Survivor, alive

Two decades after stardom, John Nitzinger tries to prove he ain't "D.O.A."

At the end of an afternoon spent together, John Nitzinger takes his interviewer aside and says, in a rare quiet moment, that "God has wiped the slate clean." He is standing outside the door of his Fort Worth apartment, looking just slightly older than his 46 years, wearing a black T-shirt ("The Cellar," it reads, a relic from the old Fort Worth club where musicians traded blues licks and acid blotters), black jeans, black sandals, and a turquoise necklace. His hair is dark and moderately long and curly, his goatee becoming more gray than black. And from his neck dangle the dog tags of his father, John R. Nitzinger, a man the son says he did not know very well.

"Yeah, God's given me another chance," Nitzinger says, "another chance to fuck things up again."

Twenty-five years ago, John Nitzinger was the biggest rock star to come from Dallas-Fort Worth--the Toadies, Funland, Course of Empire, and Reverend Horton Heat rolled into one giant package of metal and blooze that, for a brief moment, topped the charts and piled in the cash. As the principle songwriter for Bloodrock, then as the main man in Nitzinger, he was a kid who found himself surrounded by money, fame, groupies, record-label lackeys, and the sort of excessive stardom that defined the late '60s and early '70s.

The Haltom Springs native tasted fame in the mid-'60s as a performer on Bruce Channel's hit single "Hey Baby" and became something of a local star with his band the Barons, but it wasn't until a bunch of wealthy teenagers, led by Jim Rutledge, took Nitzinger out of the Cellar, convinced him to write their songs and teach them how to play, that Nitzinger found himself smack in the center of a world he knew nothing about.

"See, when I was 21 years old they [Capitol Records] gave me half a million dollars and said, 'Go,'" Nitzinger says. "I thought I'd be rich forever and have albums forever and never die. Two years later, I'm going, 'Hey, man, buy me a six-pack of beer.'"

Nitzinger tells his story sitting in his apartment--not really sitting because the man never quite sits still; he sort of buzzes, a whirlwind force contained within a thin, wiry frame. He is so excited because, as he reminds us at the end of each breath, he's back--back from his prolonged trip down Amnesia Lane, "stronger than ever, ready," he gushes.

For almost three hours, Nitzinger chants this over and over, the mantra of the rock and roll survivor who tasted success and gulped down the entire bottle, only to find out it was last call. And throughout those three hours, Nitzinger plays cassettes of his newly recorded material--demos that sound like fully fleshed-out songs, tunes that run the gamut from funky blues to mainstream rock to tear-in-yer-beer country.

For a man who's been out of the business for a decade, they sound awfully polished...and, not surprisingly, a bit dated, singles that might have been a hit a decade ago but now will have a harder chance in a market that rarely offers redemption and forgiveness. But that is to be expected from a man who never listens to the radio and who does not own a turntable or a CD player, and who spends all day listening only to his own music. As he often reminds, he's "the pure artist," accountable only to himself.

As the songs blast from his jam box, loud enough to render conversation almost impossible, Nitzinger becomes lost in the music. He leaps around the apartment as though he were on stage, thrusting and groaning and singing along with his own vocals, unabashedly getting in his interviewer's face as though this were an intimate, one-on-one performance. During a fast song (like, say, "Cats and Dogs"), he spasmodically flails his arms around in time to the beat; during the slower songs, especially a country heartbreaker like "True Blue," he growls out each word (sung on the demo by Ronnie Dawson) and, almost always, begins to cry.

"Everybody thinks I'm just a crazy fuckin' rock and roll player, which I am, but they have no idea I write country and I write pop," he says. "We've got lined up now a new production company and we're signing talent, too. We're fixin' to bust out with the whole deal. I could not handle how big this is going to be before now for several reasons. But I couldn't handle it till now because it was so damned big. I didn't give a shit. I just thought I'd live forever and albums would just keep comin'. Well, I've grown up."

It's been almost two decades since Nitzinger recorded anything substantial, and it was a godawful piece of dreck: Carl Palmer's solo debut 1 P.M., which Nitzinger admits was "the worst album I ever cut." From 1980 to 1983, he was on the road with Alice Cooper's touring band, and he says the experience left him "physically almost dead."

So he stopped recording and playing in public. The hangover from the Cooper tour and a divorce in 1987 shattered Nitzinger; he lost interest in music, and lost almost everything he owned. And so he spent most of the '80s living off the kindness of strangers and friends, crashing on their couches, a remote control in his hand where once a guitar was permanently attached.

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