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.