Kinky Friedman – By Hit or Myth, The Legend – Thoughts/Stories on Willie, Dylan, Zevon, W & More (INTERVIEW)

As he approaches age 71, singer/songwriter, author, politician and provocateur Kinky Friedman remains as irascible as ever. However it’s fair to say he comes by that trait naturally. His has been a storied life, one that’s taken him from being a chess champion at the tender age of seven to serving in the Peace Corps, making his mark as a singer and songwriter and famously taking a serious stab at politics with runs for the governorship of Texas in 2006 and Texas Agriculture Commissioner in 2013. He lost both races but attracted considerable notoriety in process.

The same can be said of his music career, which began in the ‘70s and marked him as an irreverent, no-holds barred songwriter whose best known songs “They Don’t Make Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” “Ride ‘Em Jewboy,” “How Can I Tell You I Love You (When You’re Sitting On My Face),” “We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You,” and “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in Bed” are both politically incorrect and uproariously unapologetic. The fact that he named his band the Texas Jewboys — said to be a takeoff on Bob Wills’ outfit, The Texas Playboys — didn’t help endear him to the those whose holier than thou attitude left little room to tolerate a man so seemingly caustic and sarcastic. Nevertheless, in retrospect, Friedman has come to be seen as one of the leading lights of the burgeoning country crossover movement of the early to mid ‘70s, and his friendship with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Bob Dylan (he toured with Dylan on the second leg of the famed Rolling Thunder Revue) has helped to further enshrine  his legendary stature.

As intent as he appears to be on making fun of himself and everyone around him, Friedman can also be a serious-minded guy. An accomplished author and columnist, his work has received praise of critics and commentators and he’s often compared to such great American satirists as Will Rogers and Mark Twain thanks to his sometimes scathing indictments of the cultural quirks that are often considered out of bounds by those with a more tender touch. Nevertheless, his heart is clearly in the right place. His Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch has saved more than 1,000 stray animals from abuse and euthanasia.

While our interview was ostensively about his new album, the tellingly titled The Loneliest Man I Ever Met, it turned into a stream of consciousness in which Kinky shared his views on music, musicians, politics and the state of the world in general, frequently diverting off topic and opening up new, wholly unexpected areas of discussion. Given his expansive career, I didn’t really know where to begin, and ultimately, I sure as hell didn’t know where it would end. Somehow, that was exactly the way it worked out.

(One final note. A few days after the interview I mentioned to my brother Jeff that I had spoken to the legendary Kinky Friedman. Jeff revealed that Kinky had been his camp counselor when he went away to summer camp at age six. At that time we were living in Dallas Texas, so his story made sense. Jeff’s only lingering memory of him was one night when Kinky came out of the show and walked back to his bunk clad only in a towel. As he approached the door of the bunk house, he slipped the towel off before going inside. Then as now, Kinky Friedman was apparently  unafraid to let his opposite side show.)

kinkyalbum2I don’t know where to begin with this interview, considering your colorful history, but I suppose the logical first question is, why did it take 39 years for you to make a new album?

This last interview, I was doing a Nixon simultaneously with the interview. And the guy knew it and I knew it too, and I was putting some energy into it and it was interesting. The subject was death. (laugh) Shockingly, it was a Jewish publication.

Well, that’s appropriate. The High Holidays are upon us, are they not?

Have a chipper Yom Kipper.

Backatcha. But getting back to the subject at hand, why the long lapse in recording? You’re going to be asked this question in every interview you do.

Because it hasn’t been 39 years. That was a mistake on my part. Apparently I’ve forgotten the first half of my life. It’s been 32 years, which, as we say, is still a long time between dreams. I think it’s the curse of being multitalented. You’ll meet people like Bob Dylan who are good at chess and Willie (Nelson) may be good at dominoes and chess for that matter, but in general, those pastimes are hobbies. What were we talking about? Take two.

We were talking about why it’s taken you so long to release a new album.

Oh yes. Again, they’re not really truly multitalented. Willie spends a lot of time with FarmAid. He’s doing a lot of benefits and stuff, but its all music related. He’s at home and happiest when he’s performing. And that’s been true since he was six years old. He knows what he’s doing, knows what he wants. It’s like one of those computer geeks who drops out of college and starts a huge corporation. Willie knew what he was about very early on. And here’s Kinky as an adult, a butterfly collector. I have no hobbies, but I spend an awful lot of time on animal rescue, the utopia of my rescue ranch, and a lot of time, possibly wasted, on politics. In 2006 my independent race for Governor found us winning everywhere but Texas. We had issues that were way ahead of the curve. You can chart them. Supporting gay marriage. I was the only candidate state-wide that was supporting gay marriage at a time when Hilary and Obama were decidedly against it. So what the hell.

So how close did you come to winning?

We got thirteen percent of the best of Texas. That represented about 600,000 votes.

That put you on the map, however.

Well, yeah. The late Ray Price told me it was a really mistaken thing to do because Jesus would have lost if he had run as an independent against (former Texas governor) Rick Perry.

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So who are you leaning towards supporting in 2016?

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. One of them. I’m not sure which one I’m leaning towards the most. The two of them would make a good ticket. At least they’re not corrupt. I talked to Jamie Johnson about us running on the same ticket. I would run for president and he agreed to run for vice president and it would be the Kinky Johnson ticket.

Funny. But when you were running for governor, was it not a serious campaign on your part? It wasn’t a joke. Did you ever get the feeling that your name and reputation might have been some kind of hinderance?

Well, not in Texas. But it’s true; if I didn’t run as Kinky Friedman, I would have won. It was all garbled up. They really kill ya. Your name isn’t even on the same page as the ballot. It’s like the Crips and the Bloods. I couldn’t believe it. I thought they’d have all the names on the same page. But no. You have to turn a page and then another page until you finally get to the independents, if, that is, you haven’t already voted a straight ticket. And then all the chickens come home to roost, that’s all. There was one point where we were winning. We were in the high twenties. The Democrats are very good at demonising and the Republicans are very good at having a lot of money and being corrupt. Not that the Democrats aren’t corrupt too. One is no better than the other. It’s the same guy combing his hair in the mirror.

Still, for all the great music you’ve made and your forthright stand on the issues, wasn’t the name Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys mostly perceived as come kind of joke?

Yeah, sure. It was a blessing and a curse. No doubt about it. My college roommate gave it to me. But it didn’t stop Nelson Mandela from appreciating me. Nelson Mandela had some of my tapes in the cell with him and he could have listened to “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed.” But the song he’d listen to all night was “Ride ‘Em, Jewboy.” That’s remarkable.

What was your relationship with Rick Perry and George Bush when they were the governors of Texas?

George Bush and I were pals, mostly through his wife Laura who was a secret Democrat… back when the Democrats were good. She’s really got it. Of course, she’s a librarian. The kind of person Fidel Castro has been arresting for the past 40 years. But W and Bill Clinton are my two guys. In fact, I’m the only guy who’s slept under two presidents at the White House.

Umm. You better explain that.

I was an overnight guest during both their administrations.

Wow!

I was close to be both of them. Like Churchill said, “History, with its flickering lamp, stumbles down the trail to the past.” So we don’t get George W right yet. He’s a very decent man. And he got really screwed because, like me, he had a really strong disdain for television. And so he would come across as very stiff. In truth, he was very witty and very funny. I’m the kind of guy who hangs around with Imus. Bill Clinton, who is very witty and spontaneous and leads from the heart — which sometimes gets him in trouble — is a natural. W, when he’s off the air, is very funny and very quick. And he doesn’t come off like he does on TV. And of course the Democrats spent all their financial capitol demonizing him. They’re horrible. Mention Ted Cruz and…what’s the word? This is early Alzheimers. I have EOA…Early Onset Asshole. Ah, Benghazi. Mention Benghazi to any Democrat and they’ll go, ah, you bigot! You’re a racist. Benghazi revealed some things to us about our wonderful Hilary. She turned out to be an empty pants suit.

kinkycamelYou’re not the typical liberal musician by any means. And yet your friend Willie…

Ah… Willie’s politics you don’t want to know. Willie’s to the left of Fred Astair.

And yet you’ve also hung out and toured with Bob Dylan, the musical minstrel of the protest movement…

No, no, no. Dylan is with me. He’s taken the Sinatra route.

You mean he’s taken a right turn?

No, it means he’s gradually become more conservative. In the beginning he was a liberal protest singer. But one thing about Bob. He’s always played with very high stakes. If you watch that Newport show you’ll know what I mean. Levon Helm was a really good pal of mine and he was there every night where they were booing Bob. He’d tell me how friends of Bob would come backstage every night and say, “What are you playing with these clowns for?” Referencing the Band. “You’re killing your career for these guys!” If Bob had listened to them and gone back to “Blowin‘ in the Wind” and all the other acoustic stuff, he’s be a footnote. Instead he chose to embrace rock. Not just embracing it, but taking it up about ten notches and not caring if the audience was shouting “traitor” or whatever.

You met Dylan fairly early in your career. You had only put out a couple of albums and all of a sudden you were joining him on the Rolling Thunder tour. How did you happen to meet him?

He came to a show of mine at the Troubadour in L.A. in ’73 and he was barefoot, wearing a robe — he still had a limo though — and he told Dylan Ferrero, our road manager, “Don’t tell Kinky I’m here. It will change the show. It may be subtle but it will change the performance.” Bob told Dylan that (laughs). So Dylan didn’t tell me, but when he came upstairs, the first thing I told him was, “Bob Dylan’s here” (laughs). But Bob was absolutely right. That’s how sensitive this shit is. If you come to a show and I know you’re there, and I send a song out to you, it does alter it a little bit. The best shows are for strangers. That’s why the Australian and European tours are so much fun for me. They loosen you up a little bit and you realize you’re representing something overall. These people are looking to America and they’re looking to Texas…

You’re known for being a somewhat different kind of songwriter.

I’m a struggling songwriter. I’ve always been one and I hope I always will be one.

But you actually have a lot of cover songs on the new album.

We prefer to call them interpretations. If Tony Bennett were to do “Girl From the North Country,” that would be a cover. That’s part of his style. I don’t really have a style.

Point well taken.

All I’m saying is that that song, “Girl From the North Country,” falls between Bob Dylan and Kinky Friedman.

It’s a beautiful interpretation.

That’s one of my favorites and I’m very interested in what Bob thinks of that.

You’ll likely find out, no?

Yeah, I think we’ll find out soon. I sent it to Jeff Kramer, his manager.

On the whole, the album seems fairly downcast.

Well, it’s romantic, and all romance ends in tragedy. True love always ends in a hostage situation and that’s what this is about….However this album was written and performed for a silent witness. In other words, we’re not doing this for radio. It’s a little bit inspired by Red Headed Stranger and how sparse that was. If you’re listening to “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,” you have a lot of time to think between the lines. You’re not hearing any drums or even all that much instrumentation, so you can bring your imagination into play, especially with a song like “A Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis.” There is nothing on this record more than just Mickey Raphael, who is just a harmonica genius, and this guy Joe Cirotti, guitar player from New Jersey who we brought down along with an engineer who’s about twelve years old. Joe does some beautiful guitar work on this, and most of the songs are just Joe and Mickey.

Two of them have my buddy Jewford playing keyboards– “A Christmas Card” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square” — and so it’s very eclectic. There’s a Johnny Cash song which most Johnny Cash fans have never heard and a song called “Pickin’ Time,” which was my father’s favorite. Then I have “Girl from the North Country” on there, which is about someone both Bob and I let slip through our fingers. I also do “Hungry Eyes,” a Merle Haggard song which is notoften  associated with Merle — they think of “Okie From Muskogee,” “Mama Tried” maybe…They remember “Fightin’ Side of Me” but they don’t remember the flip side of the record, which was the softer side of Merle, “Every Fool Has a Rainbow Which Only He Can See.”

kinkytequila

Were there other songs you considered aside from these?

There were a few I really wanted to get in there. One was Mickey Newbury’s “San Francisco Mabel Joy,” which did a version of that will knock you dick to your watch pocket. We had this big old fashioned microphone which really caught every breath and made everything sound very intimate. A voice coach friend of mine who I never went to — obviously I’ve never done anything like that — said there’s something happening here, a bass vibrato, that’s evident on my voice on this record. Part of it is because I’m wildly singing these songs in different keys. I started to think about that and I started listening to “Girl From the North Country” and “Freedom to Stay” and I started to realize what he was talking about. I started hearing that cry in my voice, that bass vibrato as he calls it. It’s like Glen Campbell who has a brilliant voice, and my pal Dwight (Yoakam) who has that God given talent. He has a wonderful voice.

You seem especially enamoured of singers and songwriters.

Well, the thing that’s always fascinated me is that Willie wrote his three most famous songs in one week — “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Nightlife” and “Crazy.” It was one of the most miserable weeks of his life. He was driving across Houston and living in poverty with three kids and selling songs for next to nothing — $50, $100…

How did the two of you first meet?

The gangplank of Noah’s Ark… a long time ago. I don’t remember the first time exactly. I think they threw me off the stage in Dallas for saying “goddamn” and saying “fuck.” Plus, I may be the only write man in America that uses the word “nigger” in a song. You put it where it belongs. That song “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore” speaks for itself. It’s about confronting intolerance. If Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce were around today, they’d probably be homeless.

So here you are, a Jewish guy in Texas. It would seem like a guy who wore his Jewish heritage on his sleeve would not be the most likely guy to win easy acceptance in a state that’s mostly Christian. How did it go over?

I’m just a bastard child of twin cultures and both are important to me. The only thing that Jews and cowboys have in common — both are disappearing breeds. And both like to wear their hats indoors.

kinkyisrael

Are you a practicing Jew?

No. I need to practice a little bit more. I’m a Jew in the sense of being on the outside looking in. That’s about as far as I’ve come. Like Lt. Colombo looking in at the country club. He can never go in. He can look in the window and see.

Has religion ever been an issue? Have you ever faced antisemitism?

I don’t think so. Not in Texas. I think they were spending most of their time against the Mexicans. That’s another thing about political correctness. We used to call the Mexicans “greasers.” Now we call them “Lubricanos.” Donald Trump has really hit on an issue that’s important, which is, if we’re going to be governed by cultural ADD and political correctness, it’s going to be very hard for talented people to get their point across. That was the whole point of Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce, not to be slick but to be spontaneous and talk in stream of consciousness. That’s how they operated. Richard Pryor was a writer too. He wrote “Blazing Saddles.” Not that he could ever write it again or that it would ever see the light of day in this country. There’s a man at the UPS store in Kerrville Texas that told me I look like the white Richard Pryor,

How did you take that?

I was very flattered.

You have a great sense of humor and a tremendous wit, and yet you seem like a very serious thinking guy. You tell it like it is. But a lot of people may still see you as some sort of comedian or novelty act. Is that frustrating for you?

I made my decision. When someone tells me that if they were given the choice of playing stadiums around the country and making millions of dollars, or knowing that a song they’d written had been listened to every night by Nelson Mandela in his prison cell, they would be me. And that’s nice to hear. And they’re a lot younger than me. Because the older you get, the less easy it is to be me, whoever me is. Seventy is almost unthinkable. I surround myself with people who are a lot older, but I’m running out of them.

There’s one particular song on your new album, “My Shit’s Fucked Up,” which was written by Warren Zevon when he realized he was dying. What did that song mean to you?

Warren was friend of mine and Warren was a Jewboy from Chicago so that’s kind of a visionary song. A lot of people laugh at the beginning when the doctor says, “Let me break it to you son, your shit’s fucked up.” The doctor’s Jesus Christ. Not to get too zen on us here, but by the end of a song, unless you’re in a diabetic coma, you can appreciate that it’s a tragic song, not a funny one. I can’t think of a better description for this country and this world. Our shit’s fucked up. If you doubt it, look around. Everything that’s going on is ridiculous.

So you’re really expand the sentiments of that song.

I was really channelling Warren on that one. I think Warren would have been proud of this version. All the versions on this album are pretty faithful. To give you an example, I told Mickey Raphael on “Girl From the North Country” to give us some early Bob Dylan harmonica, and Mickey didn’t want to do it. Mickey said, “This is not karaoke.” So I said, do you whatever you want. I interpreted it, so now you interpret it. And it’s not Bob, but it’s really great. And there ain’t nothing on there except Mickey and a kid from New Jersey playing guitar and all of it recorded right here at the ranch… except for “Bloody Mary Morning,” which we did at Willie’s place in Austin.

Are you hitting the road?

Oh yeah, we start October 9 in Ashland Virginia and go all over the northeast… 34 consecutive shows back to back, nonstop, no night off.

How long has it been since you’ve done a tour like that?

I’ve never done a tour like that. I don’t know who has. Most everybody takes time off. Even Willie. But this was an idea of Willie’s. He told me long ago about the power of pure adrenalin. You get more and more adrenalin as the shows go on and they get better and better. So while you’re out there, you might as well work. On that German tour, I was hearing Hank Williams and Lenny Bruce and Jesus and all kinds of voices. It’s called sleep depravation. And it’s driving to all these shows at a Hank Williams level. Some of them call for a seven hour drive and then you get up and do the show. You don’t even know where you are, but the show is fucking great. It’s terrific. Then you do what Willie does, and you get out of Dodge. Willie would sign autographs in the rain and he thought that was important. And I do that too. I’ll meet everybody in the place and sign a bunch of stuff, and then get out of there before you really hear their sob stories.

Sob stories?

You just hear a little bit of what they have to say. There was a kid in Canada that said it was so nice to see someone who enjoys their life. Of course the kid didn’t realize I was in a tailspin of black despair at the time. But he thought I was enjoying my life. I’ve been miserable about 68 years, but things are starting to look up now.

It’s hard to see that you’re miserable.

If you’re not miserable, you’re not going to be a great artist. My definition of an artist is anyone’s who’s ahead of his time but behind in his rent.

If that’s the case, there must be a lot of great artists in this country because everybody seems miserable these days.

That’s true. But that’s just step one. Then you got to persevere and you’ve got to get lucky. And you have to write between the lines. Learn to write between the lines if you can. That’s where the important work is done. In other words, one of the things that makes every one of these songs good is that it doesn’t tell you the whole story. You have to figure it out. It’s what you bring to it that makes it important. Not what’s in the track that’s important. It’s what’s between the lines.

You seem to appreciate your fans.

It’s nice meeting the people. I love that. And if my career goes south, I’ll be a Walmart greeter.

They don’t employ greeters anymore.

What? So my plan B is out the window?

I’m afraid so.

Ah shit. I thought the Walmart greeter was a very Christ-like figure.

Top photo by Brian Kanof

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