Robyn Hitchcock is one of my tutelary divinities, so when his name turned up unexpectedly in the Brian Eno biography On Some Faraway Beach, I sat up straight in my subway seat and muttered a few devotional phrases about tomatoes and shellfish, both sacred to Bhagavan Robyn; the other passengers kindly ignored me. I never would have dreamed that these avant-rock colossi had crossed paths. However, in June 1967, when Eno was a nineteen-year-old student at the Winchester School of Art and Hitchcock a fourteen-year-old schoolboy at nearby Winchester College, Hitchcock attended two of Eno’s “happenings.” Hitchcock’s reminiscences of Eno’s Summer of Love events—quoted in full in the biography, transcribed below for your pleasure—are funny and fascinating, and the second story is surprisingly touching.
Eno staged a music event in a 14th-century flint-walled cellar – essentially a dungeon with electricity. He had unscrewed the college’s 60-watt light bulb and inserted his own blue bulb. A reel-to-reel tape recorder stood on a bare table beneath the light, playing Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown” backwards, while somebody I didn’t recognize was bowing a one-string violin. A microphone ran from the tape machine into the audience, where it was draped enticingly over the chair in front of me. About fifteen boys, chaperoned by one of the younger hipper teachers, came in and sat in the chairs. Eno lit a stick of incense, started the tape machine and nodded to the violinist. After a while I tapped the mike in front of me. It didn’t seem to be switched on. I sang along with backwards Bob Dylan, but that didn’t come out either. Eventually the music finished. I can’t remember if we clapped or not.
“Any questions?” said Eno.
“Er, would you call this kind of thing music, as such?” asked the teacher. Eno explained why it was naive to even ask that question. He had the serene, knowing aura that hipsters of that period had. Everything was a facet of everything else, glittering in his blue lenses.
“What was that microphone for, Mr. Eno?” I asked, in my barely broken voice.
“So you could participate, man,” replied Eno, glittering my way.
“Er, it wasn’t switched on,” I croaked.
“Next question?” called BE to the audience. I was still buzzing from having actually asked the blue-lensed man a question in public.
The following week, Hitchcock attended a second Eno happening. This one, which took place in the Winchester water-meadows, involved inflating balloons with helium, attaching notes to them and releasing them into the sky. Hitchcock (with a comment in brackets from Eno biographer David Sheppard):
The sun shone and the clouds were few – Sgt. Pepper was released the same week. BE’s glasses marked him out among the cylinders and balloons. Like fairground barkers, BE and his roadies (who included the legendary anti-philosopher Galen Strawson [today professor of Philosophy at Reading University], who was then fifteen going on 1,000) were handing out cardboard labels as they filled the eager balloons.
“What’s that for, man?” I asked.
“So you can write a message on it, man.” BE was patient – one day I would get it. My grandmother had died two weeks earlier and school regulations had kept me from going to pay my last respects to her. She was an open-minded woman – earlier that year, when she was still well enough to travel, I had bombarded her with Bob Dylan. She tapped her knee and murmured “I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul” after Dylan sang that line. So I wrote:
“Dear Granny, sorry I couldn’t come to your funeral – love, Robyn.”
“That’s beautiful, man,” said one of Eno’s assistants. He tied the label to a balloon and I wandered off into the meadows to release it. I’ve always been grateful to BE for giving me this opportunity.