Just recently, Robinson formed Black Face with Chuck Dukowski of Black Flag, a project that sees the group recording unreleased Black Flag tunes, sent through a uniquely Robinson filter. In order to get the details on the new group, and some tips on cleaning shit off of one's shoe tips, John Gentile recently traveled to the secluded location where Robinson was honing his combat skills and went a few rounds with the artist-cum-writer-cum-fighter.
The first time I meet Eugene S. Robinson in person, he's on the ground with his hands clamped around another man's neck. Eugene's opponent, who is on the underside, shifts his weight to his upper back and attempts to kick Eugene in the ribs while clutching at Eugene's face. Meanwhile, five other fighters and myself watch the contest while the Bad Brains play on a tiny boombox in the corner.
We're in a tiny warehouse outside a rich suburb if San Francisco. The warehouse itself is snuggled between other like sized warehouses except in contrast to the manufacturing businesses on either side, each which bear a company logo on their doors, it has no identification on the door. In fact, the entrance door and attached garage gate are completely blank, and even the "G" on the unit number has been scratched off, completely stripping the building of any identity on its exterior.
Inside, where Eugene and his opponent are grappling is "Team Serao," a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu club where members meet every day of the week, including Thanksgiving Day, to hone their skills, and if someone happens to get the crap kicked out of him during practice, so be it. Right now, Eugene and the rest of the club are practicing for an upcoming tournament.
One of the athletes (half) jokingly comments on the music, "What is this, devil music?" and then goes to change it. As he approaches the boombox, one of the younger members mandates, in a (half) friendly fashion, "Don't change that. That's Eugene's music. He gets seniority."
I get the impression that the members of the club only have vague notions of Eugene's career outside fighting. It seems that at 49 years of age, in contrast to the average member age which is probably about 26, Eugene is seen as the old man of the gym- the old man that can still hand your own ass to you. Still, probably because they come from a different world, it doesn't seem like Eugene's peers realize that this is the Eugene S. Robinson: The Eugene S. Robinson who was one of the first African American front man in the notoriously violent hardcore hardcore scene of the early 80's; The Eugene S. Robinson who fronts the avant-punk group Oxbow which made a name for itself as much by creating discordant, challenging music as physically beating the pulp out of those who deserved it. The Eugene S. Robinson who just earlier this year formed Black Face with Chuck Dukowski, a band which has taken unreleased Dukowski penned Black Flag tunes and reinterpreted them in a modern, and violent, context.
"I never kicked anyone's ass who didn't deserve it," Robinson states. "Some guys, you just can't talk to. Some guys that have a problem will just start talking as a way to prepare themselves to fight. In that scenario, I just punch first to save the time."
While it would probably be disingenuous to say that Robinson's musical career and fighting career are related to some root, it's easy to see how trouble in both fields finds its way to the frontman. He stands at over six foot two, sinewy muscles run up and down his tattooed arms, a bolt of white strikes through his corkscrew hair, he has both a thick jaw and forehead which suggests that if you surprise him with a haymaker to the face, he's probably not going to go down, and following that, he'll probably tear you down to your component parts. And of course, in the unfortunately homogenous culture that is punk rock, the first thing most audience members would likely notice about him is that he's black. But, if that wasn't enough, the name of the band immediately draws attention to the concept of race in punk rock with its very name.
"Chuck Dukowski actually came up with the name Black Face. We wanted something that would play off of Black Flag's name, with multiple interpretations," Eugene explains. "When I first heard the name Black Flag, I was like. 'Oh, it's a bug spray. That's funny.' Later I had people explain to me the levels of the name- associations with pirates, anarchists, and other things. Black Face can have many different connotations."
Minorities are still in the minority for punk frontman, but Robinson doesn't necessarily seem to want to portray himself as a "Black frontman," but he certainly doesn't shy away from that aspect either. "When I was in Whipping Boy, I played a song for my Great Aunt. The whole song went, 'I'm black, I'm black, I'm black!' My great aunt said, 'That's the dumbest song I've ever heard! When people hear that, that's all they'll know you as.'" Eugene laughs, "But, that has its benefits. A black performer, or Asian performer, doesn't have to establish himself in that context. It's already out there."
Already the name has sparked a minor debate. Ian MacKaye, of groundbreaking punk acts Minor Threat and Fugazi, suggested that Dukowski change the name of the band to something not quite so potent, such as "Black Soul." Eugene's eyes widen and his nostrils flare even at the suggestion, "I said to Chuck, 'did you tell Ian that I am in the band... a black man, a negro, is in the band Black Face?!' How can I be offended if I'm in the band?!"
However, even now, Dukowski is considering changing the group's name, much to the dismay of Hydra Head Records, the band's label for its first seven inch, which has already been printed. Of course, this belies another aspect of the new band- an aspect which harkens back to its progenitor. The rumors of Black Flag are rife with tales of rampant dysfunction from crediting former singers as "Chavo Pederast", bastardized-Spanish for "Child Molester," to hating each other so much that one side of an album was all instrumental while the other was all vocals without instruments.
Still, in someways, it seemed that the "dysfunction" of Black Flag was overstated. A band couldn't possibly hate each other that much, and have such poor communication skills and still make some of the greatest music of all time. "I just have a glimpse of the inner workings of Black Flag," Eugene nods, "But the dysfunction was understated. Greg Ginn (Black Flag's founder and sole constant member) and Raymond Pettibone (Black Flag's cover artist) are brothers, and they haven't spoken to each other for years." It seems that this dysfunction has followed its way to the sides of Black Face, albeit in a different manifestation. "I thought that this was going to be an easy project to get together," Robinson shakes his head, "but it has just been a mess the whole way. From the meeting up, to the recording, to putting out the record."
But, perhaps a band as volatile as Black Face needs gears to be grinding upon each other to merely exist, even if such conflict births itself in a different form. In contrast to vengeful atmosphere of Black Flag, the collaboration of Black Face seems to be as much one of mutual admiration as it is understanding. Eugene briefly explains his relationship with Dukowski, "I first met Chuck when SST records (Black Flag's label, which at the time was co-owned by Ginn and Dukowski) put out Oxbow's record. Some people, you know them just in a few minutes from meeting them. Chuck is a great person and a genius musician. But, still, it can be like fucking a super model. In idea, fucking a super model is great. But in reality, it can be really difficult to work out. Chuck will be singing all these musical ideas, with weird time signatures, and I just have no idea what he is talking about."
As I talk with Robinson, it occurs to me that the media may have painted him in a false light. The calm, warm, articulate Robinson that I am speaking with is a far cry from the snarling beast that screams, "I will kill you! I want to kill you! I will kill you!" on the new Black Face single. He's certainly not simply the man known for kicking ass in and out of the ring, reveling in causing pain and chaos. Rather, it seems that more than almost any other musician I've encountered, Robinson is honest. If he likes you, he'll tell you how his ex-girlfriend, in an attempt to hurt his feelings screamed, "I know your secret Eugene Robinson! Everyone thinks you're this crazed madman, but you're really the most level headed person I know!" If he likes you, he'll explain his theory as the origin of Bay Area punk rock's unique vocals. Of course, if he doesn't like you, and thinks you need to be punched in the face, he'll say he doesn't like you and punch you in the face.
But, I wonder if Robinson fears that his two worlds might overlap, damaging each other, much like the way he damaged a European who spit on him at an Oxbow show. If you know any career heavy weight boxers, you might notice that with each meeting, the lights behind their eyes get a little dimmer, and they seem to have slightly more difficulty in finding the right word with each meeting. Robinson acknowledges the danger of mixing his cerebral pursuits with his physical. He points to his head, "Pretty much everything I have came from here. The book I wrote, Fight came from here. But, for me, fighting is an addiction. Plus, I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. I guess it is dangerous to keep fighting, but that's one of the reasons that I like it."