Giving Tom Robinson The Space To Say What He Likes
Tom Robinson sped on stage and stood for a few seconds in a human manifestation of Ta-da! With one arm pointing up, the other out to the side. He then picked up the guitar for his first acoustic number of the night.
The long-time LGBT campaigner, Rock Against Racism advocate, and BBC Radio 6 presenter, was playing a solo Evening With Tom Robinson, for Bangor’s Open House Festival; as part of his Home In The Morning tour.
“That was the soundtrack to my teenage years” he told us after belting out that first song of the evening “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away.” And then he began the journey that brought us through the life and times of Tom Robinson; explaining the backdrop to his records, the environment in which he was living when they were made, the impact that all of this was having on him and the people around him. Interspersed and illustrated with solo acoustic versions of his classics, and not so classics, and a few covers, and a couple from the new album, the night was raw and personal from the moment he started speaking.
There was a boy he fell in love with in school. Sounds like it was that teenage, all-encompassing kind of love that takes over everything. So when he found it necessary to hide this away, to supress his feelings, conceal who he was, it led to depression, to desperation, and ultimately an overdose. It was 1965, he explained, “In 1965 you’d go to prison for four years.” Looking back on it now he thanks God his overdose failed. “The single biggest killer of men is suicide” his radio voice told the room. “Tell somebody, talk, you’re not on your own.”
He was holding sheets in his hands as he recalled spending the following six years at Finchden Manor, a centre for boys with emotional difficulties. The multitude of personalities and problems contained in Finchden proved to be fertile ground for Robinson’s writing in later years: “Including this one” he told us. Nodding up to the invisible soundman for some medium reverb, he launched into an a capella version of “Martin,” accompanied solely by the clicking of his own fingers. Although he did have the room shout out “Martin” at appropriate points in the chorus. He also sang “A Song For You,” an Alexis Korner cover in tribute to Korner himself who came to Finchden to perform for the boys there.
Robinson told us about his first Gay Liberation Front disco, where he got picked up. As he told us this he was grinning, nodding his head. “Yes, I got picked up.” He woke up the next day in someone else’s flat, his lover was downstairs making breakfast and an album was playing that he’d never heard before. “Put another log on the fire for me/I’ll make some breakfast and coffee.” Robinson sang the first verse of “Oh! You Pretty Things” to remind us of the words. Hunky Dory was a revelation for him. It was about him, about his life. He bought it soon after this first liaison.
When he sang “Glad To Be Gay” he stuck to the original lyrics – they’ve changed over the years to keep up with shifting times. We all joined in, getting louder in the chorus, surprised at how much of the verses we could remember. And as he talked us through the history of the Tom Robinson Band, he gifted us with the likes of “Up Against The Wall,” and “2-4-6-8 Motorway” (which EMI initially saw no commercial interest in apparently).
After a break he kicked in with a potent updated version of “Power In The Darkness.” The original song contains a list of unsavoury elements that society needs to get rid of, and Mr Robinson’s 2016 version had added new scapegoats such as immigrants to this latest list of miscreants. It was unabashed Tom Robinson lefty, liberal fire branding. It was wonderful.
“What could possibly go wrong?” he asked us about the making of Tom Robinson Band’s second album TRB Two, then he proceeded with a catalogue of what did actually wrong with said second album. A tale that involved fan mail, Peter Gabriel, the Hammersmith Odeon and a mild dose of Pink Floyd resentment.
“Lovers and dear friends of mine became ill, and old, and died horribly in hospitals,” he recalled as he began explaining the impact of the HIV/Aids crisis. Then he sang “Home In The Morning” from his most recent Only The Now album to illustrate a very particular element to dealing with the crisis – the tidying of the flats that had to be undertaken by trusted friends of the young men who were never to return home. The flats needed to be cleared of all traces of the person’s lifestyle before his mother inherited it and was confronted with the evidence of her son’s private life. A pathos very specific to this particular tragedy.
And so the journey continued, through the 40 years that Robinson has been working and writing. He gave us “Listen To The Radio” where he had us deliver the “ooh-ooh-oohs.” And then he told us the story of how he met his wife. He was performing at a gay switchboard fundraiser and was singing “War Baby” for the first time. He looked across the room and saw someone he really fancied. He thought to himself “there’s the man of my dreams … but it was a woman … once again I was in love with the wrong sex.”
And at that he brought us full circle, brought us back to the boy all those years ago who was struggling with the rules that have been set on who you have permission to fall in love with. He ended the night with the title track of his Only The Now album. “It’s all we have,” he told us, “you don’t know what’s happening tomorrow … don’t ever wish it away.”