Portland, Oregon, is not usually the right place to rub shoulders with the God and guns crowd in America. Obama scored 77% of the vote here in 2008, the county has about 225,000 registered Democrats compared with only 74,000 Republicans, and more than its fair share of vegan restaurants and guys in tie-dyed Grateful Dead T-shirts.
So what was Ted Nugent — ’70s c-ck rocker, die-hard conservative and out-spoken advocate of the Second Amendment — doing in a town full of hippies and hipsters?
“The thing about Portland, Oregon, is that it’s Portland, Oregon,” a local journalist told me. “Outside the city, it’s a different world.”
Nugent’s arrival in Portland — and the greater state of Oregon — couldn’t have been more timely. The previous week, a series of nine gang-related shootings had taken place in the city’s poorer northern suburbs, where much of the black population has been pushed as the already disproportionately white inner-city has become increasingly gentrified by single-origin-latte lefties.
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But the aftermath has been far larger than a few teenagers in hospital, stirring up tensions over poverty, race, big government and even homos-xuality.
In response, Portland’s mayor, Sam Adam — a 46-year-old gay Democrat who typically focuses more on composting and bike paths — announced a new plan to control illegal hand guns, including increased penalties for illegal possession of loaded firearms and banning firearms-law violators from high-crime neighbourhoods.
The state’s main gun lobby, the Oregon Firearms Federation, hit back by calling him a “freedom-hating loser“, while a prominent gang outreach worker used the opportunity to accuse him of caring more about bikes, dogs and street festivals than real people, and being more dynamic in his response to a series of violent attacks on gays earlier this year.
It may seem like petty local problems, but it’s also a macro level of debates being played out around the nation on a much larger scale. In the city, new condos go up, sustainable wine bars and restaurants, serving $30 organic, locally sourced mains, open. But Oregon is still suffering badly from the recession, with an unemployment rate of 10.6% (against a national average of 9.5%) and the highest proportion of homelessness in the country.
Ted Nugent hasn’t released an album since 2007 (with the appropriately Spinal Tap-esque title of Love Grenade, and the original cover featuring a n-ked woman bound and served on a platter with a grenade in her mouth), which peaked at #186 on the Billboard charts and barely registered a blip on the national radar.
Yet, since that time, Nugent’s star has been back on the rise, as a vocal advocate and poster boy for the Tea Party movement. In fairness to him, the Nuge has been banging on about gun rights and small government for most of his career, but his beliefs are suddenly back in vogue. He’s now a favourite guest on Fox News and has performed at Sarah Palin rallies (“I’d be proud to share a moose-barbecue campfire with the Palin family any time” he wrote in an article for Time magazine earlier this year).
This is what brought Nugent’s “Trample the weak, Hurdle the dead” tour to downtown Portland’s Roseland Theatre last month, wedged right between performances in Suquamish, Washington and Wendover, Nevada (where? Exactly). He wasn’t here to play to tree-hugging inner-city Portlanders; he was here for everyone else.
And that’s what brought me to the Roseland, too. I’ve met plenty of west-coast liberals over here. I’ve met nothing but west-coast liberals. But in a month, Americans (well, some of them — the election is on a Tuesday) will go to the polls for Senate, House and gubernatorial elections. In Oregon, the Democratic Party is likely to retain its seats in the first two, but the race for governor is shaping up to be very tight. First-time Republican candidate Chris Dudley — whose main claim to fame is his previous career as an NBA basketballer, including four years playing for the local Portland Trailblazers — is running hard on economic issues, promising to reduce spending and the size of the government, scrapping many state services, and recent polls put him neck and neck against his seasoned Democratic rival. If that’s enough to win over a state such as Oregon, which hasn’t had a Republican governor since 1986, it will be an interesting gauge of just how much the political landscape has changed over the past few years.
One can of worms neither candidate has opened is immigration. Dudley has skirted the issue, but it’s speculated that he supports Arizona’s new hard-line immigration laws. He’d be wise to — a recent study found that 59% of Oregonians would like to see the laws introduced here, and 70% of those people already support Dudley.
But Nugent has never held back on the subject, dedicating an entire chapter to it in his 2008 NYT best-seller, Ted, White and Blue, in which he called for a “shoot to kill” policy for “invaders”: “Remember the Alamo, America … Bloodsuckers need not apply for citizenship.”
I park my bike at a vegan internet café around the corner, comb down my Mohawk, button up a flannelette shirt over my Joy Division T-shirt and walk through the gauntlet of homeless and meth addicts to the theatre. A woman in a fringed leather vest and cowboy hat raises an eyebrow when I flash my Australian passport as ID. I step through the metal detectors, and a large security guard gives me a thorough frisking while another pulls everything out of my bag and confiscates an aerosol deodorant can.
Inside the theatre is a world away from the brewpubs and espresso bars outside: bikers in cowboy boots and “nObama” T-shirts clutch cups of beer, men with big bellies and buzzcuts exchange high-fives. It probably goes without saying, but everyone is white (although Oregon itself is about 90% white [compared with the national 80%] -– or 80% if you don’t include Hispanics [65% nationally] – and even hip-hop shows in this town have all the racial diversity of a Klan rally).
Next to me, three men proudly brandish their laminated VIP passes. This means they have purchased the $550 “Dangerzone” ticket, which allows them to have their photo taken with Nugent and go into the draw to for a chance to go on a “Porkslam” hunt with him.
The crowd is growing restless. A cheer goes up as stagehands pull back the camouflage netting covering the stage to reveal a giant American flag and an array of machine guns, mortars, grenades, bows and dead animals.
Then out steps Nugent in a snakeskin cowboy hat, playing the Star Spangled Banner on a stars-and-stripes guitar. “Say ‘thank you, Uncle Ted’!” he instructs the crowd. “THANK YOU, UNCLE TED!” the men shout back obediently.
“I got the spirit!” he screams into his Madonna mic, stalking the stage and shaking his hands like a preacher. “We are f-cking blood brothers in American spirit! I’m stoned on freedom! I’m high on the f-cking spirit!”
The crowd roars with approval.
He shreds his way through more similar sounding rock songs, eyes wild. The largest and most Alpha-male of the VIPs next to me jumps around playing air guitar until he’s out of breath, which is well before the 61-year-old on stage.
“A long time ago, I realised I’m addicted to freedom!” Nugent rambles. “You can’t do this in France, motherf-ckers!” What “this” is, is not immediately clear, but the crowd seems to agree. “You can’t do this in Germany! Mexico! Motherf-cking Can-a-daaaa!”
“These are my machine guns!” he tells us, pointing out the giant automatic weapons covering the stage. “Wanna see my permit? It’s in my O-bama filing cabinet, right here.” He points to his a-se. “This is a love song dedicated to our c-cksucking President!” he shouts before launching into a song with the chorus “cluster-f-ck me!” repeated over and over.
Alpha raises a meaty paw for a high-five, but the other VIPs don’t see and leave him hanging.
“Never forget where you come from!” instructs Nugent. “Never forget where the best music in the world comes from: the black motherf-ckers!” To my surprise, the audience cheers just as loudly, and Nugent launches into a cover of Sam and Dave’s Soul Man.
Perhaps this is the post-racial America we heard so much about.
“My name is Ted Nugent and I’m a hunter and I believe in killing sh-t for my family to eat!” Nugent announces. “I know I got my hunting brothers out there!” The VIPs raise their hands and woop loudly. Nugent breaks into song, and they start play-fighting, slapping and ramming their beer guts against each other, working themselves into a frenzy. In the midst of the excitement, the smallest member of the group reaches over and squeezes Alpha’s a-se. Both men stop and stare at each other in shock. I back off, expecting things to get nasty. Alpha’s nostrils are flaring, his face is red and he looks furious. But at the last second, he silently stands down, and the men return to awkwardly play fighting again.
“Freedom isn’t free,” preaches Nugent. “I want a victory strategy — not a f-cking exit strategy! I want to see a whole lot of motherf-cking. Dead. Assholes!”
Nugent strums his last power chord, grabs a machine gun off his amp and exits stage right, the gun proudly raised in the air. The audience goes through the “encore” ritual until he returns. He’s wearing a giant Indian headdress and sporting a new guitar with “Great White Buffalo” emblazoned along the back. He plays a song about not killing more buffalo than you need (or something; it’s 90% guitar solo).
“THANK YOU, UNCLE TED!”
He declares that “the great north-west is still the home of the motherf-ckers” and waves goodbye. The lights go up and the crowd spills out into the streets, stepping over the homeless people asleep outside.
I ride back to my inner-city apartment full of west-coast liberals. The VIPs head to a strip joint across the street, still wooping and cheering.
In a month, these men and millions like them will have their say at the ballot box. I know you’ll all be watching Alaska and California, but keep an eye out for “OR” to see if Uncle Ted’s blood brothers are still high on the spirit.
Ruth Brown is an Australian journalist living in Portland, Oregon. Read more of her American adventures at her blog.