Shooting from the hip: Ted Nugent rocks politics
On the final morningof the 2013 NRA annual convention in May, the day was bright, the mood was festive and Ted Nugent was neither dead nor in jail.
It was almost exactly a year earlier that Nugent, speaking on video at the NRA gathering in St. Louis, had made headlines by predicting one or the other would be his fate should Barack Obama become a two-termer. As far as incendiary rhetoric by the rocker-hunter-conservative firebrand goes, this was pretty tame stuff.
He has referred to Obama as a “piece of s--t” and members of his administration as “criminals,” and implored the president to “suck on my machine gun.” The “dead or in jail” comment was notable mostly for prompting a visit by the Secret Service, a
meeting Nugent laughed off as a pro forma check-in from agents he described as more star-struck than suspicious.
A year later, the second Obama term Nugent had dreaded was only boosting his visibility as a conservative provocateur. Having “a gang of Chicago criminals” who “want to dismantle America” to rail against for another four years ensures that Nugent’s ballistic take on current events is in growing demand at events such as this one, the National Rifle Association’s gathering at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center. The cavernous hall was abuzz with camo-clad sportsmen, young men in ball caps, and families, some pushing strollers, wandering the crowded exhibit hall. A man with a carnival barker’s voice cajoled ticket buyers toward the hourly firearms raffle at the Wall of Guns.
The largest crowd was outside the third-level auditorium, where a line had been forming for more than an hour. By 9:30 a.m., as Nugent settled behind a folding table at the foot of the stage, the queue snaked the length of the blocks-long building. Hundreds of people waited, clutching old album covers, guitars, copies of his wild game cookbook, “Kill It and Grill It.” One teenage boy held a whitened deer skull sporting a six-point rack of antlers.
Those at the end would wait almost two hours to get to the ponytailed bowhunter with the grizzled beard and the bush hat who sat beside a pile of Sharpies. Nugent happily signed the albums and the skulls along with objects fans could purchase: Ted Nugent hunting arrows, T-shirts, photos of the Nuge behind a guitar or a newly killed buck, copies of his 2008 screed “ Ted, White and Blue .” He signed anything the conveyor belt of fans deposited in front of him, as he has been doing for decades. Back in the day, he would sign the bare breasts of screaming female fans. In Houston, the most titillating object may have been a loaded ammo magazine.
“He stands for what we believe in. He’s not scared to say it the way we want to say it. He is fearless.” Nugent fan Patti Baillio
Between sips of a Starbucks double-shot mocha, Nugent dashed off his signature, shook hands, shouted “Semper fi” to the Marines and thanked each and every person for coming and for being a member of the NRA, where he has served on the board since 1995. At 64, after 6,400 arena-shaking concerts, he didn’t hear every word of adulation that came his way, frequently cocking his head and saying, “How’s that?” And when he stood for a photo with a boy in a wheelchair, he grimaced slightly on knees that are nearly shot from years of leaping from tower speakers.
But his energy was unmistakable — and remarkable, considering he had flown in from a gig in Tampa the night before and would be winging off within hours to do another in Atlanta that evening. His eyes were as fierce as the pair burning from album covers of the 1970s and ’80s. His hands drummed the table expectantly whenever there was a pause in the string of citizens stepping up to thank him, for the music, for “saying it straight” and for “not taking any s--t” from the liberals, the media, the government.
Patti and Les Baillio of Houston were typical of the crowd, which was a Nugent-specific blend of hard-rock nostalgia, blood-sport celebration and right-wing fermentation. Les is a bearded mechanical engineer and deer hunter who saw Nugent in concert as a student, still regularly watches Nugent’s hunting show on the Outdoor Channel and sang Nugent’s screaming anthem to independence, “Tooth, Fang & Claw,” to Patti on their wedding day. Les was sporting a cap from Nugent’s 2010 tour, “Trample the Weak, Hurdle the Dead.”
Patti came for the politics. The couple and their 13-year-old daughter stayed in the auditorium to hear Nugent’s speech, the final address of a roster that included Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Oliver North and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The family came to its feet more than once as Nugent derided the “liars in the White House,” the “bad and ugly” Hillary Clinton, the “gun-running” attorney general. Nugent ridiculed political opponents as “dirty sub-human punks,” “soulless,” “mongrels” and “struggling for personal hygiene.” He blamed the president for the spike in military suicides. (“They are shattered and heartbroken because they believe their own commander in chief is not on the same team.”)
This was a Ted Talk meant less to inform than to enrage. At the end, he would tear up as he talked about the injured soldiers he routinely visits and again when he presented a new house to the family of a wounded veteran on behalf of a nonprofit group. But the politics that came before were the rarest of red meat, and the crowd wolfed it down without chewing.
“He stands for what we believe in,” said Patti, a stay-at-home mom. “He’s not scared to say it the way we want to say it. He is fearless.” She wore a black T-shirt featuring an image of a big cat labeled “African Lion” and one of Barack Obama labeled “Lyin’ African.”
The day was a telling moment in the ever-strange career of the Motor City Madman who came screaming out of Detroit in the late 1960s. Five decades on, Nugent has perfected the alchemy of infamy, turning it into a relevance that has long outlasted the usual half-life of a rock star. He is everywhere — Piers Morgan, Anderson Cooper, Fox, CBS — as a lead spokesman for the NRA in the middle of the most intense gun-control debate in a generation. His endorsement was courted by last year’s Republican presidential candidates (and loudly touted by Mitt Romney, after tracking down the reluctant Nugent in a sporting goods store to lobby him). He was parked in the gallery of the last State of the Union address as an in-your-face gesture by conservative Texas congressman Steve Stockman (R).
Nugent fields the kind of daily requests for interviews other legacy acts can only dream of, and not just on guns. His Washington Times columns have covered issues as varied as entitlement reform (suspend the vote of anyone on welfare), unions (they killed the Twinkie) and Amy Winehouse (another “God-given talent wasted away on dope and booze”).
His Web site is a blizzard of commerce and commentary (box of Nugent bullets, $25; chat room subscription, $30). He’s still touring, hosts a hunting series and makes $35,000 a speech.
“It’s just synchronicity; we didn’t plan all of this,” said Shemane Nugent, 50, his wife of 24 years, as she marveled at the unending line of Nugent partisans. “It’s been a rock-and-roll evolution that has propelled us into politics.”
It’s only the latest, weirdest twist in a long, weird history — the crazy-haired, teetotal, speed guitarist who spent his off days in a deer stand has emerged as a conservative icon who boasts of having lots of children by lots of women and speaks with the bathroom vocabulary of a Mafioso enforcer.
As establishment Republicans try to tune the party to a political pitch less divisive and combative, Nugent doubles down on both. He unleashes rhetorical torrents the way he whales on a Gibson Byrdland, soaring virtuoso riffs of invective that are cruel, glib, informed and blisteringly fast.
It has some of the party’s most conservative fringes flocking to him, not as fans but as followers. And it has political observers wondering what a Ted Nugent with a following might do next.
In Houston, Patti Baillio held up a red and white bumper sticker: Ted Nugent for President.
She gave a big smile. “I’d vote for him.”
My own time on Planet Ted began pretty much as I expected, with Ted Nugent swearing at me.
I had arranged, by e-mail, a series of interviews for this article with Nugent’s assistant at “Tedquarters.” But a few days before I was scheduled to fly out to his Texas ranch, my phone rang. It was the Nuge himself, calling to set the mood.
“You better bring your A-game, motherf---er,” he said, by way of greeting. “You are just going to be tsunamied by all this energy.”
Nugent said he and his brother had been driving around the ranch, “killing some squirrels,” when he decided to reach out. His experience with journalists — whom he routinely describes as working “straight from Saul Alinsky’s ‘Rules for Radicals’ ” — had clearly been mixed.
“When you f---ers misrepresent me, it just makes things better and better,” he said. “Come on out and give it your best shot.”
A week later, in early April, I parked my rental car outside a barely marked rural recording studio near China Spring, Tex. I could hear the muffled shriek of a guitar inside, and waited for a pause before pounding on the door.
“Come on in here,” said Nugent, sticking out his hand. He was sitting on a metal folding chair in the control booth in blue jeans and an untucked snakeskin-patterned shirt. A red Gibson Les Paul was cooling off in his lap. “You’re gonna enjoy the hell out of this.”
There is a kind of electric serenity to Nugent in person that is about 100 degrees less fiery than Nugent on the air. He leaned back in the chair and placidly recounted his achievements for the morning: skinning a raccoon, training his Labrador retrievers, weeding the garden and fixing an air conditioner hose. “Now I get to play rock-and-roll?” he marveled with a huge grin. “What the f---?”
He had stopped by the studio to lay down a couple of tracks. One was a guitar part for a Second Amendment anthem by country singer Clay Walkertitled “Stick to Our Guns.” After noodling around with the tune for a few minutes, Nugent closed his eyes and set off on a screaming solo that had producer David Zychek nodding in time and sweat beading on Nugent’s forehead. “That’s like racing at high speeds down a road you’ve never been on before,” Nugent said with a laugh, as Zychek prepared to record a take.
There are two transporting passions in Nugent’s life that he has pursued with a maniac zeal since prepuberty: hunting animals and playing the guitar (a third obsession, sex, started a few years later).
“Even at 64, the music thing is still f-----g primal,” he said, filing a callus from his fingertip with a Leatherman tool that is always in his pocket (his invariable daily kit also includes a handkerchief, pen, Chapstick, lighter, earplugs and a Glock 10mm with 46 rounds). “I’m still in the garage in Detroit in 1967 trying to be Bo Diddley. There’s no Barack Obama when I’m playing, no Taliban, no IRS. I mean, it’s soul cleansing.”
In the late 1960s, Detroit was the center of the universe for American music. It was also a city aflame, one of the opening conflagrations of the culture wars that, for Nugent, are raging still.
For his upcoming tour, Nugent is preparing a medley to honor what he calls his “black heroes”: Diddley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, James Brown, the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Funk Brothers. They were, he said, everything he admires in an artist: tight, disciplined, hardworking and inventive.
“Are you kidding me?” he asked with a look of wonder. “In 1955, how do you get this new electrified instrument from Les Paul and decide to go” — he fires off the opening licks of “Johnnie B. Good.” “Chuck Berry was more exploratory than, than Lewis and Clark! All good music, all of it, comes from those guys.”
Nugent’s own career is a medley of contradictions. He once had a concert canceled after his use of the N-word in a 2003 radio interview, and he also once joined Joni Mitchell and Jimi Hendrix in a 1968 tribute concert to Martin Luther King Jr.
His name for this year’s shows: “The Black Power Tour.”