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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."