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Chuck Zito, Joe Layden
St. Martin's Press, 2002
E.A.R.L.: The Autobiography of DMX
Earl Simmons, Smokey D. Fontaine
Kevin Forest Moreau
There's always been a soft spot in the collective heart of the
entertainment-consuming public for the "bad boy" type: the
leather-jacketed loner from the wrong side of the tracks, the unrepentant
thug, the handsome rogue with a hair-trigger temper. Sometimes we love
them only as scoundrels or crooks; it's hard to deny that Russell Crowe
would be a whole lot less interesting if he stopped being so mercurial.
But for the most part, those love affairs don't last long (Mickey Rourke,
anyone?). Even "controversial white rapper" Eminem softened his image last
year, at least a little bit, toning down the hate rhymes on
Show and even vying for underdog status in
8 Mile. No
doubt Marshall Mathers has learned one of the truths of show business:
Outlaws are hot, but reformed outlaws have a longer shelf life. At some
point, we want our renegades to find redemption.
One spends most of E.A.R.L., the autobiography of Earl Simmons
-- a.k.a. superstar rapper DMX -- impatient for the third-act redemption
we're pretty sure lurks around every dark corner. Simmons' story is a
fairly predictable one, in that his troubled childhood and turbulent teen
years ring all too familiar. Born to unwed parents, Simmons is subject to
frequent and vicious beatings from his mother (and occasionally one of her
many boyfriends). He's also a smart kid who finds school boring and
constricting; when he begins acting out in class, a slippery slope that
inevitably leads to petty street crime and a string of juvenile
facilities, you almost wonder what took him so long -- the sense of
deja vu that pervades the story of Simmons' early years is disturbing
in its easy commonality.
There are similarities to Eminem's own upbringing, or at least the
whitewashed version to which we're treated in 8 Mile; an
oppressively poor urban setting (Yonkers, New York), a shaky
mother-and-son relationship, and of course the latching on to rap music as
a potential salvation. Unlike Eminem's Rabbit in 8 Mile, however,
Earl Simmons is a hard guy to root for. He steals cars and mugs innocents
without the slightest remorse, even as his standing in the local rap scene
grows. When a fellow rapper scores a successful single by ripping off the
spelling style DMX used to defeat him in a rap "battle," it's difficult to
feel any sympathy. Even Simmons' storied love of dogs, a humanizing trait
if ever there was one, fails to warm our hearts too much once we learn
he's fond of setting his pit bull companion loose on stray cats and
entering him into dog fights.
In fact, it isn't until Simmons suffers a severe beating at the hands
of an angry mob that we begin to grudgingly come around. Years of
simmering resentment come to a boil as many of Simmons' friends and
neighbors turn out to watch him get his due for having wronged so many of
them for so long. During a months-long convalescence, Simmons decides to
take his beat-down as a sign from God, as payback for his years of
criminal behavior, and decides to go straight in an attempt to serve a
higher calling. As laudable as this sentiment is, however, it's almost not
enough. Simmons never actually convinces us that he's been humbled by the
experience; it's almost as if the move is a practical rather than
emotional one. This reviewer, at least, found himself taking Simmons'
conversion on faith, fueled by an appreciation of his talent and brooding,
magnetic presence. We'd like to be able to cheer unabashedly when DMX has
his true Rocky moment, acing an impressive audition for Def Jam
label head Lyor Cohen -- despite the fact that his jaw is still wired shut
from the beating! But although co-author Smokey D. Fontaine (a former
music editor for The Source magazine) goes to great lengths to give
us glimpses of a more enlightened and worldly DMX, one who ponders
eventually becoming a preacher and gives selflessly of himself to others
in low-key, attention-shunning ways -- even though DMX includes a prayer
on each album and makes a point of wrestling with the devil in some of his
songs -- Simmons' relentlessly gruff exterior and his penchant for
glamorizing the thug life (most notably his lack of any sort of apology
for his years of misdeeds) holds us back from believing that good has
decisively won the day.
Still, Simmons does have his epiphany, and if it never quite feels like
enough to make us embrace him wholeheartedly, it's still infinitely much
more than we get from Hells Angel, celebrity bodyguard and all-around
tough guy Chuck Zito. In Street Justice, his engrossing but
ultimately frustrating autobiography, Zito unapologetically embraces the
personality traits that he obviously considers strengths, although they
come across as character flaws to others. In Zito's world, might seems to
make right, his imposing presence giving him license to pummel anyone
guilty of a perceived slight. What do you do when a grocery store manager
offers you a blow job? Why, the only sensible response is to knock him
senseless, of course! While recounting his first serious motorcycle
accident, Zito gives us an all-too revealing glimpse into his worldview:
I pushed away from the bike and crawled
out from beneath the car, much to the shock of the crowd of onlookers,
most of whom tried to convince me to get back on the ground. I think they
expected me to collapse in a heap, but I was reasonably sure that I
hadn't even broken any bones...Maybe I should have been grateful, but I
wasn't. I was pissed. I yanked off my helmet, which was cracked and
ruined, and threw it to the ground.
"Who the fuck was driving that car?" I
Into the crowd stepped a large black
man. I don't know whether he was contrite or self-righteous or what. And
I didn't care. I knew only that someone had cut me off and destroyed my
bike and very nearly gotten me killed. So, when the words "I was,"
escaped his lips, I lit into him. Didn't even give him a chance to
"You stupid motherfucker!" I shouted,
and then I dropped him with a single punch.
The poor guy struggled to his feet and I
hit him again. I hadn't just lost my temper -- I'd gone crazy. But I felt
my actions were reasonable under the circumstances. This guy's
recklessness had nearly cost me my life, and I was going to let him know
about it. Was I right? Depends on how you look at things, I guess. In the
world in which I was raised, you didn't get away with shit like that.
Note Zito's own admission that he doesn't care whether the driver was
repentant, and his refusal to view his own actions as excessive under
the circumstances. Throughout Street Justice, Zito exhibits a
similar lack of guilt or remorse. In his world, the circumstances always
justify resorting to brute force. There's no wrong so slight, no insult
(real or unintended) so minor that it doesn't merit physical violence:
Peter Weller, the actor who starred in
RoboCop, among other films, once approached me at a nightclub,
when I was wearing my Hells Angels jacket, and asked, in all seriousness,
"Is it true you have to share your wife with the other club members
before you can get in?" I liked Peter and I understood the fascination
some people (most people) have with the darker aspects of biker lore, so
I didn't smack him. But I did set him straight.
"Hey, if a guy so much as looks at my
wife," I said, "I'm gonna knock him out. No hesitation."
What do we learn here? That Zito sees nothing wrong with committing
assault just because someone might be "disrespecting him" with a dumb
question about the Hells Angels; implicit in the statement "I didn't smack
him" is the acknowledgment that a smacking wouldn't have been out of order
had the guy asking the question not been a friendly celebrity
acquaintance, or if Zito weren't gracious enough to "understand" his
fascination with the biker culture. Not to mention that it's okay to
batter someone merely for looking at your woman, a brutish belief that
almost, but not quite, causes Zito to question himself just a few pages
earlier. While joyriding with his wife Kathy, he notices a couple of guys
apparently checking her out. What's a guy to do but try to run them off
the road and then get ready to administer a beating?
As I approached, however, I could see
that the driver was confused, frightened. "What's wrong?" he shouted.
"What's wrong? What's wrong is
the way that you're looking at my girl, asshole."
He held up his hands submissively.
"Whoa, pal. We were just admiring your car, that's all."
I stopped in my tracks. I could feel the
blood draining from my face.
The guy in the passenger seat leaned
over. "Yeah, man. It's awesome."
I hung my head. Rarely had I felt like
such a dummy, such a complete jerk. I'd come within a breath of kicking
the shit out of these two guys simply because they liked my car, which
was precisely the reaction I'd hoped to provoke by putting so much work
into it. So I did something I'd done only a handful of times in my entire
Then I went back to my car, feeling two
inches tall, and took a tongue-lashing from Kathy.
"You see," she said. "Your temper is
going to get you in big trouble someday."
She got no argument from me.
It's tempting to see Zito's contrition here as a good sign, except for
the maddening fact that it does absolutely nothing to change his
punch-first, ask-questions-later philosophy. His shame seems to come from
not being able to tell the difference between ogling his car and ogling
his wife, the latter of which is still an offense punishable by a beating.
What's more, not only does Zito never quite grasp the inanity of that
statement, he never acknowledges the hypocritical nature of his own
actions. As a member of the Hells Angels, he terrorizes a member of a
rival bike club for wearing his colors on Angels turf. When the guy points
out that Zito does the same thing, he unapologetically sneers that the
Hells Angels wear their colors wherever they please. In short, he
continually holds others to a standard of behavior from which he himself
is somehow exempt.
This frustrating double-standard is never addressed, much less
abandoned. Which is a shame, because Zito's maddeningly repulsive and
selfish way of looking at the world detracts from what otherwise proves to
be a fairly engaging read. Zito exhibits a real flair for autobiography,
and he's inarguably lead an interesting life, serving as bodyguard and
friend to the likes of Sean Penn, Liza Minelli, Mickey Rourke and Charlie
Sheen. And his and the Hells Angels' persecution at the hands of the FBI,
which results in Zito spending almost six years behind bars for refusing
to "rat" on his fellows, lends him an air of sympathy. If he occasionally
makes a grammatical error, or refers to KISS singer/guitarist Paul Stanley
as the group's bassist, he nonetheless spins some interesting yarns.
(Plus, he's possessed of his own formidable screen presence as inmate
Chucky Pancamo on the gripping HBO prison drama Oz.) So one wants
to like Zito, especially since so many otherwise seemingly reasonable
people seem quite fond of him. But his skewed priorities (when his wife
leaves him because of his involvement with the Angels, he feels bad, but
never considers leaving the club) and unrepentant thuggery make it
impossible to separate the life story from the wrong-headed man who tells
it. There's plenty of "street" attitude in Street Justice, but
Chuck Zito does himself no favors by reveling in his brutish ways, which
robs the book of anything approaching "justice."
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