Eugene S. Robinson is a bad man. And to all of you (Run DMC fans or not), he’s not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good. While it would not be surprising if he carried a wallet embroidered with “Bad Mother Fucker,” he is too unassuming to self-aggrandize in that manner. That despite the fact he is a strictly business renaissance man.
In addition to being good as a writer, podcaster, actor, MMA fighter, and lead vocalist of one of the Bay Area’s hidden jewels of underground music, Oxbow, he is a good family man and as I found out, a very good man not to cross.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Eugene on a rather warm late summer afternoon after he finished training at his Brazilian Jiu Jitsu academy … just to shoot the shit. We spoke on wide ranging topics from the heavy hitting to the mundane, the esoteric to the most serious. About life past and present, and it was largely predicated on the subject matter of his soon to be released memoir A Walk Across Dirty Water and Straight Into Murderer’s Row (Feral House), available October 10.
I had met Eugene previously. Way back when, my band Ringchildren played with Oxbow at a club in the Bayview/Hunters Point area called The SF Pound. Despite the fact that we met backstage amidst the lingering smell of spilled beer and stale sweat from evening before, and during a hectic sound check switch, I still recall the genuinely nice and laidback demeanor of Eugene, a hulking figure with a fierce and intense reputation. Fast forward to this interview and it was no different. He had that same genuine and good-natured personality. He even said that he recalled that show. Though that surprised me, I have no reason to doubt that recollection, he is a man without pretense.
I deftly began by revealing my utter unprofessional state of preparedness. While fumbling with my recorder, I explained that though I had assembled pages of notes for the interview, somehow I did not have them with me. He reassured me by replying “It doesn’t matter… they’re in your head.” Right away I knew everything was going to work out, and that this interview was going to be fun. Here are the goods … topic by topic.
The Memoir: A Walk Across Dirty Water and Straight Into Murderer’s Row
Being that Eugene’s memoir is about to drop, I had the opportunity of consuming a preview copy (which was the first 70-some pages) before this interview. This seemed as good a place as any to start.
SFSonic: You have written several books, what made it time to write a memoir?
Eugene: Adam Parfrey (founder of Feral House) had been at me for years to do it, and I’d been resisting for years, and then he died. I had written the forward for the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins book, and that was a pleasant experience. I also had the occasion to deal with them (Feral) as friends and on the media side as I reviewed a few books, and I found them to be a solid company.
Then Christina (Ward), who has since taken over, flew out and took me to dinner and said I want you to do it. I said I don’t want to do it, and she asked “what are your concerns?” I said no one wants to hear about my sex life, especially the husbands of the women I had sex with.
She said no one wants to hear about your sex life, you’ve got plenty of other things to talk about … stuff Adam had told her about…like my connection to Manson and Ginsberg (he interviewed both), stuff like that which I had forgotten about … brushes with weird celebrities like Billy Bob Thornton and Chris Rock.
So I thought, yeah maybe there is a book here. I said I would write as long as it kept me interested, otherwise I am fine not telling the world my story. She said she liked what she got so we moved ahead. She said she wanted me to focus on the timeframe of birth until the creation of Oxbow. That made sense, so I said I would do it.
Sex and Growing up in New York in the 60s & 70s
When reading A Walk Across Dirty Water, the reader gets snap shots of Jamaica, Queens, New York at various junctures of Eugene’s childhood. A glimpse into the juxtaposition of the innocence of childhood with the sordid underbelly of New York, and how that environment molded the innocence into something else.
SFSonic: Discuss growing up in New York in the 60s and 70s. This was the time where society straddled the line between the idyllic 50s and the upheaval of the 60s and 70s. In your book you describe this and the darkness of the time with regards to sex and war and how it impacted you.
Eugene: I grew up in a very interesting time and in a very interesting place and it was actually under-discussed how much all these cats came back from Vietnam messed up. And this changed the tone and timbre not only of living in New York but of our national conversation, in ways that people who focused on big ticket issues never paid attention to.
These guys were coming back fucked up and they did some fucked-up stuff, and there was no language at the time to talk about PTSD . And if you were a 13-year-old in New York City you likely encountered some of them.
SFSonic: In your book you detail some of your early observations and encounters with sex in New York City. Some people today think that sex is far too accessible for kids given the speed of information and accessibility of the digital world. You discuss some rather creepy things in the book stemming from broken people, and people just coming back from the war fucked up.
Given that, is sex more prevalent and accessible now as opposed to then?
Eugene: Well, the really creepy aspects have endured. They still have priests bounced around from parish to parish continually molesting kids. Maybe it’s my algorithm feeding this to me, but I read about more and more teachers…female teachers having sex with their students today, and while when I was 15, I may have welcomed this, I understand parents being cranky that their kid was filling out college applications one day, and now he’s being pulled into the drama of his teacher’s failing marriage.
SFSonic: Some would say that the ubiquity of sex today has led to an over-sexualized society starting from a young age. What do you think about the prevalence of sex in society today as opposed to back then, is it darker now?
Eugene: While there have been sanctioned forms of oversexualization of children in decades past…from movies to pageants, what I think has happened to make it different now is that sex has become corporatized. I know plenty of people who like to fuck on video and will upload those videos to amateur sites or whatever, but I don’t know anyone who owns their own server farms to make it so ubiquitous and earn money from it. But whatever, if people want to get naked and show themselves getting busy more power to them.
And yes, what’s corporate and accessible does affect how people view their sexuality. But ultimately, it’s not changing anything. People are going to be driven to do what weird shit we’ve always done. And if it trends toward crime and that’s your jam, that’s probably going to be your jam. Regardless of someone like Ted Bundy blaming it on this porn or that porn… that’s what you’re going to get.
SFSonic: You have four daughters … does that terrify you?
Eugene: No, not at all. They’ve done martial arts all their lives. I mean, I am the father of four daughters and also the brother of four sisters, and the thing that cannot be ignored is that the mechanism that is bent toward making girls feel lesser is constant and continual, you know. And it is not the same for boys by any measure at all.
SFSonic: Wow four daughters and four sisters!! Was your mom strict growing up?
Eugene: My mom was great. When she was working, she had been a cop for years. One day she said she wanted me to come visit her at work. This is when I had a mohawk. So I called her and told her “I’m here at the building”, and she said “Come on up”.
And I said, “Well don’t you want to come outside to meet me?,” and she said “No come on up!” And I said, “Well do you want people to see me?” She said, “You’re my son!!” She didn’t give a shit! So I went up in this cop building with my mohawk and my fucking engineer boots, and my mom introduced me to her boss and everyone.
And then when I had my first national article in Hustler Magazine, she bought Hustler and was walking around the office saying “Look, my son did this article!!” I try to duplicate that as much as I can as a parent. I support and back my kids’ plays 100%.
SFSonic: You wore a pimp hat and velour suit to elementary school for weeks?
Eugene: Fuck yes I did man … ohhh boy!! I visualize it now, my grandmother got me a crushed blue velour maxi coat. They used to call them marshmallow shoes…these platform shoes with these white soles. I had plaid pants and a hat with a feather.
She took me to see The Mack or was it Superfly?? I must’ve been about 10 or 11. I wore that shit to the nice, middle class, tony elementary school I went to. And I could see the teachers smirking at me and I was like “I’m the shit!!” I didn’t give a fuck if they noticed or not. It was fucking great!!
SFSonic: As a teenager did you really once go into a country bar and play ‘Macho Man’ (by the Village People) fifteen times then get run out of there??
Eugene: Fuck yeah!! At Howie’s outside of Poughkeepsie in Beacon, New York. You don’t like it, don’t let me control the jukebox or that shit might happen. But that’s not what made them threaten to beat us up. You know what? That’s a great song. If you knew nothing about the late 70s in New York, that was the ethos 100%, especially from a disco perspective.
And there’s that great line where he’s like “Ready to get down with anyone he can.” That sounds so weird from the perspective of now, to basically go out and say I’m gonna fuck whatever I can get my hands on. But then you think back to ’77 or ’78, before AIDS, people would get down any way you can. Aside from the amount of pubic hair you had to deal with in the 70s, that ethos was absolutely fantastic.
SFSonic: Speaking of fights, in your book you refer to a number of childhood instances that got you interested in fighting, which has carried through to today. How did that evolution happen?
SFSonic: You’ve gotten into altercations with audience members at your shows. Is there one of those instances that stands out?
Eugene: There was this guy in Brussels who specifically had a thing against women. We had a female vocalist come and do a song….it was for Sal Mineo, a project I did with Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu. And apparently this guy was known in Brussels for having a hostility with women being onstage. Now I didn’t know any of this before, but she’s singing and he’s screaming the whole time. Then she leaves and he’s still screaming … screaming about her but I don’t understand what he’s saying.
So we are about to start a song, and it was quiet music, so while he is screaming I say “Why don’t you shut the fuck up?!!” And he keeps yammering so I step off the stage … this is business time … and I say to the guy “I need you to shut the fuck up. I can either get back on the stage or I can strike you, but you need to stop.” Then he said “Do what you gotta do!”, and I slapped the fuck outta him.
Now the thing is when one normal person slaps another normal person the head just turns. I forget that I’ve been doing martial arts so long that when I slap you it’s not like a normal person slapping you. The energy comes up straight from the foot twisting from the ground, it comes from the torque of the torso, and when that hand finally hits your face your body spins like a top. That guy was in the air like Charlie Brown. All of his shit was on the floor.
And then I was really angry. I was angry that he made me hit him.
SFSonic: Hah…slaps. You have interviewed Chris Rock. Did you see when Will Smith slapped him?
Eugene: I interviewed Chris Rock, and I found him to be a very interesting interview subject. He’s way more serious and way deeper of a thinker than you might get from his public image. I wouldn’t say he was one of my favorite interviews, but I enjoyed going through the process with him, but I have not enjoyed his comedy for years. I think he’s lost his edge, as do most of these guys once they get wealthy.
With Will Smith it was a colossal cluster fuck in my mind. Everybody’s thinking with their animal brain at least part of the time. I mean if The Rock had been up there instead of Chris Rock, I don’t think he would have done it. But in the moment his animal brain calculated the parameters and thought “I can probably get away with it”… and he just lost it.
SFSonic: When you slapped the guy that was challenging you, did you just lose it? Were you at all angry at yourself?
Eugene: No, not at all. He completely got what was coming to him. Later I found out that he had continually been doing this with women. And I think I was channeling that if I had been lesser than me, he would have trammeled over whatever art that was being created that night. And the thing was everybody in town knew this guy … he did this thing with this woman and that woman … it was known.
Strangely enough it was women that hated my actions that night. They were saying “you didn’t have to do that. You’re just bringing your American shit over here.” I said, “I needed to get my job done, and he was preventing me from doing my job which is the creation of art. So he can go straight to hell. I do not feel bad about this.”
If it happened again 100% I would do it the same way. That’s not me losing control, that is careful application of principle to activity. It’s under the rubric of let the good make right this evil wrong. To me that’s why I train. I gave you 3 chances. Like Isaac Hayes said “… walk on by.”
I’ve had guys start fights with me that I’ve tried to convince to reconsider. I said to this guy, “Out of all of the people here do you imagine that I’m the best person to do this with?” And then he says “Fuck you”. Now people can say what they want … I’m a pretty even tempered guy. But then he threw a can at me, and spit at me.
Now I’m thinking this has gone on for too long, and I say to him “I got a deal for you. You want to fight me? All you have to do is one thing. Just say one more word. One more word of any kind and we’ll be fighting.” The easiest thing in the world and the hardest thing, at that point is to just keep your mouth shut and turn around and act like I don’t exist … for your safety. Then the guy goes “Come on bitch!”
This was in Portland, Maine and I step up on the curb, and the curbs there are really high because it snows a lot. It was like an eight-inch curb, and when I step up there I can see the guy is afraid now for the first time, so then I got angry. I wanted the guy’s conviction to carry through regardless of what size I am. If you want to fight me just say “Let’s fight” and mean it.
SFSonic: The way you describe it, there’s a certain level of respect that comes with squaring up directly with someone one on one to fight. It’s as fair a playing field that there could be in the moment. In today’s society there is a prevalence of gun violence that is contrary to hand-to-hand fighting. What are your thoughts on gun violence?
Eugene: I had a federal firearms license for many years, so I’m a big Second Amendment guy. But then again, I’m the same guy who thinks fascism may be a better answer because I don’t trust the humans I share the planet with. So the reality of it is, I like them for me but I don’t like them for the rest of y’all. One thing that the left always gets wrong is that they don’t seem to get the deep emotional connections that we have to our firearms.
SFSonic: Do you hate people?
Eugene: I don’t think much of people. Hate is a strong word, and I don’t think it is the opposite of love. I think the opposite of love is indifference, and I am indifferent to a large percentage of people.
SFSonic: In your memoir you speak of instances where thoughts of murder entered your mind as you were growing up. Does that persist today?
Eugene: I do still have homicidal ideations, which is not very healthy. And I also realize, and Ted Bundy once talked about it … it’s like a song you hear on the radio that you can’t get out of your head …. if it ever becomes too cacophonous in my head, I think, you know what? I think I need to sleep a little bit more … that is usually a driver.
But when you think about it, do you realize how hard it is to get away with murder nowadays? You can’t drive to a murder because your car will let everybody know where you have been….so will your phone. That guy who killed those kids in Idaho thought he would be slick and turn off his phone, and they still got him because they were able to triangulate where and when he turned it off.
I talked to a guy, who was actually a cop, about getting away with murder. And he gave some interesting advice, which is good because I write crime fiction. First, he said if you use a knife, leave the knife … which is not intuitive. You think you want to hide it.
Then he said, the best way of all to kill someone, and this is why the Russians use it … just throw them off of a building or out of a window. The mechanics of getting them up there is on you, but once you shove them out the window there is very rarely an investigation as the assumption is the guy was depressed or something.
SFSonic: You made mention of getting more sleep as being good for you. What else do you do to keep yourself in top shape.
Eugene: Well if I were not in shape there is no way I’d be able to go on tour with Oxbow. If it weren’t for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I wouldn’t be in shape at the age of 61. I also do cross-fit and I run.
SFSonic: Wow, 61 … nice!! Any specific habits that you have adopted to help staying in shape?
Eugene: Um, something that I didn’t like doing but it’s had health benefits, and for whatever reason I don’t like it is I started drinking more water. And it’s just a drag. For some reason I just don’t dig on drinking water, man. Part of it is because you have to void it … so you have to urinate all the time … it’s just a drag but it has made a big difference.
I’d like to say I do get more sleep because it is important, but I still get very little sleep. I haven’t really slept normally since the birth of my first kid. I also control my calories. I’m at 218, which is my natural body weight if I am working out.
SFSonic: Does your discipline and regimen of training also extend to music? You are about to go out on tour with Oxbow for the first time in a while to support your recent release Love’s Holiday (Ipecac). Do you need this as an artistic outlet in the same way that you need to train for a physical outlet?
Eugene: My primary means of exchange between me and the rest of the world is my writing. Because I don’t play an instrument. I mean I can sing in the shower. But if I couldn’t write that would be a problem. I’d lose my mind if I couldn’t write.
SFSonic: So musically you don’t jones for that ‘up on stage’ energy transference between you and whoever is watching? That’s not really your thing?
Eugene: Not so much for the energy transference, but I believe there is a fugue state that you can go into where we are communicating. There are two ways we communicate. One is the obvious one with the words coming out of my mouth. The other is head-to-head, which is why I think we watch movies in the dark … I think it happens in that setting, which I think is pretty magical and useful. But regarding musical performances, I think it is more for the people in attendance than it is for me. I don’t think I would die without it.
That is why Oxbow has been in existence since 1988, because we don’t have this idea that we gotta do this and that and have a show. It’s more like sculpting … you do a little bit and walk away then come back and it is still there and continue.
SFSonic: What about the state of music today? Are you into any of the new stuff?
Eugene: I’ve tried not to be a prick about it because I don’t want to be that old guy saying “Oh you kids today…,” but my critique goes beyond criticism. Like Taylor Swift. I couldn’t name one Taylor Swift song. Not a single one, and she has sold Michael Jackson numbers.
And everyone says the same thing to me … ”well you would know it if you heard it”. What do you mean I’d know it if I heard it? I can hear a Michael Jackson tune and that I would know if I heard, but what is the difference between her and Dua Lipo or Bebe Rexha?
SFSonic: What about politics? Do you pay attention? Do you like to talk politics?
Eugene: Well I don’t shy away from those things. There are guys here who train who are Trump guys, and I’ll argue with them for fun just to get their goat. I’m a New Yorker. I’ve dealt with Trump for way longer than you guys and he’s been a piece of shit the whole time. None of what he has done has been surprising to me.
What has been surprising to me and there is a small point of pride … I never thought New York would go national. The vibe puts off every other state … they don’t understand. And Trump is one of the most New York New Yorkers “… Oh those guys didn’t do it? Fuck it, give them the death penalty anyway”.
He’s been stupid forever, and the fact that the rest of America bought it is the result of TV making him palatable with his fucking TV show. So now he can win an election. Why? Because these are people who shouldn’t be able to vote that we have to share the freeway with, and I’ve tapped out.
That’s one of the reasons I’m leaving. I’ll leave you to it. You guys do whatever … you can destroy yourselves, and when it blows up I’ll be back to say I told you so.
SFSonic: Where are you going?
Eugene: Spain. I’m going to move to my house by the beach and try to enjoy the last years of my life doing the things I like to do and not arguing with dumb asses.
So ends a small glimpse into the mind of Eugene S. Robinson.
Biting? Perhaps. Acerbic? Maybe. Honest? Absolutely and refreshingly. Spain’s gain will be the bay area’s loss, but we can still follow him through his writing (check out A Walk Across Dirty Water and Straight Into Murderer’s Row) and online.
But before any of that, make sure to see him in sound and motion with his Oxbow mates at the Great American Music Hall November 9th. Though take my advice. Best to not interrupt him during the set.
Photos by Jeff Spirer