxello in hand. He got a bit tearful when he heard the lyrics, and he certainly got the gist. He also told me about how, as a little child, he had been able to look into the eyes of the German pilots as they were bombing Canterbury. “I like to think they were aiming to miss,” he said.
So this song, at least, might after all speak to more than just my generation, and come to think of it, so should the one about farming the care of our ageing relatives out to temporary immigrants (“Passing a Van”), or the one about passing out on a sofa watching some rock festival on TV in the early hours of the morning, wondering if that whole business of pop culture winning out was such a great idea after all (“Our Only Entertainment”).
It’s all such a hoot, some of us ungrateful slobs have started flirting with our own mortality, that seductive idea of seeing the whole slog behind us (“Nothing Left to Give Away”).
Finally, to give the whole thing some context, I wrote a sort of song cycle entitled “Not Your Door” for side B of the album. These are songs about growing up in Vienna (which might as well be any European city).
There’s one about coming off my bike in front of the (now demolished) Bösendorfer piano factory as a kid in the 1970s, returning in my teenage years to seek refuge in their showroom when Vienna’s stuck-up cafés wouldn’t let us in (“The Piano Factory”).
Then there are others about 1980s late-night encounters with blood-thirsty local skinhead gangs (“Top of the Escalator”) and early 1990s outings to the hills around town in a battered 1967 Beetle (“An Autumn Day Like This”).
Plus a couple of tunes about my recently deceased grandmother Irma Schwager, a Jewish communist who escaped the Nazis and spent the war abroad, joining the French resistance and finding her Viennese husband in exile (“Irma la Douce”, “Not Your Door”).
“Why did you come back home?” I asked Irma on her 90th birthday, just as I do in the song. “We came because we’d won”, she replied, in a shot.
After her death, I stood on the balcony of the riverside flat that she, her husband and my then one-year-old mum had moved into in 1945, watching the pea-soup-green Danube Canal roll past. Back then there had been a hole in the outer wall, left by a grenade the Soviets had lobbed in the direction of Nazi troops holding out in that row of houses. There also remained a pronounced bullet scar in one of the doors which was painted over many times in the ensuing decades but never quite disappeared.
For my grandmother’s funeral I wrote “Irma la Douce”, picturing the last time I would go to the flat to say goodbye to all of those things. But when I actually did return a few weeks later I was stuck outside realising I’d forgotten the house keys. My mother had to return them to the landlord soon after, and that was that.
Standing in front of that door, that was no longer my grandmother’s, I realised that all the righteous satisfaction we had derived from my returning emigree relatives taking over the place from a previously scarpered Nazi officer’s family (we found some of their old photographs in a drawer) was, as of now, meaningless and gone.
Whatever wars you may have won along the way, in the end you’re only passing through.
Robert Rotifer, Canterbury, March 2016
You can catch Robert Rotifer this Friday May 13th at The Betsey Trotwood in Clerkenwell, London. Details can be found on the Facebook event page here.
If We Hadn’t Had You (featuring Tony Coe) – cd only – Released 13th May 2016 – Gare du Nord Records.
Not Your Door (cd/lp/dd) is released on 1st July 2016 – Gare du Nord Records.