How Crucifucks Frontman Doc Dart Became a Man Named 26
Dec 31 2008
Doc Dart performing with the Crucifucks, Baltimore, 1986. Photos by Billy Whitfield
The waitress seemed surprised and delighted to see him. “Oh, you have some new music since Patricia?” she asked in a Russian accent, referring to the solo album he named after the therapist he used to see in the 1990s, back when he was a regular at the restaurant.
“I’ve had a couple of records since Patricia,” he said. “And I put one out just a few years ago under the name 26.” She nodded, perhaps thinking he meant this as a band name, not his own. “Before that, I was in another band, with a bad word in the name.” She smiled again. Earlier in our conversation, he’d winced repeating this bad word—26 no longer swears—and he seemed slightly relieved that she didn’t force the subject.
Stereo speakers played NPR in the background, and when an update came on from the Lewis Libby trial, 26 quickly plugged his ears. Since March 20, 2004, he has refused all news of the outside world. “Technically, I don’t even know who the president is,” he said gleefully after the story was over. “I told one of my tenants not to tell me about anything in the news. Then he told me about this president that had died recently. I specifically told him not to tell me the news. He said, ‘Oh, I thought it was OK if someone was dead.’ I had a lot of problems with this tenant.”
Thinking the president he was referring to was Gerald Ford, I mentioned that I would be taking a trip to the Gerald Ford Presidential Library in Grand Rapids later in the week. “No, it was the other president,” he explained with a slight irritation, meaning Ronald Reagan, who’d passed away three years earlier. Our waitress’s shift ended not long after we arrived, and she made him promise to bring her one of his newer CDs. On the other end of the restaurant, a large black woman barreled in and screamed, “Where’s my fucking money?!” as she disappeared behind the counter.
“Oh,” 26 murmured, rising from our table. “There’s that word again.”
Doc Dart performing with the Crucifucks, Baltimore, 1986. Photos by Billy Whitfield
26, 54, was born Doc Corbin Dart outside Mason, Michigan, and has lived in the greater Lansing area all his life. His former first name is not short for anything, having been inherited from his grandfather Doc Campbell Dart, who was himself named after a local Dr. Campbell. His great-grandfather Rollin C. Dart founded the Dart National Bank, and his great-uncle Bill founded Dart Container, the world’s largest manufacturer of Styrofoam cups.
Most people who know of Doc Dart do not know that he was well into adulthood before gaining notoriety. He started work at the Dart National Bank while still a teenager, beginning at the lowest position, collections, but on track to eventually become the family’s fourth generation of bank president. In 1980, he returned to Michigan State University for his bachelor’s in anthropology, married his girlfriend, Angie, two years later, and became a father the year after that.
His first passion was music. Doc turned 11 the year the Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show and the band made a huge impact on him. From adolescence on, WABX and WKNR in Detroit served as slender lifelines (sometimes smothered by the signal strength of a local country station) to tectonic shifts in American culture. For young Doc, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix had equal weight with the images of the antiwar movement he saw on TV, and the points where the war intersected his own life. Eighteen in 1971, he was issued a card for the last Vietnam draft lottery.
In the early 1970s, he played keyboard for local bands Kilgore Trout and Swell (to be said with a manic smile: “We’re Swell!”). He bought records voraciously in East Lansing and had a huge collection by the mid-1970s. But by that time, he’d also come to feel that his favorite bands had run out of steam, addled by drugs and withering under the malaise of the Me Decade. When Doc first heard the Sex Pistols in late 1977, he found a great continuity with the ferocity of his favorite 60s bands. More of this energy arrived in a deluge of new music: Talking Heads, Buzzcocks, the Stranglers, the Ramones, and especially Devo all had a huge impact on Dart. He’d felt for years that the United States had gotten too apolitical after Vietnam, and the confrontational politics of punk rock invigorated him.
A new subculture had bloomed in late-70s America that seemed to finally capture Doc’s mood: a faster, more aggressive strain of punk rock calling itself “hardcore.” Although its brightest stars hailed from the coasts, the Midwest produced its share of luminaries, covering a wide slice of the genre’s diversity: teenage skaters the Necros hailed from small-town Maumee, the ferocious Negative Approach came from Detroit, Lansing had the sadistic pranksters the Meatmen. When the pioneering Los Angeles hardcore band Black Flag came through central Michigan in 1980, they played Club Doobie in Haslett, near Lake Lansing. It was here that Doc met Steve Shelley (later of Sonic Youth) and Scott Begerston, both members of a Joy Division tribute band Doc was fond of. Dart introduced Steve and Scott to his cousin Joe in 1981, with the idea of forming a band in which he could finally uncork his id. True to this concept, the new group called itself the Crucifucks.
Doc Dart was 28 when the band started playing shows but refers to himself during this period as a toddler. As a child, he’d been called Little Doc, to distinguish himself from his grandfather, and this nickname now became his alter ego. When Little Doc performed live he would frequently cut himself with razors or broken glass. Alcohol was often involved, and he did even more damage to himself diving off tall objects into the crowd. Because of their name, the band found themselves locked out of most venues. They played Lansing as the Scribbles (named for Doc’s old dog), and on the road would find themselves billed as Crucifex, or Cruise Effects, or the Christmas Folks.
Doc Dart performing with the Crucifucks, Baltimore, 1986. Photos by Billy Whitfield
In April 1982, the Crucifucks were slated to play with the Meatmen at Bunch’s Continental Cafe in East Lansing. Passing out flyers before the show, Dart continued off the sidewalk and into a restaurant, handing more flyers to bewildered diners as he walked through the building and out the restaurant’s back door, where he was greeted by a police officer. The band didn’t get to play that night, but Doc’s mug shot became moderately iconic in the scene. That summer, the Meatmen got the Crucifucks on a much larger bill in Pontiac, Michigan, just outside Detroit, with San Francisco’s prestigious Dead Kennedys headlining. The Dead Kennedys had been a band for four years at this point and were bona fide celebrities in punk circles. They were also very similar to Doc’s band in style, temperament, and confrontational theatrics.
Jello Biafra, the lead singer of the Dead Kennedys, recalled this set: “Here was this singer with a really high voice and Lyndon Johnson ears and a great big grin tormenting every single person in the room. I mean, not all of Negative Approach and Necros fans were real bright. And the singer of this band had bored in on that and was just finding ways to needle them over and over and over again to the point where they were swinging at him or taking shots at him and yelling ‘Get off the stage!’ and then he’d just leap on top of them! And somehow they’d miss and he’d get back onstage and annoy them some more.” When he came through Michigan the next year, Jello brought the Crucifucks along to Cleveland, where he invited the band to release a record on his label, Alternative Tentacles.
Without this intervention, the Crucifucks would probably have puttered along as a local band for a few years and then disbanded. Instead, their 1984 debut album is a pinnacle of outraged and outrageous glee, a record that can be best described as unreasonable. The album’s notoriety belongs to its vocalist. Doc’s voice is so far beyond the pale of normal performance that it defies comparison. He squeals through several words at once, dripping with derision, at times channeling the quavering drama that Jello brought to his songs, at other points sounding like Roger Rabbit. In “You Give Me the Creeps,” Doc bleats, “Give me your money! I don’t have to make it!” In “Hinckley Had a Vision,” he bawls, “I wanna take the president”—here the band drops out and he continues a cappella—“chop off his head, and mail it to them in a garbage baaaaaaaaaag!” This last word is as stretched out as the squall of a child having a meltdown in a toy store (perhaps because this act was expressed as desire, not an intent, Doc never received Secret Service attention). I asked Biafra, a formidable record collector, whether he’d ever encountered any vocalist who sounded quite like Doc. He said he hadn’t.
By the mid-80s, the group had the dubious distinction of being one of the most extreme bands in a musical scene that was already pretty extreme to begin with. The punk subculture, having loudly dispensed with most hippie artifacts, retained the word “pig” to describe police, and in the early hardcore scene being anticop was one of the few issues everyone could agree on. Almost every band reflected this sentiment in their lyrics, from Black Flag (apolitical) to the Dead Kennedys (wildly political) to the Bad Brains (Rastafarian). But there was a distinct line between opposing police brutality and calling for the actual death of police officers, and Doc Dart was further past this line than any of his contemporaries. In 1992, rapper Ice-T caused a national controversy with his song “Cop Killer.” Only obscurity saved Doc’s own “Cops for Fertilizer” from wider scrutiny.
The second time the Dead Kennedys came through Lansing, the Crucifucks again opened. “Much to my own shock, the audience loved the Crucifucks,” Biafra recalled. “And this was a real shock to Doc. He wasn’t quite sure what to do. So finally he said something at the end about ‘the pointless spectacle that the hardcore scene is today.’ And then of course the whole audience turned on him and began booing and throwing things and Doc was grinning ear to ear. He had to find a way to get at them, and he did.”
26 lives in a suburban neighborhood of comfortable two-story houses and the occasional barn. The nearby streets are lined with well-shoveled driveways and a good selection of American flags—both the traditional house-mounted kind and the smaller yard flags that, in the president’s second term, generally indicate support for Bush and/or the wars—as well as a smattering of peace signs. An anarchy symbol has been badly spray-painted on the back of a traffic sign one block away.
His home was easy to find. Set back from the sidewalk, eight huge sheets of bright blue plywood had been nailed over the windows of the house. Hurled eggs had washed off with time, but there were still plenty of visible white streaks from dozens of paintballs shot at the property. Two large sheets of tarpaper covered several messages that had been painted near the front door. From the outside, the building looked abandoned.
Inside, a bright light shone upward on a floating staircase, spotlighting long, two-story front windows and the unpainted plywood underneath. In the living room, we had to step around a half-dozen 50-pound bags of bird and animal feed neatly arranged by the sliding glass doors leading to the backyard. Maps of Africa, India, and Lake Superior had been carefully placed around the room, and a poster of Princess Diana hung on the wall near the kitchen. The space seemed unused, but not dirty, the living-room parlor reserved for the rare visitor. The scent of incense was so thick that my jacket still smelled of our conversation hours after I’d left.
The layout of the backyard didn’t quite conform to what I’d already seen online, but when I described peering down at the property a week earlier using Google Earth, I realized this may have been a violation of his news blackout. The rule was hard to abide by, partially because I constantly found myself tempted to test him. Driving through Okemos earlier in the day, we’d passed a flag lowered to half-mast and I’d asked whether he ever felt curious about what was going on in the world, prompting this strange exchange:
“I assume Cheney is president now.”
“Well, I’m not going to tell you.”
In his living room, I produced an iPod to record our conversation. When I mentioned that it could hold hundreds of hours of interviews, he seemed incredulous.
26 frequently refers to himself as “a weirdo,” and things he does not like (the first Crucifucks record, Rush Limbaugh, Buddhism) as “abominations.” His conversation is sprinkled with Midwesternisms: “aw jeez,” “gee whiz,” “oh gosh,” and the occasional flat “yah” I had previously associated with Minnesotans. When he offered me “some pop”—he keeps a refrigerator stocked with Faygo and little else—it took a moment to realize he didn’t mean a joint (a grave mistake with the rabidly antipot 26).
When I tried to unearth the root of his antipolice attitudes, I was surprised to hear there had been no one defining incident in his history with the law. His first arrest in 1971 came as the result of social experimentation. “I didn’t feel like I had a lot to be afraid of, but at the same time I was confused about the whole thing about rights,” he told me. “And it was my understanding that you could say anything you wanted to say. I thought, ‘I can say anything I want to say! And I can say it to the police! And I’m going to! So there!’ And I wanted to see how that played out. I’d assumed that would play out fine in real life.” He laughed. “But that’s not the way life works.”
Two more arrests came in the early 70s, one after he’d insulted an officer during a friend’s arrest. In court he’d acted as his own attorney. “I was completely convinced that police officers lied under oath all the time. And now I can only point to my own experience in that regard. I can’t assume that anymore. My experience was all bad, all bad, but there could be a lot of reasons for that. I was just so saturated with hate. For police. It was glimmering all over me. And they pick up on it right away. I couldn’t have pretended I liked them. It was just a given that if I was anywhere around a police officer,” he snapped his fingers, “they were going to pick up on that hate and they were going to take me in.”
His four-and-a-half-year career at Dart National Bank during this period only hardened his radical bent. Rising through the ranks, he found his politics veering further and further left, even as he had to deal with the resentment of coworkers for the seeming nepotism of his ascent. “I looked like an ass wipe,” 26 told me. “I had a beard and long hair. And I was depressed. I had no business being in a bank to begin with.” Doc had been in charge of raising the American flag in front of the bank every morning and used to cross the lobby dragging it behind him on the floor. A long-standing dispute over his hair length spurred the final confrontation in 1976. The following year the bank denied him unemployment benefits and he went to court against his father.
By the 1980s, Doc was a known quantity to the Lansing police, especially after he started publishing the Lansing Police State Journal, a small fanzine filled with articles and photos relating to slain police officers. In the spring of 1985, Doc held an “Ozzy party” and for some reason a local band asked to play his porch. This was in a residential area, after midnight, and a severe departure from the party’s theme (to play every record Ozzy Osbourne appeared on), but Doc agreed because he thought the authorities would give him one customary warning. Instead, a phalanx of squad cars converged on the house and police started arresting people. Doc ran back into his house, grabbed a beer and—in what he concedes was not a masterstroke—exited through the back door and returned to the lawn to watch the mayhem. Two policemen subdued him, beat him, and dramatically snapped his pinkie in front of horrified onlookers. He was charged with assaulting a police officer and lost the case to a judge he recognized as a friend of his father’s.
After his final arrest (for resisting arrest) in 1987, he was given two consecutive 20-day sentences. His uncle Steve Dart, a prominent local attorney, arranged to have Doc released with a $1,000 fine and a promise to seek psychological counseling. His wife had earlier threatened to leave him if he ever got arrested again, and she made good on this threat after his arraignment, taking their four-year old son, Evan, and three-year old daughter, Sarah. After his family left, Doc found himself alone in a messy house, drifting toward rock bottom, emerging for occasional beer runs wearing nothing but an oversize tie-dyed shirt.
Seen from the outside, 26’s days had at first appeared rather bleak. It didn’t take long to realize that his private world with the animals, the endless soap opera of births and deaths and new arrivals and disappearances, took up much of his time and emotional energy. The raccoons in particular, 26 told me, are “a five- to ten-day story. That’s how rich the story is.” I’d looked forward to the feeding of the raccoons, but a ferocious cold snap had moved in on the entire Midwest that week, leaving temperatures, with wind chill, in the negative teens. When 26 gave me a quick tour of the backyard and back deck, we crossed dozens of tiny footprints. But the animals had gone elsewhere
In 1989, Doc Dart considered running for Lansing city council. The Crucifucks had disbanded not long after his family had left, and the court-ordered counseling turned out to be a short-term godsend. Doc quit drinking and opened a baseball-card store called Little Doc’s Cards in downtown Lansing (since childhood, Doc had been an ardent fan of the Detroit Tigers, then, after their management made him “sick,” the Chicago Cubs). The long hours and newfound clarity, however, only did so much to moderate his severe depression.
Despite his dark moods, running for public office had seemed worthwhile, and a natural extension of his contempt for the city council. Doc told only a few people of his intentions, but word somehow leaked back to his uncle. Steve Dart stopped by Doc’s store one afternoon that spring for a “frank chat,” the gist of which was that Doc should not embarrass the family by running for office. Later, Doc realized that his feelings had been hurt. He thought through the message and decided that perhaps his uncle had meant it would be an embarrassment to run for such a lowly position. He decided to run for mayor of Lansing instead.
At first glance, the template for Doc’s campaign seems obvious. Jello Biafra ran for mayor of San Francisco in 1979, finishing fourth out of ten. That campaign received wide publicity for his proposals to ban cars within the city and force businessmen to wear clown suits. Biafra and his supporters used the race for great spectacle, holding rallies with campaign signs like “Apocalypse Now, Vote Biafra” and “If He Doesn’t Win... I’ll Kill Myself.”
Doc, however, decided to run as straight a campaign as possible. He’d recently read that Lansing ranked fifth in rapes in the United States, just behind Flint, and made this the centerpiece of his campaign. Taking $400 slated for baseball-card inventory, he put on his best suit and walked through every neighborhood in Lansing, pledging $30,000 of the mayor’s $67,000 salary toward building a rape crisis center.
Children ridiculed him for campaigning in green tennis shoes. There were days when depression completely sidelined him, but he felt he had to push himself as much as possible. Doc decided that if the media unearthed his police record or his band, he was fully prepared to convert the run into another circus act. But the local paper and networks barely mentioned his past. I’d spoken with him a few years after this race, and even then he seemed slightly stunned that he’d been viewed as a serious candidate. “I could have been, like, David Duke,” he told me in 1991 in an interview for my fanzine. “I could’ve lead the KKK ten years ago, and 99 percent of the people would not have known. They knew I was a baseball-card dealer.”
The primary fell on August 9. Doc received just over 5 percent of the vote. The Lansing State Journal commented that the outcome was “to the surprise of no one—except, perhaps, Doc Dart in a moment of unbridled fantasy.” (“There were a couple of times I thought I could win,” 26 told me, laughing. “So, you know, they got it right.”) August 29 was Dart’s “Black Tuesday,” a low point in his battle with depression. He describes this period in apocalyptic terms and told me that it took a tremendous force of will to keep himself alive during the worst of his depression.
Doc’s defeat removed all personality from the general election. Mayor Terry McKane and councilman Lou Adado had faced each other four years earlier, and both campaigns lacked passion. By October, the race was a dead heat. Realizing he had been handed a rare bit of leverage, Doc called each campaign to throw his 568 votes to whoever met his demands. Both candidates ignored him. He finally cornered Adado and McKane in October by calling into a public-radio debate. While the show’s host seemed receptive to Dart’s antirape proposals, both candidates shrugged him off. Doc hung up, convinced his leverage had amounted to nothing. Two hours later, Mayor McKane stepped into his baseball-card store and asked for Doc’s endorsement. The mayor won reelection by 444 votes. The rape crisis center was built the next year, at Sparrow Hospital, just seven blocks from his store, and Doc served on the initial planning committee.
I’d spoken with the former mayor the week before meeting with 26, and McKane told me he had no memory of the dramatic baseball-card-shop endorsement, a matter of public record. When I relayed this to 26, he appeared disappointed, although the late-addition snub seemed in keeping with the general indifference that had greeted him in 1989. For its part, the Lansing State Journal never followed up on the big story: The singer of the Crucifucks had chosen the mayor of the capital of Michigan.
The cover of Doc Dart’s solo album, Patricia (Alternative Tentacles, 1990).
Three years after its release, a friend of this officer walked into a Philadelphia Borders Books and discovered the CD. The FOP filed civil suit against Borders, Alternative Tentacles, and the Crucifucks, perhaps the only time in American jurisprudence that a civil action has carried an obscenity in its title. Doc was formally served notice in his baseball-card store, but after Borders’ dismissal from the case no one notified Alternative Tentacles, and in November 1996 the plaintiffs won a default judgment of $2.2 million. Although there was never much suspense about the lack of legal merit or the bad service, the ruling suddenly put the record label in the awkward position of having to reverse a judgment that, if enforced, could vaporize their company.
Doc traveled to Philadelphia for an appeals hearing, but generally felt sidelined, forced by finances to piggyback on his label’s legal team and once again operating in the shadow of Jello. Biafra had won his own high-stakes, high-visibility obscenity trial in 1986, and Doc resented the lack of exposure for his own trial. “Anytime there was a lawsuit against the Dead Kennedys, they soaked it for all the publicity it was worth,” 26 told me indignantly.
The case was dismissed the next summer, on the grounds that the officer could not be identified—an outstretched arm covers his face—and the FOP, not being a human being, had no right to privacy. 26 told me it was “a nice twist” that the FOP got the judgment first, to get them “all excited,” only to have it yanked away. But he still felt deceived that the officer in the photo hadn’t really been dead to begin with.
Dart/26 has spent much of his life operating as a near caricature, the kind of character a right-wing talk-show host might invent. He has burned flags at concerts, mocked the deaths of specific police officers, and refers to himself as “pro-abortion,” not “pro-choice.” He also hates leftists. At the infamous 1994 KKK rally in Lansing, Doc heckled the Klan, then heckled the police, then heckled the other hecklers. At one point in our conversation, he dismissed the Chicago Eight defendants for “making a mockery” of their 1969 trial. When I questioned him about the Crucifucks song “Lights Over Baghdad”—which seems to express sympathies with Timothy McVeigh—he told me that this was his mindset in the 80s and 90s. “It all stems from my hatred of the United States government.”
It is hard to imagine him breaking free of this trajectory had something larger not come to fill his life. Since 1999, much of his daily schedule has been consumed with what he calls his “mystical practices,” although it was nearly impossible to pin down what this entailed beyond extensive reading and breathing exercises. I found myself continually asking whether I was interrupting his daily schedule. In our talks he occasionally grew defensive, repeating that he wouldn’t “apologize for his mystical practices,” despite the fact that no one was asking him to do so. When I didn’t understand certain points, the suggestion was far more one of miscommunication than evasion; I was in his space, demanding answers for things he had long since given up explaining. “Mysticism is a huge subject,” he finally told me, “and the semantics of it are complicated and very hard to communicate.”
In his own environment, 26’s physical demeanor is that of an intense loner, someone who is up to something deep within his own confines. As he spoke, I tried to figure out whom he reminded me of. At certain points he grew quite animated, jabbing the air with an unlit cigarette or a Triscuit, and then his face would suddenly take on the hangdog intensity of actor Chris Cooper. At other times his voice dropped in pitch slightly and he resembled actor Ted Levine as Buffalo Bill, the recluse serial killer of Silence of the Lambs. (A closer match was later offered by 26 himself: actor Jim Varney. “I think I could be the next ‘Hey Vern’ guy,” he said, striking another manic grin. “I think I could do it.”)
The name change came less as a result of the mysticism than from a desire to distance himself from his old persona. In the 1990s he’d tried “Doc Corbin Dart” and his grandfather’s shortened “D.C. Dart,” but still felt that his name did not fit his personality. The number had come to him in a dream years earlier, but as with his antagonism toward the police, there had been no defining event. 26 also pointed out that the number, like all pairings of two digits, appears pretty much everywhere. “You get free advertising for your name all the time! Right? Am I right?”
“When I first started this mysticism thing,” he told me, “a lot of my source material that was most important to me involved men whose children had grown up, who separated themselves from their family deliberately, either to live in a cave or an ashram or something like that. You can’t have any distractions... that includes family. So when I first started that, I put both of my children on notice that I may not be seeing them for a few years.” Neither child approved this plan. “They both just piled it on.” He smiled. “And it was really cool.”
Evan Dart now lives a mile down the road from his father. At 24, he is a soft-spoken, handsome young man who looks vaguely punky in that way young people of the 21st century do when they do not listen to punk rock (Evan favors electronic music). When we met in the living room, I was struck by the traces of young Doc’s mug shot in Evan’s face. 26 brought us each a can of Dr. Faygo and then dutifully made a point of going elsewhere while I talked with his son, as if he were following the protocols of a legal deposition.
I asked Evan if he thought his father was lonely. He said he didn’t but understood that the general atmosphere—the boarded-up windows and lingering neighborhood hostility—were conducive to loneliness. Having gone to live with his mother as a young boy, he never fully learned of his dad’s public persona until just a few years ago. We talked some about his father’s history of depression, and I asked whether the mysticism seemed to be helping. Evan grew quiet and said, “My God, yeah. I can’t describe how much happier he is. I mean, it’s his entire personality. When he threw all this other stuff out, he just changed completely.”
We discussed some of the events leading up to the house being boarded. “It pains me to think about it, everything that happened here while I was gone. Like, if I were here I could have been there for him. Because everybody was against him. I feel kind of guilty in that regard. Just so much happened while I was gone. To come home and have things be so different... it was difficult.”
On September 11, 2001, 26 still owned a television. He watched the horror unfold in New York and Washington for less than an hour before deciding on a course of action. On a large sheet of tar paper, he wrote “SEPT 11 JUSTICE IS SERVED” in white paint, hung this outside his house, and returned to the TV. Sometime that afternoon, a policeman came to the door. He politely told 26 that his neighbors were upset and that although the police couldn’t stop him from hanging signs on his property, they could not assure his complete protection. 26 reluctantly took the sign down. For the rest of the week he grew more and more enraged at coverage he found distorted and overblown, and as the country rallied and the national discourse inevitably swung toward war, he felt energized. That Saturday he started hanging more signs:
“DEMOCRACY: A MYTH”
“FREEDOM: A SUPERSTITION”
“BUSH: WHITE TRASH IMBECILE MAGGOT CORPORATE SLUT”
“PATRIOTISM REFLECTS A SECRET WISH TO BE SODOMIZED”
“U.S. TERROR IN IRAQ MAKES SEPT 11TH A TINY MIRROR IMAGE”
“U.S. TROOPS TERRORIZE AS COWARDS FROM THE SKIES. THEY SHOULD BE IN BODY BAGS.”
26’s property faces a perpendicular street on a T-shaped intersection, so any car stopped at the traffic light would not have much to look at besides the front of his house. Along with his signs and several upside-down American flags, he also left his phone number in letters large enough to be read from the road. The first wave of messages was merely threatening, but as his signs gained local notoriety, his answering-machine tape filled with death threats (many addressing him as “camel jockey”). 26 responded by recording serious political diatribes and cartoon-voiced skits for callers. I asked to hear some of the venom left on his four or five 90-minute tapes from this period and felt relieved when he denied this request; he’d never stopped using the answering machine for its original purpose and still had personal messages saved in between the death threats.
On September 28, the nearby Chippewa Middle School held its annual Run-Walk Marathon, the school’s only fund-raiser. The entire student population ran or walked on a five-mile circuit through the neighborhood, including 26’s street. A group of parents took up positions on the sidewalk in front of his property, apparently to shield passing schoolchildren. At some point he addressed the passing crowd with a warning to prepare for an anthrax attack. The police came, took a report, and left. After this incident, the FBI started coming by his house to take photographs.
Or so 26 told me. This was the first point in our talks where I found myself dubious. It seemed hard to fathom that anyone in the United States could have made any kind of public statement using the word “anthrax” less than one week before the first anthrax attack was announced and not have disappeared into detention. “Some people call it intuition,” 26 said jovially. “Let’s just say I got lucky.”
Dart in Flint, 1984. Photo by Monte Dickinson
I pressed this point, because his situation seemed so stressfully alien. “I thrived on that stuff!” he asserted cheerfully. “That’s the same as being in the Christmas Folks in the 1980s! Same stuff! I loved to be hated, at the time. Oh yeah!” But later in our conversation, he admitted that there had been a huge component of loneliness in his stand. To be in a band, even a heavily confrontational band, is to always be in the presence of two or three like-minded companions. His confrontation in 2001 was solo. The stress of being on the alert day after day took a toll.
The situation quickly snowballed. Strangers came to his front door to warn him that “something” was going to happen. After the inevitable rock came crashing through his window in the middle of the night, the repairman hired to install new glass tore down more signs and told him that the people over on a neighboring street were going to “get” him. His homeowner’s insurance was canceled.
Devil’s Night, October 30, was hard on the house. Sometime that afternoon, 26 opened his front door and took a paintball in the chest. He’d come to feel that the police were no longer taking his protection seriously. That night he wrote a charged letter to the police department in the style of Little Doc. “This control problem that is so typical of enforcement officers actually goes way back to their toilet training,” he wrote on the second page. “But there are psychologists that can speak to this more eloquently than I.” In a postscript, he added, “If someone is hurt or worse, I will be the one to go to prison, but it won’t bring them back.”
The next night, Halloween, someone pounded on the front door just before 9 PM. Perhaps mindful of trick-or-treaters, 26 forgot to turn on the tape recorder kept by the stairs. He opened the door to find three uniformed police officers. The lead officer asked whether he was on any kind of medication or whether he was unstable, and said they had received his letter and had determined that he was a danger to his neighbors. “All of a sudden the guy who’s closest to the door puts his foot in front of my door, my door’s open, I can’t close it. They come walking right in. They say, ‘We’re going to take you to the hospital and we’re going to have you checked out and see if we can’t get you committed. Because we think you’re a danger to the community.’ No warrant.”
He didn’t want to appear upset or manic, and so he did breathing exercises in his cell until he felt completely calm. The attending psychologist reviewed the letter he’d sent and said she felt the message was indeed manic, and possibly cause for concern. As for the implied violence, she said that if she hadn’t driven past his house earlier in the week and seen the signs herself, she would have thought he was delusional. He was released with a warning to not make himself a martyr. The police paid for the taxi ride home, and 26 felt the cab driver acted “creepy” because he knew he wasn’t going to get a tip. The obscurity that had once shielded the Crucifucks now put 26 at an extreme disadvantage.
When I left that afternoon, 26 surprised me with a three-inch-thick stack of documents he’d obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Whatever doubts I’d had about the anthrax incident were put to rest by a series of faxes from the local police to the FBI. Most interesting were 26’s letters to the police. In page after page of dense scribble, 26 pleaded with, reasoned with, insulted, and pontificated to the entity he had considered an enemy for most of his adult life. I was struck by the respectful tone of certain letters, but far more by the one constant in his communications with the police: a tone of deep surprise at his own predicament. I pressed this point when I saw him the next afternoon. What did he expect? Had he actually thought that events would have turned out differently? He told me this was a good question, and acknowledged that he has often had to learn the same lessons over and over again.
At the bottom of the pile, I’d found several of 26’s public handbills. There was the flyer he’d left around town offering $20,000 “TO THE FIRST WOMAN WHO OFFERS HER NEWBORN SON TO BE SACRIFICED ON THE ALTER [sic] TO ATONE FOR THE SINS, RAPE AND BUTCHERY BY HER AMERICAN GOVERNMENT,” a flyer titled “The Hatred & Racism of Christianism” that he’d left on cars in the parking lot of a local Lutheran church, and a copy of a letter addressed “Dear neighbor” that he’d distributed along his street, chastising them for not welcoming him into the neighborhood and signed by “26 The Messiah.”
This also concerned me. 26 had been calling himself the Messiah for years at this point. One of his long-standing house signs read, “VERILY I AM GREATER THAN YOUR MYTHICAL CHRIST FOR I AM REAL AND HERE AMONG YOU—26 THE MESSIAH.” In a handwritten letter to a specific neighbor, he had concluded, “It is time for you and others to be aware of the following. My name is number 26. And I am the Messiah.” I’d originally assumed this was satiric, but seeing the word in so many different documents gave me doubts.
“Before you get the wrong idea about me, the word ‘messiah’ is a Persian word,” he told me. “I just want to clarify that I’m not on a Christ trip. That stuff is so silly and crude that I don’t really want to be identified with it, other than... I probably liked, at the time, yanking the chain of the Christians.” This didn’t entirely make sense. Why, I asked, give ammunition to people he considered his enemies? He returned to his earlier themes of social experimentation. “It’s all about boundaries... I didn’t learn from all the experiments. I had to keep doing them over and over again.”
As we spoke, the phone rang. The answering machine took the call and there was the slightest pause before the caller hung up. We returned to the death threats and his dealings with the police. I mentioned the surprisingly respectful tone of most of his communications with the local department, both before and after Halloween, and asked whether he’d finally come to respect the police. “I prefer their old-fashioned and transparent dishonesty to the insidiously fluid dishonesty of all the other people I know,” he told me formally, as if reading from a prepared statement.
Two deer approached the backyard at dusk. 26 produced a giant plastic bowl of animal feed, opened the patio door, and said, “Hi sweetie.” My view of the feeding was distorted by the heat streaming out through the gap in the sliding glass. He returned with corn dust on his sweatshirt, explaining that I’d just seen Little Deer Who Comes Close and Little Deer Who Comes Smashing Into the House.
As much as he clearly enjoyed feeding a few stragglers, the deer seemed a sad reminder of the final chapter of his siege. One morning in 2006, he stepped into his backyard and found a doe had been shot in the head and left for him as a warning. He covered up the signs out front as a signal to whoever was watching that he’d surrendered. “Eventually, I knew I had to get rid of this anger, and I had to approach things from a different perspective.”
More sympathetic eyes had been watching his house as well. In the past year, several people have approached him to put his messages back up. His stock answer remains, “Well, where were you when I had ’em up?” The idea of any outside support seemed frustrating to 26. “People say, ‘I’ll stand behind you,’ but…”—he pointed into an imaginary distance far beyond his house—“they’re way, way behind you.”
In May 2006, a trustee for Meridian Township came by the house. The trustee was an acquaintance of his, and a thorn in the side of the local authorities. The trustee told him that a new town ordinance regarding house signage and feeding wild animals had been introduced as a rebuff to 26. The trustee also told him that he’d managed to water the law down and that he’d spoken with the ACLU, in case 26 decided to post more signs. “This is five years later after my signs, and I had called them. I have a history with the ACLU,” 26 told me bitterly. “He says, ‘They’ll stand behind you. I already got their word... You can put up signs now. And they will defend you.’ And I said, ‘This is good. Now I’ll put up signs attacking the First Amendment.’” He laughed telling me this. “And he says, ‘No. You cannot do that! This should be about peace! Or something like that!’”
Middle age is hard on radicals, but it is harder still on radicals for whom showmanship has been their primary form of activism. Hardcore’s three wise men—Biafra, Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye, and TV star Henry Rollins—have all moved on to lofty artistic heights, but not one has sustained the anger of his earliest music. It’s a nearly impossible thing to sustain. The man once known as Doc Dart has had to work hard to not sustain that anger.
Night had fallen and it was time to leave. In the daytime, there had been a coziness to this sanctum, a small environment where the recent horrors of Abu Ghraib, Beslan, Fallujah, and Katrina would never intrude. After dark, the house held a tone of menace. I thought of the hang-up caller, and my eyes were continually drawn to the thin sliver of unlit backyard I could see from the couch. The space seemed funereal but also expectant, the kind of house in which one would seek refuge from zombies. Showing me out, 26 seemed to feel that the plywood only made the house safer. “When the tornado comes, I’ll be the one doing the snickering while they’re doing the sniveling.”
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