July 27th, 2010 5:33 pm | by JEFF ROSENBERG Music | Posted In: Columns

Q&A: Kinky Friedman

Kinky FriedmanWith the 1973 release of his now-classic debut, Sold American, singer-songwriter Kinky Friedman emerged with a fully-formed, wholly unique Jewish cowboy persona—soo-ee generis, as it were. Hilariously offensive ditties like the bigot-baiting "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore" and feminist-feather-ruffling "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed"— which earned him a police escort away from rabid protestors at one '70s campus performance—assured he'd remain on the suede fringe of the country scene, while winning famous friends and fans the likes of Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and, ultimately, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Even that bastion of outlaw country, Austin City Limits, deemed his 1974 appearance with band the Texas Jewboys the only program in its history too controversial to air (the set was issued on DVD in 2007, but remains untelevised). In the early '90s, Friedman swapped guitar for Smith-Corona, penning a series of popular mystery novels featuring his trademark ornery humor. In recent years he's become a candidate (for Governor of Texas in 2006), entrepreneur (peddling signature cigars and salsa), and philanthropist (or phil-animal-ist, proprietor of Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch). We spoke by phone Saturday morning, our free-range conversation covering music and fiction—the kind he writes, and the kind spouted by politicians. But it began and ended with Friedman's praise for none other than his friend John Callahan, who illustrated several of his books, mere hours before news of the Portland legend's death became known.

WW: So, it's been 20 years or so since you've been out this way. Was it something we said?

Friedman: Well, I'm not too sure of that. There might have been some isolated gigs on the West Coast, and I might've been in Portland more recently, it seems like. Because that's where I met John Callahan, the cartoonist.

Yes, he's a cartoonist for this very paper!

Yeah, he is the Oracle of Portland.


Yes, so I think John is attempting to come, or participate in, the show, one or the other. He might sing "Proud to be an Asshole from El Paso" with us.

You've heard his tunes too, right?

Oh, yes. Purple Winos in the Rain is one of my favorites, great CD. He's got, I think, the closest thing this side of Leonard Cohen, as far as lyrics and music coming together. Very talented; in fact, he may be, that's one of the—that's the curse of being multi-talented. And I've got the same problem. If you're like John, if you're a cartoonist, a genius cartoonist, and you write great music, it's hard for society to understand. And that's the curse of being multi-talented. I wish I was good at one thing, like Leo Kottke or somebody. I'd just play guitar, and that's it, you know? But I'm involved in too many different things. And I just say, if you fail at something long enough, you become a legend.

Well, speaking of which, these days you're a writer of prose, rather than songs. Do you ever get ideas for songs anymore, and just not sit down and write 'em? Or do you write 'em and not get around to recording them?

Yes. Yes, I get ideas, and I've got a warehouse of leftover lyrics, most of which have gone into prose, because I think that that's now 29 books that I've turned out—I mean, carefully crafted—and we will have some of 'em at the show. I'll do a reading at the concert from the new book, Heroes of a Texas Childhood, and we'll have books available afterward for signing, and of course, I'll sign anything but bad legislation.

Well, your old pal Bob Dylan, for several years there it seemed like he wasn't going to write any more songs, but then he said he thought that the new generation of fans coming to see him deserved some new songs. So do you think you might get any of those songs to market in the foreseeable future?

Well, I think it's important that Bob, and Willie, stay out on the road and keep playin', 'cause I look up to both of 'em for wisdom and advice—even though they're both shorter than me. And you know, they are so successful that it can't help but distance them from their art. Success and happiness will do that to you. So, really, you've gotta fight happiness, is my advice to any young writers. You know, I think everything great was created by somebody who didn't feel good. Examples of which are, you know, Oscar Wilde, or Hank Williams. Like, I go around to book signings, where a couple hundred people can really look like a big crowd in a bookstore, and that's fine. I can be gracious to everybody, and meet everybody, but that's not really being a writer. 'Cause the next day, Mary Higgins Clark will come around, and she'll have a packed bookstore too, with different kinds of people. So, really, I think it's what you write between the lines that counts. That's what stays with people. And I think Raymond Chandler, the mystery writer, said it best, that art is anything that burns with its own heat.

So Bob Dylan's audience today, I've seen the crowd that comes to see Bob, and I don't think those people know the songs that made him Bob Dylan. They don't know the early songs. Like, I'll betcha they don't know "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." Or "Girl from the North Country." They all know, uh, "Everybody Must Get Stoned," and then they probably know his more recent stuff, which I don't know. Now, at a Willie Nelson show, everybody knows everything. And Willie will stick around as long as it takes, he'll sign autographs in the rain, you know. Bob is different, Bob's kind of a Howard Hughes character. But both, I think, really have something to say, and in this high-tech decade, that's rare.

So, have you been touring regularly, just not on this side of the country?

No, I was derailed by politics, Jeff. Politics, and writing the books, and running the Rescue Ranch for animals, utopiarescue.com for any animal lovers. Those three things have kind of [taken over]....politics, especially. I think that if musicians were to run the world, we'd do a much better job than politicians. And, you know, we wouldn't get a hell of a lot done in the morning, but we'd work late, and we'd be honest. We're smarter than politicians. I think that's a big problem the country is now facing, that I don't know about you, but I can't think of one public official, from the President on down the whole list, that I admire or respect anymore. They're all dead. I mean, the ones that....You think of a great politician, like a Winston Churchill kind of a guy, and what he might have done with the Gulf oil spill, for instance, and you really see the difference. So I think Obama just, he's one of them, he's a politician. I mean, these guys were hall monitors when they were young. And then they became Student Council President, and then they became Young Democrats and Young Republicans. They turned in to the Crips and the Bloods. They've turned into the same guy, admiring himself in the mirror. So, how 'bout this idea: we limit them. Limit their terms. Limit them all to two terms: one in office, and one in prison.

Sounds like a plan. What do you think of this Tea Party business?

I think the Democrats have made a bad miscalculation, and it bothers me since I've always—was a Democrat, till I ran for Governor as an Independent in 2006. A race, by the way, that we won every place other than Texas.

Well, maybe you should put a Texas spin on it and start the "Sweet Tea" Party.

Well [chuckles], the truth about the Tea Party is that they're on the outside looking in, just like you and me, just like the independents, the libertarians, and they love things like the Constitution. Barbara Jordan, maybe Texas' greatest statesman—between her and Sam Houston, I'm sure—Barbara was the first black congresswoman from the South ever elected, and she had a moral clarity that the Democrats have lost now. Just don't have it. And she loved the Constitution. And it was like her Bible. And so, I think the Tea Party may be what the Democrats used to be back when they had some cojones, you know? Now they don't. They've lost the balls, and those three ladies who you may know, Ann Richards, Barbara Jordan, and Molly Ivins—they're all in the book, Heroes of a Texas Childhood, because they are heroes—those three had more balls than all the other politicians in Texas put together today.

Meanwhile, I see that in one recent film [Palo Pinto Gold] you were cast as the Governor of Texas, even if you couldn't quite win the role in reality, and then, more recently, you were promoted to playing the President of the United States [in animated feature Mars].

Oh yeah, that's right. Well, one thing's for sure is, I'm a man of the people, and I don't think our current President really wants to be a man of the people. He's not. He doesn't have the chutzpah, he doesn't have the chops. Doesn't have the personality chops to do it. Too much of a Harvard lecturer. Probably, we should have another law that anybody from Harvard, Yale, or the State of Texas can not run for President. See if the rest of the country can wing it on their own.

Well, do you plan to run for office again?

Well, you know, does the Pope wear a humorous-looking hat? I mean, as long as Willie keeps playin', I suppose I'll keep runnin', but after a while you run into that Ralph Nader problem, where everybody thinks that's all you do. And, you know, being a politician is a real giant step down from being a musician. Music is a great vehicle for the truth. And politics is not so good. Politics, you really gotta watch what you say, and these are mostly corrupt people. They really are. Fact, the only three I can think of in Washington, in Congress, that are not corrupt are the ones we all think are wingnuts, they're Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich, and Bernie Sanders, are probably not corrupt. Everyone else, wouldn't be too sure about.

This guy Alan Grayson's been impressing me of late.

Oh, the guy in Florida?

Yeah, he seems to have some scruples. And some balls.

Yeah, anybody that speaks up, that's outspoken, I think is good. But the problem with him is the same thing that happened to Jesse Ventura, I think. I think he's probably not gonna make a good politician. Too open, too honest, and too passionate. And that's a damn shame. That is a fucking shame. That's it, you know, you can get a good man, and he can't make it in this system.

Like this woman Elizabeth Warren, who has integrity, and people want her in charge of this new financial oversight, but those in Washington don't want her there because they think she might actually get the job done.

Yeah, well, that's poly-ticks. I define it as, "poly" means many, and "ticks" are blood-sucking parasites. But yeah, I mean, I like Bill Clinton. I think he, he was the goods. I think he's very instinctive, you know, very much leads from the heart, gets him in trouble a lot, but also it's his strength, and he doesn't focus-group everything to death. But then again, it really is a shame. It really is something that I think a group of—you know, a lot of these problems, foreign and military, and situations like the Gulf....You know, the Gulf is a catastrophe for wildlife.

Yes, and for pets, I saw on television that a lot of people are having to give up their pets to shelters because of being displaced or out of work.

Yeah, and I just think it should have been much more proactive, you know, here Obama was the "Yes We Can" candidate, but when he's in office, he goes down there and says, "What do you want me to do, suck it up through a straw?" Or maybe he should see if the Nobel Peace Prize might plug that hole. Maybe that would work. Just an idea.

You know who else could have handled that real well, is Hillary Clinton. You know, it just brings out the greatness in ya, Jeff, you or I can sit here and talk about it, but if you're President when that happens—you know, he made the same mistakes that George Bush was criticized on in Katrina! I mean, Bush could've been a hero, he could have come in there on day one and led the water brigades, you know. He could have been a hero. His staff let him down. And somebody is telling Obama, don't worry about it, don't go down to the Gulf, let BP be the bad guys. But we didn't elect BP President. We know they're bad guys. We expected more from Obama. Some of us did.

Well, to bring it back 'round to music, which, as you say, is a more pleasant topic—unless you're talking about the music business, I guess—your career has been inspirational to a lot of songwriters, and I just wondered if there are any artists you're particularly proud to have influenced.

Well, you said the magic word, that applies to both music and politics, and that's "inspiration." And you never know who you're gonna touch with that. All I know is, the Texas group of young songwriters, they seem to have one theme, which is, "We hate Nashville, but we really wanna go there." That seems to be the message. But, you know, everything is "Phases and Stages," Willie's right, circles and cycles, and it'll come around again. Some of the great ones—well, I'll tell ya, Billy Bob Thornton is a guy who really understands the emotional history of music. You know, he really seems like a retro guy. I mean, he was born too late to be a part of that stuff, but he's done the best he can. And he's pretty good! He's a pretty good writer. So he and I are talkin' about a tour of Australia in December or January, when it's about 900 degrees down there, along with his band the Boxmasters, and Billy Joe Shaver, if he's healthy enough. 'Cause there's a great writer who still writes great stuff, you know? I mean, you could argue about whether Willie, or Bob, or Kris Kristoffersen, whether they can still write at the level they once did. I mean, that's just an interesting philosophical question. I mean, they've done so much great shit, I'm not saying they shouldn't anymore, but maybe enough is enough, you know, let it rest. But it could be, not that they've had so much success, that might not be the problem, but the problem might be that we've changed, Jeff, we the culture have changed to the point where we wouldn't know something great if they did write it. And the music industry certainly wouldn't know it. So, I place a high value on being significant. Not like the Governor of Texas. He's a guy who manages to be important without being significant. In fact, most politicians do. It's like, do you think the Rolling Stones are still significant, or are they nostalgia? We know they can sell out the concerts, that's important, to them and the record companies, and the fans, but I would argue that they were significant for a window of time, but I think that's passed. I mean, I think that they're now important, and they're fun, and they're nostalgic. But they may not be as significant as Iggy Pop, or Tom Waits. Or Molly Ivins.

It's all mixed together, I think, philosophy and politics and music probably all goes together. I mean, if you have something to say, if you get something out there that somebody else can understand, you can't dictate those terms. So, you just don't know what kid is going to be in the audience who says, that's what I wanna be. That happens all the time. I mean, a lot of big stars came about from seeing Hank Williams when they were a kid or something like that. One of them is Wayne Newton, by the way, when he was five years old. I'm not a big Wayne Newton fan, but he did see a Hank Williams show, and told his parents he's gonna be a musician. You know that story of Johnny Gimble, the fiddle player, tellin' his mother when he was five years old, or six, he told his mom, "Mom, when I grow up, I'm 'ona be a musician." And she said, "Make up your mind, son, 'cause you can't do both."

Did you happen to watch the DVD of that unaired Austin City Limits show when it came out a couple years ago? I wondered what you thought when you had that flashback.

Well, I thought it was pretty tame for all the hubbub they made about it. Didn't you? I thought, by today's standards, It's nothing.

Yeah, by today's standards, sure.

I didn't think it was very outrageous. So I don't know why they had to paint me like Lenny Bruce, you know?

Well, it might've been good for your rep.

[Laughing] But I'm not bitter. So I don't care! The one show they never aired. I think the Lord had bigger plans for the Kinkster than to be a—I don't know, actually, I don't know what the Lord had planned. I suffer a confusion of "dog" and "God."

I never knew till I read the press release for this tour that a real-life incident helped inspire your shift to mystery writing. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Well, that was a woman who was being mugged in a bank, and that was in Greenwich Village in New York, and I was outside the bank, saw this, and I happened to have a bank card so I could get in, you know—the hero strikes again. And I got in the door and I grabbed this guy. I guess that was the only heroic part, 'cause it looked like he had a knife or a gun, it was hard to tell. And it turned out it was just a deranged guy, but he had this woman on the floor. But she got up and scooted away, and it turned out she was wanted, and she was the woman who was with John Belushi when he died.

Oh, my Lord!

And that's where, you know—John Belushi was one of my first friends when I came to New York. [NOTE: Friedman appeared on the second season of Saturday Night Live.] And that's when Tom Waits told me, "That is the Lord telling you to get the hell out of New York." I mean, the one person out of 12 million people in the metro area there, that happened to be the one who was with John Belushi when he died, that's an angel telling you, "Get the fuck out of here." Which I did fairly promptly after that.

Is there any talk of your novels being adapted into films? I'm almost surprised that hasn't happened yet.

Yeah, but that's what it is, it's talk. But it's possible, so, something will happen, I'm sure, after I fall through the trap door, Jeff. But, all I have to do is die, hopefully in a fairly dramatic fashion, and I believe the stuff's gonna be hot. But currently, as usual, I piss on Hollywood, OK? I agree with F. Scott Fitzgerald that it is a graveyard of all talent. People may have been talking, and optioning, and talking, and I think that's the good thing about real writers, is that I don't think they write for Hollywood. I mean, there are writers, very successful ones, who do. I mean, I would if I could, I'm not that much of a purist, you know. I'd write a bad novel if I could, and make it sell. But I guess all you can do is to try to define a little bit about what condition your condition is in, and see if anybody relates to it or not. Being able to do this tour is really a privilege. The fact that we don't have any major studios, or record companies, or hit records or anything like that out, and we're still able to do 15 or 16 shows, and many are selling out already, and that's really great. In fact, all I have to do is leave Texas to do well.

A prophet without honor in your homeland?

That's exactly right. [Laughs] You know, here's to honor. Get on' er and stay on 'er! You know, we're gonna have Little Jewford and Washington Ratso with us, two original Texas Jewboys, and hopefully John Callahan, so I think the show's gonna be really good.

I saw your friend Van Dyke Parks is joining you in L.A.; he played here in February as one of his first shows on the road, ever.

Now Van Dyke Parks, he's a very significant guy, he influenced everyone from Randy Newman to Three Dog Night to the Beach Boys, and I don't think he ever got credit for it, really.

He's doing some of his best work today, for younger artists.

Oh, he's got a great reputation in Australia and Europe, because they've got better bullshit meters than America. That's my theory. They really know. They'll tell ya who's great and who's not. In America, we don't really know. Because greatness here is—we think somebody's great who's a little bit ahead of us. But the people who are way ahead, we don't even know their names.

All I say these days is that the most beautiful things in life can not be seen, nor touched. At least, that's what the restraining order says.

I guess that's a good note to close on.

[Laughs] Okay. Hope to see you down there. And if you see John Callahan, give 'im a kiss for Kinky.

Kinky Friedman Cigars (and general website!)
Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch
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