|A Pilgrim's Progress|
PRESS October 1987
INTERVIEW WITH TOM ROBINSON
By Damian Corless
In Dublin recently to lend his support to the AIDS Action Alliance all-star Olympic Ballroom bash, Tom Robinson took time out to reflect on his Spokesman For A Generation past, his nervous breakdowns, his sexual re-orientation and his re-embracement of the Quaker faith.
The official opening of the new Cairde headquarters is in full swing. Inside the main chamber amid the clutter of cameras, microphones, leaflets and wine glasses, the inevitable speeches are underway. Edging through the knot of guests spilling out into the hallway, a late arrival cranes his neck forward in an effort to catch some of the proceedings. Nobody pauses to give the tall, overcoated figure a second glance. The following night the same individual picks his way towards the front of the Olympic Ballroom, through a throng captivated by the beer-throwing antics of Blue In Heaven. Again, nobody, recognises Tom Robinson.
A far cry indeed from the singer's stint under the public gaze when, at the helm of the Tom Robinson Band and as a champion of Gay Rights, Rock Against Racism and whatever-you're-having-yourself, he offered an articulate and positive dimension to the Pistols' wanton destructiveness and The Clash's sour disenchantment as the first wave of punk crashed into the charts. Delusions of messianic grandeur and a dodgy second album contributed to a lightning fall from popular and critical grace which in turn led to a splitting of the TRB and sent Tom Robinson heading for a nervous breakdown (his second) at age 30.
Relieved of the burden of being Spokesman For A Generation, Robinson gradually rehabilitated himself psychologically and resuscitated his career, enjoying a hard-won second coming in 1983 with the intensely personal Big Hit "War Baby" and the magnificent Near Miss, "Atmospherics". just back from a promotional jaunt around Italy where he's currently much in demand, Tom Robinson looks fit and relaxed with barely a line on his sallow face to betray the fact he's notched up thirty-eight years on the planet.
While many gays have expressed fears that the AIDS scare might have put the cause of Gay Rights back ten or twenty years, Robinson offers a more optimistic reading of events: "In America now, which is five years ahead of here in almost everything - and AIDS is no exception - it has now turned around because the wider community is very impressed at the way the gay community has put its house in order and at the way they've coped with fortitude with terrible suffering and with the way they've looked after all AIDS victims. Can I rephrase that ? All AIDS patients. I think that-on a whole, respect for the Gay community has gone up in America - though I think we're a long way from that in these islands at the moment."
The change of emphasis from "victims" to "patients" he explains, saying "The whole thing we're talking about in this campaign is not dying from AIDS but living with it. You can compare it to wild animals that are locked up and they lie in a corner and die. An important factor in people who've contacted AIDS continuing to live - and to live a full and healthy life - is self-belief, and the awareness they can continue. Once they begin to treat themselves as victims they begin to lose that battle."
Tom Robinson has taken an AIDS test. For peace of mind ? "I don't like surprises," he replies, "It's a useful reinforcer. If you come out positive it means you must be responsible and careful towards others from then on, and if you come out negative you make damn sure you stay that way."
Tom Robinson has retained from his Quaker upbringing a belief in and a respect for "tolerance and non-violence. At school we were actively encouraged to support the likes of Amnesty International and voluntary service overseas was something the 6th formers regularly went on to do. A concern for others and about the world and an opposition to war and violence have stayed with me. It seems to be the one branch of Christianity that states those things categorically."
Robinson is reluctant to go into the specifics of his first nervous breakdown (at age 16) which led to a six year stay living amongst a therapeutic community. He bemoans the stigma which prevents the victims of emotional disturbance from seeking professional help: "If you break a leg you go straight to a doctor and yet if someone finds it terribly uncomfortable to be themselves from day to day and is in bad distress, unless they're actually going out and breaking windows it's very hard to convince anyone to take them seriously. I suppose I was in trouble and I found it very hard to communicate...
But he did find a way. "Well, it was a suicide attempt, which no headmaster likes to have going on on the premises. But if there are young people reading this who are really going through hell and they can't get to anybody - don't wait 'til it gets to the point where you've got to actually start cutting your wrists. For Christ's sake, therapy is there ! It takes a long time, it isn't easy, but it works."
In the therapeutic community, Tom Robinson learnt guitar and clarinet and teamed up with guitarist Danny Kustow with whom he later founded the TRB. "So it turned out to be a godsend," he reflects, "But up to the point of going in it just seemed as if the whole world had closed in with no way forward and no way out. Just despair." Did that despair coincide with a loss of religious faith? "Yeah," he answers. "I've only regularly started reattending meetings over the last 2 - 3 years. I was going past the meeting house one Sunday and there was just this sign saying 'A meeting for worship after the manner of the Society Of Friends is held here every Sunday - all are welcome.'And I just went 'Thank you!' and went in." Since then, Robinson has kept up his reawakened association with the Quakers, terming their quiet, meditative approach "a very interesting way to worship." Maintaining "It's been a far harder struggle as a solo-artist than as a band," the singer argues that "Had TRB been more robust as people, and been able to settle our differences and stick together, I anticipate we would now be in a stronger position career-wise than any of us as individuals find ourselves in." He admits that the cult of personality - directed exclusively at himself - took its toll on relationships within the band: "Bob Geldof gave up the unequal struggle after a while. I certainly did. Whose ego can withstand it in the end?"
So it came to a point where, in spite of the best intentions, you begin to believe - and to assert - that you were the Tom Robinson Band ? "And from the others as well. When you've had a couple of hit records having been on the dole and playing in pubs for a year you all become experts. You had the drummer telling me how to write songs and me telling him how to play drums."
In addition to the regular pressures besetting a newly-successful pop group, TRB had to cope with the fact they'd become a focus point for an entire generation of hopeful, campaigning youth. The trouble is that you get messianic after a 'while," the singer now concedes. "If enough people tell you you're wonderful for long enough, you can't help but start believing it ... It got to the stage where a journalist would say "Tom, what do you think is the solution to the problems in Northern Ireland?" and I would have the gall to tell him. Instead of saying 'No idea mate. What do you think?' which is the only honest answer. So that was the struggle that was going on aside from the one of 'Can we write another hit record or not?' And when you couldn't write another hit record, nobody gave a toss about your thoughts on Northern Ireland"
In 1980, with TRB defunct and Robinson's latest vehicle Sector 27 conspicuously stiffing, the singer suffered another nervous breakdown. "I think it was a result of taking it all too seriously," he reflects, "As I say, after a while you start believing in all the positive press which means that you then have to believe it when you start getting slagged off something rotten." A piece of historical revisionism by Melody Maker around that time, exemplified and compounded Robinson's plight: "Between '77 and '78 in one form or another my photo appeared eight times on their front cover - at the end of '79 they did a survey of the seventies in which my name did not appear once."
Slowly, he picked up the pieces, discovering "The hardest thing is getting anyone to take you seriously" when you're perceived as the faded flavour of a long bygone month. Robinson hawked the finished "War Baby" around a seemingly endless circuit of record company execs: "They'd listen to the first minute of it and say 'Have you got anything else?' or 'Who are you going to get to produce it?' and then a couple of months later, when it's on all the radio stations, the same people are saying 'I always knew it was good' or 'Fancy coming out for dinner then?' BASTARDS!"
The success of "War Baby" put Robinson's career on a secure footing and these days he's happy to report "I earn enough to make the next record, which is all-important. And I own my own 24-track studio which is also very important 'cause it means that in true Karl Marx fashion I control the means of production and no longer have to go cap in hand to the record companies and ask 'Please can I make a record?'"
Learning from harsh experience, Tom Robinson approached success second time around "with a large handful of salt." In response to criticism that the TRB sometimes closely resembled Rent-A-Cause (of the give- us-an-issue-and-we'll-put-a-tune-to-it variety), the singer openly admits "It was. I'd go along with that. Its big failing was that two dimensional aspect. It got very messianic, so you'd go to, say, San Francisco and find out that Proposition 9 was the current issue, or Cause B should be supported because the workers there were on strike, and you'd get up on the stage and shout 'Hello, Cause B!' -I've seen people since, doing the same thing, and cringed. But if I was the same person, in the same circumstances, under the same pressure, I'd probably do the same all over again."
Robinson maintains his distance from the ranks of cynics who proclaim pop's impotence to effect social change. "It isn't pop music that changes anything," he argues, "It's the audience. But for the pop fan to have access to some form of music that reflects their own beliefs is very important. For someone to go to a concert where they can be with 3,000 other people who share their beliefs is enormously helpful. It's then they'll go out and make an issue of racism in the pub, or pick their friend up for referring to 'that dodgy boiler over there' - that's the level at which change occurs. It's not because a right-wing student goes to a Red Wedge gig and suddenly sees the light. That doesn't happen."
The big 40 is looming for Tom Robinson in the not-too-distant future. Does he feel he's meeting middle age gracefully? "You'd have to ask someone who's eighteen whether that guy they see poncing about on stage with a guitar is graceful or not," he replies. "What is for sure is that artists and their audience grow old together. I think there's a place for musicians of my generation trying to reflect how life feels to you personally in a way that reflects how we all feel."
Ten years ago, Tom Robinson told Hot Press he was happy and fulfilled. Could he claim that now ?
"Yes. I am happy. I can only wish for another ten years as good as the last ten and I'll have no complaints."