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.
Ted or Alive
Nugent with his Smith & Wesson 500 revolver.
Photograph by Dan Winters

*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

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