"But is it really a problem, what with fighting and fucking being kind of cool and all?" one might ask. Well, yes and no.
In college I wrote a paper about the French actor/writer Antonin Artaud's theory of a "theatre of blood," which, assuming I ever understood it, was his prescription for plays that were ailing and staid. To jump-start things, Artaud advocated a visceral approach: If you want to dramatize the plague, he suggested, then you'd damn well better have some real rotting body parts lying around the stage. While this approach may have had some appeal to necrophiles and fans of death metal (or whatever the French equivalent was in the '30s, Serge Gainsbourg having not yet arrived), it didn't garner a, shall we say, mainstream audience.
Oxbow's art -- the music played by Niko Wenner (guitar), Dan Adams (bass), and Greg Davis (drums), combined with the post-apocalyptic striptease delivered by frontman Eugene Robinson (who, to my knowledge, has never actually ejaculated onstage, although he does frequently pull out his cock and stroke it) -- is shocking, repulsive, and beautiful. And I think it would make Artaud proud. Blood and body parts might not be onstage at Oxbow's shows, but they're there in spirit, and that spirit is what Artaud seems to have been getting at anyway: A performance should provoke a response. It should make you think. It should scare you. And a performance by Oxbow does nothing if not those three things.
Of course, most of you already know this, right? After all, the San Francisco-based quartet has been at it since the mid-'80s, having put out five albums and been written about occasionally in papers like SF Weekly (see Dave Pehling's "Uneasy Listening," Sept. 11, 2002). But what's that you say? You still haven't been to a show? Oh, well, I guess that would explain why there were only about 15 people at the last gig I went to a few months ago. And here we arrive back at the problem: Much like a "theatre of blood," this band is not for everyone.
Which is why Music for Adults -- a new documentary about Oxbow that premiered at last year's Mission Creek Music Festival and that's finally become available on DVD through the group's Web site (www.theoxbow.com/musicforadults) -- is such a goddamn blessing. Directed by Christian Anthony, the movie, which follows the band on its European tour in the spring of 2002, is a great introduction to this complicated act, offering viewers a means of experiencing Oxbow without running the risk of getting a beating or bumping into Robinson's package. And boy-oh-boy, what an experience it is.
"[An Oxbow show] is more like going to watch a symphony," explains Anthony with a straight face during a recent interview. "It's a different rhythm and stuff. It's not like a concert where people are bobbing their heads up and down and getting into the vibe of it. It's more like you just sit there and take it all in. And it changes, and it gets all moody, and it gets all weird. It's much more complicated than just a rock 'n' roll band, although it definitely has those moments, too. So that's what's interesting about them and probably why they'll never be that popular."
Or, in the words of one of the interviewees in the doc, a giddy European fan speaking post-show: "This is a concert I'm going to wonder about for days and weeks. I have, like, thousands of 'Whys?' When [Robinson] stood in his underpants after the second song I was sure he was going to masturbate. I was just wondering about what next. Is he going to jump out into the audience and hit somebody? When does it stop? Does it stop?"
Sounds fun, huh? And with Music for Adults you get a lovin' spoonful of Oxbow goodness, from shots of Robinson choking his chicken and "choking out" (fight club parlance for "subduing via chokehold") a couple of fans, to more mundane, but equally intriguing, tidbits, like seeing a band member curl up with an issue of Vanity Fair during some downtime, or hearing about how Robinson smuggles weapons onto airplanes (he packs a pool ball, and a sock to swing it in).
One of the more audacious things about the tour this movie captures is that the band didn't firm up a lot of the dates before it left, so point man Wenner ends up having to talk Oxbow's way onto a couple of bills at the last minute. It's one thing to do this if your group plays non-threatening pop -- audiences don't have too much to suffer through if it sucks. But imagine you're a concertgoer and you turn out to see your favorite local experimental accordion player (as depicted in the film), only to have that followed up by Robinson and company. You might not be too happy, especially if you agree with this guy's interpretation of the show: "I had a partly good experience and a partly scary experience. In a way [Robinson] had sex with us, and then he dressed and left. No, no, in a way, he raped us, then he dressed and left. That's not quite right. It's somewhere in between."
Anthony includes these and a number of other fans' reactions to what the band does, from laudatory stuff like "I want to kill myself because I loved it so much" to the equally fair "I think [Robinson] was on a massive ego trip. Fuck him." Rather than try to spell it out with voice-over, Anthony lets the supporters and detractors interpret the proceedings. But while it's possible to get a pretty good idea of what Oxbow does from the flick, it's important to remember that, unlike these interviewees, you, the viewer, have not just seen the band perform. You've seen a video of the performance, which pales in comparison to the real thing.
"The ultimate indignity would be if people were spending a lot more time seeing the movie [than] coming to see the band," Robinson tells me in a phone interview. "I think that would be pretty funny." He adds, "Nothing is going to happen on the video that's going to pierce that fourth wall and wrestle you to the floor. You can't say the same thing for the live experience."
As a commercial for Oxbow, Music for Adults works. But at 55 minutes, it doesn't get much deeper than a highlight reel. What, we're left asking, are these guys thinking? What's behind this desire to bludgeon people's eardrums so relentlessly? And perhaps most of all, what kind of person is Eugene Robinson? Why does he strip down to his briefs at almost every show? Why does one fan feel compelled to pull down his own pants, stuff his tackle between his legs, and bum rush the stage during a song? And why does Robinson proceed to beat him up? Anthony's choice -- motivated, he explains to me, by a desire to avoid Behind the Music-like clichés -- is to let the music answer those questions. But I'm not sure it does.
Then again, maybe that's a good thing. Because by raising more questions than it answers, Anthony's film compels us to go out and see the band, perhaps take the time to listen to the CDs and get beyond the sensational aspects of sex and violence -- which, as Robinson points out, are only part of what's important about an Oxbow show.
"I'm not interested in [violence] happening every night," says the singer. "I've got too much respect for both the art and the violence to want that to be part of my shtick, you know? I fight every day in the ring. At an Oxbow show, I'm doing something else."
It's up to you to find out what that something else is -- at your own risk, of course.