Ted Nugent is a bit of a cartoon character today. With his hunting shows, Fox News appearances, and general lack of ability to possess an unspoken thought, he’s either hero or embarrassment to his fans. He’s not the only formerly dangerous soul to be softened by the pop culture machine. Ozzy Osbourne, once considered the epitome of evil by suburban mothers, is now a cuddly pet suitable for Justin Beiber commercials. Gene Simmons, the blood spitting, fire-breathing demon, the God of Thunder, appears in Dr. Pepper commercials with dwarves. He’s better known today as a merchandising whore than a musician, and he claims to be proud of that. Alice Cooper: golfer, family man, Christian. It’s hard to imagine that these cute little kittens once were fearsome dinosaurs who roamed the country in fringe jackets and codpieces, laying waste to hotel rooms and snapping Polaroids of local girls with daddy issues. Go go, Godzilla.
KISS and Alice were pretty well domesticated by the late Seventies. The great KISS merchandising machine was in high gear by 1978, though we’d have to wait another twenty-five years for the KISS casket. Alice took the ballad road to the mainstream with “Only Women Bleed,” “I Never Cry,” and “How You Gonna See Me Now.” I loved KISS and Alice, but by the time Mike shared with me his Magic Box of Jam they already were defanged. If rock and roll of the late Seventies can be imagined as a layer cake with Kenny Loggins and Chicago as the sugary sweet frosting and Black Sabbath as the darkest forbidden devils food, KISS and Alice were the tasty chocolate filling right down the middle.
Ted, however, had not yet been domesticated. He was down there with Sabbath and AC/DC in the “don’t let your mom hear this” category. He was a freak among freaks. He didn’t fit – or refused to fit – the rock star paradigm. He had long hair like Steven Tyler and Peter Frampton, but he didn’t dress like a front man. No scarves or sequins, just a pair of polyester Sansabelt slacks held up with suspenders. My grandfather wore Sansabelt slacks.
Even his choice of weapons was wrong. In an era where the Stratocaster, Les Paul, and SG were the holy trinity of guitars, Ted played a big, fat, hollow-bodied Gibson Byrdland. The Ramones were reviving the Mosrite, but they were very much a New York phenomenon at the time. Not until Eddie Van Halen broke the Fender/Gibson barrier with his homemade Frankenstrat would the music world be safe for the likes of Kramer, B.C. Rich, Charvel, and Jackson. Even REM’s Peter Buck sparked the return of the Rickenbacker, but still no revival for the Byrdland.
In those pioneer days before YouTube, nay before MTV, when we carved our own 8-track decks from knotty trees, if one wanted to see rock stars one could either go to concerts, stay up late for The Midnight Special, Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert, and Saturday Night Live, or buy music magazines. I was still a bit too young for concerts, so I got my fill via television and whatever magazines I could pick up at Ronnie’s Pharmacy. Rolling Stone, Creem, Hit Parader. I’d buy them all. I even got suckered into an issue or two of 16 just for the cool KISS pull-out. Guys like Jagger and Steven Tyler were always photographed with a stunning model wrapped around them, or we’d get two page spreads of Elton’s or Paul’s or Clapton’s elegant English manor. And then there were the shabby chic photos of The Ramones, The Clash, etc. looking anti-everything. But Ted? Ted was always snapped backstage post-performance at some ugly arena, sweaty in his Sansabelt slacks, signing the rack of some drunken skank in a tube top. I once contracted a vicious case of herpes just looking at a photo of The Nuge.
All of this made the Motor City Madman the icon of a particular subset of Upstate South Carolina males, and judging by his record sales of guys all over the country. Ted wasn’t going to make a disco album or show up at Studio 54. He wasn’t going to marry a supermodel or trade in his 4×4 for a Lambo. He was going to jam and bang skanky drunk chicks.
And The Nuge could jam. Unfortunately lost in his gun-toting public persona is what an outstanding guitarist Ted Nugent really is. It’s not lost on him, mind you, it’s simply not a component of the current 2-D cardboard Ted Nugent standee featured on your favorite television show. Check out the hippy-trippy solo on “Stranglehold” or the beautiful sustain in “Hibernation” from Double Live Gonzo. And the riffs! Keef may be the Human Riff, but “Cat Scratch Fever” and ”Free For All” are riffs as canonical as “Jumping Jack Flash” or “Smoke on the Water.” Don’t let Uncle Ted’s Fox News persona fool you: He’s a master craftsman of riff rock.
So what happened? How did this 8-track hero fall into disfavor and finally self parody? The slide began with a trifecta of mediocre albums: Weekend Warriors, Scream Dream, and State of Shock. In a Weekend Warriors promotion reminiscent of KISS and Elton John, Bally released a Ted Nugent pinball machine. I loved pinball and I liked Weekend Warriors so for me this was a win/win, but I can see now where this would put off the hardcore Nuge-a-files. Nothing says sellout like your Sansabelt likeness on the back glass of a pinball machine. Eventually I would trade my copy of Weekend Warriors for Queen’s News of the World. I think the neighbor kid got the worst of that deal.
Scream Dream isn’t held in much esteem these days, but it had its moments. “Terminus El Dorado” is odd enough to still hold my interest. If geneticists one day combine the DNA of The Nuge, Tom Waits, and a komodo dragon, the result will be whatever beast performs “Terminus El Dorado.” It remains a mystery how Ted got from “Wang dang sweet poontang / shakin’ that thang / going rang-a-dang-a-dang” to “When the crow’s been picking at your flesh and you got no control of the situation.”
That’s the good news. The bad news is that Scream Dream also brought us “Wango Tango” and the debut of the loin cloth. Gone were the polyester trousers, replaced by a chamois too small for Barbarella. Pinball machines, loin cloths, pop songs. It was all getting to be a bit much.
Ted wasn’t the only Seventies survivor showing his age. Black Sabbath’s Never Say Die! was a critical and commercial failure that destroyed the band. Aerosmith’s Draw The Line almost tore that band apart, but they managed to eke out Night in the Ruts before imploding. Both KISS and The Rolling Stones released disco albums.
Around 1978 the music world started gearing up for the Eighties and Ted got caught square in the middle of the changing of the guard. Around this time Van Halen opened for The Nuge in what was their first big national exposure. They blew Ted off the stage night after night. (A few years ago during one if his spoken word tours, Henry Rollins told a hilarious story about being in the audience for one of these shows.)
By the mid-80s Ted was a state fair and opening act kind of guy, swinging onto stage in his loincloth, brandishing some Strat-like atrocity rather than his iconic Byrdland. Maybe he had some solid musical reason for the change, I don’t know, but from the cheap seats it looked like a lame attempt to keep up with the young shredders and finger tappers with their whammy bars and zebra print tights.
In 1989 the unthinkable happened. The Motor City Madman joined up with Tommy Shaw from Styx and Night Ranger’s Jack Blades to form Damn Yankees. Now I’ve already admitted to an early childhood Manilow obsession, so all pretense of lifetime cool is long gone. As they say in the South if you’re going to fuck the dog you may as well stick it all the way in, and it is in this bestial spirit that I proudly confess to a fondness for “Sister Christian,” “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” and many Styx songs. I played Pieces of Eight and The Grand Illusion until my parents’ hi-fi spit ribbons of 8-track tape all over the make out basement. I still stop if my car stereo lands on “Lady” or “Come Sail Away,” and I wail loudly and off-key along with the mighty DeYoung. The dude next to me at the stoplight thumpin’ to Lil Wayne is rarely impressed.
But sweet Baby Jesus. Seeing Ted alongside the criminals who brought us “Babe,” “Mr. Roboto,” and “When You Close Your Eyes” was too much. There he stood in zebra spandex and a scarf, cock rock guitar slung low, shredding his way through the solo of an awful power ballad. It was like seeing a defeated Kong in chains.
I come not to bury Ted but to praise him. The Eighties were hard on all of the big acts of the Sixties and Seventies. Among the art crimes committed between 1980 and 1989:
- Jefferson Airplane aka Starship’s “We Built This City”
- Paul McCartney’s duets with Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson
- Heart’s “What About Love,” “These Dreams,” and “Never”
- David Bowie’s unintentionally ironically titled Never Let Me Down
- Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga”
- Mick Jagger.
Standing so many years removed from this trash heap it is hard to remember how vital and relevant a cartoon character like the contemporary Ted once was. Many of us who moved onto other musical pastures want to downplay our childhood passion for The Nuge much like we distance ourselves from the creepy uncle who always wanted us to fish for candy in his pants pockets. But Ted mattered. He was a proxy for our adolescent fantasies, a model of non-conformity among non-conformists, and a guitarist who could combine ear shredding volume with melody. I love ya, Uncle Ted. Thanks for retiring the loin cloth.