Pandemic Halloween has been gifted a soundtrack: Republican rocker Ted Nugent’s ghoulish and deafening version of the Star-Spangled Banner. There is nothing—not Carl Maria von Weber’s Wolf Glen, not Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata in D Minor, not Kryzstof Komeda’s Lullaby from Rosemary’s Baby—more bone-rattling or blood-chilling than the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame non-inductee’s weaponized fantasy on the National Anthem.
Wearing an insulated hunting cap and red-and-black Mackinaw jacket, the Michigan native took to the airport tarmac at a Trump rally in the state capital of Lansing on Tuesday wielding neither a logger’s axe nor one of his many beloved guns—from his grey-camo deer rifle to his signature red-white-and blue American flag-themed assault AR-15 (the “upper assembly” of which retails for only $375). Instead, Nugent’s weapon of choice was his coveted Gibson Byrdland, perhaps even the same one deployed on many of his phantasmagoric solos like that in “Stranglehold” from back in the kinder, gentler Republican years of the Ford administration.
In Nugent’s life and works, guitar and voice and lyrics wreak felonious havoc on mind and body: “Here I come again baby / like a dog in heat,” he sing-screams in “Stranglehold” after his guitar has done the same. This Republican splits ears not rails.
Nugent’s corpus is littered with corpses: “I am a Predator”; “A Thousand Knives”; “Bound and Gagged”; “I Shoot Back.” The body count is even higher than the decibels.
Nugent doesn’t have to wait until Halloween to play the monster: he’s an all-season demon, thriving on the feedback of his own infamy. At a concert in California 2007, he taunted then presidential candidate Barack Obama while raising an assault rifle in each hand: “Hey Obama, you might wanna suck on one of these, you punk.” The band’s drummer gave the line a ba-dump-tss. Whipped up by himself and the crowd, Nugent continued to tear into his foes like a rabid dog into raw meat: “Obama, he’s a piece of shit and I told him to suck on my machine gun.” His guitar swinging from his groin, Nugent then turned his full-loaded, psycho-sexual fury on women: “Hey Hilary, you might want ride one of these into the sunset, you worthless bitch.” The frightening misogynistic revue continues with Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein: “Ride one of these, you worthless whore!” The fungibility of guitar, gun, and penis is hardly news. That Nugent is a dangerous nut in need of an immediate background check is as clear as his guitar is distorted.
Nugent has served on the NRA board of directors since 1995, and at the gun lobby’s 2012 national convention the rocker confided that “if Barack Obama becomes the president in November again, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year.” The Secret Service duly investigated.
Yet Nugent is out and about, free to spray his music and its automatic message like bullets from the barrel of one of his many guns. The Lansing campaign appearance for Trump came less than three weeks after the arrest of thirteen members of the Michigan Militia on terrorism, conspiracy, and weapons charges. The group had ties with Timothy McVeigh, and in 1995, in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, Nugent praised its members: “I shoot with these people; I have been to target practice with them. I find them professional, hard-working people.” Nugent’s shouts of praise for the “real Michigan” in Lansing on Tuesday rang out like covering fire for the arrested white supremacists.
Needless to say, Nugent is a Trump favorite, even enjoying an audience in the Oval Office during the early days of his administration, and a campaign stalwart. Never mind that few, if any, rockers or higher-ranking celebrities share their talents with the Trump. Instead real Hall of Famers like Neil Young take the president to court to try and stop him from plundering their songs for his political purposes.
At the mostly maskless MAGA rally in Lansing Nugent did not bring his rifles—or at least did not brandish them. His guitar was far more lethal. Here’s betting that more than a few supporters walked away from the event infected with Covid and suffering significant hearing loss.
Even when discharged by supposedly more decorous and disciplined musical forces like military bands and choruses, the American National Anthem is insulting and bad for moral and physical health. The tune was hatched as the “Anacreontic Song” in eighteenth-century England: a drinking song for empire-building elites. The sloppy stagger of its melody is the inebriated embodiment of white male privilege: “So my Song from your Crackers no Misschief shall dread, / Whilst snug in their Club-Room, they jovially twine / The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine” — which I’d translate into modern English as “let’s get drunk and call some prostitutes.”
On this side of the Atlantic, slave-holding doggerelist Francis Scott Key refitted the melody in patriotic colors when the Brits and newly-independent Americans returned to a momentary state of hostility during the War of 1812. The reference of Key’s third verse to “hireling and slave” fleeing in “terror” has been decried by many commentators as a vicious racist attack on black escapees who went over to the invading British forces. Whatever the case, even in Scott’s day abolitionists lambasted the hypocrisy of a slave holder hymning the “Land of the Free.” The notorious Nugent shares Keys views on race, having stated publicly that Africans “still put bones in their noses, walk around naked, [and] wipe their butts with their hands.”
In Lansing on Tuesday, Nugent took more than two minutes to shoot his way through the anthem, about half as long Jimi Hendrix’s epic at Woodstock in 1969, a rendition that did not so much convey, as create a raw sense of freedom and dissent.
For all its flailing and feedback, its hackneyed and self-congratulatory digressions, Nugent’s Star-Spangled Banner remained shackled by a paradoxical obeisance: it raged respect. The guitarist discharged one round of unfriendly-fire after another into the crowd, an assault that tried way too hard to sound like revolution against the powers in Washington which Trump too had declared war on. Its deafening fire-power was pure impotence, the septuagenarian’s solo the perfect prelude to the presidential blatherings that followed: both Nugent and Trump were all noise and no ideas.
But the crowd was as enraptured—or perhaps as stupefied—as the anthemist himself. While Nugent’s instrumental version was necessarily wordless, the angry message came through loud and clear—and I do mean loud. Nugent’s amps glared redder than any rocket. Rather than joining in respectful, hand-over-heart singing of the anthem, the Trump faithful basked in Uncle Teddy’s shock and awe. Had Jimi Hendrix dared shred the Banner in Lansing on Tuesday he would have been lynched, yet somehow Nugent’s assault didn’t force the crowd to take a knee. The MAGA mob cheered the aural apocalypse and its special-delivery MOAB—the Mother of All Bombs bursting in air.
Today Ted takes Don Junior trick-or-treating in the gun-rich wilds of western Pennsylvania. Even in the pandemic, these kids will get the Halloween fun they deserve.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)