The Song Remains: Mojo Nixon (1957-2024)

From cow punk court jester to mainstream anarchist.

Death is one of the few certainties in life, and the best any of us can hope for is a happy death,  unfortunately, that is far from the case for a lot of people, but Mojo Nixon’s death on 7th February brought a fitting end to a unique artist. This is something his family recognised in their Facebook posting announcing his death, “How you live is how you should die. Mojo Nixon was full-tilt, wide-open rock 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, Mojo has left the building.”. Though Mojo Nixon was described as a psychobilly artist, mixing punk with rockabilly in the ‘80s, it was his attitude and lyrics that provided a counterpoint to the excesses and machinations of the music industry and the wider American society and politics, something he managed to maintain as he moved into acting and working in radio later in his career that is his lasting legacy. He started out as cow punk’s court jester and with the help of MTV and his uncompromising attitude aligned to great entertaining skills, he became the closest thing to a mainstream anarchist that it is possible to be.

Neil Kirby McMillan Jr. was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on 2nd August 1957 and he formed a partnership in the ‘80s with Skid Roper who provided much of the backing for Nixon’s lyrics. Nixon is reputed to have said that he was meant to go to law school, but the only career option that made sense to him was to become a musician. His first album was released in 1985, ‘Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper’, and the duo were picked up by MTV who featured many of their satirical pieces, including their most famous track, ‘Elvis Is Everywhere’. While Nixon and Roper never achieved any chart success, MTV ensured that they did become known to a wider more mainstream audience. Things changed at the end of the ‘80s when Nixon and Roper went their separate ways, and Nixon parted company with MTV over their refusal to air ‘Debbie Gibson is Pregnant with My Two-Headed Love Child’, which like the album ‘Root Hog or Die’ was produced in Memphis by the legendary Jim Dickinson.

1990 saw Nixon release his debut solo album, ‘Otis’, recorded with the involvement of Jim Dickinson, to positive reviews and one solid gold classic track, Mojo Nixon’s attack on soft rock, ‘Don Henley Must Die’. While his record company Enigma failed soon after ‘Otis’ was released preventing it from getting the audience it deserved, it did achieve some chart success, and Don Henley saw the joke and even appeared on stage with Nixon to sing that song, During the ‘90s Mojo Nixon moved into other media work, including acting and working as a DJ, before officially retiring from the music business in 2004, though there were various comebacks after his formal retirement. As well as appearing in various films, including playing drummer James Van Eaton in the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic, ‘Great Balls of Fire’, Nixon ended up with three radio shows on SiriusXM. He did receive the traditional honour for respected artists with long careers, the box set, 2020’s ‘The Mojo Manifesto’ which was released to support the documentary, ‘The Mojo Manifesto: The Life and Times of Mojo Nixon’.

Nixon was a member of the parody religion Church of the SubGenius, along with artists like David Byrne and Robert Crumb, and while he proclaimed himself a rock and roll rebel and anarchist with his bitingly satirical lyrics, he did manage to achieve some mainstream success, even if it was at the margins. He had lots of societal and political norms in his satirical sights, aiming at the right and left of American politics, which probably ensured his anarchical tendencies were seen as genuine.  By his own admission, Mojo Nixon wasn’t the best singer or songwriter in the world, but he was a great live entertainer with a sharp eye for the absurd and irreverent, something he was able to carry over to his style as a DJ for SiriusXM. He also never lost sight of the power of the human spirit which always helped his medicine go down. A mainstream anarchist indeed.

About Martin Johnson 378 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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