Posted April, 2016
Kinky Friedman. Maybe some of you have heard of him. I’d describe him as the Will Rogers of our day. He is hands down one of the most entertaining and colorful people I’ve had the privilege of interviewing. Ever.
Friedman is one of the most gifted writers of any kind (music, literature, or punditry) I’ve ever read or met. Admittedly, a lot of what he has to say my singe the most sensitive of listeners. However, what he does say – and how he says it – is the most logically thought provoking words you’re ever likely to hear.
An accomplished singer, songwriter, and pundit, Kinky recently released his latest CD, The Loneliest Man I’ve Ever Met and I had the honor of chatting with Kinky by phone at his ranch about this album.
Before we started the official interview, Kinky slid into describing the kind of tour that he was about to embark on shortly after our chat.
“This is a tour on the Hank Williams level as far as driving is concerned. We’re performing 35 back-to-back shows with no nights off and that’s done deliberately to produce the affect that we’re running on pure adrenaline. It’s the idea that will make the show purer and rawer. We’ll see.”
Friedman ran as an Independent for the governor’s office in Texas, securing about 12% of the vote. Because of that, I asked him what he makes of the presidential contenders in both parties and what does he make of the news of Boehner having resigned earlier that day.
“None of it’s terrifically important. I feel that being a musician is such a higher calling than being a politician, anyway, having been both. I think Mark Twain had it right that in America, we have no criminal class except the U.S. Congress. I think he’s correct on that. I think they’re all pretty weak. I think that if musicians ran the place, we’d be in a lot better shape. I know it would, in fact. We wouldn’t get a hell of a lot done in the mornings but we’d work late . . . AND, we’d be honest!”
I was caught completely off guard by his comments so I asked him how, exactly, that would work out and what would really get accomplished if musicians ran our government.
“Say that I had won the governor’s race – a race that I won in every place but Texas in 2006 – let’s say I won and I appointed a number of musician friends to run various aspects of the state. I think you’d have decent people and, you know when you talk about occupations? Have you ever been in a room full of lawyers or real estate people or politicians – whatever – doctors, even, you don’t get that kind of decent feeling that you get when you have a group of musicians together.
“And, they’re problem solvers. They’re creative and, by and large, they’re decent people. The politicians have been corrupt before they even got into politics. They were hall monitors or something in elementary school. They were starting early.
“I’m telling ya, Randy, it’s a kind of bad person that is drawn to politics and that’s exactly what JFK did not want. He’s one of the guys like you and me that got into it to help the country. It’s a thankless waste of time in a lot of ways because the crowd always picks Barabbas. The crowd shouts, ‘Free Barabbas! Kill Jesus!’ They do it every time.
“So, that’s where we’re at and it’s been that way ever since. You give them a chance to elect an Obama or a Rick Perry, and they will . . . or a Jerry Brown or an Arnold Schwarzenegger, whoever – that guy will slip right through. But the Nelson Mandela’s and the Lincoln’s and the Churchill’s – that’s usually a fluke when they’re elected. It’s a twist of fate that gets them there.”
This begged the question as to whether or not Kinky saw a Churchill or Mandela in today’s political circles.
“Hell, no! Do you? Tell me where he is! No, I don’t. I was talking the other day about being a struggling songwriter and how really a beautiful thing that is to be – although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, maybe. But it is. It’s a wonderful thing to be. And to care enough about stuff like watch a movie twenty years ago and watching Willie Nelson signing autographs in the rain; a long line of people there along side his bus, it’s raining and he’s standing out there in the rain and they’re standing in the rain and he’s staying right with them. That was nice to see – autographs in the rain. All we’re talking about is inspiration!”
Since we were mixing entertainment and politics, I asked Friedman if he thought that the entertainment industry was in the role of the dance band on the Titanic.
“That’s an interesting thought. Well, that’s very possible. Speaking of the Titanic, one of my campaign slogans was ‘The professionals gave us the Titanic and the amateurs gave us the ark,’ which is partly true. Yeah, we might be listening to the dance band. Ha! Ha! It’s very possible. But I think we’re probably more resilient than that. I think that life is kind of like a Kurt Vonnegut novel.
“I don’t know if you the story about Nelson Mandela listening to ‘Ride ‘Em Jewboy’ in his prison cell on Robben Island. There’s nothing as farfetched as that, I would think. I mean, when I first heard that, I really could not believe it. If you had told me that he had listened to Bob Dylan there. That they smuggled in a tape, well, that’s not even a story, okay? But the idea that he did get tapes smuggled in and one of them was my first record, ‘Sold American,’ which he had not ordered specifically. It was just whatever they could give him, you know? And, on that record, the song that he played every night late, late, before he went to bed was ‘Ride ‘Em Jewboy’ and this is from the guy in the next prison cell who was his right hand man who they put right next to Mandela in the next cell. That is amazing. That almost makes it all worthwhile. It’s remarkable.
“The question was posed to me would I’d rather be a guy making millions playing in stadiums all over the country or would I rather know that a song I’d written was listened to by Nelson Mandela in his prison cell. The guy who asked me that said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you my choice, Kinky. I’d rather be you.’ Of course, I’m older than that guy. I gotta think about my goals as a young man which were to be fat, famous, financially fixed, and a faggot by fifty. Some of them I’ve achieved.”
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 39 years since his last album, “Lasso From El Paso”. I asked Kinky what so long to come out with a new studio album.
“Probably because life gets in the way. That pure place, Nashville, of the 60’s and 70’s, I was born a little too late on that one – to hang around Willie and the guys. But it was still a really cool place. Also, politics keeps intruding. It’s an addiction. Recently, Jamey Johnson, the singer, came up to me and suggested that we run on a ticket. I would run for governor of Texas and he would run for Lieutenant Governor and it would be the Kinky Johnson ticket.”
I refrained from laughing because I didn’t know if he was joking. He obviously was.
Continuing on . . .
“Life does get in the way. The animal rescue takes time. I suffer from the curse of being multi-talented. Writing books – more than thirty, now, that I’ve written. That takes time. It’s really been thirty-two years since I recorded and I didn’t see it going anywhere. This record has surprised me because I wasn’t expecting all that much. I don’t know the answer to that. If I saw that people were actually hearing stuff.
“There’s more buzz on this record than any record I’ve ever done except the very first one. This one sounds better. I attribute that – or I blame. Whatever goes wrong, I blame Brian Molnar – the producer who’s from New Jersey. So, he brings down this New Jersey kid named Joe Cirotti – who decimated my liquor cabinet. The kid – of course, a 47-year-old man could be a kid to me – but this kid did great! He really did some beautiful guitar work which is fortunate because that’s almost the only instrument on the record, it’s that sparse. What is added to it, then, is the harmonica genius of Mickey Raphael – Willie’s harp player. The Little Jewford played keyboards on ‘A Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis’ and ‘A Nightingale Sang In Berkley Square’ – two songs with long titles.
“Jewford is a Jew and he drives a Ford. But other than them – there’s a little bit of stand-up bass put on the record and that’s about it. Even the Willie cut was very sparse. All of it was kind of spontaneous – the Frank Sinatra method. If you don’t get it on one take, we’ll try two and after that, **** ‘em and feed ‘em Fruit Loops, you know? After that, to hell with it.
“We have a really good cut, actually, that we didn’t put on this, which is Mickey Newberry’s ‘San Francisco Mabel Joy’. That is a killer cut but, you know, enough’s enough. The album borders on the melancholy, perhaps. I think melancholy is very important. It’s a linkage between classical music and really great country music. I mean, anybody wants to be an artist better than others.
“Step one is to be miserable. Not unhappy or you’re not going to create anything. That’s pretty sure. You look at the guys now and go, ‘Well, how come Bob Dylan or Kristofferson or Willie is not writing at the level that they used to write at? How come we’re not getting ‘Hello Walls’ or ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ or ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ out of those guys?’ I do think it’s an interesting question and I would say that, probably, enough success and fame will distance you from your art. That’s for sure. So you can show up. You still do shows. The shows can be inspiring and great. I don’t mean to take away from these guys because if you want to get inspired, Randy, you and I could go around and see bands all day and we wouldn’t. We’d see a lot of derivative bands with really good musicians, perhaps. So, the guy sounds like Stevie Ray Vaughan. So the guy sounds like Roger Miller. That’s not what we’re looking for, here. I mean, we’re looking for an original.
“Maybe the gene pool is just dried up of talent. I don’t know. There’s a hell of a lot of good musicians and their hearts are in the right place. They want to be Townes Van Zandt when they grow up. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, for some reason, where Willie says all the dreams go down in Nashville – the kid with a pickup truck and guitars and a suitcase full of song lyrics. That’s where he goes. But, unfortunately, when he gets there, he sees that the guys making records and making all the money and all the success is going to guys their religion is click tracks and songs written by committee of four and five people. It sounds like background music for frat parties. Other than that, it’s fine.
“I kinda took a page from ‘Red Headed Stranger’. This is real sparse. It’s stripped down to the soul. On many of the cuts - there’s no drums on anything. There’s no bass on anything. Some of it’s out of sync – out of rhythm. That is a deliberate effect.
“On ‘Bloody Mary Morning,’ we want that to sound like it’s done in a West Texas bar room and that it’s spontaneous. We want that to come off. Now, listening to it, it’s close plus we’ve got a great couple of passages by the jazz cowboy, Willie Nelson, on Trigger (Nelson’s fabled, beat up acoustic guitar). Trigger rides again on this. That song, Willie told me, that Glen Campbell gave Willie twenty-five thousand dollars - back in the old days when it was a hell of a lot of money – so he would publish all of Willie’s songs for that year. The problem was that year Willie only wrote one song and Glen was not happy about that. The song was ‘Bloody Mary Morning’ which did not knock Glen’s **** to his watch pocket but it’s always been right up there with one of my favorite Willie songs AND it’s kind of a leg opener for the record.
“I had a girlfriend years ago that used to refer to Jagermeister as a great leg opener. Now this (Bloody Mary Morning) is a leg opener. It gets you into the record. It’s pretty good standing alone, actually, ‘cause, I guess, it’s pretty raw. That idea of Willie’s about never taking a night off when you’re out there – that’s very interesting. That’s what we’re trying to do. I’ve done it for as many as sixteen shows in Europe before. It makes you really raw and pure – especially if you’re doing something solo like that. You start hearing ‘Jesus’ and ‘Johnny Appleseed’ and ‘Richard Pryor’ calling you. Hank Williams. It’s like Hank Williams opening for Mozart. It really elevates the experience and you operate on the Hank Williams level because you get out of Dodge every night that way. I’m a kind of guy that likes to – I’m prepared to be a Wal-Mart greeter if my career goes south.”
When I commented that I would really like to see him as a greeter at Wal-Mart, Kinky didn’t miss a beat in responding.
“Well, I like people! I think it’s a spiritual thing. I think Wal-Mart greeters are imitations of Jesus. They’re certainly closer to Jesus than politicians are. I mean, politicians say all the right words but all the Wal-Mart greeter says is, ‘How can I help you?’ and usually with a friendly smile.”
Then, circling back to the CD and supporting tour, Friedman concluded:
“I’m kinda jazzed about this. It’s hard to get excited when you’re seventy years old and I can’t get my head around the idea that I’m seventy. Of course, I do read at the seventy-two-year-old level. We will see how this all transpires.”
Then, out of the blue, he adds:
“I wish that I could still be a struggling songwriter. I think that’s one of the highest callings – being a legitimate, struggling songwriter. I guess they’re there but Nashville has seemed to me to be very a very corporate place now. That’s why the song, ‘Tompall Glaser’ – he epitomizes the way it used to be. You know, Tompall – as well as singing backup for Marty Robbins on ‘El Paso’ with his brothers – did not have to be an outlaw. He didn’t have to fall in with Willie and Waylon ‘cause he was already King of the Hill with the establishment. But he did. That meant opening up his studio at all hours of the night because of crazy people. All kinds of things. I think he burned a lot of bridges with that. He’s kind of an unsung hero in that regards because Willie and Waylon had nothing to lose at that point.”
We had long since left his aforementioned “leg opener” remark so I had forgotten that Kinky had already answered my unasked question regarding which of the songs would he use as a calling card to people to entice them to want to buy “The Loneliest Man I Ever Met.” I led into the question by acknowledging that he had a few covers on the disc. He interrupted me by saying,
“We prefer to call them interpretations! Well, I mean, if Tony Bennett records ‘Girl From The North Country’, that would be a cover. With me, I never really had a recording style – not recording in thirty-two years. I think ‘Girl From The North Country’ would be halfway between Bob Dylan and Kinky Friedman. That’s where it is. So, it’s not quite ‘cover’, although, yes, you are correct. Some of them are important or significant like Warren Zevon’s ‘My **** ****ed Up’ or ‘My bleeps bleeped up’. Ha! Ha! A song written by a guy dying of cancer but a bigger song than that because it aptly describes the world today. Really a good description of where we’re at. It’s kind of a visionary song. In a Zen way, the doctor is Jesus Christ.”
Then, answering my “calling card” question, he adds:
“I would personally point them to ‘Pickin’ Time’. Johnny Cash’s song that almost nobody appears to know. Are you familiar with that one, Randy? I tell you, I’ve talked to Johnny Cash fans and they’ve never heard it! It is a song – again, it’s kinda like Warren Zevon’s song – those songs are very different. It’s not about a guy looking forward to hauling his cotton into town. It’s more than about pickin’ cotton. We all have a pickin’ time, you know? We damn sure better take advantage of it when pickin’ time comes.
“Then, again, ‘Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis’ is just a beauty. It’s interesting. That song has a real linkage to country music in that the whole song is a lie. The entire song is a fabrication just like you or I would say our career was not doing well. You ask a songwriter in Nashville, ‘How are things going for you?’ and they’ll say, ‘Great! We’ve got five new songs that they’re gonna record now’ and it’s all bull****. It’s all puttin’ up a front, you know? And we all do that – not as transparently as the hooker in Minneapolis – or a elaborately – but we all do that. Only the last lines of the song are true. ‘I need to borrow money to pay this lawyer. And, Kinky, hey, I’ll be eligible for parole come Valentine’s Day.’ I think it’s Tom Waits’ best song. And ‘Bloody Mary Morning’ is one of Willie’s.
“As sure as I’m telling you right now, Randy, I go around Texas here, talking to people in their thirties and they’re not sure if they’ve ever heard ‘Bloody Mary Morning.’ They don’t know who wrote it. The people don’t ******* know this.
“So, yeah, this record is personal. It’s not written to educate anybody. It’s written for a silent witness. That’s who it’s written for – who is either a dead sweetheart or a lost cat – both of which I have in my life. Yeah, and by the way, my animal rights group takes a lot of time.
“If you’re just into one thing – like Willie is just into the music. Well, three areas: music, drugs, and golf. I find golf stuffifyingly dull and the only two good balls I’ve hit were when I stepped on the garden rake. And, pot, I only smoke it when I’m with Willie. It’s a form of Texas etiquette and I sure smoked it on Bloody Mary Morning because, I tell ya, I can’t believe that he could even hold his guitar on that. I’m tellin’ ya, the song sounded to me like it was an hour and a half long. I started tellin’ him, ‘Willie, this is going on too long.’ It’s under three minutes. It REALLY throws my timing off. But he’s just pickin’ away there. That one was two takes.”
Kinky then proceeded to tell me the back story about how he got Willie involved on “Bloody Mary Morning.”
“Well, I did kind of a dirge like version of ‘Bloody Mary Morning’, which I really liked but it’s really slow. It’s real slow. You hear some lyrics that most people haven’t heard because nobody’s listening because he sings it so damn fast. But there’s some really nice lyrics in there.
“So, anyway, Willie didn’t like that take. He thought it was too slow. I was just doing it without Willie there. I played it for Willie and he didn’t like it. His people said, ‘Willie wants to do something you’ll both be proud of.’ I talked to him and he said, ‘Let’s do something more engaging. More upbeat.’ So, that’s what we did.
“Again, it was a Frank Sinatra style – not using any particular charts or anything like that. What the record mostly is, I think, is intimate. We brought down a big microphone. It was that easy. Everybody can use a big microphone and sound great. It’s just an old fashion microphone. It was done in a little house here on the ranch. Joe on guitar and Mickey on harp. I couldn’t believe the sound! How good the sound is. On the other hand, it is stripped down to the soul so I don’t know if radio is going to play it. The problem is that it’s a Miley Cyrus world. That’s the problem and how you break through that white noise is the question.
“So, not only do we shout out, ‘Free Barabbas! Free Jesus!’ but we’re all complicit in burying Mozart in a pauper’s grave. So, I don’t really know what we can do except to strive to be a struggling songwriter. I’m doing it with this tour. This is a privilege to me to be able to be out there and play to people who almost all of them are younger than the songs. In many of these places, I’ll be the oldest guy in the place. A lot of young people could not do thirty-five consecutive shows when you’re driving five hours, six hours, seven hours to the gig and playing. Then, getting out of Dodge afterwards after you meet everybody and all of that.
“People say really interesting things. Switzerland and Austria were terrific. I’m the new David Hasselhoff there. The thinking man’s David Hasselhoff. The audiences are very young there but they know all the songs. They’ve read the books. You know, forty years after these songs have been written – some cases more than that – that’s remarkable to be able to do this. It’s a privilege to be able to go out and do this.
“A teenager came up to me after a show on the last tour and he said, ‘Kinky, it’s so nice to see somebody enjoying his life.’ The kid didn’t know that I was in a tailspin of black despair at the time but he thought I was enjoying my life. Maybe I was. A little Jewish lady at the Jewish Community Center in Denver last year – she must’ve been four foot something – she was in her eighties or nineties – she toddled up to me and said, ‘Kinky, it’s so nice to have you on the planet.’ Then there was a guy in Texas that came up to me outside of Houston. This was not so long ago and I ended the show with, ‘They Don’t Make Jews Like Jesus Anymore.’ He said, ‘Why did your people kill our lord?’ and I said, ‘Because the ************ had it comin’.’
“That’s been something I’ve been telling on stage. I never thought I would because I thought people are not going to like this. It’s a little too much but the Christians absolutely love it. They’re, like, spitting up on themselves.”
With so much discussed about Nashville and the state of music today – especially country music, I asked Kinky what he would do to fix the music business (if it was fixable) if he was made Music Czar.
“I think ***** ****** up. It’s unfixable and I think the problem is a combination of political correctness and cultural A.D.D.
“Again, I think you could put Hank Williams in with Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor – they’d all be homeless people today. They would be homeless people if they were around. Hank would be just like Johnny Cash. He would not be able to get a record deal in Nashville, which is not surprising.
“I don’t know if there’s been a good, standalone song that’s been written in decades there. If it has, it hasn’t emerged. There’s nothing against Toby Keith or Garth Brooks – I think Garth is the anti-Hank. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with those guys, especially. It’s just that when you’re writing in a corporate whore house with four other guys and you know that Garth is going to put his name on it or whoever wrote a little piece of it – all you can say is that this guy sounds like a young Billy Joe Shaver. You could say that’s a compliment. But, you don’t find anybody – except for geezers – that truly inspire and seem original. I guess that’s what I’m saying.
“I’m saying you’ve gotta see a geezer! You gotta see Merle Haggard or Kris or Willie or Bob Dylan or Billy Joe Shaver. I guess there’s a few more but we’ve lost a lot of them. Levon Helm used to have that affect on me. I would watch Levon Helm play drums and sing and you’d come away saying, ‘**** that was rock and roll!’ That was a really good form of it.
“Again, if inspiration is the source, we’re not getting it from the political landscape. I mean, if you look at the continent of Africa, do you see a bunch of Nelson Mandela’s popping up into leadership positions? Hell no! You see a bunch of corrupt, black leaders emulating what the white colonialists did. That’s all you see. Of course, in America, it’s not even worth mentioning. Look at all the candidates. Every damn one of them. We should have term limits for every elected official. I suggest two terms: one in office and one in prison. That would move the ball forward a little bit.
“As music czar, how to get something by a handful of geezers to inspire people in the field of music. How do we do it? Willie is much more optimistic about Nashville than I am. Willie says that this is where people with there dreams go and I’m telling him that it’s like Haight-Ashbury. It’s over and when it’s over, it’s over. It would be stupid for me and Willie to go out on the sidewalk of the East Village in New York and play right now. Forty or fifty years ago, it would be cool.”
When I asked if the old Nashville is the new Austin, Friedman said:
“I call Austin ‘Dallas with guitars.’ It’s become very corporate. They never met a condominium they didn’t like. Randy, I’m serious. They have these meters they go around with – decibel meters – and they check the clubs for how loud the music is. That’s the reason why the people bought the condos in the first place, is the live music scene – excitement around that. Now, they’re shutting them down. Of course, they’re only shutting down the mom and pop places.
“Anyway, I don’t know what the answer is. I mean, you do have to be miserable and frustrated to write in the first place. Maybe we’ve all changed, Randy? Maybe that’s what it is. Maybe this cultural A.D.D. has set in and we cannot listen to anything beyond not even a whole song. I really don’t know what the answer is except, shoot, the last time that I was in Nashville, they these three stories of bad music playing. It all sounded very similar. It sounded like this frat party music.
“I’m not saying that country music has to remain heartbreak/lonesome whatever but there is that linkage. I’m tellin’ ya, I do think there’s that linkage between country and classical.
As our call wrapped up, I asked Kinky Friedman how he wished to be remembered and what he hoped his legacy would be.
“Well, I don’t know about that. I’ve said that, when I die, I want to be cremated and have my ashes thrown in Rick Perry’s hair. Now, Rick’s gotten out of the race so that one doesn’t really work, anymore, really.
“I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about what I want to remembered as. Any life that you look at too closely is a failure – particularly your own. If you look at people that you think were great men like Churchill and John Lennon, for instance, both were convinced that they were failures, you know, with good reason. I mean, Churchill won the war and they just pulled the rug out from under him. John Lennon was convinced that Paul McCartney was the genius of the Beatles. Paul did write a couple of great songs but John was the genius of the band.
“I saw Ringo in Austin at a concert that he did there. I had a chance to talk to him. I knew him from the Bob Dylan tour and all of that. He played the voice of Jesus on my song, ‘Men’s Room L.A.’ – which I did not write. It was written by Buck Fowler. Anyway, I asked Ringo who his favorite Beatle was and he said John. I said, ‘Me, too, present company excluded, of course.’
“But, now, the reason why he was the spiritual heavy weight was he inspired. Without him I doubt that they would’ve been an inspirational band. I mean, he reached people! That’s kinda what we’ve lost. Now we’ve got a president that is the Forrest Gump of all presidents. You would think that at least he could inspire but he can’t. I mean, he just can’t!
“I don’t know. I guess on my tombstone, how about, ‘I aspire to inspire before I expire.’”