Eugene S. Robinson, vocalist, journalist, editor, novelist, jiu-jitsu black belt (to name just a few of the strings to his bow) has no shortage of stories. Enough to fill a book. More than one book in fact.
To some, Robinson is best known as one quarter of the impossible to pigeon hole, Art-Rock unit Oxbow. Fans of Robinson the Rock frontman may also be familiar with his other current band, the 90s-Noise-Rock-channelling Buñuel.
But we’re not here to talk about either today. Robinson joins New Noise Magazine, via his home in California, having just recently completed his memoir A Walk Across Dirty Water and Straight Into Murderer’s Row (released on October 1oth via Feral House). The book charts the first years of Robinson’s life, up to the (more symbolic) birth of Oxbow.
A Walk Across Dirty Water has no shortage of tales from Robinson’s formative years in the Hardcore, Bay Area scene of the early 80s, coming up alongside bands like Black Flag and Dead Kennedys with his own group Whipping Boy.
Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, they all make their appearances, but do any of these names and stories come up while talking with Robinson here? No. Why? Well, this is just one part of the story.
There’s the child modelling (Robinson won a citywide “beautiful baby” contest when he was two years old), the brushes with the mafia, the bodybuilding, the publishing, the possible autistic tendencies, the fighting, the sexual indiscretions, LSD and the search for ideas. You have to pick your topics.
There are squirrels too, but that’s to be explained later.
There’s barely even time to touch on Robinson having interviewed Charles Manson and Andy Warhol (both of whom get a brief mention in the memoir). For Robinson, deciding what to give space to in the book was a challenge.
“It’s a full memoir and I’m sure I forgot how much stuff happened and even then had to be pared back, because each of those stories Christmas-tree into other stories. I mean, the Warhol story took weird turns.”
So how do you interview and write a feature on a man with decades of journalistic experience who could also fold your clothes with you still wearing them? With a little trepidation.
Robinson makes for a charming interviewee. Eloquent, charismatic and quick to laugh. Sometimes the source of his mirth might not be what the average reader would expect. There’s a sense that Robinson laughing often has a quick link to violence.
“It’s interesting,” he reflects. “When I wrote A Long, Slow Screw — which some people talk about [as] hardboiled, they can’t even take it — I laughed my ass through the writing of that entire book.”
Illustrative of violent impulses that Robinson was trying to understand in his teens and young adulthood, he tells a story of a recent altercation after an acoustic show in DC. Robinson was walking with a cane, having had surgery from a ruptured quadricep tendon (from fighting a pro-fighter).
“There’s some guy standing really close to the stage talking. It’s clear we’re not playing amplified music, it’s acoustic music, shut the fuck up. It goes downhill from there.”
Someone happened to record the incident, giving Robinson an opportunity to watch himself in action.
“I found one of the most disturbing things about it was the sounds I was making as I was beating up this guy — In fairness, he had assaulted me. I got off the stage and taunted him and got him to strike me first and then it was all over for him, but the sounds I’m making were kind of proto-Oxbow-ien and it was to my ear like the sound of absolute freedom.”
“I did talk about that [in the memoir] when we got the attempted rapist, that kind of bloodlust, and that’s what caused me to track down [Church of Satan founder] Anton LaVey. Because I wanted to know if sans morality he had an understanding of what I was feeling — which was just this animal rising. He didn’t.”
It’s one notable aspect of Robinson that comes out in the memoir — his fascination with trying to understand the darker aspects of the human condition. A major part of the story focusses on Robinson the student at Stanford University and the short, but impactful time he spent putting together several thematic editions of what would be the Birth of Tragedy magazine.
“The theme issues could be a terrible straight jacket, ‘Sex and Depression’, ‘Fear’, ‘Power’, ‘God’, ‘Love’. I should have probably broken out of the theme thing, but what I had realized was [that] it let me put myself in rooms with people who I want to talk to.”
Ultimately, this would lead to a career in journalism and much bigger audiences, interviewing people he found interesting to talk to, from Billy Bob Thornton to Halle Berry, but the genesis was here.
“My whole journey, the whole murderer’s row, has been to find people who could feel that and had evinced that in their actions and activities. The closest I came, of course, was [John Wayne] Gacy, but Gacy was trying to stay alive. So he was fundamentally lying about what it was pretty clear was a similar urge, this kind of rising RAAAAAAA [that] usually hits people when they stand on the edge of a cliff and just want to throw themselves off of it.”
Anyone who’s read Robinson’s Fight: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ass Kicking But Were Afraid You’d Get Your Ass Kicked For Asking will have seen the stills of Robinson choking out an interloper to the stage. Yes, he’s is smiling. He seems to be laughing in fact.
“Yeah, you know, my wife has now figured out: just because Eugene is smiling doesn’t mean something good is gonna happen.”
So by extension, just because Robinson is laughing doesn’t mean the interview is going well. Don’t take anything for granted.
“I noted at one point the last five people I’ve punched in the face all had the same look on their face, which is weird, because I told them I was gonna punch them in the face if they didn’t leave me alone and they didn’t leave me alone. So I punched them in the face. Five people with similar looks. They were surprised. Finally one of them was in Belgium, and my wife happened to be there and saw it, and she goes, “Well, the problem is that you were smiling right before it happened, so these people maybe misread the signs. “Oh, he’s smiling. Yeah, I guess good things are about to happen””.
As Robinson goes on to point out, you need to look for the smile in the eyes. Duly noted.
Misread signals is a recurring theme of the memoir. Whether it’s people not anticipating Robinson’s intent, or Robinson looking back realising that he hadn’t seen what was being presented (like sexual advances for instance). There are even a few dry observations from Robinson that he might have Autistic tendencies.
In fact it’s been the women in Robinson’s life who’ve introduced this idea (particularly his wife and three grown daughters) — and having been largely raised by his mother, alongside four sisters, there have been no shortage of strong female voices from the start.
“My kids have said “Well, you know, your inability to establish long-term emotional connections”. I said “I don’t have an inability to establish long-term emotional connections. Most people are just full of fucking shit!”. They’re like, “Yeah dad, that’s what we’re talking about!”
“One of my kids came up to visit and she goes, “Are you okay Dad?” I go “Oh, yeah, I’m fine, what?” She goes, “The look on your face right now is absolutely murderous”. I go “I’m just thinking about what a good time I’m having and how glad I am that everybody is here and how much I love you all”. But of course, the secondary thought to that was, “Anybody who would threaten this…” So it’s something I’ve heard, but I don’t know.
“I don’t place much credence [in modern pop culture tendencies to psychoanalyze behaviors]. I’ve certainly involved myself in violence at a remove, which could be a marker of that, but compartmentalizing in that way is probably just a way to keep yourself safe, you know?”
At this point the time is up, with Robinson having to go pick up his youngest kid (a girl, of course — continuing the life-long trend). But if smiling and laughing isn’t always a sign that “good things are going to happen” (as Robinson puts it), the fact that he offers to continue the conversation from the car seems to suggest he’s enjoyed the interview well enough so far.
So there’s a chance to talk about music.
Before Oxbow and Buñuel there was Whipping Boy, the early-Hardocre band that Robinson fronted from 1981 to around 1986. Not to be confused with the Irish, Rock band of the same name, there’s a funny story in the book about the financial ramifications for the latter band’s label when they ignore Robinson’s demand to change their name.
Another important lesson? Don’t fuck with Eugene S. Robinson when money is involved. “I’m not insane about a lot of things, but money is one of the things I’m insane about.”
While Whipping Boy initially fit into the formative Hardcore world of the early 80s, by the band’s second full-length album, 1984’s Muru Muru, they were already branching out. Given Robinson’s restless spirit, it shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise.
“I think that the constraints of doing genre music struck me first off because I was a lyricist. We had a lot of songs on The Sound of No Hands Clapping [the band’s 1983 debut], I don’t know, some 20 plus songs. But as I started to write lyrics for what would be our second record, I of course was not interested in any of the typical hardcore tropes, which then leads you to believe that maybe we’re going to have to have a musical bed for these that makes a little bit more sense than “one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four”.
One band that features heavily in the Whipping Boy story is Dead Kennedys. Robinson would go on to appear on the band’s Frankenchrist record, but it’s DK bassist Klaus Flouride specifically who has the biggest part in the story — and not just because he produced the Muru Muru record.
As Robinson tells in the memoir, there were some personal “interactions” connecting himself and Fluoride that could tactfully be described as “fraught” (a delicate description that amuses Robinson).
“You, in a very genteel way, are bringing up the fact that I used to fuck around with his wife, but you know, I didn’t know it was his wife when she told me she was an ex. And like I said in the book, I performed very badly. So if there’s any consolation…”
“Klaus was great. I still see him at shows every now and then. He’s happy to see me. I’m happy to see him. He’s one of my favorite people, him and [Black Flag founding member] Chuck Dukowski. Well beyond anything that probably has passed between us in real relationships, I just like the idea of them. I’ve liked spending time with them. I like them as people. I like talking to them, how their minds work and I’m sure they would be completely surprised to hear me say that.”
A particularly memorable tale from the memoir involves a chance meeting between Robinson and (what would turn out to be) Rob Noxious of The Fuck-Ups, in the crowd of a Hardcore show . When Noxious (wearing a shirt with a swastika and “white power” written on it) approaches Robinson, it seems like violence is inevitable, but there’s a surprising twist and a suggestion that Robinson has a nuanced view of performers who might be politely described as “provocative”.
“Well, you know Steve Albini just recently got ahead of this idea that he was going to have a reckoning. If you know enough about his past, you know that the original name for Big Black was going to be Run, Nigger Run, which he’s talked about in the press. So he’s been doing his edge-lord stuff, but I think he was kind of slightly surprised when people didn’t realize maybe that he was joking, or that this was a product of heavy snark or some such thing and took it seriously.”
“I think in the Bay Area, Rob and The Fuck-Ups were real outliers, but I thought they were special and they had a special kind of contribution. So he was always nice. How many people can I say this about who were completely repellent, [Charles] Manson included and so on, but really always really nice to me, Rob was.”
“Their whole shtick was robbing and stealing. In a Bay Area that was so kind of controlled, even back in the 80s, they were just like: flies, ointment, perfect. I never had any long, deep conversations with Rob, but I think his animal brain was like, “This is a tough guy, better to have him with us than against us.””
“All those guys, you know, Joe Dirt and all those guys. It’s not like I hung out. I wasn’t doing a lot of crystal meth — which was their thing at the time — or heroin. But you know, the same people that didn’t like them sort of didn’t like me, right? Because if the Stanford thing wasn’t a problem for them, then the weightlifting-jock thing had become a problem. As I’ve seen all these people fall by the wayside, it’s like, “Yeah, maybe you should have been doing some push ups back then. You’d have lasted longer. [Whipping Boy] took a lot of heat for being guys who exercise, which is ridiculous, you know?”
Robinson’s interest in bodybuilding goes back to high school and put him in close proximity to some shady (read: mob affiliated) characters.
“The stories were just so great and I found in repeating them, as I did in high school, people just thought I was crazy. They didn’t have any frame of reference for this stuff.”
Not wanting to be “a snitch”, but not wanting to waste the stories either, the idea of the A Long Slow Screw novel was born. In fact, with the memoir completed, Robinson is already working on a kind of thematic follow up to the novel.
“A Long Slow Screw was my New York story. I’m working on the California story, which of course takes place in San Fernando Valley, the porn capital of the world, and it’s called Love? Love!”
“[A Long Slow Screw was] inspired by a lot of stories I heard from the guys who pulled up in cars with suits. It fucked my conception of what the mafia was, because I was thinking the Godfather, and the guy shows up with 20 suits in the back of a car. I’m like, “Fuck, this is the mafia?” And then I realized, if you got the suits for free, and you sell them for $500 a suit, you’re an earner and $500 a suit back then, it’s a lot of money. Primarily the mafia was like a financial arrangement, that happens to include sometimes murder.”
Now while Robinson may have taken this window into the netherworld of maffia behavior less as a directive than as an opportunity for story telling, there is one particular concept he’s taken to heart that can be traced back to former mob heavy Sammy “The Bull” Gravano and his book Underboss. “Frenzy for felony” is a concept that goes some way towards illustrating Robinson’s furious work ethic — and it’s where the squirrels come into the equation.
“It’s a concept I was kind of laying out for my kid. Like, you ever think of what it’s like to be a squirrel? You wake up, there are no squirrel stores. There are no squirrel shopping malls. So what the squirrel gets that day is what the squirrel gets. If you have a lazy squirrel, you have a malnourished squirrel.”
“Sammy the Bull was talking about how he had this frenzy for felony. He understood that “If I don’t make stuff happen, nothing’s gonna happen.” That’s kind of had a major impact on how I handle myself with music, literature and art at this point. You gotta get out there and get it. Some guy says “Eugene, could you put me on the guest list in Bristol?”. I got “Yeah, okay. Sure. Don’t show up empty handed.” And he goes, “Oh, well, all I have are hugs and records”. I go “Fuck your hugs and records. Don’t show up empty handed.”
“Something to wear, something to eat, something to drink, something of value. A book you like. You show up with nothing, you’re not getting in. Unless you load equipment. Then of course I’ll put you on the list, but usually the guys who say, “I’ll load equipment” to get in, they’re just there to load equipment in. They’re never there to load equipment out. So I’m hep to that scam.”
“I just like the rabid “If I don’t do this, I’m not gonna eat, like, nothing. Nothing”. People are like, “Man, you’re pretty busy.” Yeah, I’m frenzied and panicked about everything. If I don’t do it, it doesn’t get done. Memoir doesn’t get written if I don’t write it. Who else is going to write the Eugene S. Robinson memoir? Nobody. So productivity seems to be my big thing.”
And that’s today’s last lesson. The importance of productivity.
“My kids could be psychotic killers. But as long as they were productive, I would be really happy. On the other hand, they could be totally non-productive and wealthy and I’d be really disappointed.”
A Walk Across Dirty Water and Straight Into Murderer’s Row is released on October 10th. Pre-order a copy from Feral House.
Follow Eugene S. Robinson’s writing on his regular Look What You Made Me Do Substack column.
Title photo and second photo by Phil Sharp, third photo by Kasia Robinson.