Ted Nugent, the rock ’n’ roll wildman and outspoken Second Amendment supporter, says his 23-year-old son Rocco is into hip-hop. Father and son recently took a group of Rocco’s friends to the shooting range, where the younger Nugent instructed his pals, who’d never held guns, in the finer points of firearms safety.
They were filming for “Spirits of the Wild,” Nugent’s hunting show for the Outdoor Channel. Rocco, he says, was “instructive, loving, and safety-conscious in, dare I say, a professional way. He gave them the same firearm handling instructions I gave him, and my dad gave me. It was actually emotional for me.”
The Ted Nugent known to followers of the cable news cycle don’t tend to think of the Detroit-bred guitarist as a big ol’ softie — a misty-eyed bowhunter with a bear hug for everyone he meets. Nugent, 64, who plays the House of Blues Wednesday on his “Black Power” tour, has earned a second life in entertainment with his calculated comments about gun ownership, the welfare state, government regulation, and other polarizing topics. In conversation, he’s a lot more complex than his soundbites suggest, and he’s savvy enough to know the difference.
“In the world of rock ’n’ roll, if I say incendiary, outrageous things onstage, gimme a break,” he says. “That’s not a sincere dialogue or debate. I’m raising hell. Oftentimes I’m just having fun.”
As an example, he cites the oft-repeated incident in which he suggested that Barack Obama “suck on my machine gun.”
When people remember him threatening to kill the president, Nugent says, “it never happened. He was a senator at the time.” He laughs: “Heh!”
That kind of strict logic is a Nugent hallmark, and it makes his detractors nuts.
“I’ve never had a little fun — I’ve always had outrageous, bombastic fun,” says the man who used to dress in loincloths and headdresses and wrote enduring hard rock classics including “Cat Scratch Fever” and “Stranglehold.”
“Onstage, I have no inhibitions. I don’t want to hurt anybody, but as far as hurting feelings, there’s nothing in life I could care less about. Take a deep breath. If you’re not having fun with me, you’re weird.”
Steve Miller, author of the new oral history “Detroit Rock City: The Uncensored History of Rock ’n’ Roll in America’s Loudest City,” recalls seeing Nugent’s old band the Amboy Dukes open for Rush and Aerosmith in Detroit in 1975, just before the bandleader launched his solo career. He says Nugent pops off like he does solely for the attention.
“If everyone didn’t lose their minds every time he said something, he’d probably temper it and focus more on other things,” Miller says. “He’s just a regular dude, an entertainer, a guy with a guitar. He’s not a public policy expert.”
Somewhat famously, Nugent has been clean and sober his whole life, despite coming up in a hard-rock scene in which many of his peers developed hardcore addictions.
“His devotion to the music was almost monastic,” says Miller. “He was so into jamming, he’d take his guitar to people’s houses, like the MC5 had a house in Ann Arbor. The only problem was, they’d all get so stoned, and here’s Ted running in 12th gear.”
The Amboy Dukes earned national recognition with the psychedelic romp “Journey to the Center of the Mind,” released in the darkening spring of 1968. Nugent swears to this day he was unaware of the song’s chemical inspiration.
“I was really convinced that song was about stopping this high-velocity life, taking a deep breath and refueling yourself — reevaluating my direction in life,” he says. “At the time — I was 18 — that seemed very appropriate. I was completely inebriated on the musical adventure.”
Nugent, his two brothers, and one sister grew up under the heavy thumb of an Army drill sergeant who didn’t come around to his son’s rock ’n’ roll lifestyle until his later years.
“The discipline factor was so conflicting,” Nugent recalls. “Youth doesn’t like to be restrained.” But he and his siblings have brought up their own children (Nugent has eight, five out wedlock) with similar values: “We instill it in our own parenting, with a little more snuggle, love, and fun than my dad did.”
Was his father uncomfortable with Nugent’s career choice? “That’s a resounding yes,” says Nugent with another chuckle. “He was straitlaced, and here I am trying to be Little Richard. Oh, my goodness!”
Like a lot of Detroit musicians of the post-hippie era, the “Motor City Madman” was enthralled by the soulful music churned out by Berry Gordy’s Motown label. On his current tour he’s paying tribute to the black acts that made him, Bob Seger, Mitch Ryder, and many other white kids from Michigan want to climb onstage. It’s an extension of the litany at the end of his song “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang,” on which he shouts out Chuck Berry, James Brown, Muddy Waters, and other greats.
“We’ll play ‘My Girl,’ ‘I Feel Good,’ Bo Diddley. We’ll whip out ‘Soul Man.’ We pay homage to the masters every night,” he says. “The black blues guys were either dreaming of freedom or celebrating once they got their freedom.”
Noting that some observers have cited the name of the tour — “Black Power” — as evidence of Nugent’s racism, he scoffs. “I’m literally genuflecting at the altar of all my black heroes,” he says. “I don’t know what kind of drug you’ve got to be on to misinterpret that.”
In Ted Nugent’s world, being misinterpreted is half the fun.James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.