NEW YORK TIMES September 1994
THE MELLOWING OF A GAY PUNK REBEL
The singer Tom Robinson has a female partner and a son but still seethes
about politics and sex. By Stephen Holden
When Tom Robinson was an openly gay punk rock rebel in the late 70, he
had no idea that a decade later he would be extolling the satisfaction
of fatherhood and a long-term relationship with a woman he refer to as
"In 1977 it really did feel that the world would end or change the English
singer and songwriter recalls. "The Winter of 79 seemed so far into the
future to me that it was unimaginable."
Mr. Robinson, wearing a white sports shirt, tennis shorts and sneakers,
sprawls on a sofa in his Manhattan hotel suite. The singer, who lives
in London, is visiting New York to promote "Love Over Rage, his first
album to be released in the United States in 10 years. This October, he
will embark on an American tour.
The 44-year-old singer is barely recognizable from the scruffy young pop
star who stormed the English pop charts in 1977 with a revved-up anthem,
"2-4-6-8 Motorway. The next year, Mr. Robinson released an album, "Power
in the Darkness, whose blunt lyrical broadsides amounted to a virtual
dictionary of punk-rock political correctness. One song, the ironically
titled "Glad to Be Gay, became the first gay protest song to edge towards
the pop mainstream.
The songs on "Love Over Rage may be more complex and personal than the
moralizing of Mr. Robinson's early recordings, but they are no less passionate
in their search for truth. Nor do Mr. Robinson's relationship with a woman
and fatherhood (he has a 4-year-old son) mean that he has renounced his
"I still find men more sexually attractive than women," he says. "I call
that gay. I live with a woman with whom I have a long-term sexual and
emotional relationship. I call that love. The two are not incompatible.
"Love Over Rage" might be described as a summing up of Mr. Robinson's
experiences since becoming a pop flavor-of-the-month in 1977. The opening
cut, "Roaring", which remembers "the glorious autumn of our roaring days"
sounds at first like a rowdy exercise in nostalgia. But on closer listening,
the happy days of the late 70s sound far from idyllic."We were deaf and
selfish, we were smug and dumb" sings Mr. Robinson, recalling a fling
that ended "when he took my money and never said goodbye."
"Days", the album's most studied examination of the past, is a sort of
post-punk answer to "American Pie" in the way it uses a semi- mythical
vocabulary to evoke English rock history from the Rolling Stones through
Sex Pistols through Live Aid. The lyric revolves around a recurrent phrase,
"the days that changed the world, which refers to Mr. Robinson's long-dashed
expectation that punk might spearhead a social-revolution.
Two other songs - "Silence and "Chance - deal with the AIDS epidemic,
which Mr. Robinson says has taken many friends, including Dez Tozer, a
former lover to whom the album is dedicated. "Silence" is a cry of loneliness
and grief. "Chance" was inspired by a youth he met while doing volunteer
work for an AIDS charity.
"There was an 18-year-old who was being moved out of his accommodation
because he was being harassed by neighbors," Mr. Robinson explains. "He
said that when he was 13 he fell in love with a man in his 20s, but the
man wouldn't have anything to do with him because he was so young. But
he was so in love that he kept on and on. And at 14 he persuaded the guy
to sleep with him for one night, and that night he got HIV. And, at 18,
he said to me, 'I loved him, and if I had my chance I'd do it all over
again - it was worth it for that one night." Within a year he was dead
- I just had to put him in a song.
Since his last American record, "Hope and Glory, Mr. Robinson has recorded
four albums that have been distributed outside the United States and has
toured through Europe, Australia, Japan and Canada. He has also branched
out into performance art and radio. For four years, he appeared at the
Edinburgh Fringe Festival, doing a program of songs and readings from
Bertolt Brecht and T.S. Eliot as well as his own lyrics. On the BBC's
Radio Four, he is the host of "Locker Room, a radio talk show about men
Mr. Robinson's own personal life, he says, has been the subject of considerable
misunderstanding. After a British tabloid erroneously stated that he had
gotten married and implied that she had changed his sexual politics and
orientation, he was labeled a homophobe and a traitor by a writer in Gay
Times, an English publication.
"It was pathetic," recalls the singer, who subsequently explained himself
in the newspaper. "When I've spent 20 years fighting for people's right
to love whomever they want - and when there's so much genuine homophobia
in the world. I know what homophobia is - and it isn't going out with
The woman he lives with but whose name he declines to give to protect
her privacy, is someone he has known for many years. "We gradually got
closer, and one thing led to another, he says. "Gay men, in my experience,
are sexually adventurous. We try everything. In many ways, doing it with
a woman was like the ultimate perversion.
In this case, it worked out rather well. If you do meet the person you
can't imagine ever not wanting to be with, then you have to seize that
opportunity - even if they're the wrong gender. Paradoxically, my life
would have been so much simpler if I'd stayed living with a man - or stayed
in the closet about this and not told anyone.
Pop fame tends to be more fleeting than most kinds. And in July when Mr.
Robinson performed at the Toronto Pride Festival, he worried that no-one
would remember who he was. He needn't have. Because the Ontario state
parliament had just rejected same-sex partnership legislation by a narrow
vote, the festival was an angry affair, says Paul Boyd, the event's talent
coordinator, who had invited Mr. Robinson. The singer seized the moment
by leading a defiant rendition of "We Are Family, which became the festival's
unofficial theme song.
"When we choose performers for the pride Festival, we usually try and
choose local people," Mr. Boyd says. "This year we decided for the first
time to bring in an international performer. We chose Tom because we felt
he spoke for many people. If you look at his dedication to human rights,
he's spoken up throughout his career. He was one of the first people to
write on his album covers the addresses for the American Indian Movement,
Amnesty International and women's rights. On his last two or three albums,
he has been writing about AIDS, something (almost) no one else has addressed.
The doorbell rings and there is a delivery of two T-shirts that Mr. Robinson
bought. One reads, "I'm not gay, but my boyfriend is". The other says,
"But Ma, she is my Mr. Right.
Mr. Robinson says he is still singing "Glad to Be Gay, whose lyric he
updates each year to include the latest incidents of the homosexual persecution
in Britain. The latest version attacks the British tabloids and includes
a verse about AIDS:
And now there's a nightmare they blame on the gays
It's brutal and lethal and slowly invades
The medical facts are ignored or forgot
By the bigots who think it's the judgment of God.
As Mr. Robinson intones the lyric, a tone of righteous indignation creeps
into his hale and hearty manner. He may have left behind the rage and
certainty of youth, but he hasn't stopped fighting for his ideals.