Interview: Eugene S. Robinson

I resisted writing it for a really long time. Mostly because I thought if you're gonna write a memoir, it should be true and I couldn't figure out how to do that without hurting people in a professional sense.

Eugene S. Robinson is shortly going to release his memoir A Walk Across Dirty Water And Straight Into Murderers Row and it is an absolutely phenomenal read about a musician and writer who has lived a hell of a life, which he talks about in completely unflinching detail. Gavin Brown had the pleasure of talking to Eugene about the memoir and how the experience writing it was for him as well as discussing various things that feature in the book including his growing up in 1970s New York, his memories of legendary NY clubs like Studio 54 and CBGBs, his writing career and reminiscing about his time in Los Angeles and hardcore in an endlessly fascinating, funny and insightful interview.

E&D: Your memoir, A Walk Across Dirty Water And Straight Into Murderers Row is out soon. Compared to the numerous other books you’ve written in the past, was a memoir easier or harder to write?

Eugene: I resisted writing it for a really long time. Mostly because I thought if you’re gonna write a memoir, it should be true and I couldn’t figure out how to do that without hurting people in a professional sense. Some of us like to limit the amount of damage that we caused to others around us, but also what’s happened in weird ways was that the internet has made it very difficult for me to maintain dual lives. Pre-internet, my professional life, I would put a suit on in the days where people wore suits to work and go to work. People would say, What are you doing this weekend, and I would say, oh, gardening, which technically was true, I liked the garden! But in actual fact, that could have included any number of either pro-social or aggressively anti-social things, and none of this stuff appeared on the internet, then once it became a thing whereI could type my name in and see, oh he is naked on stage, strangling somebody, that actually almost cost me a job. I was hired as editor in chief of EQ magazine, a music recording magazine, and they were looking for information online to write up a press release, we’ve hired this new guy and they found a clip from Christian Anthony’s documentary which featured a show at the 1 in 12 in Bradford, where I was strangling some guy. I mean, he had it coming, but it didn’t matter to these corporate types who are really panicked. Finally, somebody saved my my ass. A British woman, incidentally, who was my boss at the time said, hey, it’s a music magazine. Clearly, he’s a musician, so I do not think we should fire him before his first day. So the idea of actually then willingly jumping into that fray by writing a book, where I laid the stuff bare, it just didn’t seem to make sense to me and Adam Parfrey who ran Feral House had asked and asked and asked, and he died. I thought, okay, I can stop worrying about this or thinking about it. But then the folks who picked it up, his sister and Christina Ward, they continued where he left off, and Christina was pretty aggressive about it, she flew to San Francisco, and said what is your big concern? I said that it’s  gonna hurt people’s feelings, their husbands out there who might be angry if they read what I’d really been up to. She goes, look, nobody wants to hear about your sex life! She said, in actual fact, I think that you have a valuable contribution and you were part of some really interesting scenes and interesting times, from the birth of punk rock, to the death of disco, to the birth of hardcore. You have associations with everybody from Manson and Anton LaVey to Allen Ginsberg and Lydia Lunch. It  can’t be a huge book, you just go from birth to the creation of Oxbow. I was like, Okay, that’s cool, because I didn’t really start to lose my mind till after Oxbow anyway, so I could do that and that’s what happened.

E&D: How did you feel looking back at that period of your life?

Eugene: I didn’t have any problems until I got to my time in college. I suffered some head injuries, which then led to some crippling depression, and then, because I’m an American, ample evidence of firearms. So depression, head injuries, drug usage and firearms don’t always go together in the best of ways. Then also, you’ve terrible relationships and all the stuff that created Oxbow that I affectionately called the moment where I lost my mind, so writing about from ages to 18 to 21 was sort of a difficult, depressing drag. I mean, not so much for the reader, but for me to recall because I deal with it with a certain amount of mourning and dark humour. I was disowned by both my parents, my girlfriend dumped me, the girlfriend after her dumped me. I had no money, I was breaking into food lockers to steal food to eat. It was a dreary and dire time. To have to relive that was was sort of a dread, but  of course I’m not there now, so I guess it was not so much survivor’s guilt, but just like, I wish I could have forgotten some of that stuff.

E&D: The book is beautifully written, so informative, but it’s also unflinchingly raw. Did you want to basically leave nothing out of the book, no matter how harsh certain things that happened?

Eugene: No, I mean, I kind of went there. There were lots of forks in the road. Where I came to, the division was between writing something that was politically comfortable and then writing something that was truthful. I always opted for the truthful because what are you going to do? You’re gonna beat me up, you’re not going to be my friend, what are you going to do to me, for essentially hurting your feelings by telling something that is fundamentally true, so  I decided to do that. What happened? More often than not, is that okay? The spirit of brevity. There’s a lot there. I don’t want to be approved by me in remembrance of things past. I would say it’s a great book if I could ever finish it. No, I though things daisy chained into other things. You have to realise that you have a narrative, I and II are for when it’s like a dead end, like how many times were guns pulled on me during the disco era, I could have talked about that in some depth, but that doesn’t really advance the story. For the record 3 times! But I mean, it was New York in the 70s, so I’d imagine I wasn’t the only one to have guns pulled on them. Even though it was very hard to get a gun in New York, the fact that I managed to do so I think it had everything to do with me working out in that quasi kind of Mafia gym out in Queens, and it wasn’t a handgun, which would have been handy. It was a shotgun, which even if you saw off the barrel, it’s still hard to hide in your pants leg. Just for your information.

E&D: Have you had any feedback, positive or negative from anyone who featured in the book?

Eugene: I’ve shown the book to the people who have written stuff for it. Harley Flanagan, Lydia Lunch, Jimi Izrael, and there are a few others, but I’ve been very selective about which sections I showed them. The publisher even suggested at a certain point, oh, you know, he’s really into these kinds of things. We should get Flea a copy, and I go, absolutely not. He’s not gonna like how he comes across, and  moreover, I say stuff in there that’s going to be upsetting enough, where he’s got deep enough pockets where he could cause me real problems so do not send it to him now. Just don’t, that’s just the old journalist in me. I’m not giving anybody everything to read beforehand. It doesn’t make any sense.

E&D: As you mentioned, the book continues forewords by Lydia lunch and Harley Flanagan. All three of you were around when New York in the 70s when it was a dangerous place. How does it make you feel that all three of you are still around and still making art today?

Eugene: It makes me feel great. Somebody who I was friends with back then, he had a dark night of the soul. He used to drum for this band Anti Warfare and he called me, we’re talking. He’s fine really well, he’s become a doctor of Chinese medicine and owns acupuncture clinics all over the world. He said, don’t you feel like we’ve kind of sold out? And I go, no, we are exactly as it should have happened. My identity as a hardcore punk kid, it probably supersedes my identity as almost anything else, except being a black guy. At some point, one of my bosses said to me, or actually said to the chairwoman of the board, I can’t tell whether Eugene doesn’t give a shit or it’s just acting like he doesn’t give a shit. She just laughed and goes, it’s the former. It’s not like hardcore punk gave that to me, it’s more like it was the meeting of likes. So the fact that we’ve all used the sheer dint of will and hustle to have made it this long, this far and this successfully is really fun. Lydia was  just at my house, and she was like, hey, when you move to move to Spain, because I’m gonna move to Spain, she goes, I’m  gonna come and stay with you. I go, without the slightest bit of hesitation. Yes, as long as you want. I see Harley because of the whole jujitsu thing, we are still in touch. When I first I saw him he was already on his way. The first time I saw him was at a Stimulators show, at some art gallery in Soho, maybe 1977. I was fifteen, and he must have been about nine, a fucking kid. Man, I’ve wasted my time! It’s just super funny that he and I later became friends.

E&D: What are your favourite memories of clubs, like Studio 54, CBGBs, Mudd Club and Max’s Kansas City that you went to at that time and was there any crossover with the different scenes?

Eugene: Sometimes you would see some of the people that you had seen at Studio 54 at the Mudd club, but you never saw them at CBS or Max’s or Gildersleeves. I saw Klaus Nomi at the Mudd club, and then saw some artworld types that came from Warhols retinue that I recognised. I was a bridge and tunnel kid who was a teenager, didn’t have the cool clothes and cool shoes or a cool haircut. I was relatively, like I said in the book, invisible, but I noticed them.

E&D: What was Studio 54 actually like?

Eugene: It was fucking great! I can still smell it! As soon as I start talking about it, I can smell it and and feel what it’s like to walk through the doors and the parquet floor and the whole bit. I kind of mentioned this, but I recently had another blast of thinking around it. I was like, You know what, this doesn’t happen at any other time. Yes, there were discos before and discos after and there were raves and parties. But this was this kind of Twilight period of people not knowing it not realising or not wanting to recognise that cocaine was bad for you. It was super expensive back in 77/78 but between 78 and 79, it doesn’t exist without cocaine. My memories of Studio 54 are the doors, the whole mob scene outside of course. I discovered too late I thought they were letting me in because I was a cool guy. It was just because they thought I was a drug dealer. I was a black guy, as a drug dealer, so let him in! I can hear the music and feel it in the floors, I can smell it, and  there’s also you could smell cocaine. I didn’t have that sense again until 2012. I was interviewing Billy Bob Thornton for EQ magazine, because he had a home studio. He says, Let’s go to my studio, which is in his house. We walked downstairs to the studio and I’m sitting there and I’m having this heavy flashback of the Studio 54 but he’s playing rock music for me, so it’s not a musical connection. I go, hey, man, who did you buy this house from? He goes, it used to belong to Slash, he lived here and he put the studio time, it’s like, oh, okay that makes sense. He goes, why? I go, I could smell cocaine. It’s in the very fibres of this room. He gets on the carpet. Oh, I guess Slash, it makes sense! I think you can’t separate, so everything that goes along with cocaine, actually is emblematic of that era. Cocaine quickly became the more affordable crack into the 80s and then everything turned to shit, right. My memories of both using coke or being in environments where that was the fuelling ethos were generally pretty positive. I had no money as a 16 year old, but I was hanging around with these Colombian guys who actually had cocaine, but they were not dancers. So my connection to cocaine was hanging out in the closet in the lower east side or up in Harlem with some Colombian guys who I had met from the my summer job as a lifeguard, doing cocaine in closets, and then going to discos but being completely sober, just there to dance.

E&D: Did it feel like a dichotomy being a punk rocker, disco dancer and a bodybuilder, all while still being in high school?

Eugene: No, it all seemed to make sense. I mean, the bodybuilding was the ticket that allowed me to go all these places without a super large amount of fear. There’s a great writer, his name is Adam Smyer and he’s written a book called Knucklehead and we had become friends for a while. At one point, he posted a picture on Facebook and it was like, why are you sitting in that picture? He goes, that’s my high school picture. I go that’s my homeroom. He goes, you went to Stuyvesant?! We went to the same high school, but we’re like one or two years apart. We were in the same building at the same time but I think he’s a little younger than I am. He was like, how did we end up in the same music and we didn’t know it back then. I said, well, I was going to shows and he was like, oh, yeah, I was too afraid. He’s black. He’s like, I was too afraid. I was afraid because I was reading the shit in the paper about Sid stabbing Nancy and saying punk has this violent image and also a fairly racist image at the time with wearing swastikas, it was part of their confrontational thing, but I mean, what was gonna happen, who was gonna beat me up, you know? I mean, I was working out with cops, working out with mobsters, who on at least one occasion tried to murder me. So some art student punk rocker, I was not afraid of. These things all actually in a weird way, mosaic together pretty comfortably. It was strange he knew me from my high school, because I got really bored with people in high school, but then I started seeing people from high school at these places I was going which was great, there was a guy I knew, he’s going down the stairs and he sees me on the dancefloor shirtless and sweaty. He’s like, Eugene, and I turn around and I see him and I look and I ran, lifted him up the floor, kissed him and ran back out into the dancefloor. Every now and then things crossed paths, but it never worked out like when I would try to take some of my friends from high school with me to the clubs because us together, we look like high school students. Me alone. I just looked like a drug dealer. I wore my disco clothes to discos. But at CBs and Max’s. I just wore what I wore at that high school, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. My disco clothes with great though. silk shirts, platform shoes, you got it!

E&D: You mention the movie Taxi Driver a few times in the book. Do you remember the New York being like it was portrayed in the film and was Travis Bickle someone you related to at that time?

Eugene: You need to understand something, that was like our high school. My high school at the time was on 15th Street and First Avenue. So all of that shit was filmed right around my high school. If you remember the cat when Jodie Foster first jumps into the cab that was right in front of a foreign theatre called Variety Photoplays, we used to play hooky from school. We’d sneak in, where for 99 cents, you get a ticket, you could stay there all day, which a lot of homeless people did. They would show to two movies just on repeat. The guy who was at one point walking down the street, the crazy black guy, that was over on 13th Street and that guy was a real guy from the neighbourhood. We used to get off at Union Square Station, and hope he wasn’t on 14th Street, you’d kind of go the other way. Where they were, he runs into Jodie Foster again with the two bums are fighting on the corner, right there, is where I got my first leather jacket at that historical Hudson’s. Scorsese didn’t cast those people. They were already there. I had the four block walk from the subway, and the Double L train to school. I mean, you talk to people about it now, and it’s interesting to me talking about transgender individuals. I mean, my exposure to trans folks initially, was these terrifying fistfights where you would see these trans women just fucking duking it out. It was an intense period of time, but we were in the mix, but not of the mix. Taxi Driver, I’ve told people if you want to get a sense of what it was like back then, watch Taxi Driver and Panic In Needle Park to give yourself a pretty good sense of how absolutely fucking out of control the city was.

E&D: What are your favourite memories of Whipping Boy in Stanford, California and the whole West Coast like hardcore scene, from that time and  was it just a total culture change from New York?

Eugene: Well, California was a shocking disappointment to me. The only reason that I managed to stay or developed a love for it was because of hardcore. It was one of the more exciting places. I mean, my choices were Boston, and now having played Boston a bunch of times and to have friends who are in bands in Boston, I think I probably comfortably made the smarter more fulfilling choice. I’ve spent enough time in Boston and DC to have experienced it, so California was a great fit. That’s ultimately what ended up happening and going to school kind of became my job. That’s how I managed to stay out here and have a place to live. My real life was going to shows. They were absolutely fantastic and absolutely, absolutely mind blowing Greatness. The thing is, sometimes people don’t realise this shit, and they look back and they go, oh, that was pretty great. I knew at the time it was fantastic. I knew at the time it was life changing in the same way that the hippie era, you could see suddenly the old laws not meaning anything anymore. I often wondered, Had this not happened, where would these tribes have ended up? Maybe a lot of us would have just ended up being strange guys in prison but there were just so many things. Some things I put in the book and then some things you just had to had to look back on, like hanging out with John Macias from Circle One in LA, because LA was still a pretty foreign wild place to me, and keep in mind, I had never experienced police interactions in California. I jumped turnstiles in New York City, and the cop would see you and go hey, go ahead! Then to come out to California and the California Highway Patrol cops who were  serious and fucking hostile. I remember walking to see the Circle Jerks at this place called the Farm in a Latino section of San Francisco and you’d be wearing your engineer boots and your pants and I had a kilt on, me and my buddy we both had kilts on and we’re walking along, and some cops start cruising up. Hey, you guys wearing skirts? They’re kilts, and they go yeah, well, what you got under that kilt. I’m like, fuck, man. This is a weird, creepy fucking interaction with cops. I have never had a discussion like this with cops.I think the only thing that stopped it from getting heavier is that I was with Whipping Boys old guitar player who was six foot six and about 270 pounds and so both of us are gonna be a handful.I think the cops just decide they could find somebody else to sexually abuse.

E&D: What were some of the best shows that you saw in that early period of hardcore? 

Eugene: Fear was phenomenal. Absolutely phenomenal. From every single vantage point. They could actually really play. They could really work the stage and the degree to which they did both successfully. They were still empresarios of extreme violence. Their shows were always pretty, pretty heavy events. TSOL was another band that would have that same real danger. At the end of the evening, you will be walking out looking for flyers and stuff on the floor to grab, stepping over pools of blood. I remember a friend of mine, she’s still friendly with me. I asked her about this and she’s like, man, I was so fucked up back then, I don’t remember but I remember looking on the dance floor and watching her stabbing at people with a church key, and  I thought, oh, you know, she’s just drunk and flailing and then I saw her stab some guy in the cheek, fucking madness. Absolute madness.

E&D: What were the highlights of doing the Birth Of Tragedy magazine?

Eugene: Oh, every single issue was great. I mean, that’s how I met Lydia Lunch. That’s how I started hanging around with the survival research labs guys who were phenomenal people. You know, Anton LaVey, Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy. That is the murderers in the title. I’ve met so many lunatics doing this that I’ve even forgotten. I was cleaning out because about this move to Spain and I found letters that Gacy sent to me, maybe I could sell these and make some money on them! I should probably keep them! There’s not a single part of the magazine that I disliked. It was actually really phenomenal. Really great. I had one interview which was my least favourite interview of all time for the Birth Of Tragedy magazine and that was Matt Groening from The Simpsons, who I had loved prior to the interview, and expected that the interview would be great, and he was a complete piece of fucking shit. This is before he hit big with the Simpson so I guess he had a right to be bitter. But man oh, man, I didn’t like that guy!

E&D: Going back to the book, it ends, as you mentioned, with Oxbow starting. Have you had any thoughts about doing a book about your time in Oxbow and beyond?

Eugene: Well, there was a companion, very limited edition 500 copies companion book to The Thin Black Duke, called the Thin Black Book, and it was because I gotten tired of of watching lazy journalists kind of completely misread what we’re doing. So it was, in essence, Oxbow in their own words and that was pretty successful but I decided that was so fun to do. The deal was to get Oxbow to sign on to it, what I had to say is, I will print whatever you give me unedited because Niko had this concern that I would somehow twist his words but no, it’s just about us talking about us, so go do whatever you want, even if it annoys me, I’m gonna print it up, as you’ve written it, so I thought about doing that with Love’s Holiday, and was going to do a book called Til Death Do Us Part, which would be a companion volume to Love’s Holiday. Love’s Holiday has a sequel that I’d really like to call The Love Life Of Adolf Hitler but I just wrote a substack about it, which I think is the most genius title in the world. I really don’t think I’m going to get the rest of the band to sign on to that because it’s distracting, and I understand that it’s distracting and people will be focused on that versus the music that was on it but that’s what I would like to call it. Then I figured Til Death Do Us Part would be a companion volume. but then Christina approached me about doing the memoir and I got tied up with the memoir. So I haven’t done it yet but that’s in my next novel. I have on the docket of things to write. This will actually be Oxbow on Oxbow as a book, so it could kind of pick up with the creation of Oxbow and then have us talk about Oxbow but not in relation to any record.

E&D: What are some of your favourite memoirs that people have written in the past?

E&D: I’ve read a couple of Gore Vidals which I’ve enjoyed, like one of the things I like about him is he’s gay but he makes a point of saying, I’ve slept with over five thousand people, I was like, man, those are good numbers but then he does this very old school thing of saying that fundamentally, he was a pitcher and not a catcher! He’s got such an old mind like that somehow mitigates your gayness, that you will fuck somebody in the ass versus you being the one who got fucked in the ass? Don’t be fucking ridiculous haha! That came three quarters of the way through the book, I was already into his book and about his intellect. I wasn’t reading for his sex life, so that memoir was great. Lydia had Paradoxa which I think was underrated and phenomenal, scathingly honest and, and even if it didn’t  gave the appearance of being so, I thought that that was a phenomenal memoir. I’ve read Harley’s, which I really enjoyed. Roger from Agnostic Front, I really enjoyed that. Nancy Bariles book, who’s married to Al from SSD, one of my all time favourite bands, these are great historical looks at scenes that I participated in. Lydia’s was an actual memoir, in that she talked about her life prior to being Lydia Lunch, and Harley’s and Rogers to a certain degree did as well. I don’t think mine is anything like those two though, because I spent a large amount of time talking about the time before music became a factor for me.

E&D: What would you like to write about in the future?

Eugene: My next novel is going to be called Love? Love! Time is not the issue for me, the issue is I’d like to write it and find out a way to get it published so I can make money on it! My novel, A Long Slow Screw was fundamentally a fictional take on a jewel robbery but it let me let me work through a lot of the issues that had come up when I was hanging out at that gym with guys who made their livings on the other side of the law, and Love? Love! Is more of my West Coast story and about, all the folks that I met the porn industry. I used to work for Larry Flynt for years and and my first national piece was in Hustler, and I ended up being editor in chief of a porn Yelp site called Skull Game for about 12 years. From punk rock, to mixed martial arts to the porn industry. They have all these really special enclaves, these tribal enclaves of outlaw people who have chosen to live outside the realm of the standard and I think this is where I’ve constantly found my home.

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