[10 March 2009]
I was 11-years-old when Pras, Mya, Wyclef Jean and Ol’ Dirty Bastard performed the smash hit “Ghetto Supastar” on the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards, though I paid sparse attention to music in those days. The allure of “Music Television” was more easily located in the lambent, sexually poisonous programming typified by The Real World: Hawaii or SoCal Summer. It was, as I now see it, the apex of America’s corporate empire. Major label conglomerates were still fabulously wealthy and a younger, more robust Carson Daly could be suffered to overindulge at the smorgasbords of Total Request Live’s backstage rider.
I cared little for music then, but, like so many others, I still listened to Casey Kasem each Sunday. For better or worse, I wanted my MTV. So it was, that amidst the incessant fridge-buzz of runaway prosperity and bikini-clad insensibility, the slouching, unkempt figure of Ol’ Dirty materialized before me. He had gold teeth and—notoriously—smoked piles of crack. You could call him whatever you wanted to: Dirt Dawg, Dirt McGirt, Big Baby Jesus, Ol’ Dirty or just plain ODB. Though undeniably talented, he was also a “character” in the most unoriginal sense of the word. The things he did had shock value or made people laugh, but he was hardly taken seriously as an artist.
The goal of Jaime Lowe’s Digging for Dirt therefore strikes me as an admirable, if unsuccessful, one. In 255 pages she seeks to unravel the soul of an artist whose legacy, until now, has been embalmed in the outrageousness of his persona. Her portrait instead attempts to foreground ODB’s many personal contradictions, from his struggles with mental illness and drug abuse to his periodically disarming wonderment and boundless creativity. Her flaw is that she paints with an overly delicate hand, loving her subject too much for real objectivity. Clearly Lowe, whose personal response figures heavily in this biography, is an individual for whom the man born Russell Tyrone Jones was a major source of inspiration. The result is that her work is often captivated with the loose-lipped adulation of elegy.
For instance, in a passage early on, Lowe catches herself in the act of gushing, yet can’t break the spell of her own idolatry. She writes of Jones,
If he didn’t spend half his life running from the law and the other half breaking it, he’d have been on the cover of Time as Man of the Year. Right, I know, that’s absurd, but I like the idea of the layout, those red borders and ODB with his head cocked to the sky, calm, his mind occupied by living inside a rhyme, and his face, handsome, childlike, and impulsive, beautiful in its stillness, and his mouth parted, ready to explain whatever.
It’s awkward to read these portions of the text: romanticized personal reflections that offer no real insight into the rapper’s life or work. More worthwhile is Lowe’s comparison of ODB to female blues singers of the 1920s, Billie Holiday in particular. While the equivalence of their respective talents is an obviously moot point, the author’s argument does hold water.
Holiday and ODB—they trapped the authenticity of life and hardship and heartache and love and pain in their voices. He certainly recognized the similarities. He even covered Holiday’s ‘Good Morning Heartache,’ not long before he died. It wasn’t always good and it wasn’t always easy. Holiday and Dirt were so public, they both let their audiences watch as they broke down.
This last observation seems the most relevant, that both artists made little distinction between life and art. An author with less conviction would certainly fail to draw this connection, so Lowe’s subjectivity at least carries with it the benefit of courageous analogies.
Courage alone, however, does not a biography make, so it’s fortunate that Lowe has a strong handle on her research. Her interviews with ODB’s mother, Cherry Jones, are particularly illuminating, yielding the information that
Rusty ‘was a working paranoid schizophrenic’ […] That he heard voices, that he thought his stepdad, Frank was in the CIA and watching him, that he could never sleep, that he was a restless soul. And that even after he was an adult, when the doors were closed, she held him on her lap to soothe his ticks and calm the constant chatter in his head. When she and I spoke, she blamed it on jail; she said she lost her son behind bars.
These details on Jones’ mental condition are reinforced by the author’s interview with one Dr. Poussaint, a psychiatric health specialist who has “linked a reluctance [in black communities] to talk about mental illness to slavery and to the church.” Lowe notes that “According to the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Surgeon General, nearly 60 percent of older African American adults do not utilize services that they need for their mental health.” Lowe further deduces from Poussaint’s studies that this reluctance explains the lack of corroboration of Jones’ schizophrenia among his contemporaries and friends. Coupled with her interview of a former Clinton Correctional Facility inmate, Michael Alig, about conditions in the unit where ODB was incarcerated provide for a nuanced assessment of the effect prison time must have had on the rapper.
Still, for all this extensive investigation, the book resolves itself on the same note with which it began. The author begins her final paragraph, “I’d like to see classic marble statues in front of the Brooklyn Museum, or rococo portraits of ODB swathed in leopard furs and pheasants and holding half-filled crystal goblets.” The prevailing impression one gets from Lowe’s account is of Russell Jones the benevolent mystic: a grungy yet lovable man-child whose character flaws aren’t taken that seriously. In truth, this was a severely irresponsible man. When he died just two days before his thirty-sixth birthday on November 13th, 2004, he left behind a host (the exact number is hard to pin down) of illegitimate children and, because of his addictions, very little money to raise them.
Yes, he suffered from mental illness, but this does not mean he should be coddled as an innocent victim of society. After all, the man behind ODB was no cartoon. He was no Oscar the Grouch. He was a living and breathing being, capable of brilliance and tenderness at times but more often beleaguered by his own all-consuming selfishness. The problem of Digging for Dirt is that while Lowe professes to understand all this, she still tends to buy into the man’s mystique. For, as the title itself suggests, this is not the biography of Russell Jones, but rather “The Life and Death of ODB.”