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Interview with Tom Robinson, part 4

The thing that made me want to put this site together is the way the song’s been updated since, the way it’s not become this old classic rooted to a point in time.

It’s important to stress that in the mid 80s I had quite a lot of help on this from other people because I couldn’t think how to change it. Specifically, and most usefully from Peter Scott-Presland, formerly Eric Presland, who’s been running the gay theatre group Homo Promos ever since 1988 – the year of Section 28 [law prohibiting councils from activity that ‘promoted homosexuality’, see Explanatory Notes for GTBG 2004].

I first encountered Peter’s creative genius at work one midsummer’s night on Hampstead Heath in the early 80s. There was a circle of flaming torches planted in the grass with a great crowd gathered around the outside. Within the circle, a group of amateur thespians were acting out a gay spoof of A Midsummer Night’s Dream free of charge for all the cruisers who were up there that night! It was classic Presland – such a wacky idea and very, very funny. As the play progressed more and more people gathered round to watch that instead of heading off to the bushes.

Peter’s got a fantastic way with words and his social awareness is spot-on, so I wrote asking him to help with some of the updates. His response was laconic – ‘As the yokel said when asked for directions – if I was going there I wouldn’t start from here’. But he did come up with some great lines like the ‘pretty policemen in leather and jeans, showing their leg through a split in the seams,’ and they also sparked me off on others of my own. I can’t remember all of the lines that were his, but the new verses from the late 80s onward owed a lot to him. We also did a co-write on the song ‘Roaring’ on my Love Over Rage album. He turned a sheaf of story notes into very sharp working verses. He’s got a wonderful way with words.

The thing that’s interesting is that pretty much straight away, two years into the song’s life, the lyrics were altering. This isn’t like waiting until the mid-80s and putting an Aids verse in. It’s already being treated as a rolling thing.

And also a work in progress.

That makes it an unusual song in that the main focus is not the song but the protest.

I never wanted it to become a fossilised museum piece about ancient injustices, it was always intended more as journalism than poetry. But to be honest it seemed a natural thing to do anyway. Bob Dylan was a big role model for me, and he constantly updates and changes lyrics when performing live. Part of the fascination of being a Dylan fan is hearing the different versions of Tangled Up In Blue. It’s fascinating to constantly get new angles on that dense and intriguing story.

I know you’ve done that on several songs – You Tattooed Me has a cloud of mythology that the various versions come out of – but rather than it being a story like that or Tangled Up In Blue, Glad To Be Gay is a commentary. None of your other political songs underwent such serious changes.

Surely Billy Bragg changes his words all the time too doesn’t he? It can’t be that rare.

Once it’s been in the charts and people start mouthing along with the words in the front row it’s good to derail it a little bit. Once a song becomes a cosy familiar singalong with fixed words it loses any power it once had to confront and shock. It can easily become an exercise in aren’t-we-liberal self-congratulation.

When TRB was on tour at the height of our 15 minutes of fame in the autumn of 1978, we sold out two nights at Hammersmith Odeon. Four thousand people sang along with Glad To Be Gay and I thought, ‘the world hasn’t changed this much in twelve months. It just hasn’t. This is bogus’.

So I stopped the song, went over to Ian Parker, our keyboard player, and kissed him on the lips. An almost tangible shockwave of revulsion passed through quite a lot of the audience – there was an audible intake of breath. A friend of mine at the back later told me two beerboys in front of him had been singing along moments earlier. Then one turned to the other and said ‘you know what, I fink these geezers are bent’.

So that was an early motivation to keep swapping the words around. But then five or ten years down the line you have to start changing the words because the external situation has altered. The arrival of first Aids and then Section 28 for instance. Not to mention my own late-onset bisexuality.

Also by changing the lyrics it says ‘the situation hasn’t changed, just the details, this is still going on, here’s something that happened recently’. For all the progress and victories, the struggle continues so the song stays relevant.

Well interestingly in late 2009 the performance artist David Hoyle of Divine David fame put on a season of shows at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London, and he invited me to get up and perform on one of the nights. Al Joshua from Orphans and Vandals was also doing some songs and I agreed largely as a favour to Al really.

My expectations were pretty low, because over the decades I’d played quite a few solo gigs in front of bored gay audiences who couldn’t wait for the next drag act to come on. In my experience acoustic guitars and gay pubs and clubs have seldom been a good combination. And fuck me, it was amazing. It was just amazing what happened. First of all David introduces me and they applaud solidly for a minute. That was completely unexpected, I’m just really not used to that. And then three songs they’d never heard before – Never Get Old, Cry Out and Tattooed Me – got the warmest, loveliest reception imaginable. I was completely taken aback. Then on Glad To Be Gay when it came to the line ‘now I live with my kids and a woman I love’ the audience applauded – mid-song! – and started cheering. It was amazing, just amazing.

Maybe a new generation has come along who’ve only ever known me as someone who once long ago sang a famous gay anthem, and who couldn’t care less about what happened in between. They don’t share the disappointment and betrayal some people felt when I was outed by tabloids as bisexual in the 80s. [For details, see Tom’s comments on The Last Word].

There’s something else, too. I know people who are queer in their late teens and 20s and they don’t remember a time before this when there was straight and then gay, a mirror image of straight but with someone of the same sex, and both sects disliking those who were ill-defined. To them there’s straight and then this thing without boundaries called queer. I met a lot of them after they put on a queer night, and it had a definition of queer at the bottom of the flyer, something like ‘anybody who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, non-monogamous, transgender, and their friends’.

That’s what the definition of gay used to be! In the early 70s Gay Liberation movement we used ‘gay’ in the same way that ‘queer’ is used today. The ‘gay’ in Gay News, Gay Switchboard, Gay Sweatshop and Gay Liberation Front embraced the entire LGBT spectrum – female, male, bisexual, homosexual and all points in between.

And to be fair I always made clear that I liked both men and women.

A big Melody Maker interview with Tom (22 October 1977) included this: ‘Everybody has the right to do what they want with their own body if nobody else is being hurt. However, I want it on record that I was with a woman the other night, and it would be a shame if in singing out about the rights of gay women and men I would be then regarded as a traitor if I then went to bed with whoever I wanted to…. As far as Joe Public is concerned, if you’re interested in other guys you’re a queer… to call ourselves bi-sexual is a cop-out. Some of the top musicians in rock make me laugh’

But that gig was lovely to play, and I’m enormously grateful to David for badgering me to do it. It almost felt like a kind of homecoming.

[Video of this performance is on the Videos page]

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