Survivor, alive

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.

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"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.

"I went down underground and just hid, well, everywhere," he recalls, somewhat reluctantly. "Just a tumblin' tumbleweed, your true troubadour, your wandering minstrel. I was playing, but just at certain people's houses for Beanee Weenees around Fort Worth and Dallas."

Nitzinger's apartment reveals small bits of his past: yellowing clips from his glory days are thumbtacked on a couple of walls, next to even older newspaper clips that celebrate his audition, as a child, for the Texas Boys Choir. On another wall, in the small corner that makes up the breakfast room, hangs a crossbow, a quiver of arrows, a couple of enormous fishing rods, and a couple of rifles; in the corner of the living room are several Native American relics and photos.

But the most striking thing in this small apartment hangs above the television: sandwiched between framed copies of his own solo records from the early '70s, Nitzinger (which spawned the Number 4 hit "Louisiana Cock Fight") and One Foot in History, is a gold record celebrating 500,000 copies sold of Bloodrock 2, the 1970 album that made Nitzinger a star. Whether it holds up today is a question of some debate: in the Rolling Stone Record Guide, John Swenson wrote that the band "codified the nadir of early-Seventies heavy metal" and represented "the absolute bottom of the barrel." Chuck Eddy, in his book Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe, was more kind, placing Bloodrock 2 at No. 388 on the list (above Black Sabbath and Live at Leeds).

Of the hit single "D.O.A."--a bizarre and almost thrilling account of a plane crash told from the point of view of a passenger who's hurtling 90-to-nothing toward getting his head shoved into his spleen, with sirens and screams blaring in the background--Eddy wrote, "Reminds me of some 'M*A*S*H' episode Alan Alda directed once, and of all those postderegulation air disasters." As for the rest of the record, Eddy can take it or leave it: "The punch increases when the tempo does, but the Mooglike accompaniment and the singer's habit of pronouncing 's' like 'sh' distracts when the beats-per-minute drag."

The record that hangs on the wall--framed, painted in gold--is the only copy of Bloodrock 2 he owns--and he almost didn't until, four years ago, a friend lent him the $150 it cost to buy it from the Recording Industry Association of America, which issues such awards.

In fact, he doesn't keep much of his old music around; in the black sleeve of Nitzinger is actually an old Glen Campbell record. Of the '70s material, all he has is an old cassette of a duped copy of an unreleased record he and Jim Rutledge recorded in 1971 with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. When he plays it, begrudgingly, he still recalls every word and violin flourish and oboe add--as thought he made it yesterday. But when he performs these days, he doesn't do any of his old material, preferring instead to play only his new stuff, the songs that will make him a star once again.

"Everything that happened, which was a lot of bad and a lot of good, all connects up to now," he says. "I haven't been happy in 15 years for lots of reasons. Lots of reasons. When you're a pure artist--that's the only phrase I can think of because we live it, we see it, we can't help it, we observe it--you'll go home and write and you got tears fallin' all over the paper, and that's great, but that's not happy. Some great songs come from unhappiness, of course. A good divorce is worth a whole album, and I got five albums.

"But I'm playing better than I ever have. I want to play now. Used to be it was like a job almost, like I had to go play. Now I can't wait. I'm the first there and the last to leave. My heart's just alive again. I'm healed."

John Nitzinger performs November 18 and 19 at the Rock Garden in Fort Worth.

Scene, heard
Though some tickets remain for the November 27 New Bohemians reunion at Trees--a benefit for four-year-old Jahliese Blount---a second show has been added for the following night. Tickets for the November 28 show, which will also feature Leroy Shakespeare and Ship of Vibes and Dah-veed, go on sale Wednesday at noon at the Green Room, 2715Elm Street, and are available for $25 or $100 (which gets you access to a VIParea--in Trees?). Also on the bill for the November 27 show are the Cartwrights, Soul Hat, and Brave Combo. And, yes, Edie Brickell will appear with the New Bos, as will original drummer Brandon Aly...  

Tommy Morrell calls his band the Time Warp Tophands, and with good reason: featuring the likes of ex-Texas Playboy Leon Rausch, Asleep at the Wheel pianist Tim Alexander, and singer Chris O'Connell, the Tophands swing like it was still 1948 and Bob Wills was still staggering through the doors of his Ranch House on Industrial. Morrell has released, on his own WR Records label out of his home in Little Elm, six volumes of tremendous freshly recorded classic country (and even a little straight-on jazz gee-tar). The series itself is called "How the West Was Swung," and the last of the batch is a CD called Smoke a Little of This!, featuring a great version of Cole Porter's "Don't Fence Me In" and 17 other standards written by the likes of Wills, Johnny Gimble, and others. (Volume 5, titled Uptown, features amazing versions of "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Sweet Lorraine" and is considered the best in the series.) Morrell, along with Rausch and O'Connell and the rest of the Tophands, perform with Cowboys and Indians at Sons of Hermann Hall November 19.


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