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When I Exposed Tom Robbins to the World | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

When I Exposed Tom Robbins to the World

Tom Robbins

Tom Robbins being served beef curry at the 2013 Annual Wordsmitten Conference in Florida (Flickr/Robert Neff)

I see in today’s New York Times that there’s a new memoir by novelist Tom Robbins just out, and it gets an okay review, though many may see it as damned with faint praise, as it’s judged at least better than his late novels. It’s kind of shocking to see that this drug-toking, fun-loving, seventies cult star (who became a perennial best-selling institution) is now in his 80s. Kinda makes a boomer feel old.

Also, it reminded me that Tom lied about his age during his Even Cowgirls Get the Blues—you remember the lesbian commune and Sissy with the big thumb?—breakout phase. He’d been Pynchon-like until then but somehow I coaxed him, via snail mail, into his first major interview, for my magazine, Crawdaddy, in 1977. Then he nearly got me killed (slight exaggeration).

I’d flown out to San Francisco, to hang out in Japantown for a few days and interview Robbins. He had warned, “My publishers haven’t gotten used to my craziness yet, and I think they may be a little nervous about what I might say.” Robbins had never been interviewed previously at length—he kept his whereabouts a mystery. Now he made me promise to keep hidden where he lived, claiming fans were starting to camp out on his front lawn (Vonnegut had gone through this a few years back).

As I expected, Tom acted predictably offbeat as we walked around Chinatown, with his young girlfriend Margie, ducking in and out of Asian toy shops he loved. He was into transformers way ahead of the rest of us. His mantra seemed to be “play” which he said he took “seriously.” (This was before he coined the oft-quoted “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”) At a vegetable stand he picked up a stalk of asparagus and placed it on top of his head, as if to launch it into space via his own thought-beams. His next book, he revealed, would be titled, Woodpecker Rising.

With a thick head of hair and ’stache, Tom was youthful in both appearance and manner. Perhaps all those magic mushrooms he’d ingested back in the day had something to do with that. From some of his colleagues at a newspaper back in Virginia where he got his start, however, I’d discovered that he’d long lied about his age (cutting quite a few years off) and a couple other things. Robbins was uptight where Vonnegut had been relaxed about his status as an aging hero of younger readers. Still, he seemed like a good guy, and he invited me to a party that night for him, on a local houseboat, a former bait-and-tackle shop—another seaside attraction.

It was quite a bash, featuring an all-cowgirl bluegrass band (unlike Robbins’s famous heroine Sissy Hankshaw, they were not all-thumbs). I met Tom’s friend, a Seattle artist named Lead Pencil, and one of his many female admirers, actress Joanna Cassady. He seemed almost Leonard Cohen–like as a magnet for attractive women. Robbins said that 80 percent of his fan mail came from women, even though a lot of feminists were “confusing sexuality with sexism.”

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At some point I found myself sitting next to young songwriter Rodney Crowell, who had just penned a tune for Emmylou Harris based on Cowgirls, at the bar. Crowell, who was touring as part of Emmylou’s backup band, was chatting with someone behind me but I could hear every word. Rodney said something like, “Emmylou is still so upset about that damn Crawdaddy article on Gram Parsons”—her fabled mentor who had overdosed and then his body found burned at Joshua Tree—“after she read it on the tour bus, I told her, if I ever find the guy who wrote it, I’d beat the shit out of him.” I’d co-written that article. So I casually got up and found another seat, out on the deck.

Of course, if Rodney had managed to ID me, I would have just blamed it all on my co-author.

Greg Mitchell’s popular personal blog is Pressing Issues.

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