Eugene Robinson 


Question: Who is Eugene Robinson?

Foggy San Francisco, sometime in 2018, after a night out with Eugene Robinson

Where to start to do this book justice?

The end is always a good idea, at least if you are able to keep an eye on the arc of suspense – and that should work, if only because of the large number of punch stories and lines that Eugene Robinson knows how to embellish in “A WALK ACROSS DIRTY WATER AND STRAIGHT INTO MURDERER’S ROW: A Memoir” with all the linguistic and narrative finesse and his incomparable talent for non-linear narrative rhythms in Zen-like composure.

So: at the very end, on the last page of this powerfully stirring book, the author bids us, his readers, farewell with a striking photo in which he gives us the finger.

Perhaps, however, it is not held out to us, as one might initially think, but to Death, to whom Robinson has “dedicated” the last two chapters (“Death was all around us” and “The Death Plan”), at least according to the striking setting and first reading.

Because in the real flow of words (as in the rest of the book), the truth breathes between the lines, and Robinson, after a rollercoaster ride of fate that presupposes a great deal of pop culture knowledge (while paying tribute to deceased companions on the drive, digressions to and with such diverse characters and institutions as Minutemen, D.O.A., Mark Pauline/Survival Research Labs, Seinfeld and The Wire, applies to be Van Halen’s singer in succession to David Lee Roth, interviews Russ Meyer and swaps the consumption of LSD for daily steroid use), whose terminus for most would definitely have been on the other side of the Jordan, but gets off in this world again. Not at all because his own strength enabled him to do so, but rather because he clung to one of those little flames of life that we all try so hopefully to warm ourselves by – in his case, just as the hour was getting particularly dark, an invitation for his band Oxbow fluttered into the house with the offer to tour England.

But enough long, overly complicated sentences from me, with which I am only trying to keep up with the eloquence of Eugene Robinson, let’s give him the keys himself:

„Now I realize what’s more true than not is that there are a lot of people who deserve to die, a lot more than I do. This fact, alone, kept me going. Still keeps me going. Four daughters, two marriages, dozens of tours, records, TV shows, books, commercials, and films later, this realization still seems properly correct.
Or at the very least I’m happy enough to have ruled this out as an exit line. Thank fucking G-d.“

And that’s enough about the end and death (for now). After all, there are 275 pages beforehand in which Eugene Robinson meanders through his life and the world in which it takes place, back and forth (chronologically speaking) and up and down (in terms of his own morals).

A personal note at this point: I’ve known Eugene Robinson since the mid-90s, when he performed with his band Oxbow at two release parties for my fanzine Harakiri (I think one was in Tübingen, the other in Villingen-Schwennigen, but I could be wrong, time puts a fog over the experiences, at least for me). Back then, Robinson and his bandmates spent the night with another author of the magazine, who for years afterwards told the story of how Robinson prepared ten eggs for breakfast and then ate them alone. A reference to his imposing figure, which often gave him the wrong impression, as he explains in an interview with The Wire writer Laina Dawes for the cover story in issue 473 (July 2023). There, Robinson recalls that “because of my size and, you know, preference for weapons and martial arts, there were assumptions made about my intellect.”
Robinson’s stage presence certainly caused even more irritation in those days. At one point during the two concerts in the Black Forest, he was naked on stage and had, again quoting from the Wire, “my cock in my fist“.
But perhaps one more step back.

Question: Who is Eugene Robinson?
Answer: Musician (Whipping Box, Oxbow, Bunuel), author (including “Fight: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ass-Kicking but Were Afraid You’d Get Your Ass Kicked for Asking”), journalist (for GQ, SF Weekly, Vice, LA Weekly, among others), editor-in-chief (Ode, EQ), martial artist, family man …
Like all those who have endured more than six decades on earth and with other people, he too has lived multiple lives, somehow intertwined.
In “A WALK ACROSS DIRTY WATER AND STRAIGHT INTO MURDERER’S ROW: A Memoir”, Eugene Robinson tells of precisely this web of existences with a great deal of honesty, sometimes almost too much. He has the talent not to take himself too seriously, but also not to underplay himself: And just as importantly, you can sense the great curiosity for the lives of other people and openness for the encounters with them in his words, but also the willingness to let these people fall into the ravine or even bury them at any time and without hesitation, if they deserve it – and many in this book deserve it.

„Every single horrible thing that happened to me on those streets, I can directly tie to the end of the Vietnam War and cats coming bak who were just out of their minds.“
(aus The Wire 473)

The prelude to Eugene Robinson’s “walk across dirty water” into “murderer’s row” comes from a trio that couldn’t have been better put together: Lydia Lunch, Harley Flanagan (of NY hardcore band Cro-Mags) and Jimi Izreal (host of “The Barbershop” and writer of “The Hardline” blog for The Root), who each manage to tease out the complex puzzle of Robinson’s world in just a few lines, with Lunch and Flanagan focusing on stories from the dystopian nucleus of New York in the 70s and 80s where Robinson grew up, and where they first met.

Quote Harley Flanagan: „My first memory of Eugene was at shows at Max’s and then at CBGBs, where, in a world of mostly scrawny white hardcore punks, he stood out: Black with a mohawk and in shape, which was not a common thing in a sea of drugged-out punk rock kids. It was a dangerous world we came from. NYC back then was a grimy and violent place, and if you were a punk rocker you were a walking target for the gangs, the cops,
and any neighborhood tough guys. So we experienced all sides of the violence, some things best forgotten. He wound up on the West Coast in the early ’80s fronting a hardcore band called Whipping Boy, who I saw put on some great shows.“
Quote Lydia Lynch: 
„There was a lot to fucking hate. There still is. And hate inflames the justifiable rage that burns bright into many an endless night where those of us cursed with the knowledge of generational trauma turn instrumental violence into an art form and bless others with our gener- osity. And to that end I give you Eugene Robinson.“

Quote Jimi Izreal: 
„Virtually unknown to The Negro World, file Eugene’s work, in general, somewhere between Sun Ra for White People and the collected works of Carl Hancock Rux. “Well-spoken,” shiny, and articulate, he’s art rock’s best black friend. Fanon would say Eugene is free-thinking, free-writing, and free-range—unrelentingly talented: stand-up and principled, ready to die but not without a fight.“

That says quite a lot, but of course not nearly with the linguistic elegance that Eugene Robinson is able to formulate in “A WALK ACROSS DIRTY WATER AND STRAIGHT INTO MURDERER’S ROW: A Memoir”. 
Great stylists are characterized by their ability to create even the most brutal stories in such a way that they only spread through us readers as a delayed shockwave. This makes them all the more brutal because, on the one hand, they mercilessly expose our self-protection processes, make us aware of how often we fearfully duck away so as not to have to perceive what is actually obvious and undeniable in front of us, and also paralyze them. The latter happens on almost every page of this slow killer of a book, Robinson caresses the harshness of life into us with relish. What usually begins as purely personal stories often ends as a tightrope act over the abysses of our societies.

I don’t want to attempt to retell these stories here, and I don’t want to anticipate too many, after all, you’re supposed to buy the book here – anything else would be foolish – but I have to get one off my chest because it makes little Eugene so strikingly tangible. In this story, Robinson recalls how the class teacher asked the students to present their favorite newspaper at school:

“ … Remember to bring in your favorite newspaper for a discussion of current events tomorrow,” she said one day.
The next day, some classmates brought in the New York Daily News, some the New York Post, some the New York Amsterdam News. I brought in what I read once a week, the Village Voice. We read in silence before the discussion while our teacher cruised the room, check- ing out what was being read.
“What are you doing reading that rag?” she asked me.
“The Voice?” I said with a laugh, thinking she was joking. “Why is it a rag?”
I expected a punch line. What I got was “If you like reading Commie lies about America, knock yourself out.”
She was naturally all about the 200th birthday of America. In a school that was 98 percent racially homogeneous, I guess it made sense for her to have the great-grandsons and great-granddaughters of slaves dress up as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Andrew Jackson.
“Who are you going to be, Eugene?”
I hated the assignment. We both suspected she had me checkmated into doing something I was constitutionally opposed to.
“Can I be Karl Marx?” I asked.
The room had grown so quiet you could hear the radiator.
“He’s not an American,” she said.
“Then I’ll be Geronimo.”
And I was. From that moment on, had I been academically anything other than a great student, she would have crushed me. Instead, she satisfied herself with ignoring me. …“

This is cheap ending, but sometimes you have to take the templates as they come:

It would be a mistake to ignore Eugene Robinson and not read “A WALK ACROSS DIRTY WATER AND STRAIGHT INTO MURDERER’S ROW: A Memoir”.


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