a riotous disarray

Neil Robinson - punk vocalist, squatter and food grower

autumn 2011

neil robinson

[  introduction ]

I've heard it said that one of the hardest distances to bridge is that of the distrust between two strangers.

As the afternoon sun began to settle, we had finally weeded the last of the kale beds, pulled some of the last of the season's beets, and cleared what we could of the overgrown tomato plants inside the sweltering greenhouse. We had awoken at some ungodly early hour to get here to help out for a day. The tinny music of a simple crank radio wafted through the air, provided it was positioned just right and could pick up a signal out here, a ways out of the city.

Talking with friends, I've found that, for better or worse, who we are when we are 14 or 15 seems to determine who we are at twice that age. At 14, I recall being a nerdy introvert who used to ditch school to read books in the park and listen to third-generation punk cassettes of bands who sang about issues that the high school me was hearing for the first time - issues that I would later begin devoting a lot of my own energy to.

The farm belonged to the Farmegeddon Collective, a group of more radically-inclined individuals who produce food for some of Portland's more non-hierarchically run restaurants and co-ops. Neil - who sang on some of those old punk cassettes - is breaking ground on other rows that will be prepped for winter crops, in between coming over and catching up on the past several years since our paths stopped crossing with any frequency.

The urge to create a better society takes form in many smaller interactions - working toward healthier relationships with other people and species, healthier land and food, and the combatting of those forces and institutions that build barriers to these goals - and encompasses both creative and destructive tendencies, though often it becomes easy to develop a fixation on one to the detriment of the other, or to find it easier to just stop swimming against the tide altogether.

Neil is probably better known for the bands that he has been in (Nausea [the recordings with his vocals recently anthologized on Volume 2 of the band's Punk Terrorist Anthology], Final Warning), the diy record labels he has run (Squat Or Rot, Tribal War), or for his participation in New York City's squatters' movement and ABC No Rio show space. However, for the past several years, his main activities have been his role as a produce buyer at the natural food store, People's Co-Op, and more recently, working with a small group to cooperatively operate a certified organic farm on the outskirts of Portland. I have sat with him at neighborhood association meetings, eaten restaurant-calibur meals he's helped cook for Food Not Bombs, seen him coordinating book distribution tables at the punk shows that he has helped set up, and sat on porches discussing the gap between community-based goals and community-based actions. He has always struck me as being a person less apt to align himself with scenes and identities than to try to engage in ways that seem most consistent with his personal ideals.

As time goes on, those ideas I was coming across at 14 or 15 seem less and less radical, and increasingly... common sense. What seems radical is the extent that habits, trends, policies, and riot police will discourage and fight against any sort of positive change to these patterns, regardless of how destructive and unhealthy we realize them to be.

When I recently heard that Neil had sold his record collection - the records he had made his living off of, the bands he had taken on tour and booked shows for, the bands that he had been in himself - it made me consider where one sees one's self if punk music shaped a lot of their ideals, but at some point you realize that those ideals pertain to a lot more substantial areas of the world than simply music.

After spending part of a day working on the farm with he and others of the collective, Neil sat down with me outside of the Red And Black Cafe, one of the collectively-run restaurants the farm supplies to. What follows are the recollections of someone who has spent the majority of their life attempting to bridge those disparities between strangers.

{ a note on this interview - over the time that I have known Neil, he has always been friendly, genuine, opinionated, and willing, if not eager, to discuss or demonstrate ideas or skills to someone who might not know them, however, 'open' has never been a word I would use to describe him. During our conversation he went into parts of his life with a candid fidelity I had never heard before. This interview ran much longer than I had expected, but even in the editing process, I found his recollections and stories too interesting to omit. If you were to read only one part, I would urge you to begin on the third page, where we talk about the obstacles facing those trying to engage in subsistence-scale food-growing. (Though to do so would be missing him discussing the British anarcho-punk scene and using shit buckets to defend squats from cops.) }


[  interview ]

Neil Robinson: ...I pretty much got into punk through my brother. One night, when I was meant to be doing homework, I went into my brother's room, he had this record on the record player, it was the Sex Pistols, Never Mind The Bollocks. And I put it on, and put the headphones on, and, BOOM, the minute it hit the first song, I was just drawn in. The lyrics, I mean I could pick out certain words that were in the songs, and it just spoke to me. It was around '77, so I was maybe 13, 14. Before that I had been listening to 70's kinda glam, pop music. Mud, Slade, Gary Glitter, all that type of stuff. I took it off, and I said, 'wow!', you know, and that night just totally changed my life.

A couple weeks later he picked up the Clash album, the first one. I think even then I was aware of the difference between what the Clash were singing about and what the Pistols were singing about, and reading the lyrics, because they had lyrics with theirs and the Pistols didn't. I remember really resonating with the Clash, the whole I'm So Bored With The USA and London's Burning With Boredom, I'm reading the lyrics, I didn't understand them all, but this really spoke to me. And their songs around diversity issues. I worked with my dad on building sites in London and I saw the way certain people got treated by other people in terms of both class and race. This was the time of Apartheid and Ireland, and from an early age my dad had always instilled in us that everyone is the same. My dad had eleven brothers and sisters, and one of his sisters lived in Johannesburg, South Africa. And I should never forget the one day she came to stay with us. My dad hadn't seen her for years. And the the first thing she said, she walked in the house, and she asked my dad where our niggers were. My dad's like, 'excuse me?' And she says, 'oh, in our country, everyone has a nigger.' Like a slave. And my dad just kicked her out, and never spoke to her again.

It was interesting then working on the building sites, which were made up of Irish and recently emigrated Blacks, a lot of people from the West Indies, and hearing the big media stories about Apartheid, stories about Ireland, and then being with these people and hearing their day-to-day stories. Even back then I realized you need many sources to get the real news because you'll hear the stories, but then you'll hear from the person who has to live it everyday.

Later my brother was going up to London. X-Ray Spex and the Skids playing at the Marquee. My mum wouldn't let me go, but I snuck out the window and went up there with em. I'd took a garbage bag and I had cut holes for the sleeves, I was wearing a garbage bag [laughs]. The funny thing is I don't remember the show. We were in the show, it was packed, at this time I was smoking cigarettes and I'd started drinking but I hadn't really done drugs. They started passing round this big cigarette, I was like, 'oh, yeah, everyone's sharing this, I'll share some.' Took a big ol' puff of it. It was hash, and damn, I totally passed out and missed the whole show. But going to that, experiencing that energy, it was just incredible.

And then school was going terrible. I was trouble-maker, I had learning disabilities. And a couple of months later, Sham 69 came out with Tell Us The Truth, and I took the album into school. We used to have a recess time, so I set up a record player, and I put it on, I put on Borstal Breakout, and ALL the kids were going crazy, and the teachers were trying to turn it off. There was like a mini riot, and I got expelled... again. Oh, that was hilarious. And that was again, you know, the Clash and the Pistols, and along came Sham 69, which, classwise, even though later they later became synonymous with right-wing attitudes, at the time it was more, 'oh, they're not just singing about the street, they live on the street, they do the stuff they're talking about.' Whereas with the Pistols, it just seemed all fake, and the Clash I started hearing about that they were pretty well-off youngsters.

And then I went and saw Sham 69 in the East End. I hadn't really seen skinheads like that, I was really intimidated by them. Like tattoos saying 'Made In England' on their foreheads, or tattoos around their neck 'Cut Here'. Damn, that was such a violent show, but it was so amazing.

Maybe a year later, at 15, I managed to get a job up in London working at a hotel chain in the kitchen, which was a time when the unemployment was raging, there were 1 in 12 people unemployed, youngsters mostly. At our school they were really only trying to teach kids how to sign their names on the unemployment check, because there wasn't much hope that you were going to get out of school and get a job. A lot of my friends were joining the army, of that bunch, one was actually real sad he joined up. First, getting out of basic training, he went over there, he was out on patrol, and walked around a corner and there a kid with a toy gun pointed at him, and he shot. He didn't shoot the kid, he managed to miss, but it totally freaked him out. Of the other jobs that people were taking, I was looking at going to Saudi Arabia and working on the oil rigs. I don't know how I managed to get a job. So I moved up to London.

I was going to the 100 Club and to the Marquee pretty much every weekend and seeing your mainstream punk bands. I was mainly into drugs and alcohol, I was living in a mixed-age hostel owned by the hotel chain. This was in the Maida Vale area, and up the road from us was a squat. I had seen these anarchist symbols and that through the Pistols, but not really any political ideology behind it, and I started seeing these people with anarchy symbols and vegetarianism info and and this and that, and I started talking with them. At the same time I was traveling on the tube to get to work and there was one time I went in in the morning and every tube station had this painted stenciled logo, and it's all over, on the station, all over the trains. I'd seen this logo, some of the squatters had this same logo, so I was like, 'damn, what is this?', you know? And I started asking around, and it was this band, Crass. A couple weeks later, there was a show at a big squat on the Old Kent Road, it was Crass, Flux of Pink Indians, DIRT, Zounds, all of them were playing. And seeing all the banners hanging behind the bands, being someone with ADHD, I had a hard time just staring at someone singing to me, if they had images, it really drew me in. And fucking Crass comes on and they got a film going and having soundbytes, I thought it was so incredible. And Steve could explain the songs on a level that most people could grasp something, you know? I had started meeting some of the more intellectual anarchist crowd and I was lost when they were talking, it was like 'oh, here we go again, another intellectual, just like my teachers, talking to me as if they're an authority figure.' And then Flux, they were the band where I picked up the whole veganism / vegetarianism / animal rights, they had an information packet from BUAV, the British Union Against Vivisection. When I read that, that was it, it was like, vivisection is just wrong.

I was at a show and people were talking about how they were gonna go out to the Crass house, Dial House, in Epping. There was an open-door policy there, anyone could come stay. I went out there with a group. It was cool, people would sit around talking politics, some people would be out in the garden. But again, I felt very... I didn't understand a lot of the stuff they were talking about, so I had this feeling, 'I don't belong here'. And I was hanging around with skinheads who had nationalist ideals, and I knew I didn't belong there. So I was kinda stuck in this middle. I just wanted to find a band that kinda spoke to me. I was also working a lot, I mean a hell of a lot. I was doing a lot of drugs. Working in the kitchens, I got pretty heavily into... plus in the punk scene then, it was speed. Every weekend we were speeded up. I'd hang out a lot at Notting Hill Gate, and that's when I started hanging around the Rasta pubs, because I was getting hash. One day someone asked me where I was going to get hash, and I said down to St. Stevens Gardens, and they said, 'what?! You're walking around there? White people can't go there.' I started seeing how people's perceptions are, how they'd put up these barriers. And I'd go to the pubs, and I'd sit with these old, old Rastafarians, with big ol gray dreadlocks, and they'd smoke me out. Then I worked with a couple of Jamaicans in the restaurant and after work they used to take me to the after hours parties, and everyone's just stoned, and I'd listen to reggae and dance. I'd done that for a long time, so I really liked when the Clash started mixing in some of the reggae, and later when Nausea wrote the song about Peter Tosh, it was definitely drawing on the influences of growing up in the Jamaican community and the influence of reggae.

I'd started going to demonstrations. I went with Flux to a demo, and that was my first experience seeing that all these bands were being followed. It was an anti-nuclear demo where we were going to a silo outside the city, and this van followed em the whole way. Hanging out with Crass, it was the same thing. This was during the time when Crass had put out that fake phone recording of Thatcher and Reagan, and that had really blown up in the media. They didn't know it was Crass at that point, I think they thought it was Russians. So when that came out, punk was still, 'ah, they're just layabouts, they're never gonna do nothing,' then all of a sudden it was just, 'whoa, we gotta watch these people.' I think the more mainstream punk at that point did completely separate from the more anarchist, revolutionary style of music and lyrics, I think you saw a real separation then.

At that point, did it feel as if the anarchist punk movement was being seen by the state as an actual threat, or was it just a smaller isolated scene?

No, it was a threat. I mean, there were squats all over town. The Animal Liberation Front had started doing stuff. It wasn't the ALF then, back then it was Band Of Mercy. Anyway, the ALF was getting in the media. I think the media did an amazing job of building it up. I think if they hadn't started reporting on these actions, I don't think people would've heard about it. But I remember the first laboratory got broken into and smashed up, And the thought of those beagles finally having freedom, it was an intense feeling. And then there were weekly protests against the laboratory, and hunt sabbing started, so I was going on hunt sabs. They were hunting fox and grouse, mainly fox. My mum and dad, they had moved out of where I grew up and out to a little village that had a hunt. The head of the hunt lived down the road from them, so we'd done some stuff down there.

The hunt kinda had free range to go wherever they wanted. But some people in the village didn't like it. One time they were tearing through my dad's garden, so he went out there with a cricket bat, and, 'boom', he hits one of the huntsman off his horse. He had to go to court, and the judge let him off. But it was very much a class thing again.

Around this time in London, we got kicked out of the place we were living off Kensington High Street, and the whole group of us moved out to Sudbury Hill. We had your classic punk house, I tell everybody if you've ever seen The Young Ones, that was our house. We had a fireworks display for Guy Fawkes Night in the house. I'd come home from work and they'd all be completely stoned. The television goes off at 10 o'clock back then, they'd be sitting in front of the TV, there'd be nothing on it, but they'd be all... [looks stoned and comatose]. We'd go out, get trashed and then take the tube home at night. That's where we'd get into trouble. We hit that point where if you were a skinhead, you were the enemy, and if you were a punk, you were the enemy. So whenever you saw a skinhead, you'd usually get into a fight. There was this one time, [laughing] it's the last time I ever drank whiskey. I had drunk a bunch at the pub, and I came out and all my buddies were behind me, and I saw this one skinhead, so I steam at him, and 'boom', punch him. He's got 15 buddies all upstairs, so they all come running down, my buddies caught up with me, but by then I had already started getting a beating. The last thing I remember is I saw the front of a steel toe cap boot, smashed me directly in the nose, split my nose. And then I woke up on the train, they'd pulled me on the train, there was blood all over me, but we were singing away. It wasn't until the next day when the alcohol wore off that I started feeling the pain. After that I never drunk whiskey again. [laughs]

Can you talk about when you initially came to New York, and what led you to relocate to the US from England?

I met this American girl one night, Jennifer, and we started hanging out. She was leaving, and we kept in touch. I would go to a phone box down the road from me at a certain time, and she would call collect, back then they didn't have a computer system that would let them know, and we would be on the phone for hours. Sometimes the operator would come on, 'excuse me, are you on a payphone?', 'no, no, this is my own phone.' I had gone to another job and it was really stressful work. I was doing split shifts, I'd work in the morning and do the lunch service, have a few hours off, and then go back and do the dinner service. I was shooting so much speed to keep me going. She came back a few different times to see me, and, it was the day before she was gonna leave, she asked, do you want to come to America?

Neil Robinson Interview continues here.

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