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Robin McNamara

An Ol' Hippie Lets His Hair Down!

Got to Believe in Love: The Robin McNamara Interview

 

by Laura Pinto and Don "Stuffed Animal" Charles

Robin McNamara in front of the Biltmore, 1971
Robin McNamara, 1971

Above photo courtesy of The Hair Archives
(thanks, Nina!)
 
 
This essay published 08 May 2004 and updated 11 June 2004

THE MERRIAM-WEBSTER ONLINE DICTIONARY defines hippie as: a usually young person who rejects the mores of established society (as by dressing unconventionally or favoring communal living) and advocates a nonviolent ethic; broadly: a long-haired, unconventionally dressed young person. Speak to someone who's been living the existence of a hippie for the past 30 years, and it becomes clear that this definition merely scratches the surface of hippiedom. It's literally a way of life, almost like ones eye color or sexual orientation. How one dresses has little to do with it. As the subject of this profile points out, "Anyone can be a hippie; it doesn't matter what you look like or how you dress as long as you believe in the philosophy."

So what is the philosophy? Before learning the answer to that question, we need to appreciate the climate in which the hippie movement flourished. Let's take a little trip back in time. The year is 1968, and America's soldiers are fighting an undeclared war in the jungles of Asia. Less than five years earlier, the country's first Catholic president had been assassinated; before this year is over, the leader of the U.S. civil rights movement and the brother of the slain chief executive, himself now running for President, will both be gunned down as well. Air and water pollution have become hot topics, and the first ripples of Women's Lib are being felt as post-pubescent gals toss away their bras and begin demanding equal pay for equal work. Recreational drug use has been let out of the closet, and mixed-race couples are also stepping out into the sunshine. Protesters of the Vietnam war are burning their draft cards and defecting to Canada to avoid being shipped overseas to, if not certain death, an irrevocable loss of innocence. In the year to come, Man will land on the moon, and a large segment of humanity will make history by coming together for three days of peace, love and music at a farm in upstate New York.

Social revolution is everywhere! At the eye of this hurricane (or, more specifically, at Broadway's Biltmore Theatre), a revolution of a different sort is taking place. From its opening night on April 29, 1968 to its closing four years later after more than seventeen hundred performances, the landmark musical Hair will give theatergoers an encapsulated glimpse into the chaotic changes taking place around them.

Hair's lyrics and dialogue were authored by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, with a score composed by Galt MacDermot. The play didn't just push the envelope, it ripped it to shreds! Not too many years previously, the entertainment industry had observed censorship guidelines set by the Hays office, which Hollywood had established to police itself in the 1930's. Movies and TV were prohibited from showing married couples sharing a bed, and the word "pregnant" was never uttered. Although live theatre didn't have the same explicit constraints, Broadway's offerings were traditionally, and almost exclusively, family friendly. Hair dealt with such contemporary themes as the Vietnam war, the environment, dodging the draft, dropping out of school, illegal drug use, homosexuality, interracial sex, sex and pregnancy before marriage . . . in other words, everything that was going on behind closed doors. Onstage for many of these performances was a young refugee from New England named Robin McNamara, whose gratitude to be involved in a project of such magnitude is evident to this day. "Thank God for [producer] Michael Butler's balls," he exclaims. "Michael saw the beads and incense and feathers at Joe Papp's Shakespere Festival downtown in [Greenwich] Village in 1967, and was always interested in Indian culture in general . . . he said to himself, 'this is a wonderful peace and love movement.' And he had the vision to bring it to Broadway."

Robin and Herbal, May 2004
ROBIN RELAXING AT HOME WITH A BIT OF 'ERBAL'

Born in Newton, Massachusetts on May 5, 1947, Robin grew up during the benign Fifties, the Eisenhower era, a time when the American Dream was believed within the reach of every family. Dad was the breadwinner and the head of household, Mom was the housewife who reared the children. Families ate dinner together. Life was placid. In 1954, the foundation of American culture was shaken by the advent of rock 'n' roll. Suddenly, life wasn't all polished symphonic music and pristine harmonies. Robin gravitated to the sounds of Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison, and so strong was rock music's influence on him that before most Americans had ever heard of Liverpool, he was performing with a Beatles-style rock group.

"In tenth grade a couple of friends of mine played guitar and asked me if I wanted to sing in (a) band," he explains. "It was 1963, and I loved Roy Orbison, so [we did] some of [his] material; we also did a lot of Buddy Holly material." They christened their group Robin and the Hoods; in addition to Robin, it featured Len Cirelli, Peter Anise, Joey Delgrasso and George Valley. The Hoods performed locally in New England. As lead singer, Robin struck a fierce James Dean pose, and he was definitely a rebel with a cause: "I was one of the first to grow my hair long in those days, and got thrown out of high school a few times because my hair grew too long. I never cut it on my own; I would wait for them to tell me to cut it, or they would throw me out again, which they would periodically do! Each time they did, (the band) got free publicity from all the Boston TV, radio, and newspapers. My parents were so cool about the whole thing just as long as I graduated, so each time, after a few days I would slightly cut my hair, (just) acceptable enough to get back in. I remember we had a protest with over 500 kids at the school one day all chanting in unison: 'Leave it long! Let it grow!'" Despite all the turmoil that Robin had gleefully stirred up, he did graduate with his class.

Having determined by this time that singing and songwriting were his calling in life, Robin left his native New England to live closer to New York, where musical dreams were coming true every day for other young hopefuls. He worked in a New Jersey car wash and headed into Manhattan as often as he could to look for jobs more commensurate with his dreams. If the casting call for Hair had taken place anywhere other than where it did, Robin would never have known about it. He wasn't particularly enthused about going, but as it was only a few blocks from his manager's office, he figured why not? If he ended up getting a part, it would beat working at the car wash! Robin was initially hired as a member of the chorus, then went on to briefly play the role of Woof before taking on the seminal role of Claude, one of the two male leads in the musical. As Claude, Robin got to sing some of the strongest numbers in the show, and at the play's end, his character was martyred as a victim of the Vietnam war.

It was awfully hard work. Anyone who imagines the actors getting high before performances and going onstage totally stoned every night will do well to remember that Robin had to retain enough of his sensibilities to get through such tongue-twisters as Claude Hooper Bukowski / finds that its groovy to hide in a movie/ Pretends he's Fellini and Antonioni / And also his countryman Roman Polanski / All rolled into one (from "Manchester England") and Long, straight, curly, fuzzy, saggy, shaggy, ratzy, matzy / Oily, greasy, fleecy, shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxin (from the title tune) without making a single mistake! Of course, that doesn't mean the cast members didnt have a ball . . . it was the Sixties, after all, and pot-smoking was an essential ingredient in the hippie lifestyle as portrayed by the musical. Not to mention the nude scene that raised more than a few eyebrows!

Robin posing in front of photo montage, May 2004
IN FRONT OF A PHOTO MONTAGE DOCUMENTING THE YEARS

Robin: "Hair was the first show ever to have [full-frontal] nudity on Broadway. It really wasn't as hard as one would think; you get so wrapped up in the show that it sort of came naturally! If you saw the show, you know that the nude scene ends the first act while Claude is singing 'Where Do I Go.' It is a very poignant moment in the show, and all it was saying is, 'We are all one.' They used to drop a large cloth on us with Velcro openings for us to pop out of nude. It is a pretty intense time under the cloth while we are disrobing to get in position for the scene; you don't have much time at all. In the show you would get paid for little extras that you might either sing or do, and the nude scene was one of them. One night, I just couldn't get my shirt off for some reason, so I stood up with just my shirt on so as a joke they only paid me half the amount for that performance!"

As to the hippie philosophy, Robin explains it this way. "To me hippieism was a movement formed out of beatnikism, [and] people like Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg were the fathers of the movement. If it were not for the Sixties, the world would be a much different place [today]--there was a social and cultural change that took place throughout the globe. The Sixties [brought forth] a movement of the young not being afraid to challenge and protest government and the ignorance and madness of war. Our main 'weapon' was our music. It truly was, and still is, a peace-and-love, non-violent philosophy." Hair owed its success to the fact that it was real, it was current, it was a reflection of the world as it was, not as people wished for it to be. It mixed all the elements of modern culture together and presented them powerfully enough so that you couldn't fail to understand, even if you'd previously ignored what was going on. The show effectively brought the hippie subculture out into the open for the mainstream to examine.

However, playing lead in the most celebrated rock musical of all-time wasn't enough for Robin McNamara; he still yearned to realize his own rock 'n' roll dreams. In 1969, he was introduced to composer/producer Jeff Barry, who signed him to his Steed label. Together with Robin's then-songwriting partner Jim Cretecos, they wrote a buoyant ditty called "Lay a Little Lovin' On Me," a song whose suggestive title made Jeff wary at first, until Robin pointed out the success Bob Dylan had had with "Lay, Lady, Lay." Released as a Steed single, it peaked at #11 on the Billboard charts, and made Robin's name familiar to both theatergoers and non-theatergoers alike. In-between matinees, Robin did some touring in support of his hit. "It was great fun. I got to work with some really neat people along the way. One night I shared the bill with John Denver (who had just released 'Country Roads') and Albert King in El Paso, Texas--what a unique combination that was! After the show we were all invited to go over the border to Juarez. I will never forget all three of us sitting there drinking XXX beer and listening to a Spanish band doing 'Spinning Wheel.' What a fun time we had! Lots of hard laughter."

 
 

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