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Bad Boys

  Street Justice
Chuck Zito, Joe Layden
St. Martin's Press, 2002
Rating: 2.9
    E.A.R.L.: The Autobiography of DMX
Earl Simmons, Smokey D. Fontaine
HarperCollins, 2002
Rating: 3.7

Posted: January 20, 2003

By 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 The Eminem 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 shouted.

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 explain.

"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.

Oh, shit!

"My car?"

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 life.

I apologized.

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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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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