Like a lot of funny people, Mojo Nixon is a tasteless little sucker. The man thinks he's Annie Oakley every time he shoots a sitting duck. He drives selfishly, pisses in public, and regularly insults women who don't get wet at the sight of dirty denim. In fact, his MTV-baiting breakthrough "Stuffin' Martha's Muffin" was this far shy of a rape threat, one of those conflations of sex and hostility that white blues boys have been getting off on since before the dawn of metal. It worked, too--"Elvis Is Everywhere" having long since completed Mojo's elevation to cult hero, Martha Quinn is off MTV and Mojo is on. When he and folkie sidekick Skid Roper visited the Lone Star Roadhouse May 17 to announce their first post-"Elvis" album, Root Hog or Die, the house was ready to chant any stupid thing he suggested before he even gave the word. One follower sported an Elvis mask on the back of his head.
Many tasteful folks think all this rah-rah rowdiness proves Mojo isn't funny, and since the laugh is the most subjective of aesthetic responses, there's no gainsaying them. But I smell a rat I've smelled before--anti-Mojos feeling superior to pro-Mojos in exactly the same self-congratulatory way pro-Mojos feel superior to Rick Astley fans--and I say it's incontestable that the man has a serious sense of humor and a good heart too. Take his current opener, "Debbie Gibson Is Pregnant with My Two Headed Love Child." Written in the supermarket-tabloid style that exerts such a strong influence on Mojo's poesy, it's the humane version of "Stuffin' Martha's Muffin"--the "love child" itself sees to that. Nor is the outrageousness of the conceit left to carry Mojo's fear and loathing of the pop mainstream on its lonesome--it's subsumed in the gift of rant that was already apparent in the free associations, religious visions, and Jonathan Richman quotes of "Jesus at McDonalds" back in 1985. It may not be especially apt to brand Rick Astley a "hare-brained cockamamy knuckle-headed idjit galoot," but for damn sure it's a sign of enthusiasm. When it comes to spoken language, Americana shtick definitely has its uses.
Root Hog or Die is Nixon's finest artistic achievement. Jim Dickenson's sparely applied sidemen add some of the funky feel that Mojo, who claims his life was changed by Arthur Conley's "Sweet Soul Music" (a typically phony-authentic choice to which I'm sure he could add a dozen others), previously sought to provide with Howlin' Wolf and Jimmy Lee Swaggart impressions. Skid's cut is the usual yawn (Mojo's loyalty to his partner, who has-his-own-album-out God-help-us, is one reason I think he's got a good heart), but everything else cooks with gas. The unpromising title "Pirate Radio" turns out to be a Shane-MacGowan-as-Captain-Hook chantey, "Chicken Drop" discharges four-letter-word and junk-Americana obligations in the same song, "I'm a Wreck" warns against excess without moralizing. "She's Vibrator Dependent" is laced with a self-deprecation rare in his previous gynephobic forays. And "Burn Your Money!" "Legalize It," and a "This Land Is Your Land" that features the Mojoland amusement park all vent a gonzo anarcho-populist leftism that I trust has rubbed off on the guys with the Elvis masks.
With college students more pro-Bush than their parents, it's defeatist to reject potential allies because they do the wrong boogie. Nevertheless, the Lone Star show convinced me to stick with the records. Not only did these young guzzlers give Mojo the arena shuffle when he demonstrated "lower-body gyration," they encouraged his penchant for the cheap shot at every turn. I'm happy to report that Spuds McKenzie has joined Michael J. Fox as an avatar of the Antielvis and that Mojo responded to an unsolicited chant of "Kill Bon Jovi" with the suggestion that they shave Jon's chest instead. But really, free James Brown and we'll give you Wayne Newton? Who could possibly think that's a fair trade, not to mention a funny one? How about offering Frank Sinatra? Wynton Marsalis? Lee Atwater? Sting? There's tasteless and tasteless, after all.
Then again, once you pin down the difference you risk losing the gift altogether.
Village Voice, 1989