He's Got His Mojo Workin'

How onetime Denver resident Kirby McMillan Jr. was transformed into Mojo Nixon.

For the past thirteen years, Mojo Nixon has waged a butt-rockin' assault on some of the more significant ills of society while touting the pleasures to be found in America's underbelly. Once upon a time in the Eighties, this vision infiltrated the mainstream: The video for the song "Elvis Is Everywhere" became the first of several MTV hits for Nixon and led to numerous guest-VJ appearances. But today he says, "I'm obviously out here on the pirate-radio end of the deal. I'm a voice in the wilderness. I make a living doing this, but there's little chance of me having a hit. I'm insane."

Maybe so--but that's a large part of his charm. His clip for the 1989 ode "Debbie Gibson Is Pregnant With My Two-Headed Love Child" may have ended his relationship with MTV (the network banned it), but it also epitomized his no-holds-barred sense of humor. Counting his latest release, Gadzooks!!!, Nixon has churned out ten records' worth of guitar-powered hillbilly dementia that ranges from proletarian protests ("Burn Down the Malls," "I Hate Banks," "Destroy All Lawyers") to jarringly funny attacks on the pop-culture elite ("Don Henley Must Die"). In addition, he's toured with acts such as the Pleasure Barons, a whiskey-soaked party band that featured the late Beat Farmers leader "Country Dick" Montana (whom Nixon calls his "de-mentor") and appeared in numerous movies, most memorably as a folk musician turned giant lizard in the box-office catastrophe Super Mario Bros.

But long before Nixon became a rock-and-roll rabble-rouser, he spent time in the Mile High City under his given name, Kirby McMillan Jr. "It was way back in time--back in 1980 and '81," he remembers in a smoky voice that combines a bluesman's down-home drawl with the enraptured fervor of a Southern Baptist preacher. "I had just gotten out of college. I lived in England for a while, and the Clash didn't want me to join 'em, so I took a job in Denver with VISTA. I had this job down in a little storefront on Stout Street. I was supposed to be organizing winos."

To do what?
"Drink more wine, apparently," Nixon bellows. "And I was very successful at it. I sang Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly songs in the soup kitchens, and I took the job seriously until I realized it was some sort of government scam and that if I actually got these guys to do something, I'd probably have been put in jail."

After quitting the VISTA program, Nixon formed a punk outfit, Zebra 123. "This was right before hardcore," he notes. "Back when people were still playin' songs instead of noise. Everybody else in Colorado had skinny ties and was playing New Wave, but we were out of the Jerry Lee Lewis school of punk. I lived on East Colfax, right across from the big church [the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, at Colfax and Logan]. I had an upstairs apartment over what was a drugstore then. It cost $90 a month and had an old Murphy bed that fell right out of the wall."

As Nixon tells it, he decided to leave Denver following a historic visit to the Ogden Theatre, the very venue he's slated to play during his upcoming appearance. "I saw Taxi Driver there the same night that John Hinckley saw it," he claims, making reference to the onetime local who insisted that he shot President Ronald Reagan to impress Taxi Driver co-star Jodie Foster. But whereas Hinckley subsequently headed to Washington, D.C., for a violent date with history, Nixon lit out for Southern California. "I was so crazy, I drove to San Diego to see this old girlfriend," he says. When he discovered that his old flame was fanning the fires of love with another suitor, he admits, "It's a wonder I didn't go shoot the president."

Instead, Nixon, an avid cyclist, opted for a more therapeutic form of consolation, pedaling from San Diego back to his hometown of Danville, Virginia. Along the way, he experienced the epiphany he refers to as "the Mojo Nixon Revelation--that what I should do was get a little front-porch boogie-woogie going, to make your grandma buck-dance. And I decided I would talk in such a way as to make your grandma blush and hit you in the head with her purse. That was my talent, and I figured I should stick to it."

Gadzooks!!!, issued by the Needletime imprint, does not deviate from this time-tested formula. The disc's seventeen ditties include hard-to-find and unreleased offerings from the past dozen years, along with a handful of newly recorded numbers. "It's a compilation, retrospective, gap-filling phenomenon," Nixon remarks. "Plus, if you wanted to buy all the different CDs, flexi-discs and movie soundtracks that these songs were on, you'd have to spend approximately $239 and a lot of time with people telling you, 'I ain't got that crazy record. Nobody would buy that thing.' So with Gadzooks!!!, I'm just providing a service to all the Mojonites and Mojoholics out there in their little pockets of resistance across America."

True enough, "The Poontango," "I Like Marijuana," "UFOs, Big Rigs & BBQ" and "I'm Drunk" should provide the perfect tonic for true Nixon believers. Such folks will also be drawn to "Bring Me the Head of David Geffen," a hilarious anti-corporate screed that remained officially unreleased until Gadzooks!!! dropped. According to Nixon, the tune's unique history has everything to do with the Geffen Records founder and his power in the music industry.

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