I had thought I was going to a Ted Nugent show. I thought I was going to see the man who wrote "Wang Dang Sweet Poontang," a song about a woman with a "clean" vagina who Nugent claims is "so sweet when she yanks on my meat." The guy who tried to use a photo of a shapely naked woman, bound at the wrists and holding a grenade in her mouth, as the cover of his greatest hits collection. Most importantly, the man who wrote "Stranglehold," the one truly fantastic song in a dumpster-fire of a catalog.
So why the hell must I first sit through a moment of prayer?
I'm seated in the shade on some covered bleachers at the Jefferson County Fair on one of the hottest days of the year — the mercury peaks Friday at a blistering 104 degrees — awaiting the start of the evening's four-wheeler races when the announcer asks us to stand.
"Heavenly Father, we pray," he begins. "Tonight we're gonna ask, if you would please, to look down upon us and watch over each and every man, woman and child here at this fairground. ... We ask you to look over the pit crew members of each and every racer here tonight. We ask you to ride alongside, or ride with each of our riders as they make it around the track. And if that's what you're doing, we ask you to hold on tight, because it's gonna be a fast one. We ask that you look over each and every person here as they leave so they can make it home safely and sound and join us again tomorrow, and the next day and the next. We pray for this in your name. Amen."
To me, the dichotomy is beyond bizarre. But the crowd is into it.
To my right is a young man wearing a sleeveless shirt, arm-holes cut down to his hips, and a baseball cap with a curled brim accented with three large fishhooks. To my left is a man with an American flag hat, brim also tightly curled, who spits the juices from the dip wedged in the side of his mouth onto the ground every 30 seconds or so. Like most men I've seen here, both guys are wearing work boots. And like the others, they too fall into a hushed silence with heads bowed.
Ted Nugent has a long history of outspoken remarks in support of his extreme conservative views. In 2007 he suggested that then-Senator Barack Obama "suck on my machine gun." At a 2012 NRA Convention in St. Louis, he said, "If Barack Obama becomes the president in November, again, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year." That one was enough to attract the attention of the Secret Service, and even got Nugent disinvited to a scheduled performance at Fort Knox.
But that was then and this is now. Nugent made headlines recently for entirely different reasons, by calling for civility in the wake of the June shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise by left-wing activist and Belleville native James Hodgkinson.
"At the tender age of 69, my wife has convinced me I just can't use those harsh terms," Nugent said in June on a New York-based AM radio program. "I cannot and will not, and I encourage even my friends-slash-enemies on the left, in the Democrat and liberal world, that we have got to be civil to each other. I'm not going to engage in that kind of hateful rhetoric anymore."
This change of heart was interesting to me on a personal level, as I have my own history with the Nuge. Last August I wrote an article for the RFT titled "Reminder: Ted Nugent Is a Festering Garbage Person," in which I ran down a list of hateful things he's said and done in recent years. Nugent shared it on his Facebook page, referring to me as "Saul Alsinky [sic] America hating scum" and encouraging his fans to write the paper. (I was positively inundated with death threats and insults in the days that followed.)
A kinder, gentler Ted Nugent, huh? This I had to see. And what better place to see it than the Jefferson County Fair?
Jeffco is only 45 minutes or so away from the city of St. Louis, but in many ways they are worlds apart. Jeffco is more rural and working class than St. Louis — "real America," if you were to ask a clueless journalist from one of the coasts. Here, Donald Trump garnered 65.1 percent of the vote to Hillary Clinton's 29.8. Nugent would be among like-minded folks.
My friend Rob Ruzicka, singer for the St. Louis punk band Cardiac Arrest, soon shows up at the track with a woman from Germany named Jennifer, whom he refers to facetiously as his "mail-order bride." He grew up in this area, and wanted to bring her to the fair simply "for maximum culture shock," he says. It is working.
"This is how you imagine America would be," Jennifer says with a thick accent as a group of four-wheelers race by. "I mean, not in the big cities. First, only white people — and they look trashy. If you think of the countryside, this is exactly what you sometimes see in movies, you know? Wrong Turn. Where they all get killed."
Aside from being reminded of a horror movie whose protagonists are murdered and eaten by backwoods cannibals — a bit harsh, in this man's opinion — Jennifer notes another difference: the proud patriotism.
"In Germany no one wears USA or German flags or whatever," she says. "We have a special thing with it, because of our history."
She's talking about the nationalistic furor that gave rise to the Nazis. It is something of an uncomfortable comparison, all things considered.
Night falls and we make our way to the stage where Nugent will be performing. Dissuaded by the lines, Rob and Jennifer decide not to watch the concert — Jennifer has never heard of the Nuge anyway. "Republican rock," she says, wrinkling her nose after we explain his schtick. We part ways and I make my way to the front.
Ted Nugent opens his set with a guitar-based rendition of the national anthem."God bless America baby!" he shouts. "God bless Jefferson County! God bless the shitkickers out there, c'mon baby!"
Ted Nugent sure says "baby" a lot. But at least he's being civil.
"Uncle Ted reporting for duty, Jefferson County! Happy summertime barbecue season, baby," Nugent continues. "I know exactly why you came here tonight: You wanna hear the ultimate guitar licks of all time. You wanted to hear nothing but the best guitar licks you ever heard in your life. And since I wrote all of them, allow me to show you what happens after a good hunting season!"
I've never seen Nugent perform live before, and, as noted, "Stranglehold" is his only song that I particularly enjoy. But I gotta hand it to the man: He is a showman. He's fast-talking and self-confident, and a phenomenal guitar player. His band is a three-piece affair with Greg Smith on bass guitar and Jason Hartless on the drums. Nugent is wearing a headset microphone, and he's the only member of the band who says anything between songs.
"I've been coming to the heartland of Missouri since 1967 with the Amboy Dukes and you've always made me feel right at home," Nugent says. "I appreciate that. Thank you, thank you very much. And to prove that you're working-hard, playing-hard shitkickers who have no political correctness, you invited Ted Nugent back to the Jefferson County Fair! Which means you're real Americans and you were already making America great again, I know you were."
The crowd's applause is deafening upon mention of Donald Trump's campaign slogan, but there's nothing particularly divisive here, and no threats or mention of violence — it seems as though Uncle Ted is proving himself true to his word. He powers through the hits: "Wang Dang Sweet Poontang," "Cat Scratch Fever," "Gonzo," blues standard "Baby, Please Don't Go."
I gotta hand it to the man: He is a showman. He's fast-talking and self-confident, and a phenomenal guitar player.
He even plays a cover of "Johnny B. Goode," urging the crowd to "never forget" Chuck Berry.
"Chuck Berry is god," he says. "The god of rhythm and blues and rock & roll. God bless Chuck Berry forever, baby. Never forget where we come from. There would be no get down like this, there would be no real music without Chuck Berry, you know what I'm saying? Never forget."
He's putting on a damn good show, and I start to ponder the separation of art and artist that comes up whenever someone with talent turns out to be less than entirely honorable. Is Ted Nugent one of these artists? Can you really enjoy his music without seeing it as intertwined with his political views?
Toward the end of his set he dedicates his last song to the armed forces, going on a protracted tirade.
"I want you to join me, now more than ever, now that we have a commander-in-chief in the White House that actually deserves to be there," he says to thunderous applause. "A commander-in-chief that sides with law enforcement instead of the thugs. A commander-in-chief that will let the military be the warriors they dedicated themselves to be. So I want to say thank you for the ultimate inspiration every night. I got my buddies here from the United States Army — say thank you. Say thank you to the U.S. Army warriors here. Got the Air Force. Got some Navy, got some Navy, got some Coast Guard. Got some Missouri National Guard here tonight. Say thank you to the U.S. military warriors and their families. Freedom is not free. Got the U.S. Marine Corps here tonight, say thank you. Badass! Badass! And here's the theme song. Here's the theme song for kicking ass. This is the warrior theme song. Kick ass every day!"
It's "Stranglehold." I wince as he starts the song — there's no separation of art and artist here. Nugent has retrofitted his oeuvre to include and celebrate his political views. After all, the man who just fell over himself to praise the military is the same man who famously avoided the draft in 1967, telling High Times that he ceased using the bathroom the week before his Army physical and instead just did his business in his pants, wearing them when he showed up to be tested.
"I did it in my pants. Poop, piss the whole shot," he said in the 1977 interview. "My pants got crusted up. See, I approached the whole thing like, Ted Nugent, cool hard-workin' dude, is gonna wreak havoc on these imbeciles in the armed forces. I'm gonna play their own game, and I'm gonna destroy 'em."
If we weren't trying to be more civil now — Ted came through on his end, so I suppose I'm honor-bound to follow in kind — I'd probably have a lot to say about that kind of bald-faced hypocrisy. I suppose it's kind of similar to the hypocrisy of inviting a man like Nugent to a so-called family affair, kicked off with a solemn prayer. I probably would have a lot to say about that, too.
As it stands, though, I guess I'll just never listen to "Stranglehold" the same way again.