Tom Robbins Gets the Blues

…at the imminent demise of the morning P-I.

By Eric Scigliano February 11, 2009 Published in the March 2009 issue of Seattle Met

Skinny legs and all: Robbins and friends at the P-I copy desk in 1972.

When the Seattle Post-Intelligencer announced it would stop printing this month, we turned for insight to Tom Robbins—sage of LaConner, mind-altering novelist laureate of the never-ending ’60s, and, in the actual ’60s, a Seattle Times art critic and P-I copy editor. Eye trouble has slowed Dr. Tom’s pen of late, but he still has a novella, B Is for Beer, coming out next month. And he still remembers sneaking up on the P-I’s roof and smoking dope near the famous globe: “The copy got done, and the headlines didn’t seem to suffer.”

Downstairs, Robbins had distinguished company: Future Dune author Frank Herbert, future Seattle Times and Weekly ace Rick Anderson, and the legendary Darrell Bob Houston, Seattle’s gonzo word master, also worked the copy desk. The P-I then was a yeasty mix of merry pranksters and “hard-shelled conservatives”; one editor, a retired army colonel, “tried—with precious little success—to organize the newsroom on a military model.” But Robbins still marvels at what he got away with: “At what other metropolitan newspaper could you sit at your desk in a gorilla suit or a Mad magazine mouse mask?” Managing editor Lou Guzzo (later a prudish TV commentator) “just shook his head and said, ‘Robbins, you never looked better.’”

At what other metropolitan newspaper could you sit at your desk in a gorilla suit or a Mad magazine mouse mask?

Robbins’s fans can thank the P-I for funding his first novel, Another Roadside Attraction: He worked the desk weekends, holidays, and summer vacations, then holed up with pen and pad in soggy South Bend, Washington. Robbins still writes longhand, and he’s uncheered by the prospect of a rump P-I continuing online; a newspaper is paper. “I guess there are kids today who say tomatoes are analog ketchup,” he drawls, “but it’s not the same. Cervantes said, ‘The pen is the tongue of the soul.’ I don’t believe he would say, ‘The word processor is the tongue of the soul.’ There’s something about the way ink bleeds into the paper…there’s more soul there. Ink is the blood of language. Paper is language’s flesh. If Art Thiel goes to another medium, it will be like Paul McCartney going to Wings. They made some good music, but they weren’t the Beatles.

“When they announced the P-I would close, it felt like when the Beatles broke up. I enjoyed my stint at the Times as well, but the Times can never replace the P-I, any more than the Stones could replace the Beatles.” Robbins pauses to consider the implications of his characteristically ’60s analogy. “I don’t mean to suggest that [ Times publisher] Frank Blethen is Mick Jagger.”

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