You Can’t Kill Me: Mojo Nixon Has Left the Building

Music Features Mojo Nixon
You Can’t Kill Me: Mojo Nixon Has Left the Building

Mojo Nixon was crazy. Walking on a razor’s edge, laughing into the wind like some kind of kamikaze “Hey, y’all! Watch this!” good ole boy on too much acid, there wasn’t much of anything Neill Kirby McMillan, Jr. wouldn’t do.

Indeed, the more you’d recoil, the harder the fast talkin’, social commentarian would lean in. If he saw your flinching place, he’d double down, laughing that maniacal laugh to make you feel stupid and somehow empowered to laugh about whatever it was, too. Not that everything was a joke. Though he’d juggle social taboo machetes like mandarin oranges—or some equally benign parlor trick—he knew music, politics and bullshit like nobody’s business. If his original calling card was frenetic talking blues, two-chord punched-up songs and a backbeat that often worked out like a speedbag, don’t think he didn’t know the deep origins of the music he tore from the ground roots first.

That manic, raging street preacher thing—whether exhorting unbelievers “Elvis Is Everywhere,” thundering “Don Henley Must Die,” whirling through the reality “Debbie Gibson Is Pregnant (with My Two Headed Love Child”—mined grooves that slung low, twisted hard and got funkier than cold medina. From the very first salvo, a primitive, starkly thrumming guitar blues that teetered back and forth as he raved about “Jesus at McDonalds,” he merged a Lou Reed sangfroid with a confessional stream of consciousness that invoked all the religious leaders, fast food restaurants and Mama getting it on with Santa Claus “blamed it on menopause.” As the song’s tempo ebbs and flows, that wobble is as much a drunk man walking as a revelation.

Whatever it was, and I promise you not even Dr. Demento was sure, a brushfire ensued. Maybe it was the far fringe tastemakers at Engima Records, or the X/Blasters/Tex & the Horseheads vortex of California punk with a crazed Beat Farmers’ chaser. Taste was not the issue; that Mojo & Skid debut strung the unthinkable—“Moanin’ with Your Mama”—across a terse Bo Diddley grind. All gruff roar, blatant bragging and inappropriate in extremis, you had to laugh when he confessed “pokin’ holes in her liver” after a particularly randy assignation.

However it spread, people were buzzing. Editors at Tower Pulse, regional fanzines, record store clerks who’d turned into champions for indie record companies dealing in the anti-major label insurrection. It was a wild time. Mojo, thrashing and bashing away, defied anything we’d seen. Not as noir or creature feature as the Cramps, not as straight up political as the Dead Kennedys, too inbred and rural to be the Replacements, he raged away like Jethro BoDean on steroids, howling like a dog about whatever hypocrisy that hit his viewfinder, as well as any hormonal, jacked up puberty-stricken XY-chromosone nonsense he could reckon. Before there were Beavis and Butthead, Mojo Nixon was a tall, two-fisted temple of arrested development with an IQ higher than a dog whistle.

The Pogues loved him. Tours together were a direct threat to their collective livers. Dash Rip Rock, Screaming Cheetah Wheelies, the Del-Lords all devoured the joke. The Dead Milkman loved him, too, celebrating the erstwhile ranter in their “Punk Rock Girl” with the tilted couplet, “Your store could use some fixin’/It don’t have no Mojo Nixon.” Yes, he was reckless, wild, drunk, drugging, blowing things up, body slamming road life with a velocity seemingly no one—perhaps not even Keith Richards—could withstand. Yet somehow, Nixon and his erstwhile tour manager Bullethead not only survived, they thrived. Every gambit, controversy or moment was something to laugh their heads off about, then tell the story in larger and taller detail over the months ahead.

When someone would say, “Two notes? Sounds like he needs Thorazine?,” then look at you like the Emperor is wearing a flesh suit, you could only sigh—and know how square your seemingly cool friend was. Sophomoric? Of course. But also seething, thrashing and delivering genuine commentary. Before the fabulous Mitch Schneider arrived to steward the buzz, many of us writers circled up to tell the story. Pitching Fred Goodman, one of my Rolling Stone editors, I explained it was as much strong, savory comedy as it was TigerBeat troglodyte songs for the truncated young men whose only love was self-afflicted.

He was intrigued. It didn’t help that I was the Steinbeck mouse in lunatic comic Sam Kinison’s pocket. As the young woman who’d never done drugs that would sit up some nights talking about bands and God, gender identity, jokes and whatever else crossed our purview, the editor knew I knew comedy. “Yes, okay,” he said, wanting to be first. “Come up with something to do, ask some smarter questions—and try to bring us a lively read,” When Dan Einstein, my fiancée, left to turn John Prine’s songs into Oh Boy’s records, he asked, “What does your day contain?”

Laughing I explained Mojo Nixon and I were going to “do” something we could hang a story on. Einstein looked at me, bemused. “Mojo? Adventure? Something for background?” I nodded, big smile. “I see,” he said, half quizzically, half-joking. “Well, don’t get arrested—or tattoed.” “But, Dan, we’re kind of friends.”

Half a beat passed, he exhaled, smiled, and repeated, “Yes, so don’t get arrested—or tattoed.” The van rolled into our lot on the second steepest hill in LA running a little hot. For some reason, I think it was the transmission or drive shaft. That van—driven into the ground touring—was classic flat paint, cargo warrior; it couldn’t fail, but it could be expensive to fix. Young Mojo was lean, muscular like “I’m on Fire” Springsteen, thick hair with his Elvis obsession extruding from his pores. “I need to get something to get married in,” he explained. “It’s gotta get done.” Was it an invitation to help? Or an exit strategy that was Teflon? “What’re you thinking?” “Something cool. Something wild. Something me.”

“You ever been to Nudies?” I asked, citing the cowboy couturier who dressed movie stars, country music legends, Led Zeppelin and more. “They’re in North Hollywood.” “I can’t afford that,” he pushed back, explaining his wedding was going to be at a go kart track. “You’d be surprised, what’s it cost to look?” And then I added, “Even if you get nothing, I can use it for the story… and you can see the place Elvis, Gram Parsons and Mel Tillis shopped.”

“MEL TILLIS?!” he faux-reacted. “I’m in.”

Parking outside the split-rail building on N. Lankershim Blvd with the rearing Palomino horse on the roof, I smiled. “This could be magic. Just poke around, look at the sale racks. And if his widow’s in, she might work with you.” Sure enough, and sure enough, and sure enough, there was a white satin shirt on a sale rack with a red satin yoke, pearl snap buttons and piping. It was still too much, but Bobbie Nudie, Nudie Cohen’s widow, was working the register, wash’n’set crash helmet hair in all its motionless glory. Walking over to the circular rack, I explained who the lady leaning on the counter was. “Tell her what it’s for. She’s a fan of the story. Oh, and flirt with her. That works, too.”

I walked away, didn’t look back. Some bread won’t rise if you stare at it while waiting for the yeast to kick in. When I came back, she was wrapping up the shirt, smiling coyly and telling him his intention was a lucky woman. I started to laugh, but I knew: If you’ve got the ball rolling, do nothing to break the momentum. Just eyes down, walk on; get in the truck. Once we were moving, he laughed that garrulous laugh, side-eyed me and proclaimed, “I feel like I stole it.” “Really?” the intrepid reporter began.

Whether a fan of wild young love, good looking young bucks or just hoping to make a sale, the widow of the man who’d dressed all the cowboy film stars had set a price Mojo could afford. But—and this was instructive to the man I was riding with—beyond the “Hell, yeah” of scoring some gilded wedding clothes, there was the aw shucks of a kid who’d loved cowboy movies, a humility for where he’d been and what he’d purchased. The raging lunatic talking bluesman had joined Elton John, Keith Richards, Dolly Parton, Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, R.E.M. and Gram Parsons in the rock and country royalty who’d worn Nudie.

And he got it. That was part of what made it intriguing. Sitting there at the wheel, the chiseled featured alt-star was thinking about what that shirt meant; not that he’d made it, but that he had touched the hem of something great. For all the frothing, foaming, seek-and-destroy propulsion, underneath McMillan, Jr. was more educated than people realized and more appreciative than the cyclonic presence could ever reveal.

The conversation circled being on the verge, something you can’t truly capture until you’re on the other side. But the momentum and the pressure of almost breaking through to the mass pop consciousness was palpable. When the questions turned from ham-fisted pop up flies—designed for the obvious punchline or proclamation—the answers turned thoughtful, the character broke and a man looking to skewer and impale stigmas emerged; he wasn’t out of control or feral, but a wicked intellect that understood the psychology of respectability and seeking more who knew just how to land a punch of the things they held dear.

Unfortunately, the gags were so delicious, Rolling Stone ran three Random Notes in quick succession. Suddenly, he’d more than permeated the 2x a month rock periodical—in a time when that real estate was finite and coveted—and the decision was made to spike the profile. It meant I didn’t get paid, but it also meant people didn’t see the deeper, more thoughtful side of the kid born in North Carolina, raised in Danville, Virginia, who went to a liberal college in Ohio, drifted to Colorado then San Diego as he carved out space for his outsized brain and worldview. He knew music, deep and wide; held opinions that were informed and thought-out.

Ironic, and yet, people loved the too loud, too robust freak flag flyer tilting about plastic Jesuses, myriad Elvis incarnations, magic mushrooms, foofoo haircuts, being vibrator dependent, legalizing pot, refusing menial labor, burning down the malls and stuffin’ all-American MTV VJ Martha Quinn’s muffin, but he also did Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” with all of the verses, even the “subversive” ones. And any time someone suggested it was a novelty, how long could the joke last, Mr. Mojo Nixon would land on another plateau of “how did he do that?!” And the “do”s that stacked up were impressive.

Beyond playing drummer James Van Eaton in the Jerry Lee Lewis film Great Balls of Fire, which was filmed in Memphis and starred Winona Ryder, Dennis Quaid and X’s John Doe, Mojo dipped in and out of movies. A bit of Ferris Bueller “Can you believe this?” matching the intensity of someone willing to see how far he could push the moment. That intensity also nitro-funny-car fueled his performance art as cultural white trash snapshot promos that gave MTV an edge as corporate rock began subsuming the strange place where music videos from pasty British bands, quirky art school downtown acts, dance, punk and new wave and other fringe artists had launched into pop status.

Concerned about being consumed by “the man,” Mojo’s list of demands were copious. MTV met them all. Suddenly, he was a preacher, a used car raver, an overgrown “Deliverance” refugee and best of all, himself freestylin’ about whatever topic they were tropin’. Again, there was all of that. But there was also the music. Jello Biafra, Dave Alvin, the Beat Farmers, the Pleasure Barons all made records with him. Even the legendary producer and creative iconoclast Jim Dickinson helmed an all-star band that included Doe, Dash Rip Rock’s Bill Davis, the Del-Lord’s Eric Ambel, Country Dick and more for Otis. Recorded in Memphis with a six-figure budget, it was the one to break the joke wide open.

In Memphis for a showcase, I ran into Davis in the lobby of the grand Peabody Hotel. We were waiting on the ducks, killing time in the suspended hours of late afternoon, explaining to the other why we were in Memphis—talking about the Liberation Army show they were going to play at the Omni New Daisy Theater, talking about the combustion in the studio, it was too strong a pull. Playing hooky from the junket, a young writer and a piano player in tow, we descended into the humid night. Our names were on the list, that seemed to be my mantra in the ‘90s. Inside the overpacked theater, the music was so loud the walls pumped and the swelter made one’s clothes limp. But onstage, there was so much heat and fun, the bodies were pressed a dozen deep, roiling like fish at feeding time as the music crashed over them.

Handing my leather jacket to the piano player, I announced, “I’m going in,” and plunged into the sweaty mass. Euphoria was the only word for it. Never one to love a mosh pit, what was happening on the floor was a whole other thing: the largely male, teen and post-teen throng were caught up in the rhythms and the off-handed jokes. It was the ultimate “your favorite band” situation—only every musician on that stage, including Dickinson who sat in, was legendary in their scene.

The propulsion coming off the stage was James Brown-inflected, terse and taut. They might be singing about racing big-foot trucks, Shane McGowan’s dentist, polish that won’t take or the infamous Don Henley death sentence and a Star Spangled anthem of Mojoliciousness, but the playing was blistering. There was no joking on the bandstand. Wandering back into the dressing room after the final encore, “What are you doing here?” was met with his “Yeah of course” embrace of whatever happened. Beyond the pleasantries of post-show chatter, there was the acknowledgement of how good it was. He knew what he was doing musically—and he wasn’t gonna pull light.

That roaring way of talking geared down to just how impressive what was happening was. If the outboard motor was the outrageousness of what he was saying, he knew it could allow him to make a record of the funky soul, shuffles and high octane hillbilly rock ‘n’ roll he loved. Maybe the greatest joke was on the music industry: The loon was the guy preserving certain strains of American music in a way that major labels paid lip service to, but didn’t give a damn about protecting. Not that he took it all serious. Playing the National Association of Campus Activities Convention at Nashville’s Tara-like Opryland Hotel, he had no problem whipping out “Louisiana Liplock” (applied to the metaphorically sound love porkchop) to the mid-afternoon ballroom of student talent buyer, exhorting them to chant along. My mother, with her striped high-rise hair in town, looked sideways at me, inhaled and announced, “How charming.”

She, too, had martini dry skewering skills. Dragging her back to say hi, she assessed the frenetic mass of flesh, looking up and down, sizing him up as he raved at me. Frustrated at his missing the obvious, I hissed, “Mojo, THIS is my MOTHER…” “Oh, Mrs. Gleason,” he chuckled, wiping his hand and extending. “How nice to meet you.” Eye-rolling, she announced, “Charmed,” clearly not. Whatever Mojo he shot through his magic fingers, a moment later, she was laughing along, leaning into him a little too much. Alchemic tilt realized.

No doubt, he told my mother I was a good writer, that I got it deeper than many. He might’ve mentioned the Alternative Press cover story I’d written, that lost night in Memphis or picking up a wedding shirt at Nudie’s. But more likely, he flirted with her 1% more than just an empty threat—and she liked it. Mojo’s magic was he always knew which button to push to get his desired result. What to say, what to do, how to sling it, drop it, roll it or set it on fire. There was no looking back, just full speed ahead. If you couldn’t hang, you shouldn’t be there anyway. And the smart ones—like me—knew when to go home.

Music business is a full-frontal assault with back-knifing as a wholesale sport. People come, people go, people betray and say “they’re always there for you.” Mojo Nixon—who made mincemeat of televangelist Pat Buchanan on CNN’s crossfire—should’ve been a sitting duck. He was a powder keg of the wrong thing to say, in the middle of a fire pit. Somehow, though, his thinking was clear enough and his Zero F’s Given brazen enough that he was indestructible.

A radio stint in Cincinnati, reunion gigs for Kinky Friedman at Austin’s iconic Continental Club were moments. His legendary runs with the Toad Liquors, a ninja death squad of a raucous road band comprised of Earl B Freedom, Pete Wetdawg Gordon and Mike Middleton, barnstormed across America, seeking to burn down the tedium of 9-to-5 existence for every desk jockey and blue collar brave enough to come out. He became SiriusXm Outlaw Country’s Loon in the Afternoon, the jock whose freefallin’ “Outlaaawwwwww Kuhntreeeeeeeeeeee…” became the signature siren cry. He did a NASCAR show, a political throwdown so saltily named I won’t tempt people’s server filters. To listen to Mojo was an existentialist assault into the pleasures of outlaw country, trucker anthems, alt-roots and other raw, ragged kinds of hard primitive.

Having moved from San Diego to Cincy, he was more in touch with the middle of the country. He was at the pulse point of the flyover, right where the South (Kentucky) met the Midwest (Ohio and Indiana). It was a perfect fit for speaking your mind, slathering what you loved in big talk and throwing razors at what stunk of self-interest of the worst kinds. A few pounds heavier, Elvis sideburns a bit less bushy, Hawaiian shirt and Daisy Duke Carhartts a fashion statement of their own kind, Mojo Nixon was once again larger than life. Your best friend at the bar who spoke the truth and didn’t look back, he was hilarious and you’d forgive him whatever the departure from your own buttoned up (or down) life.

My own world had moved so far into the mainstream, it was more an exercise in big smiles and joyful hugs when we’d cross paths. When you were there, not much needed to be said. The laughter is an encyclopedia of all that’s happened. But Outlaw Country keeper Jeremy Tepper, himself once the manifest behind trucker label Rig Rock, cajoled and prodded me to get on one of their Outlaw Country Cruises. “You won’t believe it,” he said. “You have to trust me.” Cruises? Blech. Old people, bad buffets, no phone or wifi service? No thank you.

Until I said “Yes,” and was swept away in a world of pure musical immersion, unfiltered and uncensored exhileration. And as Penny Lane explains to William Miller as they race to the Hyatt on Sunset in Almost Famous—“If you never take it serious, you never get hurt. If you never get hurt, you always have fun. And, if you ever get lonely, you just go to the record store and viisit all your friends..”

Visit all your friends?! The Outlaw Country Cruise was better than any record store, even the Tower on Sunset or in the Village in New York. Everywhere you turned: Steve Earle, Rosie Flores, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Ray Benson, the Mavericks, Dan Baird, NRBQ, Rodney Crowell, Carlene Carter, Elizabeth Cook, Warner Hodges, and more. Leering on the top deck, Mojo Nixon stood like the Ambassador of All. More than Big Daddy, Boss Hog or Evel Knevil, he was surveying a world where people railed against things that blunted freedom, destroyed originality, small businesses, personal integrity or a sense of joy. These were his people, many suckled as young college students drinking stale beer and chanting along with his most rank choruses.

“YOU!” he said, looking at a creature in a floor length Lilly Pulitzer caftan. “You still do it just like you did.”

He threw back his head, laughing at the perpendicular clothing that embodied the spirit of anarchy he embraced. What could be more outlaw than wearing something like that? He got the joke on the joke, and he loved it. For five, six days each year—and one extra from California for West Coast punk—the Outlaw Cruisers could drink, yell, rock and party with complete abandon. Nobody was driving. Their favorite bands were on-board. Everyone was in on the heist.

Over those few days, a theoretically big deal music industry practitioner would turn back into a baby rock critic. The surge of the shows, the love for Lucinda Williams, John Anderson, Kris Kristofferson and Emmylou Harris gave the ships meaning, but it was expurgating the carbons and expectations that it made it so ragingly fun. That first year, standing between Mojo and Bullethead, his long-time manager, both wearing matching suits, it was that moment when Penny Lane informed William Miller, “You… are home!” Leaning over me to share an aside, both men chuckled. Glaring up at them, Mojo just laughed harder.

It wasn’t mean, it was recognition. This was where I grew up, this was where I would always belong. Whether I fell away for years, or was there next week, there was a bond for people like us that transcended niceties and how it’s supposed to be done. In that room, in that moment, there was only surrender to the music, lavishing in a love without conditions or expectations. Do your own thing, girl; be what they need, but come back to your friends and know we’re good with the Lilly clothes, the monograms you can see from space and that too serious way of taking everything on. You’re not like us, you’re exactly like us. Broken toys, conscientious objectors, lost souls, human dumpsters, spewers of vitriol at how stupid so much of it is, the Outlaws and the Outlaw Cruisers are a breed unto themselves. It’s a crazy, magic, mixed up millefiori glass window with which to view the world. It is also the perfect distillation of the unhinged freedom that Mojo Nixon conjured every afternoon.

Walking out of a church women’s guild luncheon in Palm Beach, the text came, saying, “You got a minute?”

Tepper and Bullethead, no doubt wanting to run in how much fun they were having at sea, were reaching out to someone who’s work landlocked them this year. Calling Tepper, his voice was off, “Uhm, they worked really hard… They tried…” “WHAT?!” Turning into North County Road, cloistered by Banyan trees, I could tell the news wasn’t going to be good. “He had an amazing set… maybe the best show he ever played last night… just killed it.” “What’s going on…” “MOJO.”

How could that be possible? The man who squalled, “You can’t kill me/ I will not die/ Not now, not ever, no never… Gonna live a long, long time…” over a variation of “Amazing Grace” was an insurrective manifesto for everyone raging against the machine. With Wet Dawg doubling down on juke-joint piano, the drums crashing and the guitars splaying across the track, it was a speedball of life. “Holly…” “Yeah, we need some help…” The conversation was brief. Some details about breakfast, Adair, known as “the Bride of Mojo,” and their son being flown home from the cruise, what great spirits he was in, a nap taken—and a twister of whoa flying into the stars without another word spoken.

“Got it. Okay. I have two things that must happen. Stand by. Of course. I’m so, so sorry.”

They were waiting to cast off and return to the Atlantic. Dash Rip Rock, Bill Davis’ band, would play their show, dedicate it to the psycho-billy life force, and let the Irish wake seethe with proper ballast. What better place for Mojo to leave the building? A near perfect death. Close to matching his hombre amigo Country Dick Montana, who died onstage at a packed show at the Longhorn Saloon in Whistler, British Columbia, both died as they lived. Hard, happy, regaling the world with what made them both burn so bright. Pulling the car over on the sawgrass, my throat was a fist. Like someone had punched me, but from the inside out. How can you explain all that Mojo stood for? The joy, the anti-bullying, the raging against crap and the exulting in a great solo?

And then the ugly crying began. It lasted too long and not long enough. It has gone on for hours, and it’s still breaking through. Beyond the rapier sharp mind, there was a big bold heart—and it was far more open than people realized. Nobody called foul louder, but few people created as much acceptance and welcome as he did. For me, it was losing a chunk of my innocence, my wild-hearted years of chasing songs and stories. But it was also losing a touchstone of integrity in a world that has none.

Pressing my lips together, I can see him raving onstage in the Magnum Lounge, a sunken fishbowl pit of a smoked mirror bar. The band is pumping hard; the audience smashed together. Drops of sweat fling into the crowd as people are chanting about tying their pecker to their leg, to their leg—and it is glorious. For those few moments, everyone is 21, wild, free and ready. To be able to do that, to dissolve all limitations and realities in the name of utter surrender to euphoria, is powerful stuff. Sixteen hours later, I’m finally finishing this essay, raw-voiced and swollen-eyed, but marveling at how long and how close I stood next to that flame.

Maybe because he was so generous, he didn’t incinerate the rest of us. Our last few talks had been about Prine on Prine, how could he help, when were we going to do that book event in Cincinnati. “I’m ready, Holly. Just tell me when.” Somehow, it feels like he already did. And somehow, too, it feels like he’s still ready, and we just need to tell him when. After all, the chorus of “You Can’t Kill Me” closes—after maligning those who’d ban books, sex, where and how one can live—with the professions “You can shoot my body full of holes, but you can’t kill the spirit of rock ‘n roll” and “my soul raves on forever.”

What more needs to be said? Exactly. Go watch Mojo Manifesto. Turn up BoDayShus or Whereabouts Unknown. Get a cheap polyester tuxedo and head to the stock car track, all night dive or anywhere the unlikely convene.

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