Make no mistake: Eugene Robinson is a throwback to a time when people used words like honor without being ironic or embarrassed. The vocalist for the 18-years-running art-rock-noise machine Oxbow, Stanford graduate, and Mac Life senior editor is also, to use his descriptor, a "fightaholic." As he says in the introduction to his forthcoming book Fight: Or, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Ass-Kicking but Were Afraid You’d Get Your Ass Kicked for Asking (Harper), he shares his "obsession with the eternal, unasked, ‘Can I take him?’" Contrary to what one might assume, people who beat the bloody hell out of each other for fun or profit Robinson is a mixed-martial-arts cage fighter are not suffering from antisocial personality disorders but often adhere to a strict moral code. Though, he confessed during our interview in South San Francisco, sitting in my car and looking out over the bay, "I definitely have antisocial reasons as well."
How much of this testing one’s mettle in the "crucible of conflict" is just a dick-measuring contest? Only in the movies, or perhaps in cage fights whose opponents are carefully matched, does the victor triumph because he wants it more. In any given fight a win can usually be attributed the basic physical facts of size and strength, so what’s the point of fighting if you’re merely measuring attributes?
Robinson told me about a fight he had with a Red Sox fan while loading Oxbow’s van in Maine. The Sox, who serve as the home team even for the New England hinterland, had just been humiliated by the Yankees to the tune of 192. Three Sox fans strolled by, and one inevitably asked the frontperson what the fuck he was looking at. Given multiple chances to bow out, the guy kept pushing, and ultimately had his ass handed to him. "At that point," Robinson said, "I was honor bound to deliver the lesson he had so aggressively been seeking. Whatever happened in that exchange, it wasn’t dick measuring. It was a cautionary tale, carefully delivered."
But do people really learn from being whupped on? My thinking on this subject has evolved along the lines of my employment. When I delivered pizzas for Pizza Hut in a hot pink Lacoste-style shirt, I was forced to eat spoonfuls of shit doled out by every disgruntled lard ass whose Meat Lover’s Special arrived 10 minutes late. "Someday," I thought, "someone is going to fuck that guy up." Needless to say, it was a precarious act to hang the smothering cloak of my rage on that altogether insufficient nail of "someday." When I moved on to working security at clubs, I realized that yes, someday someone will kick that guy’s ass, and it may as well be today. As the old activist saw goes, "If not now, when? If not me, who?" But after some time, I realized that the behavior of others wasn’t worth getting upset, let alone violent, over. Not because it wasn’t satisfying to deliver lessons, but because no lessons were learned. In this way, I found working in nightclubs as dissatisfying as substitute teaching.
If you fight someone and they win, then might is right, and whichever asshole behavior they were indulging in before the fight is justified. If you fight them and they lose, they will immediately work the victim angle for sympathy and punitive damages. Any attitude adjustment is clearly fleeting.
"This is a valid critique," Robinson told me, but it doesn’t derail his motivations. "The few seconds that we’re together, I’ve got to hope for the best." He recounts a situation when a member of another band was having a high-volume conversation at the edge of the stage while Robinson and Oxbow guitarist Niko Wenner were playing as an acoustic duo. After Robinson warned the musician to "shut the fuck up," things got heated. Audience members tried to cool things out, but, in Robinson’s words, "this evenhanded, kind of neutered approach didn’t pay heed to the reality of the moment. Which is, you had an enemy of art, and you had somebody who was trying to be the standard-bearer of Eros." He pauses. "Forget about all that. If I’m standing at a café and somebody is screaming at the top of his lungs next to me, I’m asking him 100 percent of the time to shut the fuck up. You don’t have to live all over me. It’s boorish. And rude. And uncouth. And in that way, it’s a form of bullying."
While it may seem excessive to put a spindly, long-haired dude in a Texas boogie-rock band in a submission hold called an ultimate head and arm, I can’t argue with Robinson’s reasoning: "Disrespect begets disrespect." In any case, the vocalist does allow for the possibility of walking away. But walking away for him has more to do with the Japanese concept of saving face, of avoiding conflict with honor, than with the Christian ethic of turning the other cheek. "Am I doing this out of graciousness or am I doing it out of fear?" he asked. "I think way too many people will choose to look the other way out of fear. My whole life has been a testament to avoiding base fears."
For this, I’ve got to respect the guy. Robinson may be derided on the Web as a prick, a sadist, and an egomaniac, but let’s look at the lessons: (1) You are honor bound to follow through on a promise. (2) Art is worthy of respect. (3) Fear should be avoided as a motivation. Sounds pretty fucking reasonable to me. Though, in my own top five, I try and sometimes fail to add: (4) Violence should be avoided as a teaching tool.
Really, though, we live in a time when shit talking is considered a sport in itself. Go to theoxbow.com and look at some of the live footage. Robinson trances out onstage and strips down to his underwear, and the band plays the sound of a psychological meltdown. Knowing what you know and seeing what you see, why would you fuck with him?
"To a certain degree, culturally, we’ve been neutered. And that’s what civilization is about: to get us to places of greater peace," Robinson said. "But clearly, that aspect of it is not working." I’d have to agree that it’s not working, especially in social situations, where people seem to assume a disconnection in the causal, karmic links between action and consequence. Witness the hapless Scotsman in the 2003 Christian Anthony documentary Music for Adults. He gets pantsed in front of a crowd by Robinson, who asks, with what seems genuine concern, "Did that hurt? Did I hurt your feelings?" before adding the rejoinder "It’s an Oxbow show. That’s what happens." *
Wed/17, 9 p.m., $10
2565 Mission, SF
In conversation with V. Vale and James Stark
Nov. 8, 6 p.m., $5
657 Mission, SF