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Mojo Nixon is everywhere (again)

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Courtesy photo
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"The Mojo Manifesto: The Life and Times of Mojo Nixon" is a new documentary that delivers on exactly what the title promises.

In the 1980s, Nixon and musical partner Skid Roper burst onto the national scene with a series of humor-filled recordings that harkened back to the early days of rock 'n' roll. In some ways, the pair — and contemporaries such as The Blasters and The Beat Farmers — prefigured the "insurgent country" movement of the late 1990s.

But for Nixon and Roper, it was about pure rock 'n' roll. At least pure rock 'n' roll that hadn't forgotten about its Southern roots and close contact with country music.

By 1987, Nixon and Roper scored a hit with "Elvis Is Everywhere," a song that paid homage to the long shadow Presley continued to cast on a music he helped popularize. Nixon, too, seemed to be everywhere — he was name-checked in a hit by punk rockers the Dead Milkmen, his face was all over MTV, and he cropped up as a guest on albums here and there.

The fame he experienced was not without adversity: Enigma Records, the home of Roper and Nixon's earliest albums, went bankrupt; MTV's refusal to play the 1989 song "Debbie Gibson Is Pregnant With My Two-Headed Love Child" became the death knell of the singer's relationship with the network, and songs such as "Bring Me The Head of David Geffen" and "Don Henley Must Die" didn't promise commercial security.

Nixon and Roper eventually parted ways after releasing a fine album for I.R.S. titled "Root Hog or Die" (produced by Jim Dickinson). Nixon released a number of albums under his own name and found a home with satellite radio, acting and voice work.

Asked whether he sees the film as something of a career renaissance, Nixon is cautious. Now in his mid-60s and comfortable with the work he's done off the stage in recent years, he's not certain that a return to months of road work and a barrage of albums is in the cards. That said, he remains enthusiastic about the story "The Mojo Manifesto" tells.

Nixon will perform at the Brickyard this Thursday following a screening of the film at Regal Old Town as part of the Tallgrass Film Festival.

He recently spoke with KMUW about the film and his adventures in music.

Interview Highlights

When did this idea of making a documentary come to you? Was it a matter of saying, "Geez, I've got all this footage sitting around and I should do something with it," or did someone approach you?

That makes it sound like it was really organized. Well thought out. None of that is true. My bass player Earl B. Freedom, his real name's Matt Eskey, he had this idea. We rode around in the van for years, and he heard all my stories. I think he didn't have [anything else] to do. He said, "You got any videotape of early Mojo? I'm thinking about making a documentary."

Turned out, when me and Skid Roper first went on tour, that was the beginning of cable access TV shows. I've got tape out the wazoo. I would go on anybody's show, anytime. I would just say, "Send me a tape." I had two huge boxes of maybe 150 VHS tapes. Some of them were original masters of music videos or those MTV things I did. I sent Matt all of that. Then, he bought a $10,000 camera and started interviewing people.

[Laughs.]

And one thing led to another!

You came along in the '80s with this sound that was not necessarily what was on the radio. There were other bands of that ilk, The Blasters, Beat Farmers. And yet, somehow, you had this flirtation with the mainstream.

Flirtation is a good way to describe it. There was a cow-punk thing in Southern California: The Blasters, Los Lobos, Dwight Yoakam, The Beat Farmers. A bunch of bands playing roots rock, combining Hank Williams and the Sex Pistols or the Clash. Funny songs that got played on morning radio shows much more so than other bands. That was why MTV approached me to do those promo spots. They wanted me to be outrageous, which wasn't hard for me.

You emerged from San Diego and it's always struck me that those bands have a great sense of humor. I always get the sense that people from San Diego sort of say, "OK, we're not L.A., we're not San Francisco. What have we got to lose?"

There was a lot of that. You could create something without there being a lot of producers or managers with a lot of cocaine trying to get you to compromise and sell out. San Diego is also a two-hour drive from L.A., so we could go up and open for Green On Red or something.

There were some perilous drives back. The secret ingredient of that whole San Diego scene was Country Dick Montana from the Beat Farmers. He was my mentor. My demented mentor. Him and Jim Dickinson from Memphis.

There was also that confluence of that and punk rock. You were mentioned in the Dead Milkmen's "Punk Rock Girl," for instance.

Being mentioned in that song was probably the biggest thing that ever happened to me, though a lot of people know about "Elvis Is Everywhere." Because "Punk Rock Girl" was so popular, I still hear from people all the time about it. Probably every day. The Dead Milkmen were on the same label as us; Enigma, too. They were on tour on the West Coast and didn't have anywhere to go for Thanksgiving, so I invited them to my house. I got 12 turkey dinners and two bottles of Wild Turkey. Then they mentioned me in their song.

Tell me about the ride that you had with MTV. You were this kind of staple of the network for a while and it was funny because they'd have these countercultural characters juxtaposed with Duran Duran videos. The underground and the mainstream.

I tried not to do it. I made a list of all these demands. But ultimately MTV agreed to everything I said, and if I wanted a 20-year-old girl in Nebraska to know about me, that was probably the easiest way to do it. They also had Randee of the Redwoods; they had other people they were using to appear to be hipper than they were.

The Mojo clips were kind of cutting edge. At first MTV was that way because at the beginning only cool, weird bands had videos. But once Van Halen and Journey started making videos, it was over. It's always about the money and that's why they wouldn't play "Debbie Gibson Is Pregnant With My Two-Headed Love Child." I thought I had a relationship with them. I had done Spring Break and the Super Bowl for them, and I shot a bunch of pilots when they were trying to do TV shows. But they weren't gonna play "Debbie Gibson" because it made fun of her and Tiffany and Rick Astley and Spuds MacKenzie. That's where their money was.

That had to be frustrating.

Yeah, but you know, in hindsight, I overachieved. The fact that I got as far as I did was shocking.

You also injected a little bit of Southern culture into the mainstream at a time when the South was still a little bit of mystery to a lot of Americans.

I grew up in Danville, Virginia. I went to college in Ohio, and they didn't have sweet tea. They didn't know anything about NASCAR. Their barbecue sucked. So, at some point, I became a professional Southerner, a professional hillbilly, representing my people.

In the '80s you were singing about Elvis being everywhere and now, in 2022, he is everywhere again thanks to the Baz Luhrmann biopic.

I thought the film was great. I was worried it would suck, and I'd have to defend it. But it doesn't. If you love rock 'n' roll, if you love Elvis, I think you'll like the movie. I think the spirits of Elvis and Memphis are all up in there. I thought the movie was kind of a fever dream of Elvis. The director would take six incidents that happened over six months and jam them into one night, but that's what movies do.

It would have been a better movie if, during the credits, they'd have played "Elvis Is Everywhere." That would have been a financial pleasure for Mojo.

You mentioned the legendary producer Jim Dickinson [Bob Dylan, The Replacements] a little while ago, and I'm curious about what memories you have of him.

Jim never told me what to do. He tricked me into doing things that I thought I couldn't do. I'm not that talented. I'm not natural born like Paul McCartney is. But Jim got the best out of me. He was the keeper of the flame of the secret history of rock 'n' roll. There's rock 'n' roll history in the mainstream and that's what books get written about. But there's another thing happening out at the edge of town, in the darkness, the weirdness. It never goes way. Jim was the keeper of that flame, and he was passing it on to other folks.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.