By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 4, 2023)
How do I describe Mojo Nixon to the uninitiated? Psychobilly anarchist? Novelty act? Social satirist? Performance artist? Brain-damaged? Smarter than he looks? The correct answer is “all of the above.” “Mojo Nixon” is also, of course, a stage persona; an alter ego created by Neill Kirby McMillan Jr., as we learn in Matt Eskey’s The Mojo Manifesto: The Life and Times of Mojo Nixon (available on digital platforms March 17th). My gateway to Nixon’s oeuvre was via “The Dr. Demento Show”, a weekly syndicated program we aired at the radio station I was working at back in the 1980s. The song was called “Elvis is Everywhere.”
Elvis is everywhere, man!
He’s in everything.
He’s in everybody…
Elvis is in your jeans.
He’s in your cheeseburgers
Elvis is in Nutty Buddies!
Elvis is in your mom!
It wasn’t so much the hilariously absurd stream-of-consciousness lyrics, as it was the unbridled commitment to the vocal that hooked me right away. Who was this guy? Turns out I wasn’t the only person sitting up and paying attention. While Nixon and his partner-in-crime Skid Roper (aka Richard Banke) already had a modest cult following and several albums under their belts, it was the surprise popularity of that 1987 single (and its accompanying video) that brought him to the attention of MTV viewers and to the public at large.
However, his follow-up “Debbie Gibson is Pregnant with My Two-Headed Love Child” put him at odds with MTV execs, who flat-out refused to air the video without several proposed edits. In a response emblematic of his perennially tenuous relationship with the business end of the music biz, Nixon shrugged and moved on (that period was the beginning of the end for MTV as we had known and loved it anyway).
The fact that he has stuck to his guns throughout his career is what most endears him to his ardent fans. Indeed, if anything, he doubled-down on the cheeky celebrity lawsuit-baiting with tunes like “Stuffin’ Martha’s Muffin” (referencing MTV VJ Martha Quinn), “Don Henley Must Die”, “Orenthal James (Was a Mighty Bad Man”, “Bring Me the Head of David Geffen”…well, you get the idea. Eskey’s equally cheeky documentary (opening with “Chapter Five”) begins in 1990, with footage of Nixon in the studio recording Otis, his first “solo” album after parting ways with Skid Roper, then moves the timeline back from there.
McMillan recalls growing up in Danville, Virginia. His parents were progressive liberals, which likely contributed to his activism at a relatively young age (he was arrested at 14 for protesting a local leash law). Later in college, he majored in poly-sci, but found himself becoming increasingly disillusioned with the idea of punching a clock. He moved to England for a spell, vowing to find a niche in London’s burgeoning punk scene (he ended up busking in the underground in order to survive, singing rockabilly standards).
The film traces how McMillan came up with his “Mojo Nixon” alter-ego, which provided a perfect foil to embody his divergent inspirations Hunter S. Thompson, Woody Guthrie, 50s rockabilly, and The Clash. It also delves a bit into how Nixon’s political stance began to lean more toward the libertarian side:
Also on hand to commentate (contemporary and archival) are Jello Biafra, Country Dick Montana, Kinky Friedman, Winona Ryder, John Doe, and others (the epilog reveals that his former creative partner Skid Roper declined to participate in the production of the documentary; which leaves you wondering what the story is there…perhaps the venerable “creative differences”?). Not unlike Nixon himself, Eskey’s portrait may be manic at times, but it’s honest, engaging, and consistently entertaining.