Late in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) is walking with the blind psychic Heather (Hilary Mason), who, along with her sister Wendy (Clelia Matania), has been a bit of a thorn in John’s side. He has inadvertently gotten Heather into a spot, and after apologetically getting her out of it, he’s obliged to make small talk with her as they navigate the alleyways and footbridges of Venice. “My sister hates it,” Heather says of the place. “She says it’s like a city in aspic . . . left over from a dinner party, and all the guests are dead and gone. It frightens her. Too many shadows.”
Venice asserts itself as “a sinister presence” in Roeg’s film, Robert Wyatt aptly notes in the liner notes to a 1998 reissue of his 1974 album Rock Bottom. Wyatt cites Don’t Look Now in his notes because the making of the film, particularly its six-week Venice shoot, is intimately intertwined with the genesis of his classic album—ranked alongside Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks by NME in the year of its release, when it was also awarded an international Grand Prix du Disque in France, and, according to biographer Marcus O’Dair, “still widely considered one of the finest albums ever made.”
Late in 1972, Wyatt’s then girlfriend and future wife, the artist Alfreda Benge, was hired as second assistant editor for the just-beginning Roeg production. Benge had met Roeg while he was shooting the concert doc Glastonbury Fayre, and was close friends with the film’s female lead,Julie Christie. The picture began filming around Christmas in England, and in January of 1973 moved to Venice for location shooting.
Although, according to O’Dair, the workaholic Wyatt was puzzled by the idea of “going on holiday,” the musician, who had recently dissolved his band, joined Benge, Christie, and a couple of other crew members at a house on the Venetian island of Giudecca. Working on an inexpensive electronic keyboard Benge had purchased in a Venice music store (“She’s like that; an astute and thoughtful scout,” the musician notes), Wyatt soaked in the atmosphere and began writing. “What I do remember is how seeing Venice out of season was like coming across a famous beauty when she’s out shopping, without makeup, in scruffily humble clothes, not dressed to be looked at,” Wyatt recollected in an e-mail to me. “I felt we were in the real place, populated by the locals. A modest, rather run-down village, but all the more likeable for that. But it would be easy to imagine it as sinister: the narrower canals so dark and damp, the thick moss—or is that some kind of seaweed?—above the waterline, crabs scrambling along the edges. And the sheer age of the place. A large, ancient door set in a canal wall could be, I was told, a thousand years old. Is that possible? Whether or not it is, there was a weird feeling of being in a live museum, a place in which it would be easy to evoke ghosts.”
The keyboard on which Wyatt wrote had a “particular vibrato,” which contributes significantly, it would seem, to the aquatic feel of Rock Bottom’s music. “Fortuitous is the word,” Wyatt says. “Alfie found that keyboard, and I found the sound in my head at last. Aquatic? It must be so, though I am a fairly abstract tunesmith. I have to let my instincts take me where they want to go; I try not to interfere with conscious plans or calculations. What I do is not ‘program’ music. But yes, my instincts seem to have been guided by where we were. I’d say, thinking about it now, that the ungrounded ambiguity of Venice—‘Are we at sea or on land?’—could well have influenced the soundscape in my head.” Hence, the opening track of Rock Bottom, “Sea Song”:
As Wyatt teased out his soundscape, Benge attended to her duties. “Film editing was very physical in that time. Splicing the film and sticking it together, then looking at different ways sequences would work,” she recalled, also via e-mail. “My job was just to log all the film as it came in . . . so any shot needed could be given to Graeme [Clifford], the editor, as he needed it. It was just creating some order and keeping order. Graeme would be on the editing machine. Tony Lawson was the first assistant. Nic would come in to check how it was going. They’d often watch sequences to existing music that was later replaced by Pino Donaggio’s score. I have a strong memory of the funeral scene with Fauré’s Pavane, which worked beautifully.”
Despite the intensity of the film’s subject matter, the work on it didn’t impinge much on life in the house. “That’s partly because of what happens to Julie during a film, and maybe to all actors . . . I don’t know,” says Benge. “But the film seems to become part of a private relationship between her and the director. It’s a time of real concentration on her part, and just as with Robert when he’s recording, one has to be very careful not to interfere with the creative process, because anything you mention could really disconcert their confidence in what they are trying to do.”
As it happened, prior to the Venice jaunt, Benge and Christie had been invited by Wyatt into his process: they’d participated in the recording of his group Matching Mole’s Little Red Record back in 1972. Billed as “Ruby Crystal and the Little Honest Injun,” the pals improvised a spoken-word sketch that embellishes the song “Nan True’s Hole” (named for a hangout belonging to BBC DJ John Peel).
The project begun in Venice would not yield similar opportunities for genial private jokes. Wyatt, who’d been mightily upset by the breakup of Matching Mole despite having instigated it, was keen to find a new way of making music. He didn’t overtly share his evolving work with his housemates. “One heard him tootling on the keyboard,” recalls Benge, “but a lot of what he was composing went on in his head. Only he could hear it.”
Wyatt is quick to insist, though, that “being there with Alfie was my biggest influence.” Excited by what he was coming up with, Wyatt returned to England a short time before the location shooting ended to work on lyrics, while Benge stayed on.
When Benge returned to London, she found herself obliged to leave the Don’t Look Now team because she couldn’t afford to commute to Shepperton, where the editing was being continued (“Both of us were stoney broke,” she says). Wyatt, close to having finished writing a batch of songs, considered re-forming Matching Mole to record the material. Then,on the first of June, 1973, disaster struck: he fell from an apartment window at a party, and the subsequent injury left the former drummer paralyzed from the waist down. After a long period of recovery and rehabilitation, he had to reinvent himself as a working musician. Hence, Rock Bottom, recorded from February to May of 1974, a self-described collection of “drones and songs” that many listeners assumed was directly addressing his accident. In O’Dair’s biography, Wyatt insists this isn’t the case: “I find the tradition of singer-songwriters working their way through their mental neuroses in public a bit limited.” Nevertheless, musician Fred Frith, who played on the album, said to O’Dair, “Even though Rock Bottom’s lyrics predate the accident, there’s a sense that this record is a whole new beginning, and I’m sure that the combination of survival and starting afresh has a lot to do with it.” In the 1998 liner notes, Wyatt ties everything together thusly: “Alfie always remembers Nic Roeg, the director, reiterating the theme of the film: WE ARE NOT PREPARED.” Wyatt does not remember when he first was finally able to see Don’t Look Now in its finished form,but he admires it a great deal. When asked about the recently announced prospect of a remake of the film, Benge responded, “Pointless.” Wyatt requested that the details of his equally unenthusiastic response go unpublished.