Ted Nugent: The Ted Offensive
Damn, I look good with guns,” says Ted Nugent, squinting down the barrel of a chrome-plated Smith & Wesson .44. I back out of the drafty kitchen slow and easy as Nugent suddenly moves to shut off the frosty air blowing through an open door. Ted heats his modest Michigan farmhouse with two wood-burning stoves that never quite subdue the effects of the long Midwestern winters, and even his shepherd dog sometimes seems to shudder from the chilling atmosphere.
The self-styled Motor City Madman has a new cowboy hat tipped back on his head, and his hands hang well away from his shoulder-holstered 44 magnum. It’s unnerving to watch him as he cracks open a yellow box of rifle cartridges. “These were originally designed for M-16s,” he says, pecking at a soft lead tip with his fingernail. “That happens to be a very good varmint rifle, which is what most people are.” I’m not about to correct his grammar, even though he gives me a conspiratorial half grin.
“I went down to buy some handguns for Christmas presents the other day,” says Nugent, leading me into a living room packed with enough wall-mounted bristle and bone (deer, elk, antelope, ram, fox, bear, moose and boar heads) to keep a taxidermist busy for months. “Those fuckwads tried to tell me I had records of criminal felonies! I woulda liked to see them prove that one. I did three days in jail, more than once [on reckless driving raps], but that was expunged from my record.” I nod nervously. Nugent stands six feet two, weighs 170 pounds and moves with an athlete’s easy grace. Something about his bug-eyes and drugstore-cowboy get-up makes him appear boyish. Yet there’s a rowdy edge to his manner that seems seasoned and unpredictable.
Nugent rakes through his long brown hair and resettles his new Stetson, a present for his thirtieth birthday, which was yesterday, December 13th. “My hat size depends on the charts; we slipped a little this week,” he allows, referring to his six-week-old album, Weekend Warriors. The LP has indeed slipped a couple of notches and is stuck in the low twenties, but it has already sold a million copies — something his four previous albums on Epic Records had taken more time to accomplish.
“Ya want some grits?” asks Nugent, dishing out two bowls of mush, depth-charging a hunk of butter into each and peppering them to choke. The farmhouse is one of three homes (one in Florida and another in northern Michigan) he shared with his wife, Sandy, and their two children until the couple separated in early 1978. He stabs at his bowl when I mention their absence.
“I am getting a divorce,” he says, looking out the window. “It’s sad, man, it’s a very sad thing, but I can’t talk about it yet.” The divorce suit, the particulars of which have been kept private by a Michigan court through an agreement between the two principals, will determine who keeps custody of his five-year-old daughter, Sasha, and two-year-old son, Toby.
Ted spoons up the last of his grits and lurches off the couch to pull his acoustic Gibson out of its open case. Leaning over the guitar, he picks out a dawdling series of chords. I’m watching a little uneasily. I had flown from New York to Detroit and driven 90 miles south for a patented Ted Nugent “gonzolectomy,” not expecting to pass the time watching the celebrated wildman strumming lullabies.
“This was written the night my little girl was born,” he says, and begins singing: “I know you’re trying to smile for me/I can tell ’cause it’s in your eyes. . .” He works through two more verses, his voice turning plaintive and strained. “And this world it threatens to take you away/It’ll leave you battered and worn/But magic is in my arms today/Little Sasha’s just been born.” He delivers the last words with great care, ever so gently ticking the song to a close.
“Now, if you depict me as wimping out in this article,” Nugent snarls, gritting his teeth Dirty Harry-style, “I will personally see you mounted right alongside that buffalo head there!
“This is a side of me that doesn’t show up on albums,” he admits sheepishly, resting the guitar on his shoulder, “because it’s not as strong, it’s not as cool as good, clean, live-it-up, boogie-woogie rock & roll. Every once in a while something like this just surfaces because it just happens to be about a gorgeous little girl named Sasha.
“I’ve got hundreds of ball yankers, you know? But I think one of the reasons some of these softer songs are surfacing is because I’ve been through a hell of an emotional year; there were nights of extreme emotional chaos for young Ted, and that tends to bring out the melancholy sounds. If I bore you by sitting around playing them, that’s tough fucking shit.
“I mean, I’m usually out cutting wood with guns. That’s what I did this morning. I musta chopped down half an acre of woods with weapons, drivin’ around in the Bronco, a total extravagonzo escapee attack. But I think the silence of having my children in my lap taught me that I could have absolute quiet. It’s funny how I just realized that, but it’s true. I didn’t experience any real silent relaxation until I had my children.”
H mmm. This tender, sensitive Ted Nugent is even newer to the world than Nugent the animalistic guitarist. And before dismissing him as a hopeless psychotic who insists that Hare Krishnas sell books filled with “pictures of Egyptian faggots butt-fucking each other,” it is well to understand that the man is no mean student of sly image-building and marketing techniques. It took him 14 years on the road, with the help of 50-odd musicians, to track down and thump into submission a pagan army of rock & roll-ravenous teenagers guaranteed to buy a million copies of any album he made. (One of the things that turned Nugent’s career around was his demand that every record store within a certain radius of his concert sites have in stock at least 100 copies of his latest LP.)
While we’re exploding myths, it should be noted that over the next four days of heavy-metal roadwork, during which I am almost constantly in his company, Nugent will do almost nothing truly callous or even unkind (depending on your attitude toward someone who wakes up several floors in one of the biggest hotels in Nashville at two a.m.). Initially, he seems more sentimental than savage, and I will grow increasingly fascinated and curious at each of his concerts when he takes his microphone and slams it against his sweaty chest to show arenas of his “friends” how they make his heart beat.
“I suppose you must be talking about Jonestown or some asshole, scum-of-the-earth, goat-tit worm debris like that,” says Ted when I ask him about messiah-followers. “That shit just ricochets off my mind. They are floundering scab tissue with no rights whatsoever.” He pauses, then offers an analysis of his legion fans. “I think most of them have a basic knowledge and grip and focus of their talents and I believe the reason they can go to the gigs is they have jobs. There’s guys out there in pickup trucks who talk four-wheel drive with me, guys out there with amplifiers and guitars who talk music with me, and there’s guys out there with big grins on their faces who talk pussy with me. My only real unanswered question is why so many of the kids — say a couple thousand out of 20,000 — are out there man, just wounded.”
Whoever they are — and they would appear to be mainly 17-year-old males who arrive at the concerts in family cars and custom vans — they have made Weekend Warriors Nugent’s fifth platinum disc. His previous albums on Epic are 1977’s Double Live Gonzo and Cat Scratch Fever (now nearing 2 million in sales), 1976’s Free for All and 1975’s Ted Nugent. Ted proudly points out that these albums, with their three- to five-minute songs sporting fierce, feedback-laden leads and sit-on-my-face lyrics, are hardly fancier than his early Seventies records on DiscReet (Call of the Wild, Fang and Claw) and Polydor (Marriage on the Rocks and the live-in-Detroit Survival of the Fittest).
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