Robert Burke Warren lopes into the Phoenicia Diner a few minutes late, hair windblown. He sprawls in a booth, orders black coffee and steel-cut oats, and says with a grin, "Let's talk with our mouths full."
Warren has the easy charisma of someone who's stood on a lot of stages. Two things are making him happy today: It's his son's 18th birthday, and his first novel Perfectly Broken (The Story Plant, 2016) is racking up stellar reviews.
That running order is not accidental. Warren has been many things—bass player for (among others) RuPaul and the Fleshtones, East Village bartender, Buddy Holly on London's West End, Gregg Allman's ghostwriter, children's music phenom Uncle Rock, freelance writer for Chronogram—but the hat he wears with most pride may be family man.
Married to music writer and editor Holly George-Warren, Warren was a stay-at-home dad before SAHD was an acronym. "Well, we didn't stay at home that much. We had a circuit," he says of the days when he toted young Jack around New York's still-edgy East Village.
Perfectly Broken follows Grant Kelly, a rocker turned SAHD, and his publicist wife and young son from the East Village to the Catskills, where midlife takes unexpected directions.
Anybody we know?
Warren is quick to dismiss autobiographical assumptions. And though his fictional village shares floodplain DNA with the creek that runs past this diner, "Mt. Marie is not Phoenicia. It's a distinct place I invented, like the characters."
He's been over this turf as a singer/songwriter. "No matter what you say when you're introducing the song, if it's in first person, people think it's about you," he explains. "It's a grand literary tradition to invent a character in circumstances similar to your own life and put him in situations that never happened. Grant does some shit I would never do."
Also, he points out, "If you write memoir, people don't believe it's true. If you write fiction, they don't believe it's not true. At the end of the day, these are not really problems. I know what problems are."
Warren grew up in urban Atlanta, the younger of two brothers. His parents were young too, creative and troubled. When he was seven, his father drove off the Interstate in a drunk-driving accident.
Tall and lanky, with oversized glasses, Warren picked up the bass at 14 and joined RuPaul's club band Wee Wee Pole three years later. "My dear friend Todd, my Huck Finn, had crossed into Atlanta's New Wave Queer Underground," he recalls. They loved Prince, Bowie, Rocky Horror floor shows.
Wee Wee Pole did well, traveling to New York to play Danceteria and the Pyramid Club; Warren booked the tour from his grandmother's kitchen.
In 1983 he started college in Athens, joining another New York-bound band Go Van Go. "I fell in love with New York, plain and simple," he says. "I was so lucky. Unbeknownst to me, I was in the last wave of people who could move to Manhattan and live cheaply." He worked at King Tut's Wah Wah Hut ("kind of a queer punk-rock Cheers") and played for two years with the Fleshtones. When they double-billed with all-female punk polka band Das Furlines, he bonded with guitarist "Holly Hemlock."
"This is crucial, because literature brought us together. I was reading The Vampire Lestat, and I was riveted. Holly was a big Anne Rice fan. She thought that was cool."
Smitten, Warren watched their set. "She was...adorable. She was playing a 1958 Fender Jazzmaster, crazy hat, bustier, little black boots." After the gig, he wondered if he should kiss her good-bye. "We'd spent hours talking about vampires. So I bit her on the neck." Ten days later, she showed up at his bar.
Between bartending, bands, and woodshedding original songs, he took acting classes, eventually landing "this crazy gig to go to England and play Buddy Holly for a year" in the hit musical Buddy. "I think I was Buddy number 13."
He applied to Rosanne Cash's "Essence of Songwriting" workshop at the Omega Institute, attending three times. "Those workshops really changed my life," he says gratefully. Cash "was a mentor but also a friend." After trading long e-mail letters, she told Warren, "You really should sharpen your prose pencil."
He took her words to heart, but not right away. Holly was working long hours as head of Rolling Stone's publishing imprint, and they agreed he'd be Jack's daytime caregiver. Despite turning down gigs in touring bands, he has no regrets. "One of the only hardcore certainties I ever felt was that this time would not come again, and there was no better way to spend it." (The fictional Grant is a lot more ambivalent.)
In 2002, the Warrens lost their apartment to landlord greed and moved to a cabin in Chichester, then a rambling Phoenicia Victorian. Warren found work as a preschool teacher—expertise that would help create Perfectly Broken's pitch-perfect kid characters—and launched Uncle Rock. The "kindie rock" persona took off, generating five albums and major airtime on Sirius. He often performed with Jack. "I used to tell people, 'We don't go fishing, we don't throw a ball, we don't hunt—we make music together."
They also read together. "Holly and I read to him every night," Warren says. "When he was about eight, he and I started making stuff up together." For Jack's ninth birthday, his father wrote a five-page story starring characters they'd invented. First reader response? "Dad, you have to keep going!" By the following birthday, he'd finished a fantasy novel called Yelloweye.
Holly's agent Sarah Lazin forwarded it to a colleague. Under her tutelage, Warren revised extensively and started another YA novel, Angel Blues. He also joined long-running writers' group Glaring Omissions and started his novel for grownups.
"In my 40s, I noticed the intensity of stories playing out among my peers, whether they were plumbers or singer/songwriters, lawyers, financial analysts, or waitresses. They were stories I found fascinating and beautiful, full of pain, heroism, loss, and forgiveness. How does anyone reconcile being betrayed by the person they love most?" he asks. "I wanted to write a book about changing relationships, including families and kids, but with a strong erotic undercurrent."
Indeed, Warren's sex scenes may raise readers' body heat, blending the raw and the awkward with vivid carnality. And anyone who's hung out with musicians will recognize his characters, authentic from the opening words ("The ache in my thighs reminds me of jumping off speaker cabinets during a show") to the smorgasbord of mind-altering substances, legal and otherwise.
While writing the book, he met Story Plant publisher Lou Aronica at a Woodstock party. "We just hit it off," Warren says. When he sent a few chapters from his work-in-progress, Aronica loved it.
Bookjacket designer and sometime Catskill 45s bandmate Mark Lerner gave Warren some studio time to record songs that function as plot points in Perfectly Broken (free download at Robertburkewarren.com). "There's an aspect that's cool about imaginary songs, but I thought, 'What if they were real?'" Warren says. "People don't have to hear them—it's not necessary to reading the book—but if they want to, they can. I'm a full-service provider."
Appearing 3/5 at 7pm, Kleinert/James Auditorium, Woodstock, book release party with reading and music; 3/25 at 7pm, Spotty Dog Books & Ale, Hudson, reading with music; 4/1 at 7pm, reading with Weeklings contributors, TechSmiths, Kingston; 4/9 at 2pm, Woodstock Writers Festival Fiction Panel (see sidebar).