Ted or Alive
How a foulmouthed* rock star became the country's most high-profile advocate for hunting, personal liberty, and the right to bear extremely large arms.
*And we do mean foulmouthed. If you are offended by obscene language, proceed with caution.
It is almost five p.m. on a Sunday in December and I’m sitting with Ted Nugent in the back of one of Jerry Jones’s jets. The plane has just left Kerrville for Dallas, where the Nuge—one of the terms with which Ted refers to himself when he deems first-person pronouns and his given name to be insufficient—will perform his trademark solo-electric-guitar rendition of the National Anthem before a pivotal Cowboys game with the Giants. Though he knows he’s an obvious choice for the job, he being one part guitar hero, one part fabled outdoorsman, one part pillar of the political right, and in every part an American patriot—“I’m a defiant motherfucker from the very origins of the Concord bridge!”—he has yet to put a finger on how he got the gig.
“It will be interesting to find out why Jerry wanted me to do this,” he says. “I think Governor Perry convinced him, because Rick has told me on numerous occasions that I play the most passionate, earth-moving ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ ever. And I do.”
He goes on. “I’m a little more true to the melody than Hendrix. But it’s also fiery and pyrotechnic, with some bloodcurdling emotion hanging on feedback notes. And I hope you convey this in your story, because I don’t think Jimi was given credit. I think he performed it with the same dedicated, sincere patriotism that I do. He knew that his career was a direct result of a black man really being free before a lot of the so-called black leaders admitted they were. The whole Afro and hippie regalia thing, if that’s not defiance . . . Even Mr. Tough Guy here”—he points at himself—“went, ‘Whoa! I’m going to have to go practice some more.’ He made me practice more. Eddie Van Halen made me practice more. Jimmy McCarty in 1964 with Mitch Ryder made me practice more. If I’m tuned in to anything, it’s inspiration.”
The little bit of nostalgia feels particularly poignant. Just yesterday, Ted turned sixty, and the plane picked him up in Kerrville because that’s where he’d been celebrating, with a five-day hunt at the Y. O. Ranch. He’s still dressed, in fact, in deer blind attire: a camouflage field coat, tan brushpopper jeans—“So the Texas pricks don’t penetrate. I’m talking about prickly pear, of course”—and a camouflage cowboy hat bent like a taco shell. His age is finally showing, in a white shark-fin soul patch that juts from his chin and a ponytail that contains as much gray as brown. But his eyes still blaze with that lunatic glow familiar from album covers of his late-seventies heyday.
The flight to Love Field will take barely thirty minutes, a small window for Ted to catalog the world’s pressing problems. He squeezes in what he can. On journalists: “They’re dopers.” The displeasure voiced by his detractors: “If saving Jews upsets Nazis, I’ll take that as a bonus.” And the endless unreasonableness of vegetarians: “I never said they have to eat meat. I’ll make them a fucking tofu salad. I’ll even kill all the animals in the field so they don’t eat the beans. That shocks the shit out of them. They never thought about that.”
He maintains his pace all the way to the stadium, where he and his entourage—wife Shemane; eighteen-year-old son Rocco Winchester Nugent; and erstwhile assistant Big Jim Lawson—are ushered through underground hallways to a makeshift rehearsal space. It’s an inglorious setting, a small storage room with a gray cement floor, white cinder block walls, and stacks of brown boxes filled with Cowboys bev naps. The only real color comes from an apple-red Santa suit hanging on a hat tree by the door. A large, glum man sits next to it in acid-washed denim shorts and tall white socks, casting a beaten-down gaze on everything in the room but the suit. He’s clearly worn it as many times as he wants to this week.
Ted never even sees him. He blows through the door to greet Calvin Ross, the owner of a Waco music store who’s driven to the stadium with Ted’s preferred weapon for attacking the Anthem: a 1987 Paul Reed Smith made of mahogany and quilted maple, with bird inlays on the neck, a snakeskin strap, and a whammy bar to manipulate feedback. Ted plugs it into a two-foot-tall Kustom amp and tears off a quick chord, turning up the volume as loud as it goes. As his escort backs out and pulls the door closed, Santa stops him. He wants out first. The rest of Ted’s party, Ross included, soon follows.
Now he’s just a boy and his guitar. The notes fly fast and loud, bouncing off the cement and cinder blocks like golf balls smacked with a 1-iron. He rips them, hammers them, pulls them long and cuts them short, bends them up and down, and at a couple points appears to be diddling them with the whammy bar. His face contorts under the cowboy hat, alternating between expressions of mastery and ecstasy. The Cowboys have issued a strict two-minute time limit, which really means a minute and 45 seconds, because Ted needs some room to stretch out that last bit of “the home of the brave” with a torrent of Nuge. Once finished, he plays it again. Then again. And then again. Not because he is struggling with the time constraint, but because he is having that much fun.
When he finally puts the guitar down, Shemane materializes with news that an audience has been arranged with the Cowboys Cheerleaders, and on the way to the field Ted stops by the locker room. The girls have just finished dressing. “Ladies,” he says with unmistakably genuine gratitude, “on behalf of me, my friends and fans, and red-blooded men all over this great country of ours, I’ve got only one thing to say. And that’s ‘damn.’ ”
All heads turn as he walks to the sideline, and a pack of the curious and the fawning grows around him. Cell phones float over the throng, snapping photos of Ted as he engages the faithful, shaking the hands of those closest and nodding to those on the perimeter who raise fists and give shouts about guns and guitars. Notables appear, first Jerry Jones, then Rush Limbaugh, who drags a comely blonde through the crowd to introduce her to Ted. And then, when the announcer dramatically intones, as per strict instructions, that he has arrived “fresh from a Central Texas hunting camp,” Ted marches to midfield, straps on the Paul Reed Smith, and blisters the Anthem again, this time to the roar of 63,000 fans.
As the last notes drift off into the chilly night air, the Giants take the field, and the cheers turn to boos. Ted hangs just long enough to see the kickoff, then signals to go. There’s an offer outstanding to view the game from the owner’s box, but Ted has no use for spectator sports.
In the ink-black diplomat’s Suburban that ferries us to the waiting jet, he gives a first-blush read on the night. “I think that touched everyone. And it wasn’t a response to just the notes and just the song. Dare I say, humbly, that was a response to me. Those notes meant more coming out of a guy that most of those people have seen fight for those things. You can’t live in America without having heard Ted Nugent stand up for constitutional rights, individual rights.” The entourage nods.
“Did they show me on the big screen?” he asks.
“Oh, yeah,” says Rocco. “It was way better than the Van Halen version. When you hit those ending notes and let it draw out, the crowd just went crazy.”
“That’s called choking the beast,” says Ted. “There was blood coming out of its tit tonight, but it was love blood. It was lifeblood.” He scrolls through his BlackBerry. “Rush reminded me tonight that my phone call from a pig hunting camp in 1990 is still the highlight of his career. I would have thought it was signing a four-hundred-million-dollar contract.” Ted reads an e-mail. “Doug Banker [Ted’s longtime manager] says he’s already gotten texts from a dozen people at the game who said they were blown away. That’s what I do,” he says, cocking his head to indicate that bearing the weight of the world’s admiration is something he came to terms with long ago.
And he can feel their love tonight. It’s visceral. He probably had his picture taken with some of those people, and he knows he made an impression. He says every fan who put her arm around his waist while waiting for a camera click asked quietly through a frozen smile if he was carrying a gun.
“Full-fucking-time,” he says, pointing to a 10mm Glock in the back of his pants.
Ted Nugent has probably had one gun or another in the back of his pants every time you’ve ever seen him, at least since he stopped appearing onstage wearing nothing but a loincloth. But then, his celebrity has always blended his two great passions, hard rock and hunting, and been defined by a nonnegotiable indulgence in both.
Consider that landmark sixtieth-birthday party at the Y. O. Ranch. The first half was attended by some thirty of his nearest and dearest—Shemane, four of his six kids, a grandson, trusted employees, close hunting buddies, and a videographer to capture the event for a DVD Ted planned to sell on his Web site. The blessed day, day two, opened with a predawn hunt, followed by an afternoon spent firing machine guns, and then, that night, the extended family took over ranch headquarters to celebrate the Tedator, another of Ted’s synonyms for “Ted.” The gifts were many and fitting. A giant foam lion for archery practice. A Ted Nugent signature model Byrdland guitar sent down by Gibson. A short video with well-wishes from famous friends who couldn’t attend—Gene Simmons, Anthony Bourdain, the guys from Aerosmith. And a bottle of 1978 Château Lafite Rothschild that was hand-delivered to the onetime teetotaling birthday boy by surprise guest Toby Keith. (Keith, it must be noted, was not as excited as Ted to have a reporter present, and the couple times our paths crossed, he eyed me as though I might have been the fourth Dixie Chick.)
The second half of the party, the segment abbreviated by the Anthem gig, was a paid hunt hosted by Ted. Thirty-six hunters had laid out $3,500 apiece for four days of uniquely Nugentian hunting, political analysis, life coaching, and, if all went well, a campfire rendition of “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang.” When I’d asked him that morning if the paying guests would mind his sudden departure, he’d emphatically said no: “I already met one of them and said, ‘Surprise! I gotta go to Dallas to do the “Star-Spangled Banner”!’ The guy was thrilled.” Such is the beauty of paid proximity to stardom: Developments that interfere with the proximity are forgiven if they enhance the star.
Thirty years ago the Nuge was the highest-grossing touring act in rock and roll, parlaying the muscle-car rumble of songs like “Stranglehold” and “Cat Scratch Fever” into a $10 million annual enterprise. He established himself early as an outrageous iconoclast, known for puritanical rants against alcohol and drug use but also for a superhuman appetite for groupie love and, according to legend, a willingness to defecate in places most people wouldn’t. Like on a mirror garnished with lines of cocaine backstage at the California Music Festival or into a pot of chili in the kitchen at Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters (Ted initially confirmed the former, going so far as to specify the location, but later denied both). That disregard for convention was easier to appreciate when reflected in his guitar playing, and he went on to sell more than 30 million records and become a significant enough figure in the annals of rock to merit an appearance in the Guitar Hero World Tour video game.
But these days he’s most easily identified as a battlefield captain in the ongoing culture war, important enough to the political right to have been Glenn Beck’s special guest at his tax-day tea party in San Antonio. The Nuge has always been an outspoken hunting enthusiast—not just a defender of gun owners’ rights but a full-throttle advocate—and a reliable source for authoritative, provocative comment when cable news programs address gun control.
Until recently, that was a significant but secondary issue in the greater political debate. But now that Democrats control both the White House and Congress, concerns about stricter gun control laws have eclipsed gay marriage and abortion in the minds of most conservatives. Gun sales have surged nationwide, as evidenced by a 30 percent increase in FBI background checks and wide-ranging reports of gun stores selling out of ammunition. The NRA ranks are bursting at the seams, with 400,000 new members since President Obama was inaugurated, pushing the overall paying membership to more than 4 million—and the organization claims that an additional 20 million to 30 million Americans identify with the cause. Ted, an NRA board member since 1995, is the movement’s most recognizable face.
“If you ask people what they think of when they think about Ted,” said Governor Perry, a fellow hunter and good friend, “they’ll say the Second Amendment before rock and roll. Charlton Heston was once the guy people identified with the issue. Since he died, I’d say Ted has been elevated to the leading voice.”
It’s a voice that relishes in confounding the opposition. Consider his utilitarian stance on hunting as wildlife population control. Essentially, he says, you can clean dead deer off the highway, you can pay the federal government to remove surplus deer from protected areas, or you can let people like him hunt them and eat them. It’s a hard point to argue.
But it’s the way he says these things that gets the most attention. He eschews terms like “harvesting animals” for “whack ’em and stack ’em.” He has a unique take on border security. “We should put razor wire around our borders and give the finger to any piece of shit who wants to come here.” His position on the right to self-defense is beyond absolute. “Anybody that doesn’t think it is better to blow someone’s brains out than be raped deserves to be raped! If you don’t think your life is worth it, then please go out there, don’t wear any underpants, and get raped! Cause you deserve it!” And he still makes eye-catching sartorial statements onstage, like when he performed at Perry’s 2007 inaugural gala wearing a Confederate battle flag on his T-shirt.
“He’s not an ‘Ivy League haircut and tasseled loafers’ guy,” said Perry. “That’s not who he is. He articulates his positions, and if you’re not paying attention, he may decide to make you engage in a discussion on what that flag is about.” Perry continued, “He’s not going to be lukewarm. It reminds me of a Bible passage. Jesus said, ‘I don’t want you to be lukewarm. Be hot or cold or I’ll spit you out of my mouth.’ ”
It’s a curious allusion. In June 2007, at a show at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, Ted pulled out two fake machine guns and started to exercise his right to free speech. “I was in Chicago last week. I was in Chicago, and I said, ‘Hey, Obama! You might want to suck on one of these, you punk!’ ” He waved the guns over his head. “Obama, he’s a piece of shit. And I told him to suck on my machine gun. Let’s hear it for him! And then I was in New York and I said, ‘Hey, Hillary! You might want to ride one of these into the sunset, you worthless bitch!’ ” He then made similar proposals to Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein before holding the guns aloft, tilting back his head, and bellowing, “Freedom!”
When I asked him about it, the Nuge explained it thusly: “I’ve considered this intensely over the years, and my conclusion is that if I have a governor on my engine, then it’s not rock and roll anymore. Certainly not Ted Nugent rock and roll. So, no, I’m not backing it down. I am going to turn the heat up in both directions. In those arenas where outrage and middle fingers on fire are appropriate, I’m getting bigger middle fingers and setting them more on fire.”
Ted sees the world in stark black and white, but the difference between him and most others with that view is that Ted splits the black and white with a cleaver. To his mind, the line between right and wrong is brightly defined; the world’s a simple place and he’s a simple man.
Yet he’s the product of numerous conflicting forces. His music pulses to the assembly-line rhythm of solidly Democratic, urban Detroit, but he grew up in the outlying Michigan sticks, an area that rock critic Roberta Cruger, who grew up in Detroit, describes as eternally resistant to industrialization. She calls it Terry Nichols country. Ted’s first big band, the Amboy Dukes, sprang from the same revolutionary Motor City scene as the Stooges and the MC5. The Dukes were regarded as stoners, an idea reinforced by their breakout hit, 1968’s “Journey to the Center of the Mind.” They even played legal defense fund benefits for MC5 manager John Sinclair, a founder of the radical White Panther Party, who was sent to prison for marijuana possession in 1969. But Ted’s opposition to drinking and drugging was already fully formed. The part of the rock star cliché that interested him was the sex, and he reeked of it, prowling the stage shirtless in tight buckskin pants. “He had a fierce warrior look, like an Indian brave,” says Jaan Uhelszki, who, like Cruger, wrote for Creem, the seminal rock magazine launched in Detroit in 1969. “He always carried himself like he was walking through a forest.” A bandmate’s mother actually sewed most of those early outfits.
Something about him screams the influence of a hard-ass father. His dad was an Army ordnance officer prior to his long career as a steel company rep, and he kept order in the house with a riding crop, enforcing strict rules, like a limit on the number of toilet paper squares that could be used in one sitting. “I think my dad whupped me a few times,” says Ted, “but nothing that would qualify as a beating. But goddam, was he a pain in the ass. He’d bark at you if you didn’t pass food clockwise. If you didn’t stand up straight, he’d snap your back. My younger brother, Johnny, still hates him, and my older brother, Jeff, has an adequate disdain.”
I talked to both brothers, and while John, a superintendent with a large construction company in Chicago, was diplomatic, Jeff, the chairman of two medical device companies and a former CEO of Revlon, was forthcoming. “Warren Nugent was a Jesuit drill sergeant but with what I call the Gig Young—Frank Sinatra Syndrome of the fifties: He had a cocktail in his hands at all times. The pressure on us growing up was to make sense of it. I found ways to move around him. But Ted always took the direct approach.”
Jeff continues. “When Dad was transferred from Detroit to Chicago in 1962, I said, ‘Have a good trip.’ I was sixteen, and I stayed and finished high school. Ted was fourteen and couldn’t do that. But largely unknown to our parents, he had started a band, the Lourds. And a major milestone in his life was being named the opening act for the Supremes at Cobo Hall. The show was scheduled for the night they were moving to Chicago. The only way he could do it was to put coffee grounds in the gas tanks of the moving trucks. The next day there was a come-to-Jesus meeting. Our father said, ‘I’ll agree to let you live if you go to Chicago, attend Jesuit high school, and cut your hair.’ That was the outcome.”
Ted left the Nugent household with an absolute need to control his own life. Through the early seventies he acted as his own manager, first with the Amboy Dukes and then when he cut them loose and started performing under his own name. He wisely negotiated a clause with Epic Records to overstock his albums in towns where he played, ensuring that the overflow crowds could spend more money on him after the show. He devised radio spots promoting the tours that his old publicist, Dan Beck, called “speed rapping about how great he is.” He all but dared people to attend and not be entertained and then won the bet by providing the most primal concert experience ever seen. He would enter the stage by swinging on a vine or riding a buffalo. At one California show he cruised the parking lot in a rented Army tank while fans filed into the hall. “Like most great artists, he had a sense of how to market himself,” said Beck, “but with focus and a sense of humor. It wasn’t self-promotion so much as it was self-entertainment. He did it to enjoy the moment.”
But the flip side was that he insisted on sole control. Dating back to the Dukes, he had high turnover for band members, largely because he wouldn’t tolerate drug use. He was at the front end of the wave of bands that focused on the lead guitarist rather than the vocalist, and he ran through singers like they were drummers. Derek St. Holmes sang on his four biggest albums, 1975’s Ted Nugent, 1976’s Free-For-All, 1977’s Cat Scratch Fever, and 1978’s Double Live Gonzo!, but the two were constantly at odds. The singer blames the guitarist’s unwillingness to share center stage. “If somebody else was in the spotlight, Ted would run and get in it,” said St. Holmes.
Ted recalls things differently. “Night after night I would be in the spotlight while Derek was singing, and I’d run over there and stand behind him so the spotlight would hit him. The last thing I want is any attention. But when I’m up there, guess what? The exciting guy is me. Derek looks good, sings awesome, stands good . . . but how much spotlight do you need on good when there’s a guy over there butt-fucking his guitar with flames coming out his nostrils?”
His time at the top was monstrous but short. He headlined the California Jam II, in 1978, playing in front of 250,000 people, then fired the band immediately after the show. A series of sketchy investments—a mink farm, a herd of Clydesdales, a hotel in Flint, Michigan—had bankrupted him by 1980. His first wife, Sandy, whom he’d divorced in 1977, died in a car crash in 1982, leaving him to raise their two kids, Toby and Sasha. Radio began to trend away from him, first toward tamer, corporate rock acts like Foreigner and Styx and then toward hair metal, which Ted dismisses as “faggy-looking bands.” And, according to Ted, he was abandoned by rock journalists, who were offended by his love of hunting and guns.
It all began with a suction cup bow-and-arrow set he got when he was three, and it grew on weekend hunts with his dad and brothers in upstate Michigan. There he fell under the tutelage of the great Fred Bear, a man known to outdoorsmen as the god of American bow hunting. In 1970, as soon as Ted started making real money from music, he bought a small farm forty miles west of Ann Arbor, a property on which he still leads commercial hunts.
He traces his advocacy to a momentous trip to the Rockies. “I’m coming home—here’s a shock for you—on September 11, 1975. The day before, I was in Colorado, all by myself, with a Boy Scout canteen and a pup tent.” He’d gone to clear his head after his record label had instructed him to soften his sound by adding a keyboard player. Alone in the wild, he decided instead to fire his band and hire players who’d rock harder, a plan given divine confirmation when he shot the first antlered buck of his life. “I couldn’t have been happier if you had latched a cheerleader to my dick.”
On his way down from the mountain he stopped for gas and, on a small TV in the filling station, saw a CBS News documentary on hunting called The Guns of Autumn. Ted calls it a “manipulated, vicious attack on our hunting heritage,” and in fact the show ended up creating a national controversy. Ted became adamant in his endorsement of hunting, particularly bow hunting, but encountered an outdoor sporting industry reluctant to embrace him. “Back then they were saying, ‘Don’t wear your camo and cover up your deer carcass in your truck.’ I said, ‘I don’t think so. Gut every deer in your front yard. Have bloody camo on when you go to the store and open the door for someone and help with their groceries. Yeah, I’m a hunter. Can’t you fucking tell?’ ”
In late 1987 he was with Bear on another fateful excursion. “He told me, almost verbatim, ‘I hear criticism in our sport that you are too extreme, that you shouldn’t be so outspoken. Ted, the criticism is bullshit. You stay the course. You’re our pied piper.’ ” Bear would die barely six months later.
It’s a powerful story, complete with a symbolic date—The Guns of Autumn actually aired on September 5, 1975—and the passing of the torch from the god to the man. But though the specifics can be argued, the effect cannot. Starting in the mid-eighties, Ted lobbied the Michigan legislature to allow hunting in state parks and to drop its blanket ban on dove hunting. He constantly spoke out in favor of concealed handgun licensing, and such laws are now in place in forty states, up from just six in 1984. He started the Ted Nugent Kamp for Kids to spread his clean-living, bow-hunting gospel. He worked with the Make-A-Wish Foundation to provide hunts for sick children, and then, when the foundation decided to stop granting those requests, banded with a Pennsylvania nonprofit, Hunt of a Lifetime, that would. In the early nineties he created an eight-part PBS outdoors series that affiliates aired at fund-drive time, raising more than $3 million.
Through that period he continued touring and recording and had a brief but huge resurgence with the pop-metal supergroup Damn Yankees. But by then he had started to diversify, exploring the commercial prospects of his other love. He received handsome appearance fees at gun shows and expos and a lucrative endorsement deal with Browning. He opened a bow-hunting superstore in Jackson, Michigan, and guided celebrity hunts. He started to write music specifically for hunters, and he mixed it all with his politics, hosting a top-rated drive-time radio show in Detroit and making frequent appearances on Politically Incorrect. He eventually authored books and now writes a weekly column for the Waco Tribune-Herald.
And it is all of a piece. “When Ted talks about shredding,” says Dave Marsh, a co-founder of Creem and preeminent rock critic, “it’s all part of his moral landscape. Music, politics, morality—they all come from the same place in him. All he ever had was his guitar, his dick, and his point of view. That and a long walk in the woods was all he needed.”
It is almost midnight on a Friday in February, two months after the triumphant Anthem performance, and I’m sitting at Ted Nugent’s dinner table. He is enjoying a late dinner, smacking his lips on a chicken-fried chicken breast, which he eats with his hands from a Styrofoam box. Once again he is decked out in full camo, this time topped off with green and black greasepaint covering his face.
Just outside, a production company is working on a new reality show for Country Music Television, Ted’s fourth such series, this one set on his three hundred-acre spread in China Spring, near Crawford. The plot is simple. Contestants have been brought to the ranch to be tutored on his brand of naturalism, then forced to rely on those lessons for survival while Ted hunts them. The film crew has already shot three sequences today documenting Ted as he berated the contestants, released them into the wild, and then tracked them down. Now he’s awaiting the phone call that will signal the hunt proper, wherein he will stalk them and shoot them with weapons that presumably won’t kill them.
Without getting up from the table he gives me a tour of the house. Ted moved to Texas in 2003 to escape a black mold plague infesting his Michigan home, choosing Texas partly, he says, because it’s one of the few states left that still respect the Constitution. This is his third home here. The style is mid-eighties modest suburban with an open first floor and a den that looks less like a rock star’s palace than a taxidermy shop where a band rehearses. There are enough amps and guitar cases piled around the room to make it hard to walk. The far wall stretches to the second-story ceiling and is covered with mounted kills, fifteen total, including a wildebeest and an axis deer shot by Shemane. The rest were killed by Ted, mostly elk and whitetail and a couple African exotics. The mantel is draped with pelts from coyotes, bobcats, foxes, and raccoons that Ted trapped on his ranch, and stray antlers litter the room like toys in a crib.
“I actually just sold my two life-sized, mounted fighting zebra stallions, just cause we didn’t have any room for them. I sold my rhino too. I gotta tell you, I’ve literally killed thousands and thousands of big-game animals. But you only mount a very small portion of what you kill. You use everything else.
“Killing game is perfect,” he continues. “It’s one of the last perfect things left. Perfect for my grill, perfect for the land, perfect for the animals themselves.” He examines his chicken. “You know who Mitch Albom is?”
I give a beleaguered nod. Throughout the day Ted has made no effort to hide his disdain when I’ve admitted to certain shortcomings, like not remembering Howlin’ Wolf’s first single, not knowing the ins and outs of Ted’s own late-career albums, and having seen his VH1 Behind the Music episode but not his A&E Biography. Thorough preparation is expected when one interviews the Nuge.
“Mitch is a brilliant guy. And we’ve done a lot of radio interviews over the years. So he goes”—Ted affects a high-pitched nasal tone—“ ‘So you’re killing these deer for their own benefit?’ And I’m going, ‘Do you know there are four seasons? Spring and summer and fall and winter? That spring and summer are good for growing? That in fall and winter there’s no food left,’ ” he says, his exasperation climbing in consort with his volume. “ ‘Of course that’s what I’m doing. By killing the surplus, you’re guaranteeing there’s enough sustenance in the habitat for a nucleus population. How do you not get that?’ ”
“See, that’s something that seems to piss people off,” I say. “When you explain these things, typically the person on the other side is not just a person on the other side. They’re ‘pathetic.’ ‘Morons.’ A complaint is that you don’t treat them with respect.”
“Have you seen me in a debate?” he asks. “There’s not a more gentlemanly, kind, patient debater than me. Now, once all the information is transferred, if they still resist it, then they qualify as complete idiots.” He laughs. “I’m just stating the obvious. The gun issue is the perfect example. The Barack Obamas of the world know that gun-free zones are irrefutably where the most innocent victims have always been killed.” His voice starts to rise. “And then they legislate gun-free zones! They must be mentally deranged! I don’t know what else to call these people. They’re retarded! Their brains aren’t working! Or much worse, they’re just evil. In every instance—Columbine, Luby’s Cafeteria, Lane Bryant outside Chicago, the mall in Omaha, I mean, I could name—”
“But that’s been in the back of my mind too,” I interrupt. “When you say that if someone is not able to defend himself, he is delusional or ridiculous or stupid—”
“What I say is, if you accept the condition of unarmed helplessness, you are irresponsible.”
“Right. But the thing is, when I’m walking around in the world, I’m not thinking of it as a frightening place.”
“I’ll respond to that. And that’s great, because you’re not telling me I can’t be armed.”
Suddenly, I get it. Ted doesn’t care if I don’t carry a gun, provided I don’t tell him he can’t carry one himself. “Exactly,” I say, acknowledging his point. But he isn’t through making it.
“A Mr. Deafanorio, and I’m hoping I’m getting his name right, called into a New Jersey radio station about ten years ago when I was doing an interview about how New Jersey gun laws forbid people from defending themselves. And he calls in and says, ‘Mr. Nugent, I’ve been listening for the last hour or so, and I really agree with almost everything you’re saying’—everybody always says that—‘but I gotta tell ya,’ he says, ‘I’m seventy-seven years old, and I was in Korea, and I fought for these constitutional rights. And I’ve lived in California; D.C.; and East Brunswick, New Jersey; and I go to New York City all the time, and Mr. Nugent, I’ve never needed a gun. Ever. Certainly you don’t think I need a gun to survive.’ ”
Ted turns dramatically polite. “And I go, ‘Well, Mr. Deafanorio, first of all, thank you for serving this great country. But let me make sure I understand you correctly. You have never needed a gun, and therefore no one does. Well, by all means. So I say we change the topic tonight and talk about cancer research. Do you have cancer? You haven’t got cancer, do you?’ ”
Ted erupts. “ ‘Then let’s end the search for a cure! Because Mr. Deafanorio doesn’t have cancer, to all you people with cancer: Fuck you! Because you don’t need a gun, the lady getting raped this afternoon by some recidivist criminal doesn’t need one either. Fuck you!’ ”
Ted’s shoulders drop and he quiets, though his eyes continue to blaze. Faint lines of pale skin show through cracks in the camouflage war paint where rage has creased his face while he yelled. “I didn’t say, ‘Fuck you,’ on the air. But I did say,” and he starts yelling again, “ ‘How dare you dictate to the victims of evil that they have to be victims?’
“The radio interviewer that night went, ‘That pretty much sums it up.’ And it does. If you don’t think you’ll ever encounter evil, have a nice fucking day.” He inhales deeply, and for a second I worry that if he doesn’t start screaming again, he’ll shoot through the room like an unknotted balloon released from my hand. Instead he just screams. “But who the fuck do you think you are telling me what kind of car I’m gonna drive, what I’m authorized to eat, and whether I have your okay to defend myself!”
He pauses, perhaps to provide an opportunity for another stupid question. Shemane’s voice floats down from upstairs. She’s apparently been waiting for an opening. “Excuse me, Ted?”
“The film crew is ready for you.”
“Okay,” he says to her, then returning to Mr. Deafanorio but looking at me, “I just assume you eat shit and die.”
Ted’s not an asshole; he just plays one in real life. He’s not unlike a pro-wrestling villain, possibly playing a character, clearly enjoying himself. “There is a heart beating in there,” says Jaan Uhelszki, who has interviewed him numerous times throughout his career. “The things he does with kids are great. The persona is like the makeup on Kiss; that’s his mask. He might be an asshole to the upper echelons, but he’s not to small people.”
Ted, on the other hand, doesn’t make that distinction. He insists it’s all Ted, all the time, an appraisal echoed by younger brother John. “The only time he really chills out is when it’s just really close family. It’s so nice to see him sit on a patio with a glass of wine and not go off on a tirade about guns. When it’s just us, it’s ‘Do you remember that boar charging us that time?’ But as soon as somebody mentions the Clintons or the economy, it’s full-tilt boogie. He’s a fun guy to be with, but it’s Ted’s world.”
I saw some of that. When the topic was nature, and not people trying to prevent him from enjoying it, Ted sounded more than respectful. He sounded poetic.
“I don’t think it’s just coincidental that they had to ascend a mountaintop to get the Ten Commandments,” he said earlier that afternoon in China Spring. “Or ascend a mountaintop to get information from the guru. This is a widespread historical belief of mankind, that there is a spirituality to that escape, to the healing powers of nature, to the sources and powers of life.
“And it’s even more profound when you know that you are going to kill something. You function like a wolf or lion, in your natural predator role. My eyes are not on the side of my head so I can see somebody coming to get me. They’re on the front so I can see my target. The flesh-gnashing teeth we have”—he pronounces it “guh-nashing,” of course—“the digestive system we have, the sense of reasoning, the conscience, the sense of guilt and emotion, it all comes into play when you’re out there. You think, ‘I’m here. I’ve been practicing with this bow and arrow. That leaping deer is a beautiful, graceful, stunning creature. I’m going to kill it. When I am done with it, it won’t leap and run and breathe again. It’s going to help me leap and breathe and run. This is phenomenal.’ And I think it can best be described as spiritual.”
Hunting opponents could find plenty to argue with in that statement, and if they were to do so, it might even make for a good debate. But to paraphrase Ted, how much spotlight do you need on “good debate” when one of the debaters has flames coming out of his nostrils? Why would critics bother to address the message when the rest of what the messenger says gets all the attention?
Ted isn’t worried. “Here’s my response to those—and I don’t care which side they’re on—who thought ‘suck on this machine gun’ and maybe numerous of my other public statements are too much: In an average morning, I sign up more NRA members because of my absolutism and my humor and my intensity, I cause more kids to decide not to do drugs and to pursue a responsible lifestyle, and I do more good for my fellow man than my critics will do in their lifetime. Fuck you. I know what I’m doing.”