Just in case there are any lingering doubts, it takes Kid Rock about 12 seconds to add ammunition to the argument that he is indeed living the surreal life. The man known as the Early Mornin’ Stoned Pimp to his fans, Robert James Ritchie to his mom and dad, and Bobby to his friends and associates is headed to the golf course when he calls the Georgia Straight on his cellphone from his hometown of Detroit. Cheerfully admitting that he’s not exactly in danger of knocking Tiger Woods off the PGA tour, Rock is nonetheless stoked about his impending tee time.
The 37-year-old rap-rocker turned American-music mixologist is hopped up partly because he’s in a car with his buddies, and partly because one of those buddies has promised to help improve his game. And that’s where things get surreal. Forget getting tips from an above-average hacker who’s learned everything he knows at the local country club; when you’re Kid Rock, you don’t hang with the little people, you roll with the stars.
“I’m getting ready to fucking go try this thing they call golf,” the easygoing Rock says with a cackle. “Actually, I’m getting lessons today. John Daly is going to teach me how to golf.”
It’s entirely appropriate that the musician sometimes known as the American Bad Ass is hanging with the closest thing the PGA has to a bona fide bad boy. Recognizing a fellow partier when he sees one, Rock has become tight with the chain-smoking, notoriously hard-drinking Daly. “We’ll be seeing him again on the Fourth of July, when we’ve got the cup in Malibu,” Rock says. “He’s going to come out for the party.”
The cup, of course, would be the Stanley Cup, and Malibu would be where Rock maintains a $12-million home near friends like Detroit Red Wings defenceman Chris Chelios. The party—a celebration of the Wings’ recent league championship—is, evidently, just another benefit of being Kid Rock in 2008.
As much as he’s still never met a kegger he didn’t like, the singer admits that he’s been in an uncharacteristically reflective head space for the past year or so. That’s partly been due to a splattered-all-over-the-tabloids divorce from ex-Baywatch babe Pamela Anderson, and maybe because he’s closing in on 40—doubly daunting when you’re famous for wearing Huggy Bear–length faux-fur coats and pimptastic fedoras, and semi-legendary for a stage show where rapping midgets and pole-dancing strippers have been part of the spectacle. Regardless, Kid Rock these days suddenly seems to understand the importance of easing up on the accelerator. This much is made clear by his most recent release, Rock N Roll Jesus, a surprisingly soulful album that debuted at number one on the Billboard charts. As everyone from Rolling Stone on down has noted, the disc finds the famously cocky superstar interested in something more than partying till he chunders. Rock doesn’t dispute that.
Basically, he says he sat up one day and realized that, despite being one of the best-selling artists of his generation, he was becoming more noted for popping up in gossip glossies with Anderson, who he was married to for four months. Rock N Roll Jesus is the sound of Rock determined to prove his importance to someone other than the assignment editors at OK! and US Weekly. As an added bonus, the album once and for all shows he’s got more to offer the world than booze-and-bimbos-obsessed rap-rock anthems for testosteroned-to-the-tits trailer trash.
“I wanted to bring everything back to music after walking a fine line of becoming a tabloid freak,” Rock says with a snort. “I decided to take a close look at what I do best. What I love most is music. That led to a lot of pressure. There was this sense that I had to go into this, do it right, do it the best I can, and not fuck around.”
Laughing, he then adds, “But I did fuck around quite a bit.”
At the risk of overstating the obvious, there have been huge changes in the life of Bobby Ritchie since he predicted “I’m going platinum” on 1998’s raging Devil Without a Cause, and then proceeded to do just that, eventually moving 12 million copies of the disc. In the early ’90s, he had abandoned his middle-class upbringing to bounce around dirt-poor, black neighbourhoods of Detroit, where he rocked the decks at house parties, honed his battle skills, and peddled crack on the side. Thanks to the juggernaut that was Devil, he became an instant winner in the rap-rock lottery, a one-man party animal whose famously stated goals were to drink with the stars, get tossed out of bars, and start an escort service for all the right reasons.
Not surprisingly, given that subsequent records were no less debauched, Rock has no trouble pinpointing one of the big things that separates Rock N Roll Jesus from his back catalogue.
“Basically, I didn’t say, ”˜I’m motherfucking Kid Rock!’ in every song,” he says bluntly.
This time out, Rock wanted to redefine himself as a songwriter. As a result, Bob Seger, “Sweet Home Alabama”, and even New Orleans jazz are more valid reference points on Rock N Roll Jesus than, say, “No Sleep Till Brooklyn”.
“I knew that I wanted to make a very blues-soul-based kind of record,” he says. “And really, that wasn’t hard. It was a matter of just doing it. Whenever I’ve gone in the studio and stayed focused, I’ve made great songs.”
Rock was as focused as he’d ever been for Rock N Roll Jesus, and that led to his most cohesive record to date. The album is heavily coloured by the music he was raised on; his parents regularly held barn parties on the family spread in suburban Michigan, and on any given Friday, you’d hear Hank Williams and Johnny Cash cranked back-to-back with the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Rock has never hid the fact that classic country and southern rock mean just as much to him as golden-age hip-hop and old-school rap; the Metallica-sampling “American Bad Ass” from 2000’s The History of Rock laid everything out with lines like “I like AC/DC and ZZ Top/Bocephus, Beasties and the Kings of Rock/Skynyrd, Seger, Limp, Korn, the Stones/David Allen Coe and no-show Jones.”
“Whether you’re talking Led Zeppelin, the Marshall Tucker Band, or Lynyrd Skynyrd, anything that I’ve incorporated into my sound is there because it’s stood the test of time,” he says.
As proven by Jesus’ beat-bombed, profanity-laced “Sugar” (sample lyric: “I fuck hot pussy until it’s cold”), Rock hasn’t totally abandoned the sound that’s bought him his pad in Malibu, a 30-acre compound in suburban Detroit, and all the toys that come with having sold over 23 million records. For the most part, though, Rock N Roll Jesus targets more than his traditional fan base, which is loosely split between those who prefer stained wife-beaters and Dukes of Hazzard Dodge Chargers and those who favour track pants and pimp-my-ride Hummers.
Rock sets the tone with the title track, a slick rave-up that’s all wah-wah guitars and Vegas-soul-revue horns. From there, “Roll On” traffics in straight-from-the-heartland rock, “So Hott” mixes sex with mammoth ’70s-brand riffage, and “When U Love Someone” plants its shit-kicker flag in banjo-driven gospel-country. As much as he’s totally done talking about Anderson in interviews, Rock doesn’t miss the opportunity to take a shot at her on the Americana-tinged bitch-slap that is “Half Your Age”. And he’s never been more willing to push himself artistically, sounding like a man who’s spent a night or two at Preservation Hall on the woozy jazzer “New Orleans”.
Rock N Roll Jesus didn’t happen in a vacuum. Although Rock would eventually team up with Rob Cavallo (who helmed Green Day’s mega-selling American Idiot), he initially met with Rick Rubin, an icon who’s hit home runs with everyone from Jay-Z and Johnny Cash to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Neil Diamond.
“The reason that I didn’t work with Rick,” Rock explains, “is that the way he likes to work on a record is to hear your songs and make sure you’ve got great stuff. I’ve written some pretty good songs in the past, but I’ve never written them ahead of time. I do things on the fly in the studio, working off inspiration and what I’m feeling at a particular moment.”
Still, Rubin definitely left his stamp on Rock N Roll Jesus. For example, he not only suggested Rock refrain from referencing himself 10 times in every song, but also pushed him to start writing about something other than titty bars, porno flicks, 30-packs of Stroh’s, and 30-packs of ’hos. That would lead Rock to knuckle down and tackle some serious issues in tracks like “Amen”, a classic soft-rocker where he turns his lyrical scope on everything from the plight of Iraqi soldiers to sexual abuse in the church to race relations in America.
“I had the groove for it [”˜Amen’] for a while,” Rock reveals. “But when I had a couple of early inspirational talks with Rick, it kind of motivated me to write something that was a little more relevant. From there, I had all kinds of little ideas that really started to take shape.”
He says it’s no accident that the Kid Rock we hear on Jesus doesn’t sound much like the Kid Rock that made Devil. Even as Devil Without a Cause was making him fabulously rich, the singer knew he had no desire to be ghettoized as a rap-rocker.
“Right out of the gate, I knew that rap-rock was a freight train coming at 200 miles an hour that was going to go by real quick,” Rock notes. “I didn’t want to get stuck on that train.”
That he was hell-bent on making sure he didn’t blow his big shot shouldn’t have been a surprise. As much as Devil made it seem like he knocked one out of the park his first time at the plate, Rock actually had three albums under his belt at that point, starting with 1990’s Grits Sandwiches for Breakfast. Indeed, it often gets overlooked that he had more than paid his dues.
“I played every shithole in America,” he remembers. “The first time around, there were 10 of us in a Winnebago. But I always went the extra mile. We couldn’t afford stage lights, so we went to Home Depot and got halogen lights, fastened them to a table, and got a little clicker to turn them on and off. Right from the start, I wanted to entertain people, keeping in mind that the music was the most important thing.”
If there’s been a constant in his career, Rock says, it’s that he continues to be about the music rather than about scoring points with hipsters.
“Ever since I started, I never got the cool kids,” he confesses. “You know how you have your scenes in each city, hip artists, and cool places to play? I always played the other places—the washed-up heavy-metal bars where people still had the tongues sticking out of their shoes and had big hair. We got the people who would drive in from the country or the suburbs to see a show.”
Even though he’s spent much of his time since then treating life as a party, Rock acknowledges that he has indeed started to mellow out. Despite the fact that he and John Daly sound like they’re getting ready to rip it up on the golf course, he’s accepted that every day can’t be Malibu on the Fourth of July. Somewhere in his transformation from a devil without a cause to a rock ’n’ roll Jesus, Rock evidently saw the light. Or at least glanced in its general direction between pulls on a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.
“I still live where I came from, not too far from where I grew up, and having your friends and family and your kid [his teenage son, Bobby Jr.] around keeps you balanced,” Rock says. “On the other side of things, I want to be able to have a drink with my kid when he’s of age, and be able to hang out. I don’t want to be one of those people who took it too far and can never touch a drink or a drug again because I overdid it. You gotta be able to balance it out, enjoy life, and have fun.”
As Jesus might have said if he’d rolled with an American bad-ass like Kid Rock, a-fucking-men.
Kid Rock plays the PNE Forum on Sunday (July 6).