Thom Yorke on Broadway: Is Radiohead’s angular lyricist a good fit?

Thom Yorke performs at Coachella in 2012. The Radiohead singer has composed music for a new Broadway production of Harold Pinter's "Old Times."

Thom Yorke performs at Coachella in 2012. The Radiohead singer has composed music for a new Broadway production of Harold Pinter’s “Old Times.”

(Arkasha Stevenson / Los Angeles Times)

Thom Yorke, the singer best known for his work with Radiohead, is headed to Broadway in the fall. The Grammy-winning vocalist, whose whirlwind voice glides across octaves with an oft-wondrous liquidity on albums including “OK Computer,” “Kid A” and “The King of Limbs,” is working with the respected Roundabout Theatre Company on music for a new staging of Harold Pinter’s “Old Times.”

The production, which will star Clive Owen, Eve Best and Kelly Reilly, will open in October at the American Airlines Theatre in New York in celebration of Roundabout’s 50th anniversary.

This is Yorke’s first work for a stage production, which shouldn’t be surprising. He isn’t the most likely choice to pen lyrics for Broadway. With a few exceptions, most notably the group’s literally minded breakout hit, “Creep,” Yorke’s words for Radiohead are often oblique and angular, hard to get a thematic bead on. Which is another way of saying, can a man who sang this opening couplet to “Paranoid Android” make the leap to stage? “Please could you stop the noise, I’m trying to get some rest/ From all the unborn chicken voices in my head.”

Further, should we be wary about the lyrical direction of a writer whose fans scream the chorus of “Weird Fishes / Arpeggi” with profound earnestness, “I get eaten by the worms/ And weird fishes/ Picked over by the worms/ And weird fishes”?


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In a news release issued by Roundabout, “Old Times” director Douglas Hodge celebrated Yorke’s new work, saying that it “gives an immediacy and a ‘now-ness’ to the show. The play itself is about memory and love -- Thom’s music works backwards and forwards and plays with time and repetition in the same way Pinter does. In true Thom Yorke-style, the music is epic, heartbreaking, irresistible and complex. I’m hopeful this collaboration will result in a new kind of theatergoer coming to our show.”

Or, as Yorke explained in the 2011 song “Separator”: “It’s like I’m falling out of bed/ From a long, weary dream/ The sweetest flowers and fruits hang from the trees/ Falling off the giant bird that’s been carrying me.”

We kid. It’s unfair to cherry-pick an artist’s lyrics for most ridiculous lines and quote them out of context. Since Radiohead’s rise in the mid-1990s, Yorke and the band have created innovative music at the convergence of rock, electronic and ambient music, exploring themes of alienation, technology, loss and love. They’ve done so with an uncompromising persistence, with a creative spirit as inventive and surprising as Yorke’s voice and oft-beguiling stream-of-consciousness lines.

Plus, it’s not like Yorke’s signed on to adapt “Spider-Man” or is collaborating with Sting and Paul Simon on a production of “Kid A” starring Josh Gad and R2D2. Pinter’s play, which premiered in 1971, is a sparse affair. Set in a home, “Old Times” involves a married couple and a visitor who tests their memory with competing recollections of events from years prior.

The late Nobel Laureate Pinter once described the play’s theme, the fluidity of memory, like this: “The past is what you remember, imagine you remember, convince yourself you remember, or pretend you remember.”

Yorke focuses on a similar theme in the Radiohead song “Scatterbrain (As Dead Leaves).” “Yesterday’s headlines blown by the wind/ Yesterday’s people end up scatterbrain/ Any fool can easy pick a hole -- I only wish I could fall in/A moving target in a firing range.”

Maybe they found the right guy after all.

Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit