MOVING BEYOND TROUSER PRESS Ira Robbins

“When all you write
about is records, it’s like, ‘ok, you know, it’s records…'”: the famed music
journalist serves up a ‘60s/politics-themed novel.

 

BY A. WATT

 

Having chronicled the rise of punk and New Wave as the
editor of Trouser Press, a massively influential
rock mag (1974-84) based in New York City that would spin off several record
guides and, finally, a website, Ira Robbins knew exactly what he didn’t want his first effort at writing
a novel to be.

 

“I wanted to make sure that no one could say, ‘Oh, you wrote
a rock and roll novel, huh?’,” Robbins says. “I just thought, I’m not gonna put
myself through the effort of grinding out what was ultimately probably 250,000
words of fiction in order to make up the stuff I’d been writing about my entire
life. It seemed like that would be the dumbest thing imaginable.”

 

Instead, Robbins drew on an earlier chapter in his life for
inspiration, taking stock in the radical movements of the 1960s, as a former
radical himself, in a tale of intersecting lives  called Kick
It Till It Breaks: A Belated Novel of the 1960s
.

 

“I was very politically involved as a kid,” Robbins says. “I
was not a Weatherman but I was around a lot of organizations that did things. I
mean, I was never around the people who did bombings or anything like that. But
I was involved with organizations that believed in armed struggle. And so my
familiarity with the milieu was high.”

 

There’s a futility at play in Kick it Till It Breaks that might suggest the writings of a
disillusioned former radical, but Robbins isn’t sure that’s how he looks back
on that time.

 

“I realized when I finished,” he says, “that this was going
to be taken very much as a negative appraisal of that era because the results
are bad. However, that’s not really how I look at it. I’m kind of at a loss to
explain the contradiction between how I feel and how I have expressed myself. I
think when I sat back and really considered what I’d done, it’s not so much
that I’ve been negative about the era as unresolved about it. I’m kind of
adding, I would say, a mature viewpoint to experiences that I had as a
teenager, not rejecting them or dismissing them or even necessarily criticizing
them so much as opening a door to thinking about them in a new way.”

 

There’s a pivotal moment in the novel, set in 1991, when
Ydina, a blow-up-bridges-first, ask-questions later revolutionary, has a heated
conversation with her boyfriend, Felix, who – it should be noted – lost an arm to
one of her impulsive ‘60s bombings, about what would have happened if they’d
won the revolution.

 

“It completely floored me,” Robbins says, “to realize that
that thought had never occurred to me through, I don’t know, probably 10 years
of serious political activity. Then, I had to reconsider what did that mean
that I had never thought about the possibility that we would actually prevail.
Did it mean that we never actually expected to prevail? Did it mean that we
were just really irresponsible in not considering the next step? Or did we
figure there was some greater power out there, that the Cubans would come in and
show us how to run our government?”

 

It’s tempting to view the Felix character as Robbins with a
blown-off limb, to which the author says that Felix, in a sense, be “an idealized
version” of himself.

 

“I wanted there to be somebody,” he says, “who wasn’t swept
up in the giddiness of it, somebody who actually stopped and thought about it.
He has reservations at the time things are happening. And I don’t know that I
did. I don’t recall feeling that way, although I certainly had an independent
view. And Felix has to be the sort of good guy in this, not that I’m
necessarily pretending that I was the good guy. But Felix has to counterbalance
Ydina’s irresponsibility. That’s why he’s there. In a sense, he’s voicing at
least what I think is the idealized, sensible view of it, taking the academic, empirical
tone rather than the emotional, prejudicial sort of dogmatic view.”

 

Despite his reluctance to write a rock book, Robbins’ novel
was not written in a rock-free vacuum. This was, after all, the ’60s. Chapter
headings range from “A Walk on the Drab Side” to “Let It Bleed” and Accidents
Will Happen.” In one scene, a character carefully places the turntable’s tone
arm on Side Two of Revolver and grins
as the joyous “Good Day Sunshine” begins. Ydina runs into a ghost from her past
at a Canned Heat concert at the Fillmore. There’s even a smile-inducing passing
reference to Lothar and the Hand People.

 

“I was tempted at a bunch of opportunities here to include
more music stuff,” the author admits, “and shied away from it, cut a bunch of
it out. I put the chapter headings in because I thought it was funny. I just
kind of liked the idea that people could read this and never know that those are
song titles. But yeah, I put in some musical stuff because the milieu was
musical. I thought having Ydina run into Husk at a Canned Heat show would be
fine. That made sense to me. But I did go to the trouble of finding a Fillmore
schedule and finding out when there was a show on a Saturday in whatever year
it was and making sure that that was a bill.”

 

He’s been thinking of setting his next book in the glam rock
era, which actually provides a classic line in Kick It Till It Breaks. (“Between the escalating strife in Ireland
and a crippling miners strike, rising inflation and unemployment and the
ubiquity of glam rock, Britain was a nation sliding out of the grip of modern
civilization in early 1972.”) “I think that’s another interesting time,” he
says, “and one full of cultural pregnancy.”

 

So would that be a
rock and roll novel?

 

“I’m thinking it would probably be more so than this one,”
he says. “But I’m also trying to think how it could not be a rock and roll
novel, how the era and the culture and the people could be a backdrop for
something without it being about them, particularly. I’ve got notes but it’s a
very long road because I don’t know what it’s about yet.”

 

Robbins self-published his novel on the Trouser Press Books imprint
after hearing from too many publishers who wondered why it wasn’t more… well, rock and roll.

 

“The funny thing,” he says, “was people saying, ‘Well, why
didn’t you write about music?’ It’s like ‘How would that be interesting?’ I
don’t know. Maybe I’ve got the wrong end of the stick here, but it just seemed
to me that for somebody like me to write a rock and roll novel is like to say
well, OK, I can’t really think of anything else to do so I’m just gonna do
that.”

 

If anything, he adds, he’s kind of over music writing. Robbins
hasn’t put much effort into updating the Trouser
Press
site lately, saying, “It would be a huge amount of work to keep it up
to date like the All Music Guide and
I just don’t have the time and the energy. Or even the inclination. I’ve
written about records since I was, you know, 16 years old or 17 years old. So
I’ve written about a lot of records and I don’t know that I have a lot of new
things to say about them, which is why writing fiction just felt like a much
more satisfying achievement because I had created something that was different
than all the other stuff I have written in my life.

 

“When all you write about is records, it’s like, ‘ok, you know, it’s records...'” I mean,
I’m very proud to have done it – but I don’t know that I have a lot more I want
to say about popular music.”

 

 

 

 

 

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