THE day Dirt Dog died--November 13, 2004--he was two days from turning 36 and I was a week and some days from turning 25.
That day was supposed to be epic for me, personally epic. A milestone to reminisce upon. I was taking the first steps toward going back to school and leaving my home of three years, the detestable (at the time) Binghamton, New York. Ol' Dirty Bastard, my favorite rapper (one of them at least), was far from my mind. I was listening to a lot of Jay-Z right then.
My life up until that point had acquired a numbness. I realized some weeks prior that upstate New York was no longer for me. The brutal cold. The isolation. The lack of connection to anything around me. The day in, day out of writing about town tax increases and neighborhood board (bored?) meetings. Some thrive off that sort of thing and do well. Someone has to write about that stuff. Democracy requires it. But me, I was born on a holiday that doubles as the anniversary of a national tragedy. It tends to give one an inflated sense of self. I needed (and still need) my day-to-day to match how I saw (see) myself.
The next quarter century would be about doing what I always wanted to do, not waiting. I had wasted enough time. So on November 12, 2004, after an extra-long long Friday at work, I loaded up my car late a night, and drove three hours to Buffalo to take the GRE, the great prerequisite to applying to a number of graduate programs (despite the fact the test doesn't measure fiction writing skills or potential).
A dedicated Wu-Tang fan(atic), I wasn't listening to much Wu then. All the way up there I played various Jay-Z CDs. With the exception of a song here and there, he mostly leaves me cold, except for a brief period in 2004. Frustrated and angry most of the time, I listened to Shawn Carter to borrow his sheer arrogance and bravado to help me muster the energy after long and often irritating work days to change my life.
I drove up there, took the test (nearly perfect score on verbal, nearly missed every math question--a pattern for me on these sorts of tests), ate a horrible breakfast at the Original House of Pancakes and drove back to Binghamton listening to Jay-Z and Richard Pryor.
On November 13, 2004, driving down Interstate 81, the Ol' Dirty Bastard probably never crossed my mind.
The last time I saw Dirt Dog was in 1999, the Summer of Rion. It was at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. Russell Tyrone Jones was well into the whirlwind of legal troubles that would leave him incarcerated for several years. He had left a trail of no-shows at Wu-Tang concerts so buying a ticket for one of his shows was potentially a fool's errand. Years earlier, a Wu-Tang/Rage Against the Machine tour fell apart largely because many Clan members refused to appear, Dirty leading the self-destructive charge.
We waited for hours in the 9:30 Club debating if he'd arrive. The opening act didn't show, but who cares? Time passed and then, a famous warble. The show was anarchy. Was he sane? Sober? He told us to tell the president he was doing a good job. He broke between songs to make jokes and long rambling speeches. A friend of mine climbed on stage and Dirty gave him a piece of gum. A guy randomly punched another friend of mine and well...that night is probably not a fond memory for him.
After the violence, I briefly found myself cast out of the club, the bouncers grabbing my hands and marking black Xs on them after mistaking me for a friend of the guy that started the fight. "I'm not with these clowns..." Soon I was back in. And each moment it seemed Dirty would stop the performance, wander off stage or maybe collapse or do something to ruin the performance, something worthy of a famous fuck up: light a crack pipe on stage, fight an audience member, expose himself like Jim Morrison. It was a chaotic show. One characteristic of Mr. Bastard's anarchic spirit. In the end, he delivered. It was a great show. One of the best I ever attended.
All that was needed now was to see all 9 members of the Wu-Tang Clan performing together and everything would be alright.
Two to four years is not a long time, right?
Dirt went away to rehab and when he couldn't hack it, they sent him to prison. I followed his exploits as he escaped from custody to perform and record with Wu-Tang only to be apprehended while signing autographs. Somewhere along the line, Wu-Tang released group albums with limited or no input from the incarcerated rapper. He, himself, (his handlers, really) released a dashed together compilation of sub-par material that I, of course, purchased. I did the work necessary to earn a college degree and moved from D.C. to New York into my own prison of sorts.
I took my newly found disposable income and purchased an oh-so-ironic-and-funny FREE ODB t-shirt; it never really fit me (also I bought a bunch of G.I. Joes; 20-somethings are so stupid). Took my newly acquired journalistic skills and periodically searched the New York State Department of Corrections website for Russell Jones's status.
It read "in custody" until one day it didn't. He was released to a bit of fanfare and a reported million dollar record deal from Roc-a-Fella (note to Damon Dash, it's not a good idea to give a million dollars to a drug addict). VH1 greeted his return with a terribly exploitive, but poignant documentary about his struggle to adjust to life without the structure of prison or the salve of crack cocaine.
Me to my girlfriend (now wife) after viewing the documentary: Think he's gonna make it?
She probably didn't mean she thought he'd die. She probably imagined him relapsing and returning to jail. I had the fantasy, the dream, that the hip-hop world. so anemic and lifeless at the time, would be rescued by another Wu-Tang album with all 9 members reunited. Wu-Tang would again become life like they were for many of us circa 1996.
Whether that was ever going to happen will never be known. November 13, 2004 hit like an earthquake to my fanatic soul. Tired as ever I rested on the couch and barely answered the ringing phone. After that long drive, I sure wasn't in the mood for chatting. With a grave voice, my girlfriend asks me to be seated because there's bad news.
There was no return to earlier times and I know now that it's not advisable for there to be one. Culture has to move forward. So did I. Frantically applying to schools. Nine. One for every member of the Wu-Tang Clan, I joked. My application materials featured a terrible story about a guy obsessed with singer who died on stage. I got into one of those schools and graduated; my thesis featuring unpolished and just barely competent stories about a guy obsessed with a dead singer.
Went off into the world to again write on my own, the process only a bit easier than pre-2005 when I started school--and at most moments, infinitely more difficult. In my free moments I tinker(ed) with a novel about a guy obsessed with the death of his favorite singer, his prophet, his guiding light.
On frustrating days, that dead singer and his fan are the only thing I have going. Wrote a chapter about the day his restless, immortal energy burned up and flew off into the sky.
And on this day that I reminisce on where I was when ODB's restless, immortal energy flew off into space, like older generations reminisce about where they were when Jim Morrison's or (Hendrix's or Lennon's or whoever's) restless immortal energy flew off into space, I can't help but think about why we love him and all the contradiction wrapped up in that. We loved him because of the freedom in his music. In a genre where people are constantly trying to prove how skilled they are, Dirt had no need. He had proved it on his first album. He made us laugh. Comedy hip hop. Croon old blues songs off-key? Why not? Interrupt your verse by belching? Sure. A long intro that contains little music and whole lot of comedy? Go for it. It worked where it shouldn't have. Freedom.
But he spent much of his last years confined in prison. The very opposite of freedom. Most his life he was confined by poverty. Many years confined by drug addiction and mental illness. Freedom?
In the song, "Say Nothing," Dirty says, "Thought they were dead? Biggie and Tupac live in me!" On this day, I modify that statement: Thought he was dead, Dirt's restless, immortal energy lives in me.