Tom Robinson's Damp Denims
Taxi Zum Klo and Nighthawks, two recent films from Europe about gay male life, both concern schoolteachers who spend a lot of their time in the car, driving to work, going to movies or meetings, looking for love. Tom Robinson's new album North by Northwest could have been the soundtrack for either film: it's first-rate cruising music. Robinson has put in his own time as a teacher of sorts; after establishing himself as rock's gay spokesman with the bitterly ironic "Glad To Be Gay" he spent two years and two albums securing impeccable political credentials. Admirable in theory, his message rocked, too. On tour Robinson proved to be a gay Bob Marley, inspiring people to get-up-stand-up and get down at the same time.
I always wondered about Tom Robinson's personal life. Did he have one ? Was he lucky in love ? Did his boyfriend(s) treat him right ? Sector 27 started getting into it with "Can't Keep Away," a sardonic number about the joyless excitement of cruising public toilets:
"Door says welcome when you're all alone
Come in, sit down make yourself at home"
but that album was primarily a group effort, riff-heavy and emotionally anaemic. By comparison, North by Northwest is an open diary replete with obsessions, anger, and references so private that, they're at once cryptic (who's Claire Rayner? what's Uncle Po?) and inviting (fill in your own). Like the identical scenes in Taxi zum Klo and Nighthawks where the teachers "come out" to their students, North by Northwest is an act of confession that doesn't eradicate the noble image of moral exemplar but gives it a human dimension of temperament and need.
Robinson's LP tells a story of sorts about domestic bliss, loss, sexual compulsiveness, fear of attachment, empty holidays, memories of the lost lover, rejection, flight, connection, and (temporary) contentment. "Atmospherics" cowritten with Peter Gabriel opens with a detailed shot of inate coupledom-brooding, unflorid, vaguely punky; one works at "the bureau," the other catches a double bill of "Bitter Tears and Taxi to the Klo," and later they scan the dial from Moscow to Cologne listening to the radio and smoking in bed.
This equilibrium is quickly disrupted by a breakup or death (murder ?) as the singer wanders inconsolably from laundromat to Dial-a-Prayer crying "Now Martin's Gone". (Same chap as TRB's "Martin" and Secret Policemen's Ball's "1967" ?) Grief sends him back zum Klo to fill the vacuum with anonymous cock while "hating it all" in a reggaefied "Can't Keep Away". Reggae is the punk blues, and this version is certainly more ... well, more oppressive than Sector 27's, whose hyper B-52's guitar line is replaced by a dirgey skating-rink organ.
North by Northwest's most haunting cut is "Looking for a Bonfire" in which our guy goes trick-or-treating on Guy Fawkes' Day with a firecracker in his pants and a thirst for - love ? trouble ? revenge ? In a wonderful jumble of storyline and erotic metaphor, he starts up a flame but then backs off, too recently burned. Burping apocalyptic bad humor on "Merrily Up on high" eyeing a shy guy on "In the Cold Again" Robinson reeks restlessness. But eventually something seems to take, because the album ends with "Love Comes" Lewis Furey's rather mournful ode to beating the odds:
"Did you ever think you and me
Would ever end up happy ?"
The cycle of loving, losing, and loving again is often treated as tragedy in pop song, but to Robinson it's an accepted reality. And it's this matter-of-factness that distinguishes him from such gay romantics as Peter Allen, Sylvester, and David Lasley - indeed, from romantics of every stripe.
Almost as exciting as the revolutionary candor of its lyrics is the peculiar studio sound of North by Northwest. Recorded in Hamburg with just three musicians (producer/ guitarist Richard Mazda, drummer Steve Laurie, Robinson on bass and keyboards) the album bristles with battered machine sound effects, the swooning and buzzing of sick synthesizers. This eerie aural environment suggests the built-in dissonance and complicated wiring of modern romance; it also reminds me of the droogy disco you hear in gritty British films like Nighthawks and Bloody Kids.
And particularly on a cut like "Bonfire" - with its ominous synthesizer melody, cheesy organ backbeat, and the incredibly rangy guitar solo that cuts through the chorus like an excited heartbeat gone wild on the EKG - the disjunctive interplay of instruments and crudity of the sound perfectly capture, to my mind, the butch lyricism and sullen masculinity of post-Stonewall gay culture. So sinister yet so synthetic: all damp denim, flannel biceps, inscrutable glances.
Glimpses of gayness in pop music usually tend toward camp or coyness or emotional masochism, but I can't think of anyone who has evoked the day-to-day life of Everygayman as well as Tom Robinson. Even his most sodden harmonies and private hieroglyphics draw me in deeper than better-made records I enjoy, like Marshall Crenshaw or Mirage. I guess it's no big surprise.
I take to Tom Robinson for the same reason you'll find matrimonially inclined rock crits embracing X, Human Switchboard, and Lou Reed on these pages: hey, Mister, that's me up on the jukebox.
released February 2, 2013
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