A large man nicknamed Big Chris approached the stage where Eugene S. Robinson and the rest of his band, Oxbow, were performing. Robinson had just had a bottle launched at his head. Big Chris opened his shirt to reveal a ballpoint-penned imitation of Robinson’s snake tattoo on his stomach while waving his hands in a “threatening manner.”
This particular night Oxbow was playing at the 1 in 12, an anarchist club in Bradford, England — not the type of place with an active security staff. That’s when Robinson, a six-foot-one, 235-pound competitive fighter who is also a former bodybuilder and bouncer, decided to act as his own security — or, as he describes it, give himself over to the “violence and blood and fear” in the air. He dragged Big Chris into a martial arts move known as the “rear naked choke,” wrapping his right arm under the guy’s chin and bracing the back of his head with his left forearm. Robinson leaned back and, seconds later, Big Chris slumped sideways, unconscious. Rather than looking angry, the singer appeared downright joyous through the entire choke-out — a scene captured in the 2003 documentary Music For Adults: A Film About a Band Called Oxbow.
Those familiar with the experimental art-rock band know there will never be a shortage of stories about Robinson’s onstage antics. Typical details include tattoo-covered muscles dripping with sweat, ears covered in duct tape, the singer stripped to his underwear, and plenty of pelvic thrusts.
But the most legendary stories about Oxbow shows involve the 45-year-old Robinson’s proclivity for asskickage. There are the cautionary tales involving those best described as “hecklers gone bad,” such as one man who approached Robinson and confessed to interrupting three live performances by whistling and throwing lit cigarettes and ice chips. He eventually suffered a couple of knockouts at Robinson’s hands when he started causing trouble at a fourth Oxbow show. There was a drunken Red Sox fan who, angry after his team suffered a defeat, confronted Robinson outside a club and ended up on the concrete. And there are the stories about overzealous audience members who’ve ended up being choked, knocked out, or coming close to meeting the business end of a knife.
Robinson admits that the Internet is rife with stories about him being a “prick and a degenerate and a bully.” Many actually focus on his clothes-shedding or his sheer ability to intimidate. One reviewer for Decibel, an extreme-metal magazine, described him as a “singer who harbors a fondness — make that compulsion — for getting his dick out onstage.” One Pitchfork review cites the “fearsome presence” Robinson strikes, while another calls him a “terrifying hulk of a man.”
Still, Robinson insists he has never been obnoxious or violent toward anyone who didn’t deserve it. He’s a proponent of the theory that disrespect begets disrespect. “In every instance I’ve gotten into a fight in public, I was attacked first,” he says.
But those who know Robinson realize he has passions beyond brawling — and that his brain is ultimately far scarier than his brawn. He’s quite the Renaissance man: a Stanford alumnus who majored in communications, a computer geek, an editor, a host with Combat Music Radio, a sex columnist, and now an author. That’s right: The San Francisco vocalist you don’t want to piss off is on tour again — this time with his new book, FIGHT: everything you ever wanted to know about ass-kicking but were afraid you’d get your ass kicked for asking.
“It started for me with another not-so-simple, simple question: ‘What the fuck are you looking at?’” Robinson writes of the roots of his passion in FIGHT.
But he also traces his desire to fight to a deeper aspect of himself that he believes is in his DNA as much as the color of his hair or eyes. “It’s in my blood … the desire to — for want of anything but this colloquialism — the desire to go to the post,” he explained at a recent book reading.
Robinson prides himself on being a “pretty straight fuckin’ shooter,” and argues that fighting is an incredibly honest form of expression. “There’s no real equivocation in an elbow to the jaw, no pussyfooting about the gray shadings of meaning inherent in civilized and power-shielded discourse,” he writes. “It’s a potent tie to our immediate and ever-present animal.”
FIGHT, which resembles a dude-friendly coffee-table book with big color pictures and punching illustrations, is what Robinson calls a “kind-of philosophical monograph on the interpersonal nature of conflict.” In it, the self-proclaimed “fightaholic” unleashes an homage to all sorts of bloody combat and takes on a slew of professional fighters. He hangs out with notorious Irish mobster-turned-author Kevin Weeks (who allegedly helped Leonardo DiCaprio prepare for his role in The Departed), suffers a ruptured quadriceps tendon against fleet-footed fighter Cung Le, and tracks down ex-cons in an attempt to find out whether a fight style known as “jailhouse rock” is fact or fiction. With its descriptions of cage fighters, soccer hooligans, and professional pugilists, the chapters of FIGHT unfold with the pace and rhythm of a good sparring match. “There’s the spastic flurry of hands and the smell that always ends up smelling like chicken soup gone bad (fear),” Robinson writes. “There’s the mumble and the groan and eventually the slip into recognized roles (doer and done to). And finally, if everything works right, there’s the reminder that we are far worse/better than the animals we own as pets and unsophisticated chattel.
“What we are though, is this: we are fighters.”
The origins of the book lie in a discussion Robinson had a few years ago with LA Weekly editor Joe Donnelly, an acquaintance, about redesigning that paper’s music section. But after Donnelly recounted a recent bar fracas, their conversations shifted to fighting. The result — a September 29, 2005 piece titled “Anytime, Anywhere: Hardcore provocateur Eugene Robinson searches for the almost-perfect punch” — serves as the basis of FIGHT.
The piece quickly caught the attention of HarperCollins, which invited Robinson to New York to discuss publishing a book devoted to fighting. Robinson wrote one as a tribute, a how-to guide, and a non-apologia for the fight. Or, as he calls it, “Zen and the Art of Kick-Assertainment.”
FIGHT has gotten plenty of glowing reviews, with some comparing Robinson to James Joyce and Norman Mailer. But it has had a critic or two as well. James F. Sweeney at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland wrote that “Robinson is such a fan of fighting that he offers no real consideration of why violence is so popular or of its role in society.”
Certainly some in the peace-and-love community will come away from the book wondering whether people can simply talk through their differences.
When asked about philosophical arguments against fighting, Robinson seems unconvinced. “These guys who don’t support the idea of fighting are full of shit,” he says late one night at the gym, sometime after riding the stationary bike and lifting shoulder weights but before his midnight run. He mentions Hitler and others who’ve refused to “recognize reasonable boundaries,” over the years: “There are people who need to be stopped. And there is no amount of talk and negotiation out if it, there is no way out of it.”
Robinson says he feels he has little to prove to anybody these days. While he dedicated FIGHT to his enemies — “Every single one of them. Without you, none of this would have ever been possible” — he doesn’t seem worried about his critics. Although, when asked about those enemies, he says he wishes they all had one neck and his “hands were on it.”
Embracing this love of the fight is by no means following the advice Robinson got while he was growing up in Brooklyn. His mom, Irma Norman, says she had long intellectual talks with her son about fighting and alternatives to violence dating back to when he was 4 or 5 years old. She told him that “people who fight are angry people,” and that it would be better to discuss problems.
Robinson remembers the talks, but was never persuaded by her approach to conflict resolution. His response: “Aw, mom, I don’t want to run away. If I run away I’ll just be tired when they’re beating me up. I want karate lessons!”
He ended up sneaking over to a local church for Shotokan karate classes. Still, Robinson and his mom agree he was a “gentle kid” who didn’t fight much. He was more likely to be found sitting on the stoop with friends, having intense discussions about comic books and superheroes. And if they didn’t agree, “Gene would debate and debate and debate until he would win,” Norman says with a laugh. “He would wear his opponents down.” She remembers one friend who never won an argument, and generally knew their discussions were over when she’d hear her son say, ‘Ha! I got you!’”
While Robinson excelled at verbal combat, his entry into the word of competitive fighting started badly. “There was the first one where I got my ass kicked badly by a judo guy when I was 9 years old, which was wonderfully humiliating because I never even got to throw a punch,” he says. “Because every time I stood up, the guy threw me down.” Those gathered to watch were “laughing uproariously” throughout the spectacle. And there was his second fight, which he won with a sole punch. “And I was like, ‘Oh, yes! Now this makes sense to me!’”
Growing up in New York City also taught Robinson the importance of choosing his battles. He remembers hearing about a man who chased down a purse-snatcher in Coney Island, only to be fatally stabbed with a sharpened screwdriver by the thief. “And the punch line for me was that the old lady had 84 cents in her purse,” he says. “Now, old ladies should be able to go hither and yon without being molested, but at the same time I don’t want to get knifed in the chest for 84 fuckin’ cents.”
Knowing when not to fight served Robinson well as a teenager — such as when, at age 13, he upset the girlfriend of a member of the Jolly Stompers gang as school was ending for the day. He describes the scene that ensued as straight out of the gang movie The Warriors. “And what is the expression about the greater part of valor? I hid in the bathroom!” he laughs. “Until at such time I thought it was appropriate to get the fuck out of there.”
Calling that a “completely defensible action,” he offers this survival tip: Next time you are in a building surrounded by people who want to kill you, you hide, too.
Robinson, however, was no thug. He worked in Manhattan as a disco dance instructor, specializing in the Latin Hustle. On other nights he’d head to CBGB and other clubs to see punk shows. After graduating from high school, Robinson moved across the country to attend Stanford University. Norman says she discouraged her son from trying out for the football team because she was worried about him getting hurt — he joined the rugby team instead. “He’s always enjoyed the rough and tumble,” she says with a sigh.
During his time at Stanford, Robinson began playing with the punk band Whipping Boy. Although he started out as a biology major, he switched to communications and worked as a journalist for the Stanford Daily newspaper. He also published a magazine named The Birth of Tragedy.
Robinson struggled with college debt and was at one point so broke that he says a friend talked him into eating grass (or, more specifically, seed) from the backyard. “It tasted grassy, you know, like you would expect grass to taste,” he says. “It wasn’t very filling, though.” After that, he opted to pursue a career in corporate media. He suspects his job hunting was helped by the fact that this was largely the pre-Internet era, before potential employers were easily able to find details about his punk rock alter ego.
Robinson also dipped into acting. He appeared in the notoriously bad 1987 Bill Cosby superhero movie Leonard Part 6, playing a thuggish guard to the villainous Medusa Johnson (Gloria Foster), a vegetarian activist out to take over the world with the help of attack frogs and man-eating rabbits. From playing a tattooed dude in a Miller beer commercial (directed by Gus Van Sant) to a bank robber in an industrial video as well as an international arms dealer in the campy Las Apassionadas, a short film about mercenary soldiers who start fighting for art’s sake, Robinson was cast, not surprisingly, as a tough bad guy.
Still, he hated the “touchy-feely” and fake aspects of acting, and contends that actors aren’t real artists. Music, however, was a different story — as he insists, “Punk rock saved my life!” Robinson may have been surrounded by Young Republicans at Stanford, but “in the 1980s we had the hardcore explosion, and it was a good time to be in California. That’s the only reason I stayed.”
That decision resulted in a cult following for the nearly-two-decade-old Oxbow, which was named the greatest art-rock band in the world by Vice magazine. Robinson says he originally designed the band to be a solo project — or, more accurately, “a well-crafted suicide note” — but teamed up with Niko Wenner and the band. “There’s so much to [Robinson] and Oxbow,” says Mark Thompson of Hydra Head Records, which released the band’s recent album, The Narcotic Story. “They’ve done lots of living, and I love that. That’s what drew me further and further into them — they’ve got so much history.”
Robinson’s friend and former co-worker at EQ magazine, Matt Harper, says those roots in the punk scene may have contributed to Robinson’s desire to defend himself. He suspects some of the rich white kids have a “look at the big black guy onstage” fascination with the singer.
While Robinson may not have been making much money during his early punk- rock and Birth of Tragedy days, it did give him the opportunity to publish work, and his magazine released a record featuring Lydia Lunch and Henry Rollins. (It was called The Birth of Tragedy Magazine’s Fear Power God Spoken Word/Graven Image.) Through Lunch, Robinson met and befriended Dean Kuipers, now deputy editor for The Guide in the Los Angeles Times.
Kuipers immediately noticed Robinson’s gift for what he calls “incredible dramatic effect.” Not long after they met, Robinson picked Kuipers up in a 1967 Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu (which he’d roller-painted black) and the pair drove out to a shooting range. Kuipers rented a gun and joined a row of 10 or so men, who he says looked like “upstanding white guys,” and started firing. The relatively quiet, steady stream of gunfire from the other shooters was suddenly interrupted by an enormous explosion. Everyone looked over at Robinson, who had just fired six shots and was “laughing his head off.”
“There he is with this long-barrel .44 Magnum,” Kuipers recalls. “Totally Dirty Harry.” He describes his friend as the worst nightmare of the other men, who also seemed disconcerted by the way Robinson wrote names on the targets with a Sharpie before firing at them. However, on the way home Robinson was as cheerful and smiling as ever and cooked the pair a huge pot of hamburger and peas for dinner. “Great day, yeah, great day at the range,” Kuipers says with a laugh.
Yet Kuipers worries that Robinson’s love of fighting may ultimately prove to be his downfall. “I’m trying not to encourage that side of Eugene; I think it has limited potential,” he says. “How can that end well? Somebody is going to karate-chop his arm off … or he’s going to kill someone.”
For every story Robinson’s friends have about his abilities as a fighter, they have multiple (often more interesting) ones about the less obvious aspects of his life. They seem a bit bored by the stereotypical tales of asskickage. As Scott Kelly of Combat Music Radio — who met Robinson and Oxbow through his own band, Neurosis, nearly two decades ago — puts it: “He’s the real deal, no doubt. But I’ve seen him fight viciously with his intellect. … His physicality is incidental, really.”
And Robinson’s day job emphasizes his brains over his brawn. He is a senior editor at MacLife magazine, a rather peaceful aspect of his existence. In the Editors’ Blogs section of the tech magazine’s Web site, there’s a photograph of a mild-mannered-looking Robinson gazing out under the headline, “A Neat Hard Drive Is A Happy Hard Drive.” This particular entry details the steps Robinson used to organize the data on his laptop, citing another entry in which he learned a difficult but important lesson: Back up early and often. “They were all gone Johnson but it was not my fault,” Robinson writes of the experience of losing all his files. “Like a hurricane or an earthquake or a record by Kelly Osbourne.”
On a recent weekday, Robinson emerges from the elevator into the sterile South San Francisco office-building lobby where he works. It would be a stretch to say he looks at home amid the corporate office parks, but with his big smile and bear hugs — his muscles and tattoos covered by the professional attire (often a sports jacket or button-up shirt over black jeans or dark pants) he wears to his day job — it’s hard to imagine why words like “dangerous” and “crazy” are so often used to describe him onstage.
In addition to editing, writing, and hosting a podcast for Combat Music Radio, Robinson also writes the “Ask Vinnie” sex column for http://www.skullgame.com — the most recent contribution to the sex-advice column genre. A virtual cultural ambassador of sex columns, Robinson has written “Guy Spy” for Mode magazine and “Avi Baby” for a Jewish newsletter in New York.
As open as he is about sex and violence — topics that inspire discomfort in most people — Robinson is fiercely protective of his personal life. When asked about his private life, he declined to discuss it.
When Robinson does get going, it’s his ability to hop to and from so many different subjects that has helped to earn him the billing of Renaissance Man. “Funny, well read, an excellent writer, very loyal,” Salvatore Russo says when asked to describe his friend. The pair met about four years ago at a basement fight club, the same night Robinson was knocked out by professional fighter Chris Sanford.
“It was like the Fourth of July,” Robinson writes in FIGHT. “There was a silvery burst of light and then ease. And quiet. And tremendous ease. The mat was cool against my face, and as unseen hands lifted me upright I hear myself murmur. Almost whisper, even, ‘I’m okay. I slipped. I tripped.’”
For Robinson, much of his life has been about fighting — which probably explains the nervousness at his recent reading at the SF Camerawork art gallery on Mission Street when an older man confronted him about his book. In the wake of several schoolyard stabbings in Britain, Robinson mentioned that he told HarperCollins that it could pull a section from the book about knife fighting, titled “While My Knife Gently Weeps.” The guy in the audience, who said he was a hypnotist who trained fighters, seemed intent on grilling Robinson about the goal of the book, what he was trying to teach people, and what he was trying to say about fighting. He criticized the experienced competitive fighter for “going for the dollars” rather than being “a good example of the warrior spirit.”
Tension filled the room. What would Robinson — who has studied arts like boxing, karate, Muay Thai, and Brazilian jujitsu — do? Would he choke the guy? Deliver a right cross with a grin?
Robinson began by defending his position — verbally. The two pages on knife fighting, he explained, were added only at the request of one of his publishers. “So, your question is, given an opportunity now to have a fight with British Parliament, wouldn’t I take this fight, gladly engage in the spirit of combat to make a point?” he told his antagonist. “I don’t know what the point of that is.”
No one ended up dead after the confrontation. Robinson never raised a fist. In fact, he never even raised his voice.
Robinson may passionately defend his art, whether it be his music or his writing, but he proudly says he’ll “sell out in a fucking second.” Yet he, like Oxbow, has already been winning plenty of fans with his approach to music and success. While the band’s members have joked about playing shows in front of a handful of people, their new album, The Narcotic Story, has been widely praised. The album’s producer is nominated for a Grammy. And Robinson recently appeared at the London Jazz Festival at the invitation of Barry Adamson, where he read from his book and sang Tom Waits’ “Romeo is Bleeding” to an enthusiastic crowd.
This month, Robinson begins a cross-country tour of clubs, bookstores, and fight clubs to perform and promote FIGHT. He had to take a break from fighting before the tour because of persistent thumb and finger injuries, but agreed to go up against a fighter on his first tour stop in Washington state last weekend. It was with a guy he beat in a fight club years ago and, Robinson says, “he’s been chasing me ever since.” But alas, the other man “begged off.”
While Robinson seems unlikely to slow down anytime soon, there was something a bit different about Oxbow’s most recent show at Great American Music Hall opening for Jesu in November. The sound was definitely Oxbow, and the music was played with a distinct level of sophistication and class. Yet while Robinson took off his jacket and shirt, he remained otherwise clothed throughout the set.
Could it be that Robinson was taking this selling-out approach seriously? Was San Francisco’s most dangerous singer mellowing out or feeling self-conscious?
When asked if he was feeling shy that night, he bursts out laughing. “Me?” he asked. “Shy?” More laughter. “It was cold in there!”