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New York Times logo The Mellowing Of A Gay Punk Rebel
  THE NEW YORK TIMES September 1994
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 his partner.

"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 gay identity.

"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 and masculinity.

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 a woman."

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.

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