Kid Rock Looks at 40

Credit: Rick Diamond / Getty Images

This story first appeared in the July 2011 issue of Men's Journal.

Kid Rock’s tour names pretty much tell the story: His first big solo shows, in 1999, were billed as the Destroy Your Liver tour. Later that year, he headlined the Between the Legs tour. Since then, there’s been the White Trash on Dope tour, the American Bad Ass tour, the Cocky tour, the Rock ’n’ Roll Pain Train (in fairness, Puddle of Mudd was on the bill), and the Rock ’n’ Rebels tours, I and II.

In January, Kid Rock embarked on the Born Free tour, a name chosen partly because it’s the title of his latest album, but also because it reflects a change in his touring style. “We didn’t give a shit when we were 27,” he says, settling deep into a leather sofa in the home studio of his rural Michigan spread. “It was like a pirate ship rolling from town to town. Now, I’m more conscious of picking my nights when I can party.”

He usually flies home after a show, the benefit of having three cribs across the continent — in Michigan, Nashville, and Malibu — and access to a private plane to fly him there. Spinal Tap it’s not. “If I have a show the next night, I can’t break out a bottle of whiskey and be sucking off of it.” He shrugs, tucks a new cigar into the corner of his mouth, and kicks his boots onto the Restoration Hardware catalog on the coffee table. “I guess that’s the shit that happens when you get older.”

Last January, Kid Rock turned 40. To mark the occasion, he played a three-hour show at Detroit’s Ford Field, where he presented a $100,000 check to a number of Detroit charities, then gathered back at his hotel room with a more select group of revelers — including his 70-year-old father, Bill. “My dad can rock it,” Kid Rock insists. “He was going strong till around two. And that’s after he had, like, five bypasses.” The last guest left at 10 am. Rock gave him a ride to the airport.

The milestone birthday is also celebrated in his live show: Rock performs a country song called “Fuck, I’m 40.” He’d wanted to include it on Born Free, which he recorded last summer in California with producer Rick Rubin, but Rubin nixed it as a violation of his no-novelty-songs rule. (Stripper songs were also verboten.) “Rick hated it,” he says. “I was like, ‘Whatever dude.’ I like novelty shit once in a while. You know why? Because it’s fun. Fun like you don’t know about, fun like when you drink beer all day and fall off the back of a pontoon boat. Or piss off the back of a pontoon boat. Shit you have no idea about.” He pauses, coming down off his rant. “We’re always having arguments about that shit. I’m like, ‘Rick, you can tell me about music, but don’t argue with me about fun.’ ”

Rock’s grasp of adolescent good times is unrivaled, epic, legendary. Over the past two decades, he has lived the kind of unfiltered, hedonistic life we want to believe rock stars still live — steeped in late-night lore, laden with strippers, mug shots, and lawsuits. But somehow, perhaps despite his best intentions, Kid Rock has begun to accrue what was practically unthinkable when he was throwing punches at waffle houses or cavorting with midgets: respectability. Because for all the antics, Rock is far smarter than his public persona would suggest, a stealthily serious guy who puts his considerable energy behind the people and the causes he believes in: supporting the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, or raising money to support Detroit. At 40, right or wrong, Kid Rock has evolved into an upstanding citizen. Or at least Bob Ritchie has.

Bob Ritchie is the guy Kid Rock becomes when he puts down the pimp cup and takes off the white mink coat. Bob Ritchie is the guy who makes sure the grass gets mowed and the taxes get paid. He’s the good neighbor, the semiregular presence at his son Junior’s Catholic high school, the guy who receives letters — like the one that sits, framed on his kitchen counter — that begin with “When you first moved in, I thought you’d be a terrible neighbor” and end with an offer to visit bearing a “Bundt cake and Coors Light.”

A few nights before my visit, Kid Rock was honored by the Detroit NAACP. He stood before an audience of 10,000 to accept its Great Expectations Award for his philanthropic work on behalf of the beleaguered city. “I love America,” he told the crowd. “I love Detroit. And I love black people.” The fact that the honor was being protested outside the hall — some people took issue with Rock’s use of the Confederate flag as a stage-show backdrop — didn’t dampen the spirit inside. In fact, the protest seemed to remind anyone who cared of Rock’s amazingly broad appeal: Not only is he the first NAACP honoree to regularly perform under the Stars and Bars, he’s also the only known rapper to host the CMT country music awards. What’s more, he’s the one performer on the planet who could tour credibly with both Metallica and Sheryl Crow. It’s nothing to say he’s encountered more strippers than a rhinestone-G-string salesman, but he’s tight with big-city mayors, megachurch pastors, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Yes, even Admiral Mike Mullen greets the author of 1994’s “Balls in Your Mouth” with a manly hug.)

“I laugh at myself every day,” Rock says. Rock. Ritchie. Ritchie. Rock. The distinction is lost on him. “There are no boundaries. I think they mix it up. They both laugh at each other. Nobody laughs harder at Kid Rock than me.”

It takes several minutes to drive the length of Kid Rock’s driveway. The road runs along a man-made pond and wends its way around the go-kart track with its hairpin turn and 20-degree embankment, past the studio — a white shingled outpost adorned with an ample Tigers D — a motif that’s repeated throughout the 30-acre property and twice on Rock himself: tattooed on his arm and embroidered on his Tigers cap. The building houses recording studios, mixing rooms, spaces filled with instruments, and a gallery’s worth of portraits of musical heroes like Little Richard, Hank Williams, Skynyrd, Tupac, and Johnny Cash. It’s got a kitchen; a bedroom with a broad, round, black-sheeted bed; and a basement boom-boom room of sorts: arcade games, a stripper pole, a champagne room, and decor best described as turn-of-the-century Jim Beam. The entire interior is covered in black- and-chrome wallpaper reserved for big-rig barons and redneck rockers. Behind the building is a swimming pool, looked after by a long-haired, arch-backed, life-size D-cup bronze statue. And next to the pool is an Airstream trailer that Kid Rock installed when the local zoning laws wouldn’t cotton to his pool-house dreams.

Up the hill, you drive through a stand of trees and make a left on Kid Rock Way, although this part of the property seems more like Bob Ritchie country. There’s a road sign for Romeo, the Michigan town where he grew up, and there, standing at the side of the road, another bronze statue — one that’s not flaunting its tits. This one’s Jesus. Not a rock ’n’ roll Jesus, but not an emaciated, thorn-scalped ascetic, either. This one’s a big, sturdy power forward of a Messiah, posting up confidently in a bed for newly sprung daffodils. Kid Rock climbs out of his truck and regards the figure. “That’ll make you look twice when you see that on your way to work every day,” he says. Rock spots a large family of deer grazing in the distance and scowls. The deer clan appears to be growing, and they’ve all been dining out on his flowers. “You know what?” he says. “I like tulips, but I fuckin’ love venison.”

On the lawn of the main house — a grand, white clapboard structure befitting a country legend like, say, Barbara Mandrell — is an authentic Civil War cannon. On the broad front porch are some iron knickknacks, and inside is a high-walled living room with blue sky and fluffy clouds painted on the ceiling. The walls are hung with all manner of stuffed beasts, including busts of bison and an elk. A young giraffe stands by the staircase. There are Winchester-rifle prints and sepia photos from the 19th century. A miniature covered wagon is parked next to the mantel. (The bathroom alone, with its plush monogrammed towels and original Vargas pinups, would drive your mother senseless with decorating desire.) High above the sofa is a framed portrait of Run-DMC and another of Jesse James. Yes, Kid Rock does live here.

He picks up one of the fan-generated scrapbooks on the coffee table and starts flipping. Page after page of photos featuring a mid-30s brunette posing on a Harley in custom Kid Rock bikini bottoms and little else — a token of appreciation from a passenger on his Chillin’ the Most Cruise. “Everybody brings a gift,” he says. “I come home with this gift bag that takes me a whole day — a nine-to-five day — just to go through. It’s better than Christmas.”

This spring, for the second year in a row, Kid Rock did what lesser stars would crumble at the mere thought of: He climbed onto a ship with 2,700 of his most rabid, overserved, underdressed fans. He posed for a photo with each and every one of them as they boarded (that took about five hours), played three shows, held court at the bar and in the pool, and generally behaved as his fans would want him to behave for four days as the vessel floated around the Caribbean. He wasn’t sure it was a good idea at first. “I didn’t know what to expect. I said it was either going to be the best time of my life or the absolute worst. And it was the best. It was one of the best times I’ve ever had. An absolute riot.”

Dinner is served before six: chicken marsala (a dish pulled from Recipes of the Stars, a 1940s-era cookbook featuring Grand Ole Opry singers that’s open on the kitchen counter) accompanied by sensible portions of mashed potatoes and broccoli. It’s been lovingly prepared by the mother of one of Kid Rock’s best friends, a man he calls Shakes. There’s a side salad and a selection of bottled salad dressings in the center of the table, around a vase of cut flowers. Kid Rock pours himself a glass of red wine and turns up the volume on the evening news, which is playing on a large flatscreen mounted eight feet high on the living room wall, above the Great Expectations Award on the mantel. The news sparks a short debate over President Obama’s decision to provide a proper burial at sea for Osama bin Laden. “I get it,” Rock says, of the decision to try to minimize retaliatory rage by properly disposing of Bin Laden’s body, “I’m just kind of tired of not pissing off Muslims.” The conversation shifts to more pressing matters: the Beastie Boys’ new record (thumbs-up), the efficacy of liquid deer repellent. After dinner he halfheartedly scans the local movie listings on his ever-present laptop, searching in vain for anything vaguely appealing. Junior, who is 18 and a high school senior, is studying for finals at Rock’s sister’s house. We snack while he scans: a bowl of microwave popcorn and chocolate-covered potato chips, a local delicacy. It isn’t yet dark. “Isn’t there anything with a fart joke in it?” Rock’s tastes in movies are whatever the opposite of  “the Hilary Swank movie where you walk out of there with tears and just feel terrible. I can’t handle it,” he says. “I just want to see somebody fall off a ladder, the boy and girl go home to a big pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and feel great about myself. I don’t want any drama in my life — not even in a fucking movie. Not even when it’s…” he pauses. “What’s fake? Is it fiction?” I nod. “Even if it’s fiction, I don’t want it. I just want to be happy and have fun.”

Around 2007, after the success of Rock ’n’ Roll Jesus, Kid Rock bought a place in Malibu. It didn’t take long for him to fall in with some of the neighborhood kids: Laird Hamilton, John McEnroe, Rick Rubin, former Detroit Redwing Chris Chelios, and Don Wildman, a 77-year-old fitness guru whose beachfront property is their outdoor gym.

If you’re under the impression that Malibu, California, is some golden Pacific paradise where actors and rock stars and legendary athletes gather in a fraternal scrum of access and privilege to work out in novel, wildly effective ways unavailable to you and your meager gym, you’re right.

Before long, Rock was eating right, spending a lot of time outdoors, and increasingly motivated to get his ass down to Don’s or Laird’s house each Malibu morning to lift, swim, or circuit-train.

“We sucked him in,” Laird Hamilton explains. “Bobby came out to California, and we sucked him in. We got him on a paddleboard, and we got him on a road bike, and then we got him in the gym.”

Many of their workouts went down in the pool, where Hamilton (“my friends call me the General”) barked out orders as his friends went through the circuit — dragging weights to the surface and back, treading water while holding weights, doing anything to bring about the desired muscle exhaustion. The once Buddha-shaped Rick Rubin shed over 100 pounds from his midregion; Rock developed strength he never knew he had and a grudging appreciation of sweating-out the night before. Not that Hamilton is the most comforting presence after a long night out. “Laird’s running the show,” Rock says. “He’s the guy yelling at you the whole time. Cheli [Chelios] won’t work out with him because he yells at him too much. He leaves me alone a little bit because he knows I’m the skinny kid in the rock band, but he’s real fun to work out with.”

One hangover cure the General advocated revolved around a golf ball — a perfectly benign sphere until fucking Laird Hamilton asks you to stand on one. “Doesn’t it hurt?” I ask Hamilton. “Absolutely! It hurts like shit. But it’ll light up your nervous system. You have 7,400 nerve endings in the bottom of your feet. Put some pressure on those things, and if you’re hungover, you won’t be hungover for long.”

Recently Rock tried to find a new way to drink, ditching his regular beer-and-bourbon diet (“I don’t want to look like Meat Loaf”) for vodka and soda. But it didn’t work. “I fucking hate vodka,” he says. But the real adjustment, he says, comes with drugs: namely, drinking without them. “Whatever your thing is, if it’s pills, cocaine, smoking weed, when you slow that down — which I’ve done a lot of — you’ve got to relearn how to drink. That’s the fucking hardest part. You used to be able to go all night. Finding that balance has been interesting. I still black out here and there, but nothing too serious.”

Malibu seems to suit his shifting priorities, a place where Bob Ritchie and Kid Rock can coexist, rising early to paddle in the Pacific, staying up late in one of those hillside homes. It helps that Malibu is a place where the parties tend to be small, exclusive, and out of the public eye. Rock takes some pride in the variety and randomness of the guest lists he throws together for dinners at his place. One night it might be Sean Penn and Scarlett Johansson. Another night might be more of a celebrity crapshoot. “I’m not one to name-drop,” Rock says, half-serious but still defying expectations. Let’s just say at one such dinner party, Mary J. Blige broke bread with Zac Efron.

Rock has tried living in California before, moving full time to Malibu for his six-month marriage to Pamela Anderson. Few things in his new life were going right. For one, his son Junior wasn’t happy. He returned home after his first day of school to complain that all his new classmates did was skateboard and do drugs. “I couldn’t stay,” Rock says. “I can be an idiot with a penis at times, but when you see something affecting your children? There’s nothing above that. So I said, ‘That’s it. I’m out of here.’ ” Kid Rock exhales, and then, as if recounting a conversation he once had with himself: “You came too far to raise him right, to try to do the right things, to blow it now, to fuck it up.” The Ritchies returned to Michigan.

Hamilton puts it into perspective. “You can have the image of Bobby however you want — rock ’n’ roll, Pamela Anderson, chicks this, boom that, whatever — but Bobby is a gentleman. I would let him take care of my kids. Bobby is the kind of guy that you trust: He’s loyal, he’s honorable, he’s generous. Maybe there’s some late-night stuff when I’m sleeping, but there’s a certain discipline and consistency. He has all these traits I respect and admire.”

This will be a quiet night for kid rock. By the time the sun sets, he’ll be toggling between the hope and frustration of the Tigers game and the durable appeal of Beavis and Butt-Head. Rock leans back with his wine, his Tigers cap low over his forehead, and titters quietly while Beavis attempts to bury his nose in the cartoon cleavage of a hairdresser in a half shirt. By week’s end he’ll have played two casino dates in Oklahoma, headlined the New Orleans Jazz Fest, and dropped into New York City to perform at a benefit concert for the poverty-fighting Robin Hood Foundation, where he’ll sing onstage with a few hundred servicemen and women. He’s been a committed presence among our military overseas; he’s played almost a dozen times in various war zones around the world and visited more than a few “FOBs,” as he calls them, military lingo for forward operating bases. Lately, Rock has expanded his role as a good citizen, from small, local gestures — like the new flagpole he had built for a Georgia man he’d read about whose old one kept getting vandalized — to his commitment to the recovery of Detroit. “You don’t want Kid Rock making public policy. Well, some people might,” he says, laughing. “I just see where I can help out, which is to inspire and raise funds and things like that.”

Kid Rock is still deeply connected to Detroit. His parents and sister live in the area, as do most of his friends, as well as Junior’s mother. Being known comes with a responsibility that he takes pretty seriously. “I really care about what people think of me in this town, because my son is here, my family is here, my roots are here. I don’t give a shit anywhere else, but here I’m very conscious of it.” Rock has had custody of Junior since he was very young, and although Rock is quick to credit the support of his parents, his sister, and Junior’s godparents in helping to raise him, he’s rarely been quite as footloose and unencumbered as he seemed.

But come September, Kid Rock will take on another unlikely role: empty nester. Junior will be off to college in Nashville, where he’s been encouraged to avail himself of the hunting expertise of Rock’s “rebel father,” Hank Williams Jr. The three of them shot some turkeys last fall at Hank’s place in Tennessee. “He’s the best,” Rock says. “If you’re going to be a painter, don’t hang out with a carpenter. If you want to go hunting, he’s the best.”

“Everybody says, ‘What are you going to do now that your kid’s going to college?’ ” He adjusts his hat and kind of looks at me, bug-eyed in disbelief. “I’m like, ‘What am I going to do with my time?’ I’m going to rock extremely hard. I’ve never really been held back from anything. But now I’m really going to be able to just take off whenever I want.” He stops for a minute to savor what must be his 10th cigar of the day. “I’ll probably end up sitting in the house all alone, but the concept’s there.”