An interview with Tom Botte for the Flemish magazine Primo in November 2022

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An interview with Tom Botte for the Flemish magazine Primo, November 2022


We will see you soon in Belgium. Do you have a special connection with our country?
Yes ever since the 25 year old Herman Schueremans booked the Tom Robinson Band to play  our 2 final gigs at Torhout / Werchter in 1979. Herman put us in a hotel on t’Zand in Bruges, and I walked out into town down Zuidstrandstraat in the early morning mist past the cathedral. The beauty of that experience completely overshadowed the band breaking up acrimoniously around me at the time – it was like walking into a Breughel painting. I came back as fast and as often as I could.

Is it true you speak Dutch?
Alleen een beetje, helaas.

And that you sing ‘Eenzaam zonder jou’, a song from our legend Will Tura.
Ah yes – now that is true. I built up a very loyal Flemish audience in the 1990s thanks to the agent Jean Tant, who booked a careful series of grassroots solo shows in tiny cafes. Eenzaam zonder jou makes a perfect encore at the end of a long acoustic playing in a Belgian bar. At first audiences were astonished that I knew the song. After a while they came to expect it 🙂

At what age did you know: music will be my life?
At 19, when I met my mentor Alexis Korner, and saw him play unamplified with one acoustic guitar in a small room crowded with strangers. I thought “Whatever that is, I want to be one of those…”

How was your youth?
A had a comfortable upbringing but I’ve battled depression most of my life. When young I never thought I’d make it past age 30. I’ve only reached 72 thanks to ten years of psychotherapy. Also a huge stroke of luck: meeting the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. That person could have been either a man or a woman – and when it turned out to be a woman, nobody was more surprised than me. But when life sends you a gift, you seize it with both hands.

When you we’re 16 you tried to kill yourself because you we’re in love with a boy. Being a homosexual was forbidden. In 72 countries it still is. What are your thoughts about that?
Even in countries where same-sex love is currently legal, there’s no guarantee that situation is permanent. And in the US we have seen it reversed in a number of states. But the same thing is also true of issues such as gender equality, racial equality, and equal access to healthcare and justice for rich and poor alike. LGBT people can’t fight for their equality in isolation. We either live in a free and fair society or we don’t… Justice and equality are indivisible

You made the song ‘Glad to be gay’… Did people discuraged you to release it?
Oddly enough, some gay people tried to discourage me from releasing it at the time. They considered it unneccessary and embarrassing to draw attention to the topics raising in the lyric. But many heterosexual people in the music industry were happy to support the song, and audiences were happy to sing along, regardles of their sexuality. I do remember at Torhout Festival in 1979 Rupert Van Het Groenewoud was on stage and made a homophobic wisecrack about me before we played. But that was all a long time ago. He’s a fine artist and I’m sure he’s changed his attitude since then.

The song is an anthem. It made a difference for a lot of people. Singing songs that make a difference, you consider that as a task or duty for an artist?
It depends entirely on the artist. And the music. People have to like an artist’s music first, otherwise their songs can’t make much difference. People like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and Billy Bragg have all written songs that made a difference, but they also wrote love songs and songs you could dance to. Not many concert audiences want to pay for a 60 minute political lecture. One honourable exception to that rule is the brilliant Public Enemy.

When you look at the world now, are you worried?
Terrified. Baby boomers like me now realise how our parents must have felt in the 1930s as the world went to hell around them. One also starts to understand how little power individual citizens actually have to change the course of major world events.

What gives you comfort?
Humour. Young people. The way people looked after each other through the pandemic. An the brave resilience of those battling authoritarian regimes around the world.

What makes life worth living or meaninful?
Kindness. Family. Friends. Playfulness. Simple humanity.

Can you imagine a life without music or art?
Yes, though it would be pretty dull.

Can you imagine life without performing?
Haha – no, I don’t have a pension fund. My current plan is to bop till I drop

You’ve turned 70 two years ago, is aging a ‘traumatic’ event? Or do things get easier as you grow older?
Things actually get harder because your body wears out. Anyone who tells you “age is just a number” is talking nonsense – ageing is definitely for real.  But my dad used to say that while getting older may bring disadvantages, it’s a lot better than the alternative. When I think of the friends and lovers who never had a chance to get old back in the 1980s, to have reached the age of 72 without serious illness is an absolute blessing.

You have two children. How old are they and what are they doing in life?
The 32 year old is a successful software coder. Our 25 year is a qualified Montessori early years teacher.

Would the young Tom Robinson be proud of the Tom Robinson of today?
He’d be amazed that I’d survived this long. Astonished that I ‘d been happily married for 32 years with two brilliant grown-up kids. And absolutely staggered to learn that I was still on the road in my 70s. And (best of all) about to return to Belgium with the same great musicians who’ve been with me for two decades.

Tom Robinson Band outside Shepherds Bush Empire