Ted Nugent wants a guitar and he wants it now. If he doesn't get one, he is going to do something unprintable -- it starts with decapitation and gets uglier from there -- to one of his stage lackeys. The opening notes of "Johnny B. Goode" are ringing through his backstage trailer lounge and he wants to play along. Right [expletive] now.
"I need a Byrdland back here!" he shouts to no one in particular, calling for his six-string of choice during the past few decades.
Nugent checks under the sofa, around the sofa, over by the door. Nothing. Not a guitar in sight. And come to think of it, not a gun in sight either.
"No gun, no guitar," he huffs. "You probably think you're in Billy Idol's dressing room."
Nugent is supposed to be resting up before his performance on this late summer evening at Pimlico Race Course. He's recently had a root canal, so he's on painkillers, and he has hardly slept in the last few days. That, in combination with the night of work that lies ahead -- he'll play 90 minutes of redneck rock before a crowd of 4,000 -- would still a lesser man. But Nugent is buzzing and bug-eyed pretty much all the time, and he's aflame when he hears the beginning of Chuck Berry's signature tune.
"Chuck Berry's 'Johnny B. Goode' is the epicenter of all things in music," he announces. As a kid growing up in Detroit, he memorized every note of this song, though he didn't learn it as quickly as his guitar-playing contemporaries. At least initially. "Then they all started drinking, getting stoned. Wham!" Nugent sweeps his right hand up and swings his left hand down, a reenactment of his rise and his buddies' fall.
"None of them are still playing. None of them! I'm living the dream. This is the peak of my life, the peak of my career. . . . Watch the show tonight, you'll need to wear Kevlar panties on your head."
An hour in the company of Ted Nugent is not like an hour in the company of anyone else. He is a free-associating flow of Cro-Magnon bravado, a ranter, a partisan, a self-promoter, an anti-drug crusader, a conservative provocateur and a gun and archery freak. He seems to have more opinions than pores, and in the course of an hour that is ostensibly about the music he loves, he digresses in a dozen directions. He can't help himself.
He expounds on his almost erotic love for killing and eating animals; he rails against the idea of slavery reparations ("My idea of reparations is to give Bo Diddley a new van"); he pushes a philosophy of self-sufficiency and hard work; he goads his favorite targets, namely liberals and animal-rights activists.
"Every time they mention the word 'animal' and 'rights' in the same sentence, I'm going to kill 12 of something," he threatens at one point, grinning wildly. "So they have blood on their hands."
It takes some work, but the Nuge can focus his astoundingly rabid mind on the subject of rock, too. A few weeks prior to this interview, he was asked to pick the 10 recordings that influenced him the most, and he promised to sit for an hour and comment as the songs played on a CD player. But when I show up in his trailer at the appointed hour, the Nuge is in no mood to listen to anyone or anything. He's too antsy for something as static as listening. He opens with a gibe ("Start asking questions -- and if they're smart ones, that'll shock me"), then offers a drink ("Coffee, water, Coca-Cola?") and then suggests that we skip the whole listening part of this exercise.
"I know this stuff; you don't need to play it," he orders. Nugent is large and athletic, and though he is wearing a New York Police Department hat, he looks like the sort of guy you'd want arrested if he showed up on your lawn.
Despite his orders, I play his favorite songs anyway, and whenever one of his selections bursts from the boom box, Nugent seems to go briefly insane. Once he locates his Byrdland, he plays along, unplugged, with a proud, maniacal smile that seems to say, "I know it cold!" Chuck Berry gets him particularly agitated.
"It was a possession," he says of Berry's music. "I was possessed by that electricity, the sounds of those guitars, and to this day I look down on musicians who say they wanted to be in a band to meet girls, or wanted to be a star. What does that dream look like? Is it a fashion statement? A haircut? I wanted to make those noises."
Nugent made a lot of those noises, and for a long time those noises packed stadiums. His first taste of chartdom came with the Amboy Dukes, a group best known for the 1968 psychedelic Top-20 hit "Journey to the Center of the Mind." But it was as a solo artist that Nugent became a '70s ax-god, deified enough for a company called Stern Electronics to manufacture a Ted Nugent pinball machine. For three years in the late '70s, he was the biggest-grossing live act in the country, a caveman-guitarist who swung onstage, Tarzan-style, in a loincloth and ended his shows by shooting a flaming arrow at his guitar. "Cat Scratch Fever" (1977) and "Double Live Gonzo" (1978) made him a recording force; both are million-note jamborees of aggression and unbridled exhibitionism.
Nugent didn't invent a canon of original riffs, as he'll admit, but he brought atomic intensity to the blues-based rock of the masters, and bequeathed to metal bands of the next generation a spirit of carnivorous swagger. He also taught aspiring bands everywhere a thing or two about attracting attention to yourself. Over the course of his career, he's sold 30 million albums.
His latest, "Craveman," was released in September, and it proves that at 53, the self-anointed Motor City Madman is still buzzing at frenzied, animalistic speeds. There's plenty of flag-rallying jingoism in his music now, a reflection of the hard right political turn he's taken over the last decade -- a bent that is even more pronounced in concerts, where he's been known to fume against his favorite targets, including immigrants who don't speak English. Underneath the rage, not much has changed: the Nuge still specializes in lewd, riff-driven arena rock. "My Baby Likes My Butter on Her Gritz," a typical track from "Craveman," is just about as subtle as it sounds. The guitar tone, if anything, is shriller than it was in the late '70s.
"If the 25-year-old Ted Nugent walked in the door right now, I could kick his ass," he boasts. "My energy is a certain type of prayer saying thank you, God, for allowing me to make a living -- an astonishing living, an embarrassingly flamboyant living -- making music and killing [stuff]."
Killing stuff takes up a lot of Nugent's time now. As his popularity has waned, he's been slowly turning his ammo-loving image into a multi-tentacled business enterprise. Out of his headquarters in Michigan, he and six employees oversee the production of a magazine ("Ted Nugent Adventure Outdoors") and a TV show ("Ted Nugent Spirit of the Wild"), which airs on the Outdoor Channel. He wrote a cookbook with his wife, Shemane, called "Kill It & Grill It," with recipes for dishes like squirrel casserole and sweet-and-sour antelope. He also operates Sunrize Safaris, in which Nugent guides hunters and charges them based on what they kill. Prices start at $1,250 for a wild Russian boar.
Ted's Excellent Music Adventure Nugent operates at such a manic pace that the source of his energy seems glandular, the result of an organ that is over-secreting. Until medical tests prove that theory, here's the starting point for a different one, which merely calls for some armchair psychology: Nugent's father was a drill sergeant.
"Literally, a drill sergeant, in the United States riding cavalry, and he brought his horse-breaking riding crop home with him, and he wasn't afraid to use it. I despised him growing up, but boy do I love him now, and he knew it before he died, though I'm not sure his concertina-wire-ensconced emotions would allow those affections in."
When Nugent, at the age of 7, asked Dad for an electric guitar, the elder Nugent told his son to earn the cash himself. "So I started selling night crawlers and washing windows, shoveling snow, and I helped pay for my first Epiphone. It was real fat and difficult to play and the strings were far off the neck."
It was an Elvis Presley performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" that first got to Nugent, but when it came time to learn the instrument, he studied the Rolling Stones. There are two Stones songs on his list of favorites: their version of "Route 66" and "The Last Time."
"I know every grunt, every groan, every Billy Wyman bass selection, every Charlie Watts lifted high-hat. I could play that solo, note for out-of-tune note, to this day," he says during the solo on "66." He pilfered and rearranged those notes for a bunch of songs, he confesses. "That guitar pattern -- dem dem de dem de dem -- it's all my songs in variations."
Guitar idols are piled up on Nugent's list. There's Dale Hawkins, a Louisiana rockabilly man who was one of the few whites to record on Chess, the label of Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry, to name but a couple. His biggest hit was "Suzie Q," which was covered by 14,000 bands, including Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Rolling Stones, as well as by Lonnie Mack, one of the first six-string gods and another Nugent inspiration. Mack channeled gospel, rockabilly and blues through his Gibson Flying V, adding twang and ahead-of-his-day dexterity that made him a sought-after session man. (He played on a Doors album, "Morrison Hotel.") Nugent is listening now to "Wham," Mack's most famous instrumental, a tune that builds to a series of crescendos followed by a tommy-gun hail of notes.
"I met him," Nugent says of Mack, "and I shook his hand and I didn't let go and I told him how influential he was to me and how I carried the baton and handed it on to many young guitar players and they might attribute it to me, but I got it from him. And God knows I've left my signature on it."
Nugent is so sublimely impressed by his own guitar-playing, he has issued a challenge: If anyone can play his riffs exactly like him, he'll perform a unmentionable sexual act. Suffice it to say, he's certain that nobody can rise to this challenge, and perhaps nobody would really want to try. As he listens to the 10 songs, he salutes each for a sentence or two and then promptly segues into a speech about his own greatness, which somehow includes some reference to the joys of killing animals. Hunting isn't merely a metaphor for rock, in Nugent's mind; it is rock's essence.
"People ask me, 'What do you base your playing on, what scale?' Scale? I only have one scale: It's the one I hang my dead deer on every fall. I wouldn't know a scale if it bit me on [an appendage]. I never learned that stuff and I'm pleased that I didn't, or I'd end up being like [guitar virtuoso] Steve Vai, who I've got admiration for. But guys like that don't get disgusting enough for me. You've got to have a defiance factor that I don't hear from those guys."
Nugent heard the defiance factor in the Ventures' "Walk Don't Run," one of rock's everlasting instrumentals from one of rock's most enduring guitar bands. (The Ventures still tour and, for some reason, are huge in Japan.) The song rose to No. 2 on the charts in 1960, right around the time that Nugent was sifting around for a sound of his own. " 'Walk,' " he says, "established the quintessential Fender guitar-amp combo sound of all time."
What unites all of these songs is an underlying structural simplicity. The Nuge isn't a fan of complexity, though he makes one exception here with "River Deep, Mountain High," the 1966 tune by Ike and Tina Turner. It's a classic Phil Spector production -- richly arranged and, thanks to Tina's vocals, operatically sentimental.
"Even though I couldn't name any of the chords in that song, I injected that kind of emotional growth in a lot of my dynamics," Nugent says. "I've used that emotion from Tina's performance. Spector demanded that the string section emote as if it was a life-defining concerto."
But what drew young Nugent wasn't emotion so much as energy. By the age of 14, he'd joined his first band, Lourds, and the group would eventually open for one of Detroit's first rock legends, the underappreciated Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. Ryder was one William Levise Jr., who rechristened himself and then famously welded Little Richard's "Jenny, Jenny" and Chuck Willis's "C.C. Rider" to create "Jenny Take a Ride." The song reached the top 10 in 1966 and it set a mark for R&B velocity that holds up nicely to this day.
"Mitch Ryder's energy level was stupefying. He'd go through 20 tambourines every night, breaking them on his leg," says Nugent. "I know I defy gravity onstage, and I got that from Mitch Ryder."
And from James Brown, whose "I Feel Good" is up next. "Talk about fire, talk about attitude. And this at a time when blacks were having a real problem in America. If ever there was a musical '[expletive] you,' it came from James Brown. Just over-the-top hair and the dancing, the sweat factor, just unbelievable. And the screams. I got a lot of that for my vocal style."
Nugent also cribbed from a guy named Wayne Cochran, an outrageously costumed singer with a shock-white pompadour, who started singing in the late '50s. Cochran never had a nationally known hit, but no one who saw him in action ever forgot it. He once threw a table through a window during a show. Cochran's "Going Back to Miami" is playing now.
"I'm glad you found this! Make me a tape of this. He was the white James Brown," Nugent says. Then he gets philosophical. "I really feel that life is a series of orgies: spiritual orgies, flesh orgies, barbecue orgies, sex orgies, intellectual orgies, culinary orgies. If you don't do it all the way, I'm not coming. You can tell from that recording," he says of "Miami," "that this guy was on fire."
Nugent is then off on one of his political rants. His views are, as he puts it, "extremist," and though sincere, they are also calibrated for maximum shock. What's most remarkable about his views, though, is the number of people who seem to soak them up. Nugent does hundreds of interviews a year, sometimes as many as five a day, most of which barely touch on music.
"Music is the universal communication, but I don't think it mattered what I pursued in life, I'd be where I am regardless," he says. (His brother, it's worth noting, served for two years as the CEO of Revlon.)
"I think I'd still be having Tommy Thompson calling me to meet me here today."
Tommy Thompson, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, the former governor of Wisconsin?
The very same, it turns out. Near the end of the interview, Thompson knocks on the trailer door and steps in. Nugent launches straight into a sales pitch.
"I'm the guy! I'm the Wisconsin rocker!" he shouts. Nugent has been playing fairs in Thompson's home state. "I relate to these people on a level that transcends music."
"You look great," Thompson says.
"You want something cold to drink?"
Thompson declines. The Nuge is getting warmed up. "I'm just glad to see you as a fellow American, but as my elected official, as my representative, you tell Mr. Ridge" -- that would be Tom Ridge, homeland security czar -- "that I want an audience with him. I travel all the time. It ain't right out there. On just a logistical, pragmatic level, it is a ripped-seam net of security. You don't let girls with machine guns patrol the hallways of Dallas-Fort Worth airport."
Thompson nods, looking uncomfortable. Nugent is getting angrier. "If I have a guy with a machine gun, I want him pissed off and I want him capable of breaking your spine and I want nobody within 20 feet of him. And him, not her." He calms down a little. "I've got a bunch of observations," he says.
"If you want me to get you a meeting with Tom, I will," Thompson says with apparent earnestness.
"Let's do it."
"You been hunting?" Thompson asks as he heads out the door.
"We start in four weeks," Nugent says, referring to hunting season. "But tomorrow night I'll probably kill a pig on a TV show."
It's 20 minutes to show time and Nugent needs to get ready to play. He makes some threats about his upcoming performance -- "My Byrdland will rip your face off" -- and heads to a change room. When he emerges, he strides toward the stage, looking about 20 years younger. He takes out a stick of chewing gum and does some limber-up stretches. He and bass player Marco Mendoza and drummer Tommy Clufetos huddle for a moment, like a football squad before a game.
Over the PA system comes Ray Charles's "America the Beautiful." Someone hands Nugent an American flag and he struts on stage waving it, wearing zebra-striped boots and a hat with a furry animal tail jutting from the back. He waves the flag, then opens with a solo instrumental of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
This, by Nugent's account, is roughly his 5,600th show. For much of it, sweat is dripping in rivulets from his fretboard. A woman near the stage kneels atop a friend and flashes him, but the Nuge is too engrossed in his solo to notice. This concert is sponsored by Harley Davidson, and with so many motorcyclists in the crowd, Nugent believes he is among kindred souls, the sort of people who will shout and wave their fists when he declares, as he does at one point this evening, that the problem with Bob Dylan is that he hasn't eaten enough venison.
"I salute the spirit!" he bellows at one point, awash in perspiration. "I salute the attitude! I salute the spirit of the attitude!"