How we lost our Mojo
The spiritual captain of the Outlaw Country Cruise went out in a blaze of raucous glory
“Mo-Jo! Mo-Jo! Mo-Jo!” The rabid crowd packed in around the small Magnum’s stage of the Norwegian Pearl Tuesday night as if anticipating a cock fight. They were waiting for their man, a spiritual captain in a red aloha shirt and daisy dukes, and when he arrived with his Toadliquors band, insanity broke loose like an overwhelmed mooring. “Debbie Gibson is pregnant, with my two-headed love child,” Mojo Nixon sang to start the set, and the band- Pete “Wet Dawg” Gordon on piano, Earl B. Freedom on bass, and a drummer on loan from Jesse Dayton christened Caveman Muthafucka, dug in for a musical donnybrook. There were rants. There were randy singalongs (“Can A.I. Suck My Dick?”). There was a cover of “Dead Flowers” and there was Mojo on the guitar, as wild as I’d ever heard him in the 37 years since he first played the Continental Club with swinging stickman Skid Roper. Mojo Nixon had something to prove- that he was still harder than Chinese algebra- and the audience’s affirmation, always a big part of Mojo’s mayhem, was especially delirious
on this 8th annual Outlaw Country Cruise. This was Mojo’s ship, after all. Leading up to the set, he stepped out of the SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country channel to meet and greet and josh and jiggle until these folks were family. “Were we in jail together?” he asked one fan. “Did I make out with your mama?” to another. Mojo didn’t sign autographs, he made memories.
The day after the triumphant show, at lunch with wife Adaire and adult son Ruben, Mojo handled serial accolades by saying, “Not bad for an old fat man.” He was in high spirits.
At about 1 or 2 p.m. there was a “code alpha” on the ship’s loudspeaker. A passenger was in distress on the 14th Deck, where the artists’ cabins are. Mojo Nixon had gone back to take a nap after lunch, and his wife noticed he’d stopped breathing. Paramedics spent an hour trying to revive him as band members, sent upstairs by a text from manager Scott “Bullethead” Riley, looked on in horror. “Should we have done this one last show?”
Mojo’s wife and son flew back to Cincinnati from Puerto Rico, where the ship was docked when he passed. But Mojo rode the morgue to Miami, on a ship that arrived a few hours ahead of schedule because the way you take Mojo home is full throttle.
Hard to believe because he had only that one speed, but Mojo had longtime cardiac trouble that an AFib heart ablation seemed to alleviate a couple years ago. Heart disease was in his family, with father Neil Kirby McMillan Sr., who owned a Black radio station in Danville, VA, dropping dead at age 42. Kirby Jr. ending up living 24 years longer.
There would not be an official announcement on the boat until the 10 p.m. set by Mojo fave, Dash Rip Rock, on the same stage as Mojo’s swan song 23 hours earlier. But the word had seeped out. You could tell who knew.
In their friend and mentor’s honor, Dash guitarist Bill Davis announced, this would be an especially hard and fast set, “just like Mojo would want.” Outlaw Country’s “Loon in the Afternoon” never liked anything half-assed. The set opened with a singalong of Mojo’s “Are You Drinkin’ With Me Jesus,” followed by the punkest version ever of “I Saw the Light” by Mojo hero Hank Williams. Steve Earle hung out at the side of the stage for as long as he could take the onslaught, which was an impressive eight or nine songs.
The next morning, a screening of Matt Eskey’s 2021 documentary The Mojo Manifesto was put together for a packed Spinnaker Lounge, wobbled by waves of salt water and grief. After the film (which is available on Amazon Prime) there were testimonials.
“I would say let’s take a moment of silence,” led Outlaw Country curator Jeremy Tepper, who hired Mojo for satellite radio 20 years ago. “But that wouldn’t be appropriate in this case.”
There was the Mojo Nixon character, who was part Woody Guthrie, and more parts Foghorn Leghorn, and then there was the guy who shared himself with everybody. “When Mojo asked me to be in his band he said we’d be best friends,” said pianist Gordon. “And we have been for 35 years. Mojo taught me how to be a husband and a father. He’s always been there for me.”
There were stories that just scratched the surface, but here’s one. Right wing country singer John Rich bristled at liberal Mojo in an interview: “You look like a guy I killed once.” Mojo shot back, “You look like a guy I fucked in prison,” and Rich stormed out.
Every act I saw the rest of the cruise mentioned Mojo. Lucinda Williams dedicated the fantastic tribute show in her honor to “a true artist” after closing with an all-hands-on-deck version of “Get Right with God,” and Jesse Dayton detailed how Mojo’s radio support made it viable for him to get out of the Central Texas dives and tour the country. Dayton played the tune that first clicked with Mojey Wojey- “I’m Home Getting’ Hammered, While She’s Out Getting Nailed”- giving communion to a crowd that turned the Atrium into a raging roadhouse.
The feelgood turn from tears to a celebration of life culminated with a 1 a.m. set by Rosie Flores, keyboardist Emily Gimble, guitarist Eve Monsees and a crack rhythm section that had everyone dancing. “Feel a Whole Lot Better” (Byrds) even got former Pogues bassist Cait “Rocky” O’Riordan on the floor. Besides Bullethead, O’Riordan knew Mojo the longest, since he opened a mini-tour for her band 40 years ago. “The Pogues loved Mojo,” she said. “He was pure love, pure essence.”
The last line of The Mojo Manifesto reverberated: “You’ve got one chance,” Mojo said, challenging the camera to come along on his wild ride. “You gonna party up in heaven? I hear there’s no beer!”
This year at SXSW was supposed to be the 25th and final Mojo’s Mayhem day party at the Continental Club. Now, it’s going to be a memorial show, with the Knitters, Beat Farmers, Dan Baird and many more expected. I’ll go deeper on Mojo and his importance to SXSW leading up to that blowout.
I’ll also have more on OCC8 when I get back to my desk and my inspirado and wifi that’s not a cruel myth. It’s been quite a time on the ocean from Miami to P.R. and back, with a lot more to think about than any of us expected.