Banned From Switzerland. The Charge? Penis
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there are worse things you can do in public than be naked.
By Eugene S. Robinson
For many, once you say “naked” or “on stage,” they’re out. Perhaps for good reason, as one could reasonably assume the conversation won’t be getting better from there on out. Especially if by “better” you mean not involving stages or nudity.
But if you’re making art, your muse is Dionysus and your next move, which could possibly be your best move, should always be one you intuit. That’s what I did in a garage in Palo Alto, California, in 1988 when I chose not to create a hugely successful computer company but instead a band called OXBOW. A name that had come to me in a fever dream, a dream in which X’s and O’s repeated, and from this somehow we ended up with OXBOW, a band that has spanned three documentaries, seven full-length records and tour stops in Japan, Germany, Italy, England, the U.S. and, you know, everywhere.
So it was no surprise that in 1996, in the midst of a show in Bern, Switzerland, at the Reitschule in the Reithalle, a cavernous venue slathered in graffiti, I did what I did. Specifically in the middle of a set that routinely saw me lose as much as 10 pounds from the sweat and effort, I intuited that the rightest of all possible things to do mid-show was to remove my trousers.
I can’t say how often you’ve removed your trousers in public, but I can tell you that my first and most immediate sense was one of great relief. They were soaked with sweat and clinging to my legs like someone had pushed me in a pool. But I picked up on something else: a generalized air of discomfort. Given that OXBOW’s music mines uncomfortability surrounding issues at the heart of our struggles with love and life in micro, and issues of good and evil in macro, this seemed fitting.
She said, ‘Some of us like to know a man a little bit before we see his penis.’
Though it doesn’t explain how, in front of a crazy crowd of 600 people, I intuited that the next step was the full monty. Which it was. (But if you’ve ever tried to jog without the proper support, you’ll understand why it was only the briefest of full montys.)
We left the Reithalle the next day believing we had played a good show and settled into the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter that was our tour bus and home on the road. Last in the van was guitarist Niko Wenner. He sat down and sighed.
“The woman who heads the venue’s organization is sort of … well, unhappy with us.”
“For what?” We didn’t know. We honestly didn’t know.
“She said, ‘Some of us like to know a man a little bit before we see his penis.’ ”
“I’m shocked it was such a significant moment for her,” I said, laughing it off. But the storm clouds were forming.
Typically before the tour was over, planning for the next one would start, and that’s when we heard from our tour agent, Manuel.
“Well, Sandro says there seems to be a problem with Switzerland,” he said of our one constant supporter there, who had been largely the most instrumental in getting us the show there in the first place.
“He’s from the Reithalle. That’s just Bern.”
“Switzerland is not that big of a country,” Manuel said. We had played Geneva, St. Gallen, Lucerne, Zurich, Basel and Bern. And while there had been an incident wherein a female audio engineer doing stage sound had complained that her job description didn’t include seeing singers’ penises — right before she tried to kiss a band member (not the singer) — that hadn’t happened in Switzerland.
“But the woman running the venue is from San Francisco and …” Manuel continued but I had stopped listening. OXBOW lists our home locale as San Francisco. We formed in Northern California and had more than a passing familiarity with a very specific kind of puritanical sensitivity. A sensitivity that now resulted in us not being able to play Switzerland.
In true sour-grapes fashion, we claimed that we didn’t want to play for a country of people who more than likely had sex in the dark, but the reality of it was those Swiss francs were missed. So we tried to talk our way out of being dumped. To no avail.
Suggestions were made by sympathetic fans that maybe we warn people beforehand.
“Warn them of what?” I asked.
“That your show includes nudity.”
“It doesn’t always include nudity. It rarely does. But it was hot in Bern and …”
“Well, maybe print it on the ticket …”
“We have no control over the tickets …”
And so it went. Following some sound legal advice, we changed the contract to indicate that at an OXBOW show anything could happen and it was the responsibility of the venue to ensure that no one who could adversely affect the show be in a position to do so. After all, no audience members complained. And upset audience members complain in the best way possible. They don’t return. It was the venues we were worried about.
The years went by. Switzerland-less years. Until a call from Sandro. In 2007. The San Francisco boss who had banned us had moved on to roach the buzz of other places and Switzerland was ours again.
“You can do whatever you want, man!” Sandro was low-key but keyed up for his first OXBOW show in well over a decade. “Get as naked as you want.”
I smiled because the truth of it was that some of us like to know an audience a bit before we show them our penis, and what I knew about Switzerland told me that whatever I intuited about future events didn’t involve penis.