I can still feel the music shaking my ribs and sternum, the 100-plus decibels impacting my eardrums, the lights on stage filling the once-dark arena. And suddenly a man wearing a loincloth hanging onto a rope swings across the stage like Tarzan, swinging back and forth until he stops and grabs a guitar. Ted Nugent, the Motor City Madman, assaults the microphone and screams “hello, Springfield!”
The other thousands of fans and I are standing on our seats screaming back. The energy and the excitement in that Illinois crowd and on the stage is almost palatable. He is one of the greatest guitar players of all time and he is here to prove it, to work harder than any other rock star, to earn the love of the cheering crowd. And he does it for two hours, never letting up, never slowing down, never dogging it — on stage or off.
Pink Floyd could have the dark side of the moon to themselves. Nugent was about here and now, about our real lives and real emotions. His song “Weekend Warrior” was an accurate description of my life back then. The instrumental portion of “Stranglehold” was a near-religious experience. “Cat Scratch Fever” was our Kryptonite against the evils of disco. And songs like “Wang Dang Sweet P*******” captured the intensity that only a 20-something could feel set loose in the world, looking for a partner.
I sacrificed part of my hearing at his concerts and listening to his albums at full blast, but it was worth it. Ted Nugent was like me and others like me: Midwesterners trying to find our place in an indifferent world. He may not have been a role model, but he was one of us.
From the start, we fans knew he said outrageous things offstage. He had an almost insane love of hunting deer with a bow and arrow and for firearms, but that was just Ted being Ted. None of us had to go hunting with him to love his music. People like me who disagree with him on politics made an exception in his case, shaking it off and turning the volume up to 10.
But when Nugent became the long-haired darling of the National Rifle Association, it became a little harder to separate his politics from the music.
This is not a new dilemma. Ezra Pound was a fascist; T.S. Eliot was a racist and e.e. cummings was a distinctly unpleasant person — but their poetry is unassailable. Ernest Hemingway, my favorite author, made numerous anti-Semitic remarks.
At the other end of the musical spectrum, Richard Wagner was a favorite of Adolf Hitler’s, but his operas still move Wagner devotees.
Recently the separation between artists and their art became sharply drawn in the cases of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby and others. Weinstein may end up in prison, but does that mean we can no longer watch “Pulp Fiction”? What Spacey admitted he did is despicable, but must we break our DVDs of “The Usual Suspects”?
Following the massacre of 17 students and teachers in Parkland, Fla., the survivors heroically organized one of the biggest protests in American history in only six weeks. It was a stunning achievement for an often-maligned generation. The effort they have set in motion may, finally, achieve sensible gun safety laws after so many other campaigns fizzled to nothing following other mass shootings.
On a right-wing radio program Ted Nugent, an NRA board member, attacked the Parkland students as “mushy brained children” who have “no soul.” It hurts to hear someone who brought so much joy and power into music and into the lives of his fans be so cruel, insensitive and perhaps sadistic.
Now Ted Nugent presents the question: How can I reconcile the wonderful memories of his music with the extremist troll he has become?
It is getting harder to remain a fan, and for that I am truly saddened.
Greg Bailey is a writer and journalist based in St. Louis.