Too late to die young

Natatia Nix is on her knees, digging through a small box filled with photos. She’s in the apartment of her sister-in-law, Sandra Porter. She finds the photo she’s seeking and pauses, shaking her head slowly.

“Here,” she says, handing me the photo. “This is one of my favorites of him.” Her voice sounds tired and shaky. The skin around her eyes is puffy. She has not slept much since her husband was found dead of an apparent drug overdose in his Royal Oak apartment on March 12.

The photo itself is revealing. It captures the odd juxtapositions of the much-storied yet wickedly unheralded songwriter-guitarist Cranford Nix Jr. He was at once hopelessly good-looking, in a bratty “Beverly Hills 90210” kind of way, but with a Johnny Thunders junkrot headband-tattoo thing going on.

Nix has been called brilliant and passionate and a gifted songwriter and storyteller. He’s also been called a liar, a complete asshole, a sexist and a junkie. He would shoot you a finger pistol if you likened him to Errol Flynn or Jim Morrison. He collected oddballs and derelicts like postage stamps.

By all accounts, the 33-year-old Nix had a lust for life that bounded forth like a freight train. The man was also hell-bent on self-destruction. At a tender age he acquired a gnarly drug habit that got him by the throat, a habit that — despite his passion — had stymied his forward momentum. It was the byproduct of the mythology that finished off his heroes.

“He wanted to live his life like Hank Williams,” says Nix’s father, Cranford Nix Sr., a onetime professional banjo picker who played with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. “I guess he did it like Williams, you know what I mean?”

Nix was the kind of guy likely to nail down a good feeling with a marriage license. Years ago he fathered two children that he couldn’t care for. It’s all textbook addictive behavior.

“He could always find a girl with money to take care of him,” says sister Sandra Porter, shaking her head. “He had that kind of charisma.”

Yet, Nix’s songs blur the line between pathetic junkie confessionals and bordering-the-brilliant storytelling. Guitar-driven, trashy pop was his forte. Picture Paul Westerberg if Westerberg’s drug of choice had been heroin, not booze. The imagery ranged from cliché guitar-in-hawk Johnny Thunders, to brutal, sometimes cruel, in-yer-face honesty with a real heart beating through. His pitched rasp would offer up verse like, “I don’t know if there’s a cure/For a heart that ain’t ever been pure/a heart that has never been pure/Oh, a heart that has never met yours.”

His songs — either solo or with his band, the Malakas — are testament to the long line of unsung rock ’n’ roll heroes he adored, and the sometimes senselessness of the form, its mythology and romance. Photos taken days before he died are eerily reminiscent of Hank Williams’ days before his death: Gaunt, weathered and posed shirtless.

“He had way of turning everything tragic in his life to a work of art,” says Trash Brats singer Brian McCarty, a longtime pal of Nix’s. “His songs reflect that. Right when you’ve had enough and you’re gonna cry, he makes you laugh.”

Jim Rinn of Detroit indie label I-94 (which released both of the Malakas’ discs) says, “Nix was the real thing. It’s true, Nix was either totally hated or totally loved.”

On the inside booklet photos of the Malakas second release, Too Good to be True, Nix is sporting a black eye, a common facial garnish.

“That black eye was the result of a bar fight in SF,” recalls Malakas bassist D.J. Holeman. “Something to do with a punk-rock chick with pink hair and big tits. Somehow, Nix went up to the bar and suddenly the whole bar was on him. That’s how it always was with him. The fight spilled out onto the street. And this Asian guy came after him. So Cranford did a Karate Kid move complete with (imitating Bruce Lee) ‘aeeeeeyaaaaaaaaoooo.’ He just pushed this guy’s buttons with the karate shit, you know, he was making fun of him. The dude just popped him … There’s a million stories …”

“It’s an amazing charisma,” continues Holeman, “he’d walk into the room and immediately it was a good time. Yet, the level of self-depravity defied logic. You just couldn’t stay mad at the guy.

“Still, it’s hard for me to listen to people go, ‘Oh he was the greatest person.’”

Born in Detroit in 1969, Nix had five older sisters. His search for rock ’n’ roll stardom took him from Detroit to Hollywood, San Francisco, Manhattan, San Diego, Europe, Florida, various rehabs and back to Detroit.

“When we first got married he wrote all the time,” remembers Natatia. “We never left the house. We’d make love all day, take a bubble bath and I’d cook while he sat cross-legged in his flannel pajamas with his acoustic, writing. All the time …then he just stopped. I think that’s when he started using again.”

Theirs was a tempestuous union. Last summer, after a drunken quarrel with Natatia, Nix wound up driving his Jeep into the facade of Mr. J’s bar in Berkley. Charged with domestic violence, drunken driving and malicious destruction of property, Nix went to jail. Natatia headed back to her hometown of San Diego. In local news reports of the fracas, Nix was quoted making Wyatt Earp and “The Sopranos” references. He had the cops laughing as they hauled him off in handcuffs.

Natatia sits a few feet from where his father found her husband slumped over in the bathroom — Elvis-style — two-weeks before. The one-bedroom apartment still has the shut-in smell of an unalterable drug-riddled existence and depression. Natatia picks up a green, red and yellow birdhouse that Nix had made for her. She holds it up proudly, sadly.

Natatia alternates between the mourning widow in black to one celebrating her lover’s life by recounting hilarious tales of courtship that involved everything from sneaking into an art gallery and drinking wine all night under a Rembrandt to days spent driving for hours, getting sunburned and listening to the radio.

“No one will ever know what the longest stretch of his sobriety was,” she says. “I guarantee whatever answer I give, he’s laughing at. He never used when he was sleeping … Listen, I am not trying to be a smart-ass, just in retrospect the more belligerently clean and sober he was, the worse things were …”

Had Nix sold 10 million records he’d be a legend, a Cobain-ish thing of myth and reverence. He didn’t sell shit, of course. In a just world, he would have.

But would success have saved him?

I admire songwriters who are exactly what they write. They define who we are, the beauty and ugliness that revolves around us. Nix’s demise begs the age-old question: Does good art require self-destructive behavior?

Obviously, Nix took it all too far. He didn’t survive. Neither did Johnny Thunders. Paul Westerberg sobered up.

Cranford Nix Jr.? Shit, just another dead junkie buried with his guitar picks, some smokes and a couple of bucks for a beer. How sad. How very sad.

“He was so fucking passionate, so romantic. He could break my heart like nobody ever could. I’ve never felt so much love,” Natatia says. “He once told me that ‘If I ever go back to Detroit, I ain’t gonna make it out alive.’”

Brian Smith is Metro Times’ music editor. E-mail him at [email protected]
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