Music and words flow from Deer Isle lobsterman

I can write a decent review, interview, or feature about someone else. I can make up foolish stuff at the drop of a hat – the weirder the better. But I don’t do a very good job of tooting my own horn.

Fortunately there are nice folks like Jenny Begin in the world, who wrote this profile about me in February of 2012 and did a really nice job. My only quibble was, I wasn’t 58 when we talked … but I no doubt looked it, if not older. Heck, I’ll be 55 in a few weeks. Another few years and 58 will be in the rearview mirror … so who cares?

Anyway, thank you, Jenny.

Bearin's: The Book

Bearin’s: The Book

Music and words flow from Deer Isle lobsterman
February 28, 2012
By Jenny Begin

First published in the MLA Newsletter, February, 2012

Friends and family flow in and out of Brian Robbin’s tales like the tide or a recurring melody. Most fishing folks along the Maine coast have followed Robbin’s stories over the years in his Bearin’s column in Commercial Fisheries News.

His stories evoke the sights and sounds of the fisheries and the unique characters that are found in all communities where people live and work hard. Some are based on experiences growing up on Deer Isle and lobstering with his brother, but other tales like those of crazy Eddie Pluggs and his sternman Ross onboard their lobster boat Mr.Kelp, spring from his imagination fully formed. They are familiar to us all because “There’s an Eddie Pluggs in every town along the coast,” said Robbins. Recently Robbins gathered 65 of his columns in a collection called Bearin’s: The Book, published by North Wind Publishing.

One winter morning I visited Brian Robbins at his home in Nobleboro. Sitting in a rocker in front of the woodstove with the jazz of Miles Davis and John Coltrane softly playing, Robbins explained that he is a lucky man. Robbins, 58, said he always intended to write more when he got older, but then a few years ago his wife, Felicity, challenged him. “And exactly when is that magic age?” she asked him.

With encouragement from Felicity, he turned to writing full time. As a freelancer he writes for fishery trade publications and music magazines. This freedom allows him to travel to places like Arkansas and Indiana to talk to fish farmers or to interview Carolyn Garcia, wife of the late Jerry Garcia. Robbins had just wrapped up a phone interview with guitarist Jorma Kaukonen of the blues-rock band Hot Tuna. Recently he interviewed Ken Babbs who was on the bus with Ken Kesey of the Merry Pranksters during the Sixties. “We talked about the changes in the world since Kesey passed away ten years ago,” said Robbins, clearly delighted to have met a cultural icon.

While he gets a kick out of interviewing the famous, his biggest rewards are when he can help out someone he knows by writing a story about them. “When they ask me for extra copies, I know I got it right,” Robbins said.

Robbins grew up in Stonington on Deer Isle. His love of words and reading was nurtured by his mother who played Scrabble with him on blowy, rainy days. While he did well in school and was encouraged by teachers to write, Robbins was not convinced that studying things like journalism, writing and drama would turn in to work one could make a living doing. Despite arguments with his older brother Stevie, who urged him to go to college saying “You can always come back but you can’t always go,” Robbins made up his mind that he was going to make a living lobstering. He lobstered inshore until Stevie built a 44-foot boat and then the two started “hopping off into the Gulf of Maine,” lobstering offshore for seven to ten days at a time.

“I came ashore when my daughter Jess got old enough to say goodbye and be sad about when I was leaving on a trip,” he explained. “When guys are going fishing you gotta go. It has nothing to do with birthdays or anniversaries, you gotta pay the bills. Sometimes someone would be really sick and you weren’t sure if they would be there when you came back. Commercial fishing looks hard enough as it is, but there’s even more to it than that.”

Twenty years ago, when he was still fishing, he sent a letter to the editor of Commercial Fisheries News and of National Fisherman about an issue. The editor of Commercial Fisheries News called him, said they’d like to print the letter and asked if he ever did any other writing. According to Robbins, that was the beginning of his writing career and his column “Bearin’s”. “It was a gift to write the column. They were paying me but I would have written it anyway. The stuff has got to get out,” he said.

The Horseshoe Crabs - Brian Robbins, Peter Jackson, Paul Sherman

The Horseshoe Crabs – Brian Robbins, Peter Jackson, Paul Sherman

Robbins’ other creative expression is through music. He plays the guitar, mandolin, harmonica and sings with his friends, Peter Jackson and Paul Sherman. The three do occasional gigs in the midcoast area as The Horseshoe Crabs. Playing with accomplished musicians, said Robbins, is like “parallel tightrope walking: if one trips, everyone falls.”

Robbins relishes the improvisional side of music and playing with his friends ”because they are so fearless.” His stories too are often one big improvisation. “Balomp,” he said, “they just come out and I have no idea where they are going. Most of time when I sit down to write the column I don’t know how it’s going to end. It’s like seeing a movie in your head. Balomp.”

The tunes and the stories that spring from Robbins come from his deep sense of place and memories of friends and family. Robbins’ father had big hands and a kind heart and he made folks laugh. ”He did a bit of everything, scallop dragging, hook fishing, lobstering,” Robbins recalled. “He never made a lot of money but he knew who he was.” His mother didn’t leave the house much yet was well known as the voice on the radio, the shore contact for fishermen up and down the coast.

“I remember hearing boats offshore calling in,” Robbins said. “Someone would say ‘Shirley, could you call the the Co-op?’ ‘Yes dear, I will,’ my mother would answer. Then some wife would call up and ask if my mother had heard from so-and-so. ‘I’ll try him on the boat radio, dear.’”

Stories were all around Robbins growing up, like the herring he and his father would move through at night. “When the fish were up in the water and Pa would be in the bow with the feeler stick,” Robbins starts out. “I was little and I would be running the outboard. There’d be no talking just chugging along real, real easy and Pa would just lean this way at the bow if he wanted me to turn that way and he had, it would look like a narrow oar, hardly had a blade but it did have a taper to it. He would gently glide that stick down into the water and would feel the fish, get a sense of how thick the fish were and then if you run out of them or lose them and you’d make a circle and start over….”

And the words keep flowing.

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