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Terminal Gonzolitis: My Conflicted Relationship With The Nuge

Old-guard IO stalwart and current Decibel contributor Justin Norton is one of my favorite metal writers. When he asked me if he could come out of retirement to write something about Ted Nugent for the site, I initially thought he was joking. Having read it, I’m glad he wasn’t. Welcome back, Justin. — DM

“I don’t want to be a rock star. I don’t believe in rock stars.” – The Nuge

It’s one of the defining memories of my childhood: Ted Nugent on the cover of the Cat Scratch Fever LP. The Nuge’s eyes are wild and unfixed, his expression a mix of jest and malice. For a halcyon period, Nugent was the satyr of rock and roll, a shredder who made every kid covet his albums. I believed so fully in The Nuge that I wanted to give my being over to the rock and roll gods. I wanted to shift time and space to inhabit The Nuge, give myself fully to the spirit of the Great White Buffalo, let “Wango Tango” seep into my soul until I was a bow-shooting lunatic with kissed-by-an electric current hair.

I am not alone. There are legions of us, many in hiding: the fans of Ted Nugent, the afflicted masses suffering from terminal gonzolitis. I’m not afraid to admit that, in the words of Office Space, I celebrate The Nuge’s catalog – at least part of it, until things started to go south with Damn Yankees. But anything before that was gold, even if the only song to get conventional airplay was “Cat Scratch Fever.”

Getting a Nuge record was the first symptom of gonzolitis. The one I did score was a haul, the Bible of Nuge: Double Live Gonzo. Much like fellow ’70s icons KISS, The Nuge’s best work was always on stage, where he could take decent songs and turn them into rock art with his improvisational gifts. Of course, no one in KISS could play like The Nuge. To listen to Double Live Gonzo even decades later is to hear a master at work. It’s the pinnacle of the Motor City Madman, the shrine of Gonzo.

In recent years, The Nuge has been justifiably accused of parroting the Tea Party line and carrying rhetorical bags for the National Rifle Association. He’s also been accused of being heartless. But anyone who has ever played music — especially in the spur of the moment — knows that you have to feel it. Music demands heart. This doesn’t mean that musicians haven’t said and done dreadful things. But the soul and feeling that powered The Nuge in the ‘70s and part of the ‘80s are tucked somewhere underneath his drab Cabela’s camouflage onesies. In Darth Vader fashion, The Nuge has shifted from a proud guitar warrior to a cynical beast of a man. Like Vader could still wield a lightsaber, The Nuge can still wield his Gibson Byrdland. Buried underneath that hunting hat — the symbolic equivalent of the black helmet — is the soul that could turn adolescent pelvic rumbling into the stuff of high art.

Decades ago, there were signs that The Nuge wanted to let loose more with his than a guitar. The Nuge was always a master of stage banter, especially on Double Live. It was the stage banter you wanted to hear, not Paul Stanley’s repetitive cat-in-heat mewling. The words flowed out of him rapidfire, like autistic, stream-of-consciousness poetry, a low-rent version of Walt Whitman’s barbaric yawp: “You bet your ass, you bet your ass baby. If you want to get mellow get the fuck out of here. This is a love song. I’m going to dedicate this to some Nashville pussy.” If you were an American teenager and that didn’t make you want to jump hurdles, you were either catatonic or listening to ELO. The guy who called it “sexist garbage” on an online forum recently was clearly in the drama club. There’s not a huge leap between stage talk and CNN appearances; The Nuge was custom-built to provoke.

The disciples of The Nuge’s early and essential recordings are legion. Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye — not exactly adherents of hard-right politics — were big fans of The Nuge in their youth. There’s no doubt that the primal energy of The Nuge influenced their early punk projects, Teen Idles and S.O.A. Henry’s famous last words in his high school yearbook were “Terminal Gonzolitis.” Double Live Gonzo has been certified triple platinum, meaning that if you don’t own a copy, then your neighbor probably does, even if he is a registered Green voter or a NOW member.

To deny the power of The Nuge in his prime is to deny the power of rock and roll: the power of AC/DC, the power of early Priest, the power of monolithic death metal. The Nuge’s early music is the stuff of our internal primal caveman, the person everyone wants to stop existing, the person beat to a quivering pulp by political correctness, the wildman on the state park yearning to let loose with Roman candles. You can try to snuff out his existence with wellness retreats, Iron John weekends and sensitivity training. But he will eventually park a jalopy on the lawn and break out a cooler of beer.

I have a Nuge conundrum. I celebrate The Nuge’s early music, yet find most of his work from the past two decades bland and lifeless. I firmly believe in his right to free speech, yet I disagree with much of what he says. And I am ceaselessly reminded of past glories even when, in an almost Joe Paterno-esque fashion, he seems intent on ensuring that everyone forgets the better parts of his career. There are many of us who remember Ted before he became Uncle Ted: the conservative relative who is pissed off about almost everything, who has no internal censor, who has become a real life version of the older brother Chet in Weird Science.

If you read back to the earliest chapters of the book of Nuge, you won’t find the collected works of Glenn Beck. Lest you think he is an ugly racist, look back on his career, which started in the ’60s. The Detroit musical scene he grew up in was in all likelihood more integrated than the vast majority of the United States. The day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, The Nuge played a memorial jam with unlikely bedfellows like Joni Mitchell (see the interesting collection of Nuge facts here). The earliest Nuge classic was The Amboy Dukes’ “Journey To The Center Of The Mind,” a song he still claims he never knew was about psychedelics. The Nuge was an abstainer in a scene where everyone was partying, an outcast in a collection of outcasts. Perhaps it made him angry. Even in the early ’80s — two decades into his long career — The Nuge was an exemplar of rock and roll cool that never betrayed more extreme viewpoints.

It’s hard to pinpoint when The Nuge became a hard-liner. Maybe, like fallen Saturday Night Live alum Victoria Jackson, The Nuge always had these beliefs buried. A better explanation might be our culture. In the ’60s and ’70s, mainstream rockers almost universally embraced liberalism. So it’s likely that The Nuge was in the minority during his heyday. Reagan’s election swept those liberal viewpoints to the side; the man who tried to put an iron boot on the California counterculture ruled the roost. The ascendancy of the Republican right and conservatism merged with the rise of 24-hour talk that thrived on invective. Perhaps The Nuge finally felt like it was time to cut loose when his records didn’t equal what came before. Or maybe he just wanted to commodify his anger.

Whatever the reason, people noticed.

The Nuge started saying things that didn’t vibe with, well, large scores of progressives. I don’t have a problem with this. Mind you, Ted’s worldview is not my own. I don’t need a functioning arsenal in my backyard the size of the one in the movie Hot Fuzz. I don’t feel ill-served by the president, and voted for him twice. I find Al Sharpton grating and duplicitous, but I don’t need to spout venom about him. Nonetheless, when The Nuge speaks, Facebook feeds across the land erupt in unison. After the recent Navy Yard shootings in Washington D.C., I told my friend it was a matter of time before The Nuge was on the screen. I was then told that he is “already on television.”

The new Nuge — the one referred to as Uncle Ted — is a ready-for-cable creation. He, like Ann Coulter on the right and Bill Maher on the left, serves a role the media loves: the person who is willing to go there. I was frankly mystified when the media went to The Nuge for comment on the George Zimmerman verdict. When did writing “Wango Tango” qualify you to comment on the biggest racial verdict since the Rodney King trial? Is The Nuge now Alan Dershowitz? I might trust The Nuge to tell me why a guitar riff didn’t work, how to dismember and dress a piece of fresh game, or why “Stranglehold” kicks so much ass. Jurisprudence isn’t The Nuge’s thing.

That said, I don’t feel particularly aggrieved by anything The Nuge says. Many people do. He’s been called every -ist in the dictionary: sexist, racist, classist. He’s been called everything but a socialist, which is probably the only description that would bother him. In fact, part of me celebrates Ted’s surly recaltricance it because it’s one of the few things that pisses people off in a metal and rock culture that’s grown strangely conformist. What you don’t hear a lot of are more thoughtful moments — like this — where he claims he would accept an openly gay child. Perhaps The Nuge, like all of us, is far more sensitive than he admits.

In metal, extreme viewpoints are encouraged and embraced. Honestly, I wouldn’t put The Nuge in the same category as some of the sociopaths who are routinely celebrated in metal circles: the walking wounded who commit acts like arson and murder. The glaring example is Varg Vikernes of Burzum. There are doubtless readers here who have attacked The Nuge for exercising his rights to speech who own multiple albums by an avowed racist who uses the n-word in every sentence, packed a car full of explosives during a prison furlough, and ambushed and killed a former friend. If The Nuge wanted to perform in Brooklyn there would be a collective national outcry, but shitbags like Boyd Rice can book a show? (Note: The Nuge’s biological son, Ted Mann, is a Brooklyn-based restauranteur and owner of several hip bars, including Matchless, No Name Bar, and Public Assembly. —Ed.)

We expect certain things of many metal bands: that they repudiate Christianity; that they possibly embrace eco-conscious spirituality or paganism; that they party until their bodies shut down. We expect them to want to upend the status quo, to change the world from the ground up — or just to destroy things. We don’t expect them to act like The Nuge; to celebrate the status quo, to pull up a chair with the beer-gutted “patriots” who patrol the borders with firearms, to say it’s okay to be an unrepentant chain-store American. The Nuge will never get an invitation to Stella Natura, even if he could last way longer in the woods than anyone in attendance.

I am a Ted Nugent fan. I do not adhere to his worldview. I prefer the rocker from my youth who seemed to make anything possible. I applaud The Nuge’s conviction, his desire to say whatever he wants, to speak his mind, even if in doing so he guarantees that his best albums are an afterthought in his obituary. Too often, he has taken the privilege of free speech to dangerous extremes, and was appropriately reprimanded and visited by the Secret Service when he said he would be “dead or in jail” if Obama was reelected. (He has instead toured steadily.) But ultimately, the vast majority of what The Nuge is doing is protected by freedom of speech — the same freedom of speech that metal fans embrace and cherish because it provides protection for every extreme viewpoint. Some of us need reminding that these guidelines extend to The Nuge, even when he is saying something that confounds and upsets them.

There’s still a bit of yin and yang to The Nuge. On a visit to Howard Stern’s show a few years ago, The Nuge was handed a cheap, out-of-tune guitar. Within a minute, The Nuge was soloing. It was like a portal back to a simpler time when he was just a rocker. Then there was the disappointing time I saw him live recently. I wanted to hear the songs from Double Love Gonzo and remember why this gun-toting madman was such a figurehead in my youth. Instead, The Nuge stopped after almost every song to launch vicious and juvenile barbs at Hillary Clinton. I went hoping for a glimpse of the old Nuge. What I purchased was a ticket for a political rally I never wanted to participate in. It was dispiriting.

Little has changed since then, except that The Nuge has a public profile larger than anyone would have expected. I haven’t bought a Nuge album in decades, outside of a digital copy of Double Live. His book was a bestseller. He’s toying with the idea of running for president, even though he’ll likely get just a handful of votes. He was invited to the State of the Union address, and continues to record mediocre later-in-life records. And metal fans, well, they will continue to criticize The Nuge for hate speech whilst packing their collections with artists who are probably on every terror and hate watch list.

There will always be those early Nuge records and that miracle record. I will cradle my vinyl version of Double Live Gonzo, remembering The Nuge of my youth, the pied piper with a guitar, the man who answered a call to arms not with an Uzi but with solos woven out of the cosmos.

— Justin M. Norton

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