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As lyrics go, they are not only among the greatest to come out of the famously fertile ’80s underground—they’re also stone cold truth.
And they resonate today with news that Mojo Nixon has died at the age of 66 of what’s being described as a cardiac incident.
This one hurts, and for the reason why, let’s rewind to the ’80s—a time when Al Gore was in the middle of inventing the internet. As the era of Ronald Reagan, Gordon Gekko, and MTV wound down, Philadelphia’s the Dead Milkmen released a song that would act as a future blueprint for pop-punk. The most famous verse in “Punk Rock Girl” paid loving tribute to a fast-talking, whip-smart, genre-mashing antihero:
We went to a shopping mall/And laughed at all the shoppers/And security guards trailed us to a record shop/We asked for Mojo Nixon/They said, “He don’t work here”/We said, “If you don’t got Mojo Nixon then your store could use some fixin.”
With those six lines, the Dead Milkmen summed up the genius of Mojo Nixon. And, just as importantly, what it was like to be a fan of left-of-the-dial music in an era where it wasn’t played on the radio, spotlighted on music television, or written about in the mainstream.
A true American original who championed the power of trailer parks, go-karting, Elvis Presley, warm Schaefer beer, and white-trash barbecue, the singer-songwriter, radio host, and raconteur was found dead in his cabin on an outlaw country cruise where he was one of the performers and hosts.
His family posted this on his Facebook page:
How you live ishow you should die.Mojo Nixon was full-tilt, wide-openrock hard, root hog, corner on two wheels + on fire…
Passing after a blazing show, a raging night, closing the bar, taking no prisoners+ a good breakfast with bandmates and friends.A cardiac event on the Outlaw Country Cruise is about right… & that’s just how he did it.
Nixon was an original. As a general rule, few things in this world are more grating than a band centred around a shtick. But when a shtick works—Dread Zeppelin, Gwar, um, Kiss—it can truly be a beautiful thing. Except in the case of Kiss.
The world first got to know the man born Neill Kirby McMillan Jr. as half of Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper. The duo’s setup was as simple and stripped down as it was genius: Nixon played guitar and sang, and Roper stood in the background, wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, keeping time on a battered standup washboard.
And out of that minimalist setup came something that sounded impossibly new and fresh, even though the duo took its major inspirations from old-time barbones country, outsider folk, Brylcreemed rockabilly, and CBGBs punk.
There were two sides to Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper. One of them was knowing how to make people laugh, the duo’s best-known songs including “I Saw Jesus At McDonald’s”, “Debbie Gibson Is Pregnant with My Two-Headed Love Child”, “Tie My Pecker to My Leg”, and “She’s Vibrator Dependent”.
The other was coming serious issues in a fashion that might best be described as bemused total fucking outrage. Mojo Nixon (who wrote the songs) tackled everything from mandatory drug testing (“I Ain’t Gonna Piss in No Jar”) to the arms race (“Gonna Put My Face On a Nuclear Bomb”) to the endless challenges of making legitimate art in a country that’s all about commerce (“Where the Hell’s My Money?”).
Consider this deadly perfect interlude in “Burn Down the Malls”, inspired by America's national 21 drinking age:
You know if Reagan finally gets the war he’s lookin’ for
You think he’s gonna be draftin’ 21-year-olds?
No man they’re gonna be draftin’ 18- and 19-year-olds
But ya can’t buy beer
You can get married and screw yourself up real good
But ya can’t buy beer
Ya can charge eight million dollars on the master charge
But ya can’t buy beer
You can vote for one fool or another
But ya can’t buy beer
’Cause this is America
America that’s run by the lowest common denominator
The great thing about Nixon was that, while clearly smarter than the average American, he came across as a dude who was proud to come from the trailer. He once declared his holy trinity to be Elvis Presley, Foghorn Leghorn, and Otis Campbell. (The latter deep cut reference being the town drunk on The Andy Griffith Show, the character eventually written out of the show for sending the wrong message about drinking).
That love of Presley was most famously on display on the underground hit “Elvis Is Everywhere”, in which he declared the King nothing short of the world’s most perfect being.
Nixon’s songs were salted with references to beenie weenies and black velvet paintings, but he’d also champion American trailblazers like African-American stock-car racer Wendell Scott and blues giant Howlin’ Wolf.
A big reason Nixon’s passing hurts today is that he was a cornerstone of an era the world will never see again. An era that laid the groundwork for the birth of grunge and the alternative boom of the ’90s—arguably one of the most seismic shifts in the long history of pop music. Ripped from the pages of punk rock, the lasting message of Kurt Cobain via artists like Nixon was simple: anyone can do it. And that message resonates today no matter what genre—hip-hop, blues, dance music, or boring old rock’n’roll—an artist happens to be working in.
The underlying lyrics of the Dead Milkmen’s “Punk Rock Girl” was that ’80s America was a place where you didn’t find the likes of Mojo Nixon on the radio, the television, or the racks of the shopping mall record store.
Today, to get a handle on who Snõõper, Otokoke Beaver, Destroy Boys, or Mommy Long Legs are today, all you need is an Apple Music account and an internet connection.
In the ’80s you had to dig in the underground, where you maybe first read about Mojo Nixon in a fanzine, or heard him on a mixed tape curated by that friend who was cooler than you’d ever be. Then you made five or six trips to Zulu Records until you finally found Bo-Day-Shus!!! in the used bin (new, sealed imports being a luxury one couldn’t afford).
Radio-sanctioned hitmakers aside, to arrive in a town for the first time in pre-internet days was to play for maybe 20 people, the goal being to blow them away to the point where word-of-mouth would ensure 40 people the next time.
Finally, after months and months of playing the shit out of Bo-Day-Shus!!! on the daily, you saw in the pages of The Georgia Straight the announcement that Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper were playing the Town Pump. And so you took a chance. And it was fucking insane in the most beautiful of ways, a wildman arriving on-stage locked, loaded, and determined to spread the gospel, lessons including that go-karting is God’s favourite sport, Lincoln Logs are the world’s most perfect toy, and Elvis is indeed everywhere.
Nixon reportedly died of a cardiac incident in his sleep. Here’s wagering a signed Ernie Banks baseball card he popped up in heaven about 10 seconds later with a warm Schaefer beer in one hand, and his Guild T-100 guitar in the other.
His first plan of action? Easy—heading to the closest record store with a message: “If you don’t got Mojo Nixon, then your store could use some fixin.’”