Tim Waterman

Landscape Studies, Food Studies, Utopian Studies

Utopia ‘Down by the Power Lines’: Mojo Nixon’s Psychobilly Cockaigne

by Tim-Waterman on February 9, 2024, no comments

painting featuring three men, sated and lounging, surrounded by huge amounts of easily available food and drink

Pieter Bruegel’s 1567 painting of Luilekkerland (the land of Cockaigne), housed in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. Note the pies as roof tiles and the roast pig walking around in the background. All these dudes need are some couches.

Mojo Nixon has just died, aged 66, on 7 February 2024. I can’t help but imagine him, if an afterlife were possible, ‘down by the power lines’ as he found his imaginary self in the song ‘Jesus at McDonald’s’ (find it here) from his 1985 debut album (with Skid Roper), Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper. The song is typical of Nixon’s irreverence, filthy sense of humour, and his hobo campfire forms of fabulation and speculation—a story, a dirty joke, a bit more story, spit on the ground, swear, grin, and scratch your ass.

The song begins with a sighting of “Jesus at McDonald’s at midnight”, in which Mojo ascertains that Jesus isn’t doing too well, and it seems loosely to do with Jesus’ mother’s dalliances with Santa Claus and Rudolph, or something to that effect. Then there’s a digression in which he declares his affection for a lady wrestler, then finds himself in bed with his wife. Then back to the main story, which finds Nixon checking off all the major fast food outlets on the strip, each of which is associated with a major religion: “Allah at an Arby’s,” “Buddha at a Burger King,” and, of course “The Ramalama from Alabama at a barbecue pit.”

All this indicates that he’s well on his way to a personal ‘twilight zone’, and this is where the hobo yarn of the song begins to take over and a folk utopia emerges, “out where the Interstates turn to dirt/ out past the fire roads/ out past route one-four-oh/ down, down where the train trestles go/ over the graveyards, back behind the dynamo/ right beside route one-four-oh.” Jesus reappears as a guide to take him to a place where everywhere he looks there are couches—“not the kind you want to sit on but the kind you want to sleep on.” There are bonfires on which cauldrons bubble with Top Ramen and the trees dispense gin and Mountain Dew. The “entire Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters record collection” and a “brand new stereo” are the icing on the cake.

“Am I at the Big Rock Candy Mountain? Am I in paradise?” Is it heaven, he asks. “No,” comes Jesus’ answer, “I’m down by the power lines.”

The song feels like an anthem for its particular moment. This low-ambition utopia anticipated the ‘slacker’ ethic that was to emerge as Gen X’s badge (at least at the time), as well as the ‘fuck it’ sensibility of punk. But there is also an embrace of the quotidian. In a way, it’s one of Ernst Bloch’s ‘concrete utopias’—it’s a utopia arising from everyday practice, and while impossible it still seems pragmatic. How hard can it be to find a Muddy Waters record, a couch that’s good to sleep on, a package of Top Ramen and some gin ’n juice?

The hobo utopia of the Big Rock Candy Mountains (here sung by Harry McClintock in 1928) was a place hobos would story together along the railroad tracks while riding the rails—like the medieval utopia of Cockaigne or Luilekkerland it is a place where lemonade flows in springs, roast pigs sidle up to you and invite a nibble, roof tiles are pies, and cigarettes grow on trees.

Anyway, I’ve long meant to write about Mojo Nixon’s version of Cockaigne, but never could figure out anything more critical to say than, “hey, that’s a folk utopia.” But maybe that’s all I need to do here—in the best slacker spirit, I’m just gonna leave this one here and go look for a couch. Not the kind you want to sit on, but the kind you want to sleep on.