He was the human cannonball of chaos, splattering the overblown, the self-important and anything he found hypocritical in the slightest. Mojo Nixon ranting was a lot like Hendrix playing the guitar: full-tilt, but somehow bending to inner vision in a way that left mere mortals slack-jawed.
He was a kid born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, as Neill Kirby McMillan Jr. and raised in Danville, Virginia, during the dawn of civil rights. His dad worked at the radio station, bringing home all the best race records home from work. That gave the high-energy kid with the too-fast brain a fast track to soul, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and even the blues, which would underscore just about every record Mojo Nixon would ever make.
A liberal college in Ohio, a bike trip across America, magic mushrooms, underage drinking, it all added up to a distaste for pretentious liberals, but a real heart for actual people. Not that he was gonna show you that outright. Never!
His first album – recorded bare bones and never intended for release – landed in the hands of Enigma Records. They did a little remaking, put it out and that stripped down aesthetic that can be heard in the early Black Keys and White Stripes records took flight on those first records with Skid Roper. College radio, punk foment and California cowpunk adjacent, the timing was right for the manic street preaching of “Burn Down the Malls,” “Jesus at McDonalds,” “Moanin with Your Mama” and the MTV skewering/VJ lusting “Stuffin’ Martha’s Muffin.”
Like outlaw comic Sam Kinison, it was your innermost voice raging against the poseur bloat of the moment. That he looked like Jethro BoDean in his sleeves cut-off workshirts, his baggy jeans and those damned Elvis-inspired sideburns made him poor white trash and sexy in spite of it all. By the time of “Elvis Is Everywhere,” Nixon had a wild word of mouth ubiquity. I can’t remember whether it was the Tower Records’ Pulse editors telling me, or one of the Beat Farmers in an interview. Just people who were cool, who were in on the joke were talking, and the buzz was if you didn’t get it, you weren’t going to.
It was a rager, ticking off all the places the King of Rock & Roll could be found. Picking up speed as he threw down line after line, it was almost an eruptive audience participation exorcism. The crowd would be shrieking along on the chorus as the “spirit of Elvis” would descend upon them all.
My first interview with him was most likely for a music magazine out of Tampa called Players. That voice of quick drying cement rolled down the phone line like a Mack truck, percussive words flying, bon mots dropping like little bombs of pull quotage. Mojo was smart, quick and unabashed to tell you how it was.
You’d hold on for dear life, then you’d just keep holding. But – back in an age before FAX machines or cell phones, let alone the internet – when you met someone in the fray of music criticism who hit your meters, stay in touch.
Before he even signed with a big time publicist, I convinced Fred Goodman at Rolling Stone we should cover him. He was tilting at sacred cows, knocking them over with a manic glee that was connecting at crummy college bars, music industry dives and touring with the Pogues. Back then, Rolling Stone was twice a month, full stop; to be in its pages meant something, as space was finite and their stamp mattered.
When he picked me up to “do” something for background, he talked about needing to get a shirt to get married in. A sartorial situation that presented myriad challenges, but a job to be done as he’d be wedding days later.
I suggested Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors on North Lankershim, where the rock stars and cowboy movie legends all got their custom threads.
He suggested that was far beyond the budget.
Mojo as a young man was sinewy, an erotic charge for a certain kind of gal. Nudie’s widow Bobbie, with her hair piled up, was the perfect woman for a guy like him. I suggested we take the drive, let me explain why we’re there, then he do the flirt’n’charm. What’s the harm in the name of love?
“Good luck,” he harrumphed.
Inside, we looked at the sale racks, turning the merry-go-round ones, looking for something suitable. There it was: white satin with piping and a red satin yoke. Subtle? Nope. Marked down? Yup.
I’d already explained what we were looking for. I went into the other room, let the master bargain. For all the bodacious, Mojo respected history, wanted something that mattered for this most blessed event; even if they were doing it at a GoKart track, it was his wedding.
Returning to the counter as his wallet was going back into his pants, the Widow Nudie looked pleased. She’d played her part in two kids running off and getting married; she understood what that meant.
For all the ballast, people miss Mojo knew how to connect with folks where they were. Sometimes it was with a stick of audible dynamite, but he could land his jumps with death-defying accuracy. Being a Son of the South, he understood a woman of a certain age piled up – and he could recognize that soft hearted space where she’d see him for who he was.
When confronted with a raging Pat Robertson on CNN, he held his ground, pushed back laughing and made the controversy-stirring preacher/politician look the fool. He hated the pomposity of people censoring, telling you how to live – and he had no mercy, just great sport turning Robertson’s insults back on him, creating a Teflon retort bank that rivaled Muhammad Ali’s verbal jousts.
Mostly, though, he wanted to have fun. Wherever he was, a party would follow. Legendary gatherings happened on the set of “Great Balls of Fire,” where X’s John Doe, the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Jimmie Vaughan and Mojo played Jerry Lee Lewis’ band; Winona Ryder in the part of the 13-year old cousin Lewis married would graduate to an even greater role.
She would play “Debbie G! Teen Dream!” in a B-movie video that saw her trysting with Spuds McKenzie in a no-tel motel, delivering the monster tot, and cuckholding her man. Mojo would “pants” a Rick Astley stand-in to call foul on it all.
When Mojo Nixon dropped “Debbie Gibson Is Pregnant (with My Two Headed Love Child,” the momentum was there. He’d been doing outsider art/performance promos for MTV – the inbred, cornfed crazy person as a preacher, used car salesman or just himself – that were landing hard in terms of personal recognition. As the patron saint of Zero Fs Given, the loudmouth Tasmanian devil delivered.
He was cool, because he never got too far from real. Spoof, yes. Mock, maybe. But goofball or pander? Never.
Indeed, the guy who’d been celebrated in the Dead Milkmen’s “Punk Rock Girl,” with the line “Your record store could use some fixin’/It don’t got no Mojo Nixon,” was balancing the outlandish with a deeper kind of social criticism. Bo DAY Shus may’ve contained “She’s Vibrator Dependent,” but he and Roper had also covered all of the verses of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” which some felt impugned property owners.
Maybe there was a skirmish with MTV. Maybe they delivered a list of changes before they could air the hilarious “Debbie Gibson” video. Certainly they wouldn’t admit that they weren’t airing the video for fear of upsetting their sponsors, the major labels or other artists.
Rather fight than quit, Nixon doubled down. Otis was recorded with the legendary Jim Dickinsin at Chips Moman’s studio in Memphis. Six figures, X’s John Doe, Dash Rip Rock’s Bill Davis, the Del-Lords’ Eric Ambel, Dickinson and Country Dick Montana served as the Liberation Army. James Brown influences high, it was a festival of racing big foot trucks, destroying all lawyers, Shane McGowan’s dentist, his own Star Spangled anthem and the aggressively honest “Don Henley Must Die.”
Memphis’ Omni New Daisy’s walls were sweating the night the Liberation Army took the stage. It was a roiling, boiling mess of humanity, many there for the free-for-all of free associations, but plenty recognizing the full-thrust of musicianship on that stage. To say they had a ball would be like saying kids like ice cream.
It was outsider, a cool kids club for the wack jobs, the won’t fit inners, glue sniffers, “oh yeah!” ballers and other people looking to throw down a gauntlet on 9-to-5 living. Was it a place to get laid? Depended on your standards, but Mojo was gonna make sure you had a damn good time.
Maybe he did shock the National Association of Campus Activities at their 1990 national convention at Nashville’s Tara-like Opryland Hotel. Raging about a “Louisiana Liplock” on an anatomically close “love pork chop” scared some of the meeker schools, but those of us crashing to see our friends thought it was hilarious.
And that’s pretty much the trick of the tale.
It wasn’t that Mojo didn’t care, he just wasn’t interested in someone’s arbitrary standards. When one door closed, he’d jump out a window. Retiring and coming back for Kinky Friedman’s run for the Texas governorship, there were always moments when Mojo would show up and slam hard after that.
Until a stint doing radio in Cincinnati, not unlike Peter Wolf’s radio days in Boston, the fast-talking rabble rouser caught the attention of the SiriusXM folks who were trying to figure out how to do Gonzo country in a way that wouldn’t be that uncle who doesn’t know he’s not cool. Suddenly, Nixon was everywhere your SiriusXM signal could land: cars, computers, offices, smart phones.
The Loon in the Afternoon, howling their now signature tag “OutLAWWWWWW Countreeeeeeeee” with utter abandon, was all about truck driver music, outlaw songs, Americana with an edge, old friends, big talk and a party in the afternoon to kick the tar out of your crummy day.
When Sixthman started their Outlaw Country Cruises, he became the toastmaster in charge. Walking the decks in his Hawaiian shirts and daisy dukes, or wearing loud matching suits with Bullethead, his manager for decades, they were savoring every rebel yell, set or signing. They could be found watching their friends throw down amongst the people, jumping up for practical jokes, melting time with a handful of barked out lyrics.
Indeed, the magic of Mojo and the Outlaw Cruise was standing there, you were the wonderstruck full of fire kid who first found Nixon all those years ago. Sure, he’d made records with Jello Biafra and the all-star Pleasure Barons with Doe and Dave Alvin, a punk/roots homage to the Rat Pack in Vegas; but more than that, the Beavis & Butthead reality that caught your ear kept you young standing there, barking along with “tied my pecker to my leg, to my leg…”
That kind of freedom, from self-consciousness, maturity, you name it, is a hard alchemy to conjure. Mojo Nixon just had to laugh.
Having fallen away from the day-to-day of alt/roots music, Mojo was a wink and a nod when our paths would cross. Shamed by SiriusXM honcho Jeremy Tepper to Outlaw Cruise, I, too, fell under the innocence of who I was, the fury of music and passion delivered without filter, the hilarity of succumbing to inanity and the churn of really good stripped down soul, rock and country played by the Toad Liquors, the scrappiest technicians who walk the planet.
It was always full-tilt. It was always a rage.
So to get the call, hearing the falter and the “you need to hear this from us,” I’m still dumb-founded. “They worked on him for a while…,” “They did everything they would do…”
No one could say the name. Finally, “Mojo’s gone…”
When you live like a Roman candle, how you exit matters. But who would think it would be on an Outlaw Country Cruise, docked in Puerto Rico, after what Bullethead, who’s seen them all, said was “quite possibly the best show of his entire life”? How could he stay in the bar ‘til 4, regaling people with stories, telling tales and feeling the high of that, get up and have breakfast with his band and friends, then take a nap… and die?
What about the rest of us? How could you blaze so hot and hard, then bounce at 66 years old?
It’s a perfect exit, really. If you step back, if you listen to some of the later rants – or watch the freewheeling “Mojo Manifesto” documentary – he talks about people not wanting the clinging to youth celebrity for someone like him. Maybe that’s just part of what he was talking about.
Regardless, 66 years old, like the cross-country highway. Probably lived that number two times again, certainly got double the mileage the rest of us will.
No doubt Jim Dickinson and Country Dick Montana have already got their grubby mitts on him, showing him where the good barbeque is, the dive bars with the really good bands and the race tracks with the nitro funny cars.
All things being equal, it’s a coin toss whether it was St Peter or Elvis waiting at the Pearly Gates. But if it were up to Mojo, since Elvis is everywhere, he’d probably prefer his welcome to paradise coming from the King.
No word yet on memorial plans. Last night on the Outlaw Cruise, Dash Rip Rock blistered their set to send their friend out loud and proud. In a world where most people sand down their edges to fit in the hole, Mojo Nixon was unrepentantly trapezoidal. It might not look like a revolutionary act, but when the New York Times, Rolling Stone, People, USA TODAY, Vulture and more are racing to get your obituary up, Mojo Nixon’s mark was far more than the mainstream realized. What could be more subversive than that?
As his “You Can’t Kill Me” proclaims,
“I stand alone, out on the road/ I know flesh will rot
“But the renegade and crazy free will not forget… You can’t kill me, I will not die/ not now, not ever, no never
I’m gonna live a long, long time/ my soul raves forever”