Who would have thought, back in 1999, when Devil Without a Cause and "Bawitdaba" and "Cowboy" were playing everywhere, that Kid Rock would still be around in 2008? Jail, death, and/or footnote seemed to be his most likely future career options back then, once the hype faded and he followed Vanilla Ice into the special section of celebrity hell reserved for cracker rappers. Back then, Rock, aka Robert Ritchie, was just a redneck Eminem knockoff, a Detroit hick ramped up on hip-hop with a foul mouth, stringy hair, and a predilection for porn.
He's still a Detroit hick with a jones for black music, though he seems more interested in classic rock, gospel, and country than hip-hop these days. And he's still a shining example of bad taste and bad behavior. In the last six months, he's been arrested twice for battery, first after a fight with former Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee (see "He Kicked Tommy Lee's Ass," below) and then following a late-night brawl in a Waffle House parking lot in Atlanta. But he also spent Christmas in Iraq on a USO tour with Robin Williams and Lance Armstrong. Like the song says, he's a complicated man.
He's also about as big a rock star as America's got right now. (Seriously, who saw that coming?) Looking back over his career, Kid Rock may be more important than anybody's ever going to give him credit for—there's a political edge to his fusion of working-class pop and his self-consciously populist appeal, and, like Bon Scott, he's pretty smart about being dumb. But really, who cares? Kid Rock's not nearly as interesting as a cultural phenomenon as he is as a straight-up American bad ass. Here are seven reasons why:
1. Devil Without a Cause
The 1998 album that introduced Kid Rock to the nation is a tour de force that jams turntables, guitar solos, samples, sound effects, and classic-rock boogie riffs right on top of each other. There's nothing forced about its juxtapositions; they all make perfect, cohesive sense next to each other. That's an accomplishment worth noting, when you consider the one-off nature of most rock/rap hybrids: the Beastie Boys never tried to replicate License to Ill; Dangermouse's bootleg mash-up of Jay-Z's Black Album with The Beatles was great in concept, but it was overshadowed by its source material; and the less said about Limp Bizkit, the better.
Devil is also loaded with swagger and machismo. The opening sequence is "Bawitdaba," "Cowboy," the title track, and "I Am the Bullgod." That's like introducing yourself to someone by hitting him in the face with a whiskey bottle.
If you're not convinced, compare Devil to Limp Bizkit's Significant Other, released in 1999, the same year Devil exploded. Which one's still bad-ass?
2. He Did It With Pamela Anderson...and Walked Away With No Regrets
She's slept with Tommy Lee, Bret Michaels, and the guy who starred in Paris Hilton's sex video. She's topped 40 now. Her boobs are ridiculous. And she has hepatitis, which is not sexy. She's sort of a joke and sort of sad and all the way trashy. And yet Pamela Anderson is still a full-fledged American sex goddess. She's like the porn star next door. After all her appearances in Playboy and her infamous sex tape with Lee, you pretty much know what you'd be getting. And it doesn't seem all that bad.
Her relationship with Kid Rock was bumpy, but nothing compared to other long-term trysts. She filed for divorce from Lee twice before finally leaving him in 1998; she's already filed for divorce from Rick Salomon, Paris Hilton's ex-boyfriend, whom she married in October. (They were hitched in Las Vegas between her two evening performances as a magician's assistant.) She's accused Salomon of fraud, according to court documents. Lee spent time in jail for kicking Anderson.
Rock didn't exactly go out quietly—he reportedly threw a tantrum at a screening of Anderson's appearance in Borat, which he considered an embarrassment. But when he went he stayed gone, a mark of a bad ass.
And then he wrote a mean song about her. "Half Your Age," from last year's Rock N Roll Jesus, has been widely regarded as a commentary on Anderson: "I've found someone new who treats me better/She don't bitch about things we ain't got/When I sing this tune it don't upset her/She's half your age and twice as hot."
Rock's acoustic duet with Sheryl Crow, from the 2001 album Cocky, is a surprisingly touching ballad of true love enduring distance and infidelity. It's also delightfully debauched—he's been fueling up on cocaine and whiskey, and they're both thinking of each other in the early-morning hangover of an anonymous motel-room hook-up. It's not a song about the sudden realization that you take somebody for granted; it's about the dirty regret you feel the day after you do something really bad. There's some hint that their strong feelings will eventually bring them back together. But nothing will be the same for this couple.
Crowe's record label didn't want the collaboration released as a single; only when a second version recorded with Allison Moorer started to climb the charts did A&M authorize its release. Even then, it didn't appear on a Crowe album until the Very Best of Sheryl Crowe compilation in 2003. A lot of people who never expected to own a Kid Rock album had to buy Cocky to get "Picture."
4. Bob Seger
It's not like Bob Seger needs a handout. But there is something about the guy that demands attention. In 1978, rock critic Lester Bangs wrote, "I respect Bob Seger as much as almost anybody I can think of in the music business today." Creem founder Dave Marsh described Seger's Live Bullet as "one of the best live albums ever made." Seger probably got a little more attention than he deserved in the 1970s, but he's been in danger of disappearing in the last few years. Kid Rock has tried to reintroduce Seger to a wider audience—he inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, invited Seger to perform "Rock 'n' Roll Never Forgets" at the Super Bowl in 2006, and appeared on Seger's album Face the Promise the same year.
Rock could have adopted any number of Detroit rockers who would have been more risible or hipper—Ted Nugent, Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, or the MC5. The choice he made showed taste and class.
5. He's Rock 'n' Roll and Hip-Hop
OK, that one's a joke. Except it's not, really. Rock featured a then-unknown Eminem on Devil Without a Cause. Back then, they were regarded as counterparts, evidence that hip-hop wasn't just black music anymore. Rock's connections to hip-hop were exaggerated even then—he sort of rapped and had turntables and samples on Devil, but it was at least as much a rock record as a rap one—and those connections have largely disappeared as he's aligned himself with Seger, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Charlie Daniels, Johnny Knoxville, and Hank Williams Jr. But he is a broad-minded and unprejudiced synthesizer; the same migratory route that took Southern rock and rednecks up the Mississippi River to Detroit took the blues up there, too. "Amen," a single from Rock N Roll Jesus, has a gospel choir, piano, and blues guitar on top of a shuffling country rhythm. Ignore the political platitudes and it's an architectural wonder, made up of pieces that shouldn't fit together—rugged and majestic and cornball all at the same time. The rest of the album is similarly patchwork: "All Summer Long" samples Warren Zevon's "Werewolves in London"; "So Hott," the other single, is built on a grooving metal riff; "Sugar" is the closest thing to a rap on the record, but it's also the closest thing to an AC/DC anthem. And it all makes sense.
6. He Kicked Tommy Lee's Ass
And what better place to do it than MTV's Video Music Awards ceremony in Las Vegas? The story is that Lee, the former drummer for Mötley Crüe who was married to Pamela Anderson from 1995 to 1998, mouthed off as Rock walked past his table and that Rock smacked Lee in the face before security broke up the scuffle. In video footage, Rock's wearing a fringed cowboy shirt and clenching a cigar between his teeth, both arms pinned behind his back, looking for all the world like a full-grown, pissed-off bad ass. It might not have been a real ass-kicking, but it sure looks like Rock would have taken care of business if he'd had the chance.
Tension between Rock and Lee dates back to 2001, when Rock first started dating Anderson. In a custody case that year, Lee accused Rock of being a bad influence on his children: "[Anderson] is incorrect in her speculation that I am jealous over her current relationship. I do find it ironic that [Anderson] questions me as a role model and at the same time Mr. Ritchie has appeared on television with a marijuana joint rolled behind his ear."
7. Because He Said So
It's right there in the lyrics to "American Bad Ass," from The History of Rock: "I'm an American bad ass/Watch me kick/You can roll with Rock, or—"
(The alternative to rolling with Rock is kind of dirty. You'll have to figure it out on your own.)