GUARDIAN - May 1994
THE WAR BABY AT PEACE
He was glad to be gay, and he became a spokesperson for a generation.
Then it all went wrong and he fled the country with a nervous breakdown.
Now, Tom Robinson is back.
by Simon Fanshawe
THERE ARE two things that you should know about Tom Robinson in 1994.
The first is that he has a new album called Love Over Rage. And the second
is that, whatever you may have heard or read or just picked up from the
bitchy tittle-tattle of the party circuit about him being married or straight
or both, he is still gay. "I have much more sympathy with bisexuals now,
but I am absolutely not one. I am not ambidextrous. I do not find both
sexes equally attractive - and then, quietly, emphatically and even a
little lasciviously - "I like men". Perfect pause. "I happen to live with
a woman - that is all." Over the past few years the cynics have scoffed
at this apparent "conversion to heterosexuality, after 10 years of psychotherapy",
as the Times called it. The tabloids rubbed their hands in glee when the
Sunday People discovered that "Britain's Number One Gay" had fallen for
a "Blonde Girl Biker" and put it on their front page. And the gay press
has written him off as a turncoat, a sell-out and now, God forbid, a Dad!
For my part, I just think his partner is lucky. There are thousands of
women in Britain who live with gay men. She's fortunate enough to know.
Robinson is frustrated by all this. Hours of chat with journalists about
his latest album and two minutes on his family results in them headlining
the partner and child and footnoting the music.
But this shouldn't
surprise him. There is a quite touching innocence about his outrage. And
I'm afraid I shall probably disappoint him too because Tom Robinsons life
has always been far more interesting and important to the rest of us than
his music. What matters about him is what he has to say, not how he sings
it. What we all looked to him for was not great music but the slogans,
the banners, the marching songs, the pictures of fighting strength that
meant so much to a generation, now over 30, who first saw him at the Rock
Against Racism Carnival in Hackney in 1978. (Robinson appears at the Anti-Nazi
League festival in London tomorrow, details below).
And now when you meet him, several things strike you - primarily, how
little he seems to have changed. He looks aggravatingly less than his
44 years. He is still that gentle, matey bloke, the ordinary guy who just
happened to be gay that all of us found so alluring in the seventies.
He has immense charm, but the years have given him more defensiveness
than you might expect. When you consider what a switchback his career
has been it may not be surprising. If his self-esteem was entirely hit-related,
he would have plunged to the depths several times.
After the considerable success of Power In The Darkness in 1978 with the
Tom Robinson Band, there followed two flops, one the second TRB album,
and the other a posy interlude with a band called Sector 27. In the early
Eighties he fled in a personal and financial crisis to East Germany. "I
coped very badly. I had a breakdown."
Then, over a nine month period in 1982, emerged - out of where he knows
not - the song War Baby. For the first time it seemed Tom Robinson had
written not only a beautiful tune but words that were for once oblique
and poetic. No slogans, no prescriptions, no fighting talk. A song that
moved not by its appeal to outside objective but by its interior emotion.
This was a different TR. And it scored. Nine weeks in the top 10. He got
a manager. What emerged was the post-War Baby generation Tom Robinson
and, most significantly of all, it finally brought him a private life.
Up to that point he had pulled a clever trick on all of us. We thought
he was singing about his heart and his passion. But he wasn't. He was
only singing about his beliefs. He had never sung about his private life.
How could he ? He had manifestos by the score but, according to him, no
private life. Ask him about Northern Ireland and he "...was arrogant enough
to tell you, even though I knew nothing about it." But if you'd asked
him about love or even sex, he didn't really have any songs. He didn't
sing about pain and loss, he sang about sexuality. Tom Robinson wasn't
in any way private. He was entirely public.
But in the new album there are no slogans. The themes are political: Men,
Greens and Aids. But the album is typified by a song called "Days", which
is a new and softer way he illuminates the changes of the past 16 years.
The song takes you from the days when the "Pistols were loaded...and the
music came of age" through Band Aid, when "the Saint became a Sir..."
to today when "Johnny's wearing Mambo suits" and "Joseph in his combat
coat's a denim millionaire..."
He is still full of the commitment that always burned inside him. But
now the happiness he has achieved shows in his songs. None of them have
the undeniable quality that beams out of "War Baby", but if he could write
a string of those then we might spill more ink on his music than we do
on his life. But to those of us whose lives seem to have begun in 1978,
he is still charting the age and illuminating the contradictions better
than anyone. The final thing he said was: "The one thing I really don't
want to be called is a hypocrite." And he probably never will.