The Low Times and High Life of Kid Rock

Estranged son. Single parent. Early-mornin' stoned pimp. Kid Rock has been there. Now he's the trash-talking, hard-rocking, rhyme-slinging king of the world

June 22, 2000
Kid Rock
Kid Rock
Mark Seliger

Where are the harpoons on this motherfucker?" Kid Rock inquires.

He wants to catch a shark. A shark would be good. "Can you get 'em stuffed?" he asks. "I need them for my wall of shame."

The captain of the Jamaican fishing boat nods. All possible.

"Bob Marley's from here, right?" Kid Rock prompts, somewhat wryly.

"Bob Marley, yeah," the captain agrees.

"You know Ted Nugent?" Kid Rock says, grinning. "He's from Detroit."

Sixty-five dollars a head is handed over by Kid Rock and his Detroit buddies (including his DJ and best friend, Kracker; the rest of his band stays on land), two cases of Red Stripe are loaded ("When the beer's gone," Kid Rock swaggers, "the trip's over"), and the boat slips past the cruise ships in Ocho Rios harbor, straight out to sea. Kid Rock – shirt off, sunglasses on – takes the chair from where the biggest deep-sea catches are reeled in, a central raised throne bolted to the back of the deck, and watches the coast of Jamaica recede. He looks happy and comfortable. These days, Kid Rock is used to being the king of it all: the king of old-school partying and take-no-prisoners boasting; the king who has cut through the false modesties, nervous ironies and uncertain melodies of our times with his own clever, crude, anthemic upsurges; the king who predicted his each and every triumph while recording Devil Without a Cause, the album that then went on to crown him. And now – on this blustery, sundrenched Wednesday in Jamaica, beer in his hand, sharks on his mind, his freshly braided hair swinging in the wind – he assumes his position as the king of the sea.

Up and down, up and down, the boat pushes through the waves. It's his hands that change first. When he first sat down, Kid Rock was holding the armrests with the assurance he brings to most actions, large or small, as though it were the armrests' privilege to be supporting his forearms. Now he is simply holding on, and his fingers desperately grip for a kind of control the armrests can't supply. After twenty minutes, Kid Rock gestures to the crew. Turn around. They laugh. They think he is a crazy American joker. He repeats the message more forcefully. Then he reaches for a plastic bucket and begins vomiting.

Though he is the only one to need the bucket, most of us are feeling rough, and no one says much until we clamber ashore. "Awww, that sucked my ass," Kid Rock laughs and shakes his head. "Fuck. Now I got to go and eat again."

Questions occasioned by puzzling or provocative moments in the Kid Rock lyrical canon, Number One [with particular reference to "Start an escort service for all the right reasons/And set up shop at the top of Four Seasons" – "Cowboy," 1999]:

What are the right reasons to open an escort service?
Awww. That's just a silly line. There's no deep thought process behind it. To get paid. To make money. Isn't that what everything is the right reason for?

I fucking hurled, man," Kid Rock chuckles. It takes about ninety seconds ashore for him to start talking of his sea adventure as a funny story about something that happened once. It also takes about ninety seconds for him to be approached by a hotel guest.

"Will you take a picture with me?" she asks.

"Of course I will," he says. "I thought you'd never ask."

Kracker looks amused. "Smell his breath," he advises the girl.

Kid Rock and his band are in Jamaica to play a lucrative spring-break show (partly organized, as it happens, by Rolling Stone), but they have taken the opportunity to enjoy a week's rest in the sun. Days mostly involve drinking around the pool. Right now their boombox blares "No Woman, No Cry," turned up to drown out the hotel's Eurodisco. Kid Rock is talking about his show-stealing performance at the Grammys, which began with him alone at the piano singing "Only God Knows Why." It was the first time he'd ever played a piano in public, so he was shitting himself, but the song quickly merged into the stuff that doesn't scare him at all: rock and rap and fireworks and American flags and a motorbike with his three-foot-nine sidekick Joe C in the sidecar, and a medley of "Bawitdaba" and Grand Funk Railroad's "We're an American Band," the latter with revised Kid Rock lyrics: "We come into your town/We pull your panties down/We're an American band." "That whole song is perfect," he says. "It just says nothing except, 'We're coming to your town, throwing a party, we're going to tear it down, bye – we're an American band.' That's badass."

He says that award ceremonies always seem to go the same way for him. "I always come and rock their award shows better than anybody else, don't win anything and get stupid people to present me who make fun of it," he explains. "At the Grammys, I was, 'Once again I won't get an award, and I'll be the most entertaining thing there.'" He considers this for a moment. "Well, except for Elton John – that was pretty fucking good."

He is not joking. "It's hard to fuck with Elton John," he says. "Elton John has got a fucking great voice, and you just can't deny it. He can sing his ass off, and he can play. I love all his shit, man – 'Bennie and the Jets,' 'Daniel,' all his slow shit."

"Daniel"! The sappiest song ever.

"Well, I've got a nephew named Daniel," he mutters. "My cousin that killed himself, that's his boy." Then he puts on a sappy voice. "I cry too, believe it or not." Laughs. "Write about how sentimental I am – I'll get more chicks."

He points out that he also enjoys Elton John's Lion King song cycle ("I used to watch that with my kid every day") and the Princess Diana version of "Candle in the Wind." "I can relate to that," he says. "I sang at my cousin's funeral. I sang 'I Saw the Light' – Hank Williams. Certain songs fit certain occasions." He tells me about his cousin Paul. He died about five years ago. Put a shotgun in his mouth. "The only thing I want to bring up about it is it's not worth it. We've all thought about it at times, most of us have. And if I have any sort of influence over kids at all, I would say it's very un-fucking cool. A cool-ass motherfucker wouldn't do it, and I'm Kid Rock, so don't kill yourself."

A few days after his cousin shot himself, Kid Rock got the tattoo on his left shoulder: Paul. "I was fucked up when I got it," he says. "I got drunk and shit, and I was thinking about it, feeling all emotional." Sometimes, especially before he became famous, people would shout out "Paul!" to him in the street, as if it were his name. It was annoying but didn't make him sorry he had the tattoo. "Because you always say you'll think about somebody every day after they die," he says, "and you know that fades away sometimes. But I do, I really do. I'm glad I got it, to this day."

He has one other tattoo, the Detroit Tigers D on the inside of his right forearm. The whole of his Twisted Brown Trucker band agreed to get them one day last year in Chicago, just as Devil Without a Cause was taking off – all except their drummer, Stephanie Eulinberg, who couldn't get past the fact that she was from Cleveland, and Joe C, who is hooked up to a dialysis machine for eight hours each night and, consequently, has no desire to spend any of the day with someone sticking a needle into him. Kid Rock told the band members he'd give them $1,000 each for getting the tattoos, and when Stephanie got her tongue pierced instead, he gave her the money anyway. "It was, 'Let's all lock this family in – we're going to be together for a long time,'" Kid Rock says. "This is who started together, right here. Let's remember where we were when we got these, at what level we were, how happy we were." He purses his lips. "Hopefully, some day, this could save our band."

As he noted in one of his early songs, Robert James Ritchie – the man who would become Kid Rock – was born on the same day as Thomas Crapper: January 17th. Sometimes he thinks about this. "What if I had invented the toilet?" he says. "People would be like, 'Man, I've got to take a ritchie.'"

It was 1971 when he was born. Bobby, as his parents have always called him, was the third of four children. His parents met at Michigan State University. Bill Ritchie was just graduating, at the top of his class, as a business major. His wife-to-be, Susan, a freshman and a cheerleader, dropped out when they got married. She was still in her teens.

His parents liked to have fun, and they would often host barn parties on Friday nights. "Just crack open a keg, and hear Bob Seger jamming all night," Kid Rock recalls. Those evenings were fine, unless the adults got drunk and asked Bobby to start jumping around, lip-syncing Jim Croce's "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" or Seger's "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" to entertain their friends. During the days, he would listen to their big stereo and imagine that the people he heard – the Stones, the Beatles, Marshall Tucker, Johnny Cash – were little people jamming right there inside the box. Bobby tried to learn the guitar, but back then it didn't take. Instead he got a drum machine and, later, some turntables. Other sadder, less musical events also inspired him. His older brother, Billy, lost a leg at the age of seven. The two of them were clowning around on the back of their father's tractor, and Billy fell. It's hard to grow up in the shadow of that, and not just in the most obvious and compassionate sense. "He was always the center of attention," Kid Rock confesses, "so I'm sure I was always trying to: 'Hey! Look at me!'"

In high school, he put together a break-dance crew; they would play weddings and got sponsored by the local Burger King. "They'd move the salad bar out of the way," he recalls, "and we'd get down." He could do most of the moves – "head spins, windmills, knee skins, the worm, the wave, poppin', lockin', the funkateer" – though he always had trouble with the "1990" spinning-on-one-hand move. He started rapping introductions for the members of his crew. They were called the Furious Funkers. "I was never good with names," he says." When people started calling me Kid Rock, I thought that was cool."

Questions occasioned by puzzling or provocative moments in the Kid Rock lyrical canon, Number Two [with particular reference to lyrics including but not limited to: "And because I do so much pimpin'/One day I'll probably walk with a limp . . . But for now rap's the occupation/But one day, watch, I'll be pimp of the nation" – "Pimp of the Nation," 1990; "Cuz there's no contest for the pimp, I'm the pimp of the nation/So fuck college and a good education" – "Killin' Brain Cells," 1993; "I be the early-mornin' stoned pimp/Straightlimpin' Boone's Farm-drinkin'/At the party big booty pinching" – "E.M.S.P.," 1996]:

In which ways are you a pimp?
Because I'm smooth with the ladies! Because I'm . . . it's an alter ego, a persona kind of thing I like to have fun with. It was always kind of funny for me to do stuff that was kind of, not shocking, but . . . to wear a hat, go round in a big Lincoln or a big Caddy with spokes on it and have a few girls on your arms or have people dancing. It wasn't some sort of serious-pimp "I sell girls for money" kind of thing.

How is an early-morning stoned pimp different from a regular pimp?
It's not that he gets up early – it's usually he's still up and it's early, and he's stoned, and he's still pimping. It's that one scene of a couple of girls without a lot of clothes, hanging out; a few guys you don't know, sitting in the corners of the room with their hat low, and the sun's coming up.

And, in the midst of this, the early-morning stoned pimp is . . .
Sitting on his throne, right on his bed, sipping a Budweiser or something, feeling mighty fine.

And this is a situation you've found yourself in many times, or imagined yourself in?
Both. [Laughs] I don't really want to go into detail. I really don't.

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