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> > > Robert Wyatt: Free Will and Testament

1 December 2004

Review by Colin Hambrook

I've always been intrigued by Robert Wyatt's music. He has a strength and vulnerability in his voice and a wonderful absurdity, albeit within a jazz/pop sensibility. Moreover his music often displays a depth of emotion and an originality, even when he's covering other peoples' material. His haunting version of Elvis Costello's Shipbuilding comes back to me time and again. Especially that one line that seems to sum up so much frustration with the modern world: With all the will in the world / fighting for dear life / when we could be diving for pearls.

I sometimes wonder why disabled artists of his repute have never joined the fray within the disability movement? In the BBC 2 documentary on 13 August: Free Will and Testament, Robert Wyatt's attitude mirrored ideas within the Social Model of Disability. He talked about how the onset of disability, after an accident, had been an opportunity for him to resolve dilemmas of artistic direction. Suddenly he was freed to get on with what he really wanted to do. And boy, when you hear his music and read his lyrics you get a sense of someone with a strong artistic and political vision. His Left on Man is one of the best arguments against the persistent cat-calls against left wing politics.

He expressed something of the hurdles he's had to surmount as a result of discrimination. In particular the story of the Top of the Pops producer in the mid-70s, who insisted he perform in a wicker chair, because it was a family show and Robert wasn't to be seen in a wheelchair. As if wheelchairs were some kind of obscenity. He described the incident as the one time he responded like a disabled activist.

Free Will and Testament was an inspiring music documentary. It managed by and large, to edit out most of the hyperbole and allow the music to speak for itself. And what sensitive and powerful music it is. A favourite meditation on being real and alive, is the title the documentary was named after.

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