[Update, Thursday afternoon: Ted Nugent meets with Secret Service]
If we had told anyone 30 years ago that a reigning heavy-metal star would one day come to dominate a national political news cycle, we could guess their reaction: What’s that naughty David Lee Roth gotten up to?
Because 30 years ago, Ted Nugent was already in decline. Although invariably described as a “rock star,” the man the DNC denounced this week and Mitt Romney scrambled to put at arm’s length hasn’t hit the charts for a generation. He’s 63 now. Your kids aren’t listening to him — they might not even know who he is.
How is it that anyone still cares what Ted Nugent has to say in 2012? Blame a media culture that thrives on a mix of controversy and celebrity, or a GOP desperate for some of the showbiz stardust that gravitates so easily to the other team. But credit Nugent for somehow keeping himself in the conversation — not so much by changing with the times as staying true to his bombastic old self.
“He’s much more than any music he’s made recently — he’s this pop culture figure,” said Jim DeRogatis, a longtime rock critic and professor at Chicago’s Columbia College. “He’s now more famous for spouting off opinions than making music.”
A hunting enthusiast, Nugent ignited his latest firestorm Saturday at the annual conference of the NRA (he’s a longtime member of its large governing board) when he threatened that if President Obama is reelected, “I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year,” and urged fellow conservatives to “ride into that battlefield” against Democrats “and chop their heads off in November.” DNC Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz on Tuesday called on Romney — who had won the coveted Nugent endorsement after a phone meeting — to condemn his “violent and hateful rhetoric”; his spokesman responded with a call against “divisive language.” On Wednesday, Nugent acknowledged on Glenn Beck ’s radio show that he was scheduled to talk with the Secret Service about his comments. (Update: Nugent meets with agents) “I’ve never threatened anybody’s life in my life,” he said. On Twitter, though, he was unrepentant: “When u do God’s work so beautifully like I do the devils go berserk. Its called inescapable justice & I as always will win in end.”
This, really, is what Ted Nugent is famous for now. In the ’60s and ’70s, the Detroit native was a musical force to be reckoned with — a wicked talented guitarist, first with the psychedelic rockers the Amboy Dukes and later as a solo artist. The rock cognoscenti never loved him, but the kids did — he was crazy loud, with outrageously dirty lyrics in songs like “Cat Scratch Fever” and “Thunder Thighs.” A brilliant showman, he thrilled a packed Capital Centre in 1980 when he swung onto the stage on a rope in nothing but a loincloth and boots — and then danced and preened for 20 minutes while the blown-out sound system was being fixed. Punk pioneers such as Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins cut their teeth on his music before moving on to harder, smarter stuff. Nugent paved the way for heavy-metal acts such as Def Leppard and Van Halen, but by the early ’80s, they had eclipsed him. Despite a brief comeback with early ’90s supergroup Damn Yankees (during one Merriweather Post Pavilion show, he demonstrated his bow-and-arrow skills on a mock-up of Saddam Hussein), his songs fell off the radio, and his shows were downgraded to the state-fair circuit.
But Nugent branched out, leveraging his macho, wild-man image into a hunting video (which angered even hunting advocates for being too violent), reality TV and a cookbook with his second wife, Shemane: “Kill It & Grill It.” And as he’s become ever more outspoken politically, he’s done quite well on the lecture circuit.
“There’s a lot of call for rock musicians who aren’t burned out on alcohol and drugs,” says Mark Castel, president of Boston-based AEI Speakers Bureau, which has booked him for many conferences. (Nugent can do personal appearances, autograph sessions, speeches or archery demonstrations, “with tips from his hunting adventures around the world,” Castel said.)
That’s another reason for Nugent’s popularity in some political circles: Even during the ’70s, he was a stoutly clean-living guy — his concert riders demanding nothing stronger than a case of sweet ginger ale — and later an outspoken anti-drug advocate.
But even as he settled into a niche as a wacky conservative mascot (campaign finance records suggest he has not been a significant donor), he’s raised eyebrows with his rhetoric. Opening for Kiss at Nissan Pavilion in 2000, he performed “a bizarrely hateful set in which he cursed non-English-speakers, Jesse Jackson, gays and just about every member of the Clinton administration,” critic Dave McKenna wrote in The Washington Post. “He came out for his encore wearing a Confederate flag shirt and ready to rant some more.” (Read more about Nugent’s recent shock-jock-style editorials for the Washington Times.)
So that’s Nugent now: A freelance celebrity, not really a rock star. Says DeRogatis, “All he’s done is get those of us in the rock world who would defend his merits terribly embarrassed by his political speech.”