My first meaningful exchange with Dave Robbins, our expat Brit poet, hirsute charmer and one-man wrecking crew of pretense, occurred when I was knocking around with an open bottle of wine. Ever cheeky, Robbins entreated, “Pour me a glass and I’ll defend you for life.” I did some quick math, which factored in Robbins’ deadpan glare, and made the deal. It proved one of the best investments I ever made.
I cannot count how many times Robbins came through on his promise, not least of which because much of it happened in my absence. He was too classy to mention the bullets from would-be character assassins he’d taken for me, but others did and my esteem for Robbins, which was already high, steadily grew. Obviously, Robbins’ loyalty couldn’t be bought for a glass of wine. He was an astute judge of character and when he made me the offer, he was really asking me if I recognized in him whatever it was he recognized in me. I did. And we drank.
When someone dies, we often take mental stock of the first and last times we saw them. With Robbins, I can remember neither — his ubiquity in my experience of Sonoma was timeless. And despite the breeziness of our acquaintance, Robbins graciously enfolded those on the periphery under his great grey wings such that is was clear, there was an Us and a Them. And it was always better to be one of Us, mate.
Then there was the issue of Ian Billings — the mutual conception of Robbins, music scribe James Marshall Berry and me. I cannot recall the circumstances that called for the invention of the fictional and decrepit English rocker, but I do remember the commitment with which Robbins elected to embody him.
I don’t think Robbins would mind me revealing his alter-ego. In fact, I think he would have required it of me, since I was among the few who knew the truth. And, of course, it gives Robbins the last laugh on those with whom he pseudonymously sparred in online forums, including SonomaNews.com. When discussions reached a certain level of rancor, it was Robbins, as “Ian Billings,” who kept the conversation elevated and productive (and funny). A couple of years ago, when I wrote this appraisal, it was a secret valentine to Robbins:
Do not piss off “Ian Billings,” the lion of Sonoma’s online commenting culture, who defends the just and smites the fatuous with a certain insouciant charm. If you’re not overcome by the nuance of his argument you will be by the length. The man can be downright palaverous (look it up), and given the fact that the Internet offers infinite space for such rants, he may also be dangerous. I mean that in the “action hero” sense of the word, which, for me at least, is a positive association. Billings’ rhetoric is a high-wire act above an alligator pit of lesser wits, but a recent server switchover with the I-T’s online presence seems to have banished his posts to the far corners of cyberspace. Come back, Ian Billings – Sonoma is lost without you!
That last phrase is now truer than ever. Ian Billings may have died but Dave Robbins lives on in our hearts. He was a good man, a good friend and helluva good time. I will defend him for life.