When I heard that Johnny Cash had passed on, there was one person in particular whom I first thought of calling. But as I picked up the phone, I realized it was a call I could not complete. In one of those tragic stories that so often make up the lyrics of country songs, my close friend and Cash fan is no longer with us. He died in 1990 at the tender age of 32.
Robin loved Johnny Cash, honky-tonks and non-violent resistance. A gifted photographer, Robin's favourite subjects were the folks who so often peopled Johnny Cash songs: the downtrodden, the resisters who, whatever the odds, will try like the prisoner in one Cash cellblock song, The Wall, to climb a wall no one's ever scaled before.
Cash's songs are not only about those who get kicked around. They're also about the people who kick back. One can think of the guy who built his dream car over a 20-year period by sneaking car parts out of the factory one piece at a time. Dreamers like Robin, who saw the world with the simple morality of a Cash tune.
In the late 1980s, we worked together on a campaign to build support for the Innu people of Nitassinan who were occupying runways to resist NATO war training, which continues to this day. The Innu, to our mutual delight, were also great Cash fans.
Sitting on Robin's Parkdale porch, we dreamed of inviting Johnny to Toronto to do a benefit concert.
The plan was to invite Johnny to our favourite spot, the old Wheat Sheaf Tavern, for beers after the show. But that dream died with Robin.
Many remember Robin from a legendary few days in jail following our arrests at the ARMX weapons fair in Ottawa back in 1989. Almost 200 of us were arrested that May morning.
Packed seven and eight in cells built for one, Robin and I started a round of "How high's the water, Mama? It's 5 feet high and rising." This quickly evolved into a broad range of Cash tunes, broken up occasionally by rounds of Alice's Restaurant, that we sang for hours on end.
Brian Burch was in the cell, as was the late Rodney Bobiwash, another too-soon-departed friend, who insisted on a number of renditions of The Ballad Of Ira Hayes, Cash's remake of the 1964 Peter LaFarge song about a First Nations hero of the epic second world war battle at Iwo Jima who returned home to racism.
Cash performed the song at the Newport Folk Festival among the likes of Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, but many traditional country music DJs refused to play the tune.
In response, Cash took out a full-page ad in Billboard magazine, which refused to review the album, in which he boldly asked, "DJs, station managers, owners... where are your guts? The Ballad Of Ira Hayes is strong medicine. (But) so is Rochester, Harlem, Birmingham or Vietnam."
After singing into the evening that May day, we were shackled together for the trip to the Ottawa Detention Centre. Robin led us in a chorus of You're In The Jailhouse Now, another Cash favourite, as we were led away in leg irons and handcuffs, with chains around our waists.
Robin and I often wondered about those who view country music as backward. At a time when "revolutionary" groups like Jefferson Airplane were doing jeans commercials, Cash was singing about the plight of folks in prison.
In the liner notes to Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison, Cash wrote: " You sit on your cold, steel mattressless bunk and watch a cockroach crawl out from under the filthy commode, and you don't kill it. You envy the roach as you watch it crawl out, under the cell door."
When I hear Cash singing about the rigors of working-class life, I think of Robin's string of sweaty jobs, from the mines of Sudbury to the roof of a Chrysler plant in Windsor dousing flames that flared from molten metal.
Cash knew there was never a time when we could not speak out against injustice. His wearing of black put it in front of our faces.
Wherever Robin and Johnny are, I hope they can finally sit down and have that beer.
Matthew Behrens is co-founder of Homes Not Bombs and Country Music Fans Against the Cuts.