Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XI: Writer and editor Tom Robotham

Writer and editor Tom Robotham did not realize he would be part of a blog post that would unsuccessfully link 1870s British light opera and 1980s American light rap when he agree to be photographed at the Taphouse yesterday in Norfolk, Va. As it turns out, parents just don't understand that I am the captain of the Pinafore. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. – That gentleman, the one always over in the corner writing away at The Taphouse Grill on West 21st Street, well it’s his turn for a Belligerent Q&A.

Tom Robotham began his journalism career as an education reporter and music writer for The Staten Island Advance in New York City and has freelanced for a variety of publications, most recently as a columnist for Veer Magazine and Hampton Roads Magazine.

Most people in Hampton Roads know him as the longtime editor of PortFolio Weekly, the alternative weekly that folded a few years back. He’s also written books and taught at Old Dominion University and The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk.

Furthermore, he is never known to quail at the fury a gale, and he’s never, never sick at sea.

What never? you ask.

No never.

What never?

Hardly ever.

My point is that may come in handy this weekend.

Because, as the cutline above suggests, I bring the Gilbert & Sullivan deep cuts harder than DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s He’s the Librettist, I’m the Composer.

Regular readers (love you, Pretend Mom Who Knows How To Use A Computer) realize I often have conflicts with folks featured here, and Robotham is no exception. He’s been my editor more times than he cares to remember, and yet we’re still friends.

This Belligerent Q&A is some partial get back for all that red pen.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

Well, clearly, I’m a beer drinker. The Taphouse almost went out of business when I left town for two weeks this summer. Seriously, though, that pub is one of the best places I’ve ever been to – anywhere – for music and conversation, not to mention beer.

I’m also a professional arsonist. Before anyone calls the cops on me, let me explain. I figure it’s my job as a teacher (at ODU) and a writer of essays and articles, to try to set minds on fire – to get people thinking, imagining and questioning everything they’ve ever read or been told – including everything I say.

I try to convince my students in particular to question the whole mainstream American fantasy (as opposed to dream), which to my mind is based on a combination of material affluence and flatulence. I’m sure I pissed off at least one set of parents who wanted their daughter to major in something she hated; after she studied Thoreau with me, she decided to march to the beat of her own drummer and become an actress.

Third, I’m a musician – not a very good one, I must say, but my heart and soul are in it. I played a gig earlier this summer, and people didn’t throw empty PBR bottles at me, which was encouraging.

Q: You are know for thoughtful explorations of music, writing, culture, and society in your editorial and essay writing, both in your former role as editor of PortFolio Weekly and presently in work for Veer Magazine and Hampton Roads Magazine. I’d suggest that two themes I’ve seen in your writing are (1) deflation of hypocritical assertions and naysaying by certain political forces and (2) the exposure of shortcomings in our individual and (by extrapolation, perhaps) communal support for arts and culture, as well as civic involvement, namely the core aspects of public life such as government. What does that stuff I just typed mean?

I have no idea what it means. It sounds like a passage from a PhD dissertation. That said, I agree with what I think it means. I’ve written a lot about hypocrisy – including my own – as well as the marginalization of arts and culture, which to me are as important as food. And as you point out, I’ve written about civic apathy. It’s all of a piece, really. Seems to me that our country was founded on a sublime Jeffersonian dream of simplicity, beauty, education, hard work and civic engagement. Therein lies the hypocrisy. We hear a lot of blather about the ‘founding fathers.’ But for decades at least, our schools have virtually ignored arts and culture in favor of curricula that train children to be cogs in a machine. As a result, there’s little public support for the arts and a massive deficit in our capacity for critical thinking. Seems to me that most people have bought into the suburban dream of having a house on a cul de sac with a huge garage, a Ford Gargantuan, and a large backyard with an 8-foot stockade fence where they can hide from their neighbors – that is, when they’re not inside taking perverse pleasure in watching people make fools of themselves on American Idol. Meanwhile there’s a whole world of cultural beauty out there – live music and art, theater and dance – and architecture. If more people cared about beauty and artistic excellence, we wouldn’t live in these hideously ugly suburbanscapes of stripmalls and clogged boulevards. Finally, there’s the disconnect from nature. I heard recently that the average American teenager can identify 1,000 corporate logos but fewer than 10 plants. I suspect it’s not much better with adults. That’s why we have so many environmental problems.

Wow – I covered a lot of ground there and probably sound like a rambling elitist. I’ve been accused of that. So be it.

Q: You’ve written forcefully against those who oppose subsidization of public broadcasting. When did you stop loving God?

There is no doubt in my mind that God listens to NPR – especially On Point and The Jefferson Hour – and that he’s a member of the WHRO Leadership Circle.

Q: You have said that readers don’t need to be pandered to. I want to agree with you, but that sentiment neither exploits my weaknesses nor appeals to my base instincts. Discuss.

You don’t have any weaknesses that I know of. As for your base instincts, I thought we weren’t going to discuss that night of debauchery at the Thirsty Camel. I do think that our community and country would be a lot better off if we got over our anti-elitist tendencies and let experts do their thing – that includes journalists who are professional observers; they need to tell us what they think is important, and we need to listen. The great ones – from Murrow to Nat Hentoff to Bill Moyers – have always done that, and we’re better off for it.

Q: Why did they name our new light rail line after a laundry detergent instead of calling it Hampton Roads: America’s First Region’s First Light Rail System That Goes to Newtown Road In Norfolk For Now?

Because that wouldn’t have fit on the train. But it does have a nice ring to it.

Q: Do you pledge to support my campaign to reunite Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies in Norfolk to play their 1994 modern rock hit “Ride the Tide” aboard a light rail train repeatedly for a half hour or 7.4 miles (whichever comes last)?

I do, indeed. Although I also like the idea of getting Ozzy Osbourne on board to sing ‘Crazy Train’ for 24 hours straight.

Q: Sometimes I think back to the New York days. Like the night in 1979 when Cyrus from the Gramercy Riffs called all us city gangs together at Van Cortland Park and Luther whacked Cyrus and put the whole dirty deed on us and all that heat came down from the airwaves while we headed back to our turf and I never thought we’d make it back to Coney Island in one piece especially after me and my boys ran into the Lizzies and what with what happened to Fox in the subway but at least Luther got what was coming when the Riffs learned it wasn’t us that took out Cyrus at the summit. I take it you and your crew had a better time getting back to Staten Island, yes? What was the name of your gang and what route did you take?

We came up with a name one night but promptly forgot it after smoking a lot of marijuana and eating 17 boxes of Twinkies. Come to think of it, though, there was another night I recall when some friends and I went to a party in the North Bronx, sang Beatles songs all night with two fugitive IRA members (true story), then rode a Manhattan-bound subway through the South Bronx at 3 a.m. (Not something I’d recommend.) We eventually got to the Staten Island Ferry, then caught Staten Island’s lightrail, which actually goes somewhere.

Q: Funnily enough, when we had our local scrape with those local punks in the Downtown Norfolk Crusher OGs the other day, we were only able to flee on The Tide to Newtown Road before we had to rent a car at that Avis on Virginia Beach Boulevard. Maybe light rail could be a little longer, if only to enable the Technicolor flight of nonexistant gangs. What’s the likelihood we go all the way on light rail in Hampton Roads? By “all the way” I mean to Portsmouth.

Ah, fun times.

Right now the only way it can serve local gangs is to take them all to a sit-down at that great sushi restaurant on Newtown Road. Kind of like those old meetings of the heads of the five mafia families in New York, but with California rolls.

That said, I think it’s unlikely that I will see a truly serviceable mass-transit system here in my lifetime. Right now, I figure I’m better off hopping a Norfolk Southern coal car out of West Ghent if I want to commute somewhere without a car.

Q: If the Beach continues to go slow on light rail, will HRT forces take the needed permissions, funding, and land by sword skirmish?

No. I think we’ll continue to talk about it, just as we talk about ‘regionalism’ and attracting the ‘creative class.’ Reminds me of the characters in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. Just a bunch of people sitting around with their pipe dreams. Or Waiting for Godot. But I do kind of like the idea of taking Mount Trashmore, swords in hand, as we recite ‘Charge of the Lightrail Brigade,’ with apologies to Tennyson.

Q: In recent years you’ve taken up martial arts and songwriting. Where exactly are you going with this?

I’m not a very good musician, as I’ve already noted, but I kind of like my own stuff. I figure I’d better be able to defend myself at gigs because some people do tend to get pissed off when I refuse to play Jimmy Buffet songs.

Q: I understand that you’re heading back to school this fall. Will Sally Kellerman play your love interest? Who will play Lou, your chauffeur?

Lou will be played by my old friend Louie Pisigoni from Staten Island. As for my love interest, I’m holding out for Rachel McAdams. I’ve had a crush on her ever since Wedding Crashers.

As for going back to school, I’m going to give ODU a try while I continue teaching there, but I may transfer to my son’s college, room with him in a customized dorm suite complete with hot tub and hire Kurt Vonnegut to write our papers. Oh wait – he’s dead. Maybe Dave Eggers, then.

Q: We’ve covered so much ground here. Is there anything else you would like to say?

I’d like to say hi to my friends at the Taphouse. It will be at least three hours between the time they read this and the time they see me.

You can learn more about Robotham (and see a photo of him on a horse) at this link to his site.

And thanks to the magic of YouTube, former Screamin Cheetah Wheelies frontman Mike Farris will play us out:

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4 thoughts on “Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XI: Writer and editor Tom Robotham

  1. Scott C says:

    But who will stop the forces of evil from turning the Taphouse into the ugliest building in all Norfolk…oh wait…too late.

  2. dorsonic says:

    Johnnie baby, only you could dig up a jewel like the musical outro to this Q&A…I vaguely knew of Mike Farris before this — mostly obscure Nashville outtake cuts, but thanks to you, I’m now a die-for-the-man fan. Thanks for making my morning.(Now please let me finish my peanut butter and toast in peace).

    • Hi, Mike. Thanks. You should check out the Wheelies. Kind of a cross between a hard blues band and a jam outfit. And Farris sounds just great, in my opinion. I listened to them a lot when I used to work out on my old ship, their first CD I think. Did you hear his stuff with Double Trouble? Thanks for the comment.

      • dorsonic says:

        The only Double Trouble I’ve listened to up till now has been Stevie Ray Vaughan’s (could do a lot worse than that, no?). In any event, definitely gonnna do some exploring of Sir Farris, again thanks to you.

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