Thursday, March 28, 2013

Livin' in the Sweet Virginia Breeze


You've probably never heard of Robbin Thompson.  Most people who do know the name remember him from being in a band called Steel Mill, which also featured a fellow of some note by the name of Bruce Springsteen.  That's too bad.  Robbin is a gifted singer and songwriter.  He's very well-known in Virginia, where his song "Sweet Virginia Breeze" is considered an unofficial state song.

I first heard of Robbin (and his name is "Robbin;" in fact, his second album noted the unusual spelling of his name in it's title, Two B's Please) courtesy of Poco's Indian Summer album.  The song "Find Out in Time" was co-written by Thompson and Timothy B. Schmit.  Schmit has made appearances on several Robbin Thompson albums.  In 1980 Thompson's song "Brite Eyes" (with Schmit singing backup vocals) from the aforementioned Two B's Please cracked the Billboard Top 100.  

Things changed for the better for me, regarding Thompson's music, when I was transferred to Norfolk from Jacksonville in 1981.  I spent the next two and a half years seeing Robbin Thompson every chance I got.  While he may evoke shrugs in the other 49 states, in Virginia this man is a star.  And it's well-deserved, too.

Robbin Thompson playing in a
Virginia Beach bar in 1981
Every now and then I get a nostalgic twinge and look up something in my past.  That happened when I found some old photos of Robbin playing at a club in Virginia Beach in 1981.  I did an internet search and sure enough, he's still out there, making great music.  His web site keeps everyone up-to-date about his concerts and offers his albums for sale.

This month his e-mailed newsletter contained a very personal message.  Robbin wrote at length about his 12-year battle with cancer.  Because his words are so powerful I am posting his remarks here without edit:

The Lottery, Sweet Virginia Breeze, Cancer and The Chesapeake Bay.

What do these 4 things have in common? me, they go hand in hand and I'll tell you why in this Newsletter.

The Lottery

It was the summer of 2000 and was sitting in my office at our newly constructed In Your Ear recording studios in Richmond's Shockoe Bottom. I'd just settled in to this great space a few months back. It was in the attic of a historic building. My desk was my grandfather's old roll-top and it was situated so i could see the Richmond skyline. I was busy with writing some music for a tv commercial for someone. Our receptionist came on the intercom to tell me I had a phone call from some one about doing a concert and he was holding on the line. I wish I could remember his name now but for the life of me I can't. I picked up the phone and the guy on the other end sez, "hi I just won x million in the Va. Lottery and I want to know how much you'd charge me to perform a concert for me and my friends?" I was a bit stunned for a second but I remember chuckling and saying "'ve made your 1st post lottery mistake." "what's that? he said. "You told me you won the lottery and then asked me how much I'd charge you to play a concert!!" We both laughed and then agreed on a fee which included a limo for my wife Vicki and I for the evening. The concert was a few weeks away and I got a kick out of telling the story of that phone call for quite some time. Then, I went back to writing whatever music I was involved in doing thinking how cool it was that some guy who'd just won the lottery called me instead of Jimmy Buffett or Lynrd Skynrd.


Back in 1975 I recorded the song "Boy From Boston." In some ways it was a song about me because I was born outside of Boston but that was about as far as it went from an autobiographical sense. It was subconsciously a story about how I didn't want my life to end up being. A singer/songwriter who wrote great songs, touched people and ended up drinkin' himself to death. I entered it in a contest, The American Song Festival. Long story short, it won best song in the "folk" category and a $5000.00 prize, got to go to Hollywood and be on a tv special. after that I ended up with a record deal signed to Atlantic Records to Nemperor, a label named after Brian Epstein's record store and owned by Nat Weiss, The Beatles attorney in the USA. I met some of my heroes, a few played on my record. It was a year of dreamworld. was over. I was back in Richmond playing bars trying to figure out what my next move (if any)would be.
Then, Steve Bassett and I wrote "Sweet Virginia Breeze," recorded it and it was a new beginning. I'm skipping a lot of the gory details here but the point wasn't over yet and there was life after a major recording contract. I stopped worrying about writing for someone in NYC and writing for myself. That's where the line in the song "Together" ("tell NY to shove it, the people back home will love it...") came from. Sweet Va. Breeze became an anthem of sorts and as several Governors have said "the official unofficial state song of Virginia." wasn't a surprise when our lottery winner asked me to sing this song at his party. I started singing it, the crowd as most Virginia crowds started singing it as well. In this song there's a high note that's at the top of my range. Y'all know where it is, it takes some gut muscles to hit it. So... I get there and hit it strong but this time i felt something tweak, like i pulled a muscle or something. No big deal. On the way home in the limo I mentioned it to my Wife Vicki. The next morning, the pain was so intense I couldn't get out of bed.


MCV Emergency Room. I can hardly stand up. 2 hours go by. can't handle it any longer, we get in the car and go to Henrico Drs. Hospital E.R. and walk right in. I get a CT scan. the next thing I know is there are several Drs. in the room telling me of the "mass" I have that's as big as a volleyball. Life, as I know it, changes.
Days now go by like minutes. The next thing I know I'm back at MCV talking to a Surgeon. They don't know what this mass is but they do know it has to come out. Surgery is scheduled. I go in and eight hours later I've delivered an 8lb tumor as big as a volleyball. It was said to be a G.I.S.T. a gastrointestinal stromal tumor. a malignant tumor that doesn't respond to chemotherapy or radiation. Nothing to do but "wait and see."
4 months go by and I go in for a routine check up. It had returned in a smaller package. A couple of them.
After a day of walkin' around in a stupor I get a call from My oncologist at Henrico Drs. There's a study testing a new drug that will hopefully be used on this specific tumor I have. It's out of a hospital in NYC. I need to be in it and I need to be there by the next morning to get in it.
With a lot of help from my friends I get there, get in the study, start taking a drug called GLEEVEC works on my tumors. Not eliminating them but keeping them from getting any bigger. For the next 12 years I get in to the routine of having blood tests and CT scans every 4-6 months along with train rides to NYC and getting to know cancer gurus on a 1st name basis.
This routine became...routine. it was just part of what I did. It was part of my schedule. I got to know the radiology dept. of Henrico Drs Hospital very well. The conductors on Amtrack knew me. As mentioned this went on for 12 years. 12 years ended about a year ago when I went for my semi-annual check-up/ct scan in NYC. My Dr. came in and said..."there's a bit of a problem...your tumors have gotten a little bigger." The Gleevec had stopped working. my tumors had become immune to it. Considering the average was 4 years...a pretty good run. What next? Another drug. I started taking it last May after I returned from my 5th European tour. It worked like a champ shrinking the little buggers and I was back on the mend.
I guess it was October when I was back in NYC for my 2nd check up for this new drug I'm on. All was well and the Drs. there started talking to me about possibly going back in and removing these very small tumors while I was on a drug that worked so well on me. The idea was to turn back the clock to zero while the drug was working. I agreed. The operation would be basically the same operation as the 1st one(you don't wanna know). So...on February 7th I went under the knife at Memorial Sloan Kettering. The operation was successful, they removed the small tumors which they said were 80- 90% dead along with a few others that were the same. I was in the hospital for 4 days. a semi-private room during the big snowstorm they called "nemo." Sharing the room with me was a guy in his 50's who'd been there for 8 days. He was from Long Island and worked for JP Morgan. We finally got to talking while we were walking the halls with our med trees. It's what you do to get everything working again. You gotta walk the halls in your hospital gown, high on morphine looking like death warmed over. He asked where I was from after hearing Vicki's southern accent and I told him I was from Virginia. He said he'd gone to college at ODU and graduated in 1981. I told him I was in a band called The Robbin Thompson Band that played the clubs back in those days at clubs all around Norfolk. He said he had seen us at least 10 times and asked me what I played in the band. I told him who I was and he started tweeting all his alum friends. Small world.


Through all of this the one thing that has kept me sane is the time I have spent sailing my sailboat on the Chesapeake Bay. It's cleansed my soul, kept me thinking positively and thinking about stuff other than what was going on inside me. Some people say a boat is a hole in the water where all your money goes, I say it's a place where you can go to throw all your problems overboard. Through all this I can safely say that I have drowned many a depressing day in the Bay. I am. On the mend at home. I can't wait to get out of the house but feeling really good...considering. I felt it was time to write this for a number of reasons. It's not like I'd kept it a secret, most of my friends have known since the beginning. This cancer shit can happen to anybody. It doesn't matter who you are, what you do. Some of us get it, fight it and eventually become "cancer free" and are survivors. Some of us are surviving with cancer, and live long lives with whatever kind of cancer we have. I've learned that IT'S NOT THE END OF THE WORLD!! I've survived with cancer for 13 yrs so far and I plan on surviving a lot longer. It took cancer to get me to start traveling the world. I suggest that you don't wait for this kind of news to start living like there's no tomorrow.

I would like to ask two things of you.  First, do Robbin a favor and pray for this man as he continues to fight this dreaded disease.  Second, do yourself a favor and find some of his music.

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