Interview with Eugene Robinson
If ‘I don’t give a fuck’ was an entry in the dictionary, underneath it would be a picture of a handsome, generously tattooed African-American man by the name of Eugene Robinson – probably wearing a crisp, tailored suit. Robinson is one of the most interesting, intimidating, intelligent and fiercely individualistic people to emerge out of the 80’s punk scene with their wits intact.
Despite the abundance of new technologies that allow easy access to a variance of musical and cultural forms, the presence of black folks performing and ./ or enjoying alternative genres of music outside of the rigid constraints of what is socially perceived as ‘black’ music is still rare. Perhaps this is why someone who has effortlessly and successfully broke down the social boundaries between race and music is like a whoosh of fresh, spring air.
The thing is, though, I don’t think Robinson really gives a shit about any of that. After the lengthy conversation I had with him earlier this year, I got the feeling that he’s never once let any social boundaries stand in the way of doing what feels naturally to him – maybe never even considered that there were boundaries to break. Since his teen years when he would shake his ass at one of New York City’s hottest disco clubs and the next evening, rock out at CBGB’s or Max’s Kansas City and as a student at Stanford University where he joined the legendary hardcore punk band Whipping Boy, he has done what he wants - when he wants. “Somebody might be tempted to use the word schizophrenic to describe it, but I don’t consider it to be schizophrenic. I regard people to be a product of a number of different influences,” he explains.
Labelling is certainly an issue for Robinson, perhaps because for almost twenty years he has been the vocalist for the San Francisco-based, critically (if not commercially) acclaimed band Oxbow. Even though over time the band’s music has naturally transitioned from ‘punk’ to ‘post-punk’ to a unique melange of improvisational jazz, noise-rock and blues, the quartet’s intense followers have kept up with the changes. “When we put out the first record (89’s Fuckfest) I sent every record we put out to various labels,” remembers Robinson. “We would have to fight to get a label – that’s why we’ve been on five different labels – and I sent something to Tony over at Fat Wreck Records. He sent me a letter- this was before email – and he wrote back something like ‘pretty cool not punk enough.” And that was the first time that it ever dawned on me that things were changing. What he meant when he thought ‘punk’ was different from what I understood it to be. That’s when I started reading in connection of our (band) name, ‘post-punk.’ I remember when it was really clear to me that we were no longer an alternative band. You will never read about us in any alternative publications anymore. Pretty much the only people who listen to us are those who read heavy metal publications. And both of those labels are not enough to tell you the full story.”
After their last release, 2007’s The Narcotic Story (which garnered a Grammy nomination - Producer of the Year), Robinson’s first book, Fight: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ass-Kicking but Were Afraid You’d Get Your Ass Kicked for Asking was released last November through Harper Collins. Not just a ‘how-to’ guide, Robinson provides a raw, uncompromising yet humorous account about the history of martial arts, self-defense, combat-sports arena fighting, as well about his experiences as a martial arts enthusiast.
Also a journalist, the former editor for MacLife magazine has also written for a number of publications, such as Decibel, Hustler, GQ and Vice and even had a gig as a sex columnist. Not knowing much about martial arts, I knew that if I asked about specific details in Fight my incompetence would be glaringly evident, I decided to ask Robinson if there was a correlation between the lyrics he writes for Oxbow and his passion for fighting. Was there a certain anger within him that compelled him to write such songs that were so questionable that ex-Dead Kennedy’s singer Jello Biafra once suggested that he try writing more positive lyrics?
“Lyrically, I don’t see that there is. The violence that occurs in the Oxbow lyrical tableau is lyrically small, direct, knife-like. Unkindness and cruelty at its best. I look at Oxbow’s lyrical outlook as kind of a….These are love songs in my mind, and I don’t know if fighting has anything to do with love. We were at the Grammy’s and like Tina Turner says, ‘what’s love got to do with it?’” he laughs. “I guess I love to fight, so maybe there is some comparison with the whole love thing, but as far as my lyrics being a direct application to my life, you haven’t got a clear cut diary of my life in terms of the lyrics I’ve written. Maybe they are connected, but how it is played out in regards to how I live and how I’m fight - I’m not sure of that.”
Plus, Robinson says that despite growing up in a punk movement that included the likes of Biafra, Henry Rollins and for that matter, GG. Alin (about Alin, the deceased controversial performance artist, Robinson says, “I do believe that Alin was an artist, but his art was about pushing boundaries of what people consider to be acceptable behaviour in an art context. But cool, that was for him but that’s not what I’m doing. I’m pursuing a singular vision, a very Orson Wellesian vision. You will have to wait very long and hard before you see me eat my own shit! I pride myself to a certain degree of being a certain kind of specificate”) were all hyper-masculine, authoritative figures on the philosophy of punk, he had to remain true to himself.
“In Biafra’s case, it was in regards to a lyric that I had written, extolling what I considered to be the virtue of violence and methamphetamine addiction,” He laughs. “And while it’s always nice when you have someone who is willing to say and do the nice things, that somebody has never really been me. I always felt this compulsion when I looked at how the (punk legends) Bad Brains had all this creative space around themselves where positive things happened and I thought that they were an example that I could follow. I mean, of course they were just men, with the same challenges that men have.
“But I was never attracted to music for that reason. It’s never been part of my body of work, not my approach. To a certain degree, I see what we (Oxbow) do as inspirational, but I would never make any claims that it was aspirational. I’m about – to a certain degree – about really telling elemental truths about yourself to yourself, that you should probably do. I cannot advise you on whether embracing those truths will make your life better or not, but it certainly has made my life better. But my life being better and my life being good are two very different things.”
Despite writing a book about the martial arts, Robinson’s passion for fighting is evident at Oxbow’s live shows. You see, an Oxbow live performance is not your typical show: The band, who has toured extensively in the UK and Europe are known for their intense sets, most notably because of Robinson’s stage presence. The six foot-one, 200 + pound vocalist often begins their sets nattily dressed in a conservative pair of slacks and a nice, button down shirt and despite his muscular physique, could be mistaken for a middle-aged R&B singer. However, if you get close enough to the front of the stage (which you do not want to do if you are drunk/high and want to start trouble), you will see the silver duct tape covering his ears. As he lewdly gyrates to the music, he will slowly start undressing until his is standing on the stage in nothing but a pair of tight-fitting bikini briefs.
Another interesting facet about Oxbow’s live shows is the audience. It seems as though some, most often young white men, come out specifically to harass Robinson. Or is it harassment? Perhaps it is the sight if a big, muscular black man clad in only his underwear, thrusting is crotch into their faces and performing music that they are not used to someone like him performing, but there seems to be a weird mixture of anger, resentment and homoerotic lust that intoxicates and draws these fans into standing at the front of the stage, some goading him on, some starting at him in awe.
In the 2003 documentary Music for Adults: A film About a Band Called Oxbow, there was a scene which unfortunately, overshadowed the genius of Oxbow’s musical performances. A young man standing in the front of the stage tries to stir up trouble and suddenly finds himself in a ‘near naked choke’ by Robinson, who quickly renders the man unconscious. And no, this was not the first, and probably not the last time Robinson will give an unruly fan a piece of his own medicine.
“It’s like the whole joke about the guy who fucks the sheep. You fuck one sheep and then you never do it again. But I guess it’s the fact that it happened at all,” Robinson explains about the media’s fascination with his willingness to put asshole fans in their place. “People like their experience to feel real, that there is some element of danger to the proceedings, but that is not what Oxbow is about. Our reason for being is that we consider ourselves to be musical artists. I would hope that in every article, it would be made clear that when the show dissolves into violence, we are failing as artists. We are, at that point, not artists but defenders of art.
“And these are very different things. If I am choking someone out in the audience it is because they are attempting to besmirch art. I am an artist and I have been working and there was some guy whose drinking has interfered with that process. So I had to jump into the audience and punch him in the mouth. But has that become a part of our art? No. It will never be acceptable to me.”
While growing up in Brooklyn in the 60’s and 70’s meant that Robinson had to learn how to defend himself at a young age, he never considered himself a bully. Because of his intellectual abilities, he was propelled at an early age by his parents into honing his writing talent. “I was an avid newspaper reader. I was always a media kid. It was probably one of the most structured things I did and I distinctly remember writing my first article when I was seven years old. It wasn’t really an article but a position piece on my love of cartoons.”
Like many kids of his era, he was influenced by a variance of musical styles, which not only opened his eyes to the possibilities of the world outside of Brooklyn but turned him onto music that spoke to his teenage angst. “My stepfather used to work for the New York Post and because I was a depressive teen, he thought it would be funny by giving me a record that was sitting in the newsroom by Eddie and the Hot Rods called ‘Teenage Depression,’” Robinson remembers. “It had a kid on the cover holding a gun to his head. It seemed to be directly down my line. There always seemed to be a sense of dissonance in my understanding of the world for me. It never seemed to be a cool place like everyone else though it was, for me. So I listened to the music, liked it, and started going to the clubs and buying more music.”
When asked if the younger generation should be encouraged to open their minds to alternative genres of music versus what is being force-fed to them by the media, Robinson was indifferent. To him, it is simply about being an individual and the individual journey one must make to find themselves.
“If anything, I would like to be the standard bearer for doing your own fucking thing.”
King Of The Jews (1991)
Let Me Be A Woman (1995)
Serenade in Red (1997)
An Evil Heat (2002)
The Narcotic Story( 2007)