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Tom Robinson interview: ‘It’s been a strange old journey’

Veteran performer Tom Robinson, best known for hits such as Glad to Be Gay and 2-4-6-8 Motorway, is celebrating a landmark birthday this year. But he nearly didn’t make it this far.

Singer-songwriter Tom Robinson
Singer-songwriter Tom Robinson

Heading out on tour to celebrate his 70th birthday, vocalist, bass player and LGBT rights activist Tom Robinson is set to perform 18 dates across the country, culminating with a party with friends and guests at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire on May 30.

Storey’s Field Centre is scheduled to host the Cambridge-born star and leader of the now-defunct Tom Robinson Band (TRB) – also well known as a radio presenter and keen advocate of new music on BBC Radio 6 Music (he cites Cambridge band Tape Runs Out as one to watch) – on May 15.

“I have a kind of schizophrenic life, between home life, commuting into the BBC and my musical life, going out on tour with the band,” explains Tom, whose current band includes members of the Richard Ashcroft Band and Faithless – musicians he has known for a long time.

“I’ve been playing with those guys when they were fresh out of music college so we have a long history,” he says.

“The band has been together, on and off, much longer than my more famous bands from the ’70s. I’ve just sat on the sidelines and applauded as they’ve gone ahead and achieved great things.”

Tom’s decision to tour again was also given urgency by the sudden deaths of two of his oldest friends, TRB guitarist Danny Kustow and former collaborator Raphael Doyle.

“You do it while you can,” says Tom. “I think it’s not time to say, ‘Oh, I’ll do that in another couple of years’ – you might not have a couple of years. So I just want to get back out there, dust off the back catalogue and give people for whom that music has been significant in their lives a chance to hear it again.

“I used to hate it when I’d go and see the Kinks and they’d play Waterloo Sunset as part of a medley, with You Really Got Me thrown in just to get it out of the way so they could get onto the new album. I think you have a duty to honour the songs and do them in the best way possible.”

Tom, who also has a new live album, Power in the Now, coming out in May, has had numerous struggles in the past and he is hoping to write a memoir.

“It’s been a strange old journey over the years,” he reflects, “having had my first nervous breakdown at 16 and seven years in a therapeutic community, and then sudden pop stardom for about a year in my late 20s and then bankruptcy and another nervous breakdown...

“And fleeing to Germany, living behind the Iron Curtain, then making a comeback and then, having painted myself into a corner with a song called Glad to be Gay, falling in love with a woman and discovering late onset bisexuality.

“Then having an entire second life as a DJ for the last 18 years – it’s been quite an interesting journey.”

The reason for Tom’s first suicide attempt at 16 was that he fell in love with another boy at school. “At that time, gay men still went to prison,” he says. “I would rather have died than tell anybody else that I was in love with a person of the same sex.

“There were no positive role models whatsoever, there were no helplines like there are today. So suicide prevention charities such as Calm and the Samaritans have always been very close to my heart.”

Tom has some timely advice for anyone who may be suffering from depression: “If you break your leg, you should go to a hospital and if you break inside, you should seek counselling help and support – this stiff upper lip thing is massively overrated.

“I would have missed out on so much brilliant stuff if I had succeeded [in committing suicide] then. At the time, there was no way of knowing that all this was in store.”

Tom Robinson is due to be at Storey’s Field Centre on Friday, May 15, 7pm. Tickets: £24.75.

Keep an eye on storeysfieldcentre.org.uk for updates.

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