"I had never seen gay like Tom Robinson gay; he was a lanky rock god with long hair and swagger."
Forty years ago, Tom Robinson Band released a punk album called Power in the Darkness that rocked my world. I was in tenth grade, at an episcopal boarding school in remote Concord, New Hampshire, and had a mad-crush on a very straight older boy who was so handsome he would soon become the American face of Giorgio Armani. This boy loved punk rock and so, naturally, I pretended to as well, buying albums by his favorite punk bands--the Ramones (whom I liked), the Sex Pistols (whom I didn't)--despite the fact that left to my own devices, I would have put nothing on my turntable save Bette Midler, Emmy Lou Harris, and show tunes. One of the songs that soon-to-be-Armani-man loved (and I did, too) was a melancholy anthem with an exuberant chorus called "2-4-6-8 Motorway." So, I bought Power in the Darkness, the album on which the track was included, to find out what other songs went with this one.
And there it was. A song called "(Sing if You're) Glad to Be Gay" that was like nothing I had heard before. It was like nothing anyone had heard before. I could only listen to it after I had checked, then double-checked, then triple-checked that my headphone jack was plugged all the way in. At that time, there had never been an out gay student or faculty member in the history of my school. I made sure that neither the headphone jack nor I was even the slightest bit out.
But the more I listened to the song--and the more I learned about Tom Robinson himself--the more I started to think that maybe I could let others hear the song that was playing in my head. Back in the '70s the only gay men I ever saw on television or in the movies either killed themselves or killed someone else. I had never seen gay like Tom Robinson gay; he was a lanky rock god with long hair and swagger. If being gay meant that I could hang out with someone like Robinson, then that was something to sing about.
"(Sing if You're) Glad to Be Gay" is an angry, snarling, caustic protest anthem that Robinson wrote for a 1976 London gay pride march. The verses rail against the British police for raiding gay pubs and brutalizing the customers; against the hypocrisy of obscenity laws being used to shut down gay news publications while straight tabloids trafficked in pictures of naked young women; against the way gays were described in the press as perverts and child-molesters. I'll never forget the experience of hearing for the first time the verse in which Robinson describes how queer-bashers kicked in the teeth of a "gentle and short" friend of his who had done nothing more than go for a walk to find company on a lonely evening. Robinson sings, with sarcastic emphasis on the word only: "He was only hospitalized for a week/ And he stills bears the scars."
What made the song's rage-filled verses even more powerful is that "Glad to Be Gay" isn't just a critique of the corrosive effects of homophobia but also a reproach to its contemporary gay listeners--for not proudly fighting back.
With "Glad to Be Gay," Robinson was addressing both British society in general and also those in the gay community who wore their pride pins to bars but took them off before going home or to the office; and especially those who hid their homosexuality by ridiculing "gay lib" and joining in when their mates told anti-gay jokes.
Robinson had no worries the song would kill his career--because he didn't have one. Then something remarkable happened. Building on the success of "2-4-6-8 Motorway," which hit number five on the charts, "Glad to Be Gay" became a sensation; the media couldn't get enough of it. And so, Tom Robinson became arguably the first major out gay rocker ever to hit the charts.
This fall, Tom Robinson is going to be playing the entire album live in concert in 19 cities across the United Kingdom, starting on October 3rd in Norwich and ending on October 27th in London's iconic Shepherd's Bush Empire.
What's remarkable is how ahead of his time Tom Robinson was then, and still is. But I didn't know the half of it until we spoke, via Skype. Today, at 68, he's popular host for BBC Radio 6, an occasional touring musician--and husband to a woman he met and fell in love with at a benefit for London's Gay Switchboard when he was in his thirties. They have two adult kids.
One thing became instantly clear as we began to talk: Robinson is still gay and still glad. He's also still angry, still speaking out about the injustices he sees all around, and still writing songs. Great songs. But more on that later.
Born in 1950 in Cambridge, England, to parents from the industrial north, Robinson's experience of music was limited to church and singing around the piano--until his older brother brought home some Bill Hailey and Elvis Presley records one day. His musical awakening continued when he discovered the Beatles in 1963.
"I was a weird kid," he says. "I knew that I craved something, and that I didn't know what it was before I had a name for it. And it was only when puberty dawned and the word homo started getting bandied around I suddenly realized that what they were talking about was me."
It was an era when people could, and frequently did, go to prison for being gay. "Nobody was living an out gay life," says Robinson. "So you had nowhere to get the information that you could be okay. And you certainly didn't get it from pop culture because pop culture was all boy-meet-girl."
At the time, Robinson was a day student at a co-ed Quaker school. But he became a boarder when his parents moved for his father's job as a lawyer in civil service. The school was a hothouse environment--if you weren't actively dating someone of the "opposite" sex, you didn't fit in.
That made it tougher when Robinson fell in love with another boy. "I never told him--it was a shameful secret." Robinson was stalkerish in his affections. "Given the emotional equipment I had at that time," he says, "That's the best I could do."
Over time he became increasingly isolated and depressed. "I would rather have died than have anyone find out I was in love with this boy," he says, "and that's the option I chose. I took pills in the dormitory one night and hoped to never wake up again. It was a fairly random, half-hearted collection of pills. But I think I genuinely hoped never to wake up. When I did wake up, it took seconds to realize I was too useless even to kill myself properly. Something inside me snapped."
The school arranged for Robinson to be hospitalized. At this point in the narrative, he pauses, as if taking stock of the details, or gathering his strength. "Yeah, things weren't looking good in the winter of 1966," he says. When he came out to his father a year before his suicide attempt, his father told him it was just a passing phase.
That winter, Robinson's father brought him not back to school but to a decrepit Elizabethan manor house called Finchden Manor, a home for "disturbed and disturbing boys." When they arrived, a man in his seventies took Robinson's hands in his, looked over his glasses, and said, "You're very lonely, aren't you?"
There were 50 young men at Finchden Manor, ranging from mid-teens to mid-twenties. There was no real therapy as such. The boys had to figure out how to get along. And they did.
At Finchden, Robinson found his tribe. And they found him. He discovered that they thought it was kind of a hoot that he was gay--certainly nothing to be ashamed about. Robinson also found love, or at least a wild affair that lasted some months, in the form of a "chunky, olive-skinned new boy."
Music was Robinson's badge of identity at Finchden. It was there that he discovered he could work out the chords to a song. Equally important was the realization that he had the ability to convince others to play along with him. After leaving Finchden at 23 and moving to London, he formed his first band, Cafe Society, and was signed to The Kinks' label. For three years Cafe Society played pubs and waited for the record company to make them famous. It didn't happen. The trio fell apart
That's when Robinson first saw the Sex Pistols--and played accompaniment for the London engagement of Hot Peaches, a U.S. experimental theater troupe whose members included founder Jimmy Camicia and Stonewall veteran Marsha P. Johnson. Hearing stories of Stonewall helped politicize him. He realized that whatever he did next, it would have to be "real, honest, and probably loud." He went around to the pubs where he had played and booked a half-dozen gigs for a new, as-yet-unformed band. When they asked him for a band name, he didn't have one, so he just said the first thing that came to mind: Tom Robinson Band. "I really wish I'd said something like The Clash," he says, laughing.
At the same time, Robinson was busy discovering a world of men who wanted the same thing he did: other men. He talks with particular emotion about the feeling of being, for the first time, in the upstairs room of a club run by the Gay Liberation Front: "It's just like any school dance, except the girls are dancing with the girls and the boys with the boys. And suddenly you understand what dancing is. Instead of being this awkward act, suddenly you get it when you can dance with someone you like."
This was when David Bowie hits the charts with the frankly homoerotic album Hunky Dory--"So music and emotion come together." It was against that backdrop that Robinson first wrote "Good to Be Gay" and then "Glad to be Gay." While they were struggling to make it, with no money and no success, everyone pulled together. But once the band had two songs on the charts, things began to go south. Within eighteen months the band broke up.
Tom Robinson performs at The Bottom Line in New York City on June 16, 1978
Not unlike many bands today, Tom Robinson Band had grown their audience outside the record industry with no mainstream backing, forging a direct relationship with their fans, people just like 16-year-old me. Robinson engaged in a form of social media long before there was such a thing.
First, they produced Xeroxed newsletters for every gig. No matter where you heard them play, you came away with a piece of paper crammed with information: who was in the band, where they were playing next, opinion pieces, pictures, cartoons, the number for the Gay Switchboard, and your rights if you got arrested. You also learned about Spare Rib, London's radical feminist magazine, and Rock Against Racism, an organization to which the band was deeply committed, taking part in protests and playing concerts.
And then there were the letters. "If you want to write to us we want to hear from you," they announced in every newsletter. And so long as you sent in a self-addressed stamped envelope, they would reply. This not only created a tight bond with their fans, it helped get the band a record deal. But continuing to reply to every letter, even after their first hit, when they began to get thousands of letters instead of hundreds, "was the single stupidest thing I did in that entire period," says Robinson. "Because what all those fans actually wanted more than anything was great new songs. If I put the same energy into writing new songs that went into answering those fucking letters then the band history might have been different."
After the band fell apart, Tom Robinson eventually did as well. But all the while he produced great music, first with a new band called Sector 27 and then on solo albums. He also wrote with other singer-songwriters, including Elton John.
These were the heady years of gay liberation, right before the catastrophe of AIDS struck. Like many others who came of age in those years, Robinson considers himself phenomenally lucky to have survived them. "By 1980, as my first fifteen minutes of fame came to an end, I had a total crisis of confidence that meant my social skills and love life dwindled to near-zero," he explains. When bankruptcy loomed, he had to sell everything and move to Hamburg to escape all the people he owned money--and the tax authority in particular. While there he wrote a song called "War Baby," which became a hit and made it possible for him to move back to England.
"It was only in 1983," he says, "when I came back to London that I really had to face this horror head on, and then it was like that Michael Callen song, 'Living in Wartime.' Generations of beautiful bright lovers, brothers, friends, just suddenly becoming frail and ill. Nobody knew why and it was horrible."
Two recent songs by Robinson recall those years and are especially haunting. One, "Home in the Morning," is a heartbreaking song written in the voice of a young man in the hospital with AIDS sending a buddy out to clear his flat so his parents don't find the porn and the poppers. Another, "Never Get Old," is an elegy for a lover who died tragically, living with AIDS but unable to outrun other demons.
The other thing that saved him, he says, was his decision to volunteer for the Terrence Higgins Trust, the main UK AIDS organization. He was a driver, taking people from place to place. "As part of the training for that we learned the principles of safer sex and condoms. And in a prissy kind of a way, I insisted on safer sex."
In 1982, Robinson met the woman who would become his wife, but they wouldn't be "officially" together until 1986. At the time, says Robinson, she was "roadying for her lesbian lover." Many fans, myself included, felt jealous, a little betrayed, and confused when they first heard that Robinson was with a woman. "I did always say that I was probably actually bisexual," Robinson says. "But a queer basher doesn't differentiate. As far as our enemies are concerned, there's no such thing as a little bit queer. You're either queer or not. And they won't stop kicking you if you have a wife and kids at home."
Robinson also says that he didn't really believe that being bisexual was a thing until it happened to him; he thought bisexuals were gays who hadn't come out yet. "Life paid me back for that," he adds.
The British press were merciless. "Today, if someone tells a lie about you, you can go on Twitter and say that's not true." Back then he had no such recourse. He winces when he recalls the headlines: "Stars Who Go Straight;" "Britain's Number One Gay in Love with a Girl Biker;" and "He's So Glad Not To Be Gay Anymore."
When the worst tabloid threatened to publish more horrible things unless he allowed them to photograph their first child, a press agent advised him to release baby photos of his own to all the other UK papers. But these included some of the same dreadful publications that had been running terrible things about gay people for decades.
Robinson wasn't surprised when he was booed that year at Gay Pride. But six years later, Pride, now renamed LGBT Pride, invited him back to play at a new Bisexual stage and social area that had been set up at the rally after the march. When he walked onto the stage someone shouted, "Where've you been, Tom?" He shouted back, "Making babies!" The crowd laughed and cheered. It was a homecoming.
Today, he feels no need to justify himself. "I don't feel any less gay than I ever did. I met the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. And you can't worry about people's image of you when you meet the right person. If the right person is the right person, that's the end of it."
Robinson is also now more excited about music than he has been for years. His late-in-life career as full-time radio host has brought him a whole new audience and allowed him to champion musicians in every genre. "The most important thing is listening to music again," he says. "In my last ten years as a touring musician I wasn't really keeping my ears open to what else was going on. [Being a radio presenter] gave me back my own hunger to hear new music."
I ask Robinson whether there's a musician I have to hear now. For the first time, he seems stumped. There are too many. He gets up from his chair and walks over to a bookshelf lined with CDs, floor to ceiling. He ponders. Paces.
"Okay, the one you absolutely have to know about is Sam Vance Law. And he has made an album. And it's just brilliant. He was such a joy to interview. And he's so unapologetic about who he is." Sam Vance Law is gay and his album is called Homotopia.
"If there had been a Sam Vance Law in 1966, making music and making records I could have bought in my local store, he could have saved me ten years of heartache," says Robinson.
And all I can think is how many years of heartache Tom Robinson saved me from. Saved so many of us. Still does.
Will Schwalbe has twice been in the Out 100. He's the author of the New York Times bestseller The End of Your Life Book Club and Books for Living.
(Intro Photo: Tom Robinson performs at the Palladium in New York City on June 2, 1979)