"A cautionary tale, carefully delivered"

Fighting words from Oxbow's Eugene Robinson
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Eugene Robinson
Photo by Tom Millea

duncan@sfbg.com

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 19–2. 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.

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