HE’S ALWAYS RIGHT: Kinky Friedman

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”I’m the only guy who’s slept under two presidents at the White House”: the irascible icon—who has his first album in three decades just out— explains. “I signed a man’s scrotum in Scotland once”: and then he ‘splains a little more…

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

Kinky Friedman is many things: a singer, a songwriter, an author, a satirist and even a politician. But he’s also irascible and, when he wants to be — which seems more often than not — politically incorrect and pointedly critical of the absurdities around him. Often mislabelled as a misogynist, his most famous songs — “Ride ‘Em Jewboy,” “They Don’t Make Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” and “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in Bed” — have thwarted most attempts to take him and his band The Texas Jewboys seriously, even though his pioneering role in creating country’s crossover to rock ‘n’ roll made him one of the first authentic architects of modern Americana. His friendship with Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan is legendary, and if any individual can compete with their iconic stature, suffice it to say Kinky himself can.

Kinky CD

It’s been an incredibly long time since Kinky released an album — more than three decades in fact — which makes the appearance of his new effort, The Loneliest Man I Ever Met, a significant milestone of sorts. However, like most things in Friedman’s life, it’s accompanied by no small degree of irony. Although, he made his name by writing songs, the new album finds him doing covers — or, as he likes to say, “interpretations — of material penned by Dylan, Nelson, Merle Haggard , Warren Zevon and other notable songsmiths. The arrangements are bare boned, sung with straight sentiment and even real reverence as well.

Although BLURT believed our interview was going to focus on the new album, suffice it so say that holding Kinky Friedman to a single subject is practically impossible. Consequently, our conversation frequently veered off into different tangents, mostly having to do with politics and the cynicism of society in general. Kinky kept us laughing, but beneath the sarcasm lurked a man of tremendous wit, wisdom and conviction. [Below: Willie Nelson’s song “Bloody Mary Morning” from the new album, featuring Nelson dueting with Friedman on vocals]

BLURT: Your new album is your first new release in 32 years. But you haven’t exactly been idle, have you? You’ve spent a great deal of time in politics. And you attracted a decent following as well.

KINKY FRIEDMAN: 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 statewide 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 Rick Perry.

On the other hand, Rick Perry just dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination for president for the second time.

He’s not a bad guy. He’s just been in politics for too long, He was groomed right out of college. Not that I ever worked much. I bummed around, but I was in the Peace Corps and did some other things. Politics is really the only deal where the more experience you have, the worse you get. That’s what America is saying. That’s why it’s going for such polar opposites as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

So who are you leaning toward in 2016?

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. One of them. I’m not sure which one I’m leaning towards. The two of them would make a good ticket. They’re not corrupt at least. I talked to Jamie Johnson about 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.

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 might have been some kind of hinderance?

Well, not in Texas. But 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 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 always perceived as some 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’s listen to all night was “Ride ‘Em, Jewboy.” That’s remarkable. Do you know who his favorite singer was?

No, I don’t.

The same guy who turned me on to this Mandela thing, who I met in South Africa, was Tokyo Seuchwhale. Tokyo was Mandela’s right hand man and was in the cell right next to Mandela for the duration, so he could hear what songs Mandela was playing. He says that for me not to get a swelled head about this because I was not Mandela’s favorite singer. Maybe I was fifth and sixth down the list. He said his favorite was Dolly Parton.

You must have admired Mandela for that reason alone.

That’s the kind of candidate that doesn’t come along very often. Do you see any little Mandelas rising up?

There doesn’t seem to be any JFKs or Roosevelts rising up either.

Or Abe Lincolns. In Europe you don’t see any Churchills either. That Mark Twain quote is exactly right. “History does not repeat itself but sometimes it rhymes.” That’s what we have with the Iranian deal. It’s been pointed out before but it’s true. Kerry is the perfect example apparently.

So you like Donald Trump?

I think what he’s doing by not apologising for anything is admirable. Our shit’s really fucked up, as the title of the Warren Zevon song on my album explains. It’s an apt description of the world today and I don’t know that it’s fixable. I don’t normally admire and respect people who put their names are all over the wings of children’s hospitals like Trump’s does. I prefer Mr. Anonymous. Take the office of president ought to be a purely inspirational job. It ought to be occupied by those who do what Harry Truman did, which was to make some really significant big time calls. Imagine what Obama would do with a Hiroshima situation. He probably wouldn’t have done it. Once he got through talking to his lawyers, he’d probably back down.

So imagine where we’d be today. We’d have Japs coming out of caves for millions of years. We’d have lost millions of Americans and Japanese because there would have been a land war in Japan. So that was the choice. What I said after I lost the governor’s race was that the crowd always picks Barabbas. It’s really fucking true. They always do the same thing over and over. They say, “Free Barabbas. Not Jesus.” That’s why Rick Perry was the longest serving governor in Texas history and why you have Jerry Brown in California and why Schwartzeneger was such a good candidate as well. It’s because people like that always get elected. To slip a Churchill or a Lincoln in there is almost impossible. The people won’t let it happen and I’m a man of the people.

Were you friendly with Rick Perry or George Bush when he was governor 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. Again, 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 very stiff. In truth, he was very witty and funny. I’m the kind of guy who hangs around with Don 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 demonising him. They’re horrible. Mention Benghazi to any Democrat and they’ll go, “You’re bigot! You’re a racist!” Benghazi revealed some things to us about our wonderful Hilary. She turned out to be an empty pants suit.

You seem to be especially popular with overseas audiences. Why do you think that is?

They loosen you up a little bit and you realize you’re representing something over all. These people are looking to America and they’re looking to Texas…

It’s a myth they’re looking to.

Yeah, there’s all that going for it. And those young German audiences that have made me the new David Hasslehoff are remarkable. You look around the room and I’m the oldest person there. I can’t tell you how impressed I am with these young people. They’re read my books, many of them in German, and I’ll be out there signing stuff after the show — I’ll sign anything, except bad legislation, I signed a man’s scrotum in Scotland once. They’re a great audience because they’re so emotional. They love Native Americans. They love Gram Parsons. They love Tom Waits. They love Iggy Pop. They love Van Dyke Parks, and they love Shel Silverstein and Warren Zevon too. They love the right people. They’re singing along on songs like “Old Man Lucas Had a Lot of Mucus Coming Out of His Nose” which I wrote when I was eleven, nearly 60 years ago. So you ask these Germans where they learned that and they say, “My parents taught it to me.”

And that’s true all over Australia and Canada too. Americans are still going to Celine Dion concerts because we just don’t care. I was arguing with Willie about this in Nashville last year. I was talking about how Nashville just doesn’t have it anymore. Its window is closed. It’s a corporate town. Everything’s coming out with click tracks. Every song is written by a goddamn committee and it all sounds like background music for a frat party. And Willie says, “Well, you’re being too harsh. It’s still the place, it’s still the dream where a kid in a pickup truck with a guitar and a suitcase full of songs still goes.” That’s how Willie sees it. I have nothing against Toby Keith. I never met him. I have nothing against Garth Brooks, who I refer to as the Empty Hank… He truly is. They’re all nice guys, but each of them has made more money than Willie Nelson or Hank Williams or Bob Dylan or Waylon Jennings or Kris Kristofferson or Merle Haggard ever made put together.

Kinky Willie

Bob Dylan’s made a lot of money.

He’s made a lot of money, but please — nothing like what Toby Keith or Garth have made. Toby Keith is coming up on a billion dollars. The only guy that can touch that is Barry Manilow. And Barry Manilow writes songs that make you feel good for a short period of time. These guys I admire write songs that might stay with you a lifetime, and they might make you think, and that’s the purpose of this record I’ve made. The Loneliest Man I Ever Met, which wasn’t recorded in Nashville by the way…

Good segue!

Yes it is! I’ve become rather facile at this. But I’m a struggling songwriter. I’ve always been one and I hope I always will be one.

You represent yourself well, however.

Unfortunately, it’s quite an index of an empty life. I’ll tell, ya, it’s a privilege to get this many gigs easily after all this time and not really having a hit… and to make it a financial pleasure to go out and do this. It’s a joy. It’s absolutely great. A pleasure. It really is.

Your legend becomes you, sir.

Well, thank you very much. I don’t want to make this all about quoting Willie, but I love that quote of his, “If you fail at something long enough, you become a legend.”

But how does that apply to you? You haven’t failed. You’ve established a singular identity in an iconic sort of way.

Maybe so, but I prefer to be with that little fraternity of men that thought they were failures. It’s incredible to believe that, but I know it’s true. I’ve read about Lennon. He always thought McCartney was the genius, which was totally not correct. McCartney was the lightweight who did write a couple of great songs, but so did a lot of other people. Churchill thought he was a failure too. He architected the whole war, and then they pulled the rug out from under him. The crowd picked Barrabus.

You’re right, Kinky.

I’m always right. I was living with Miss Texas 1987 and I let her slip through my fingers. I feel that the ones you let slip through your fingers are the only ones you ever keep.

So you miss, Miss Texas.

Yeah, I miss Miss Texas.

I sure hope we don’t miss you and have to wait another 32 years before a new record arrives.

No that won’t happen. I’d much rather be a musician than a politician, I guarantee ya.

No more runs for us then? Politics is behind you?

I hope so. It’s an addiction, like when I walk into a restaurant in Austin and there’s applause all round. You do miss that after awhile. (chuckles) Now they just say, “Hey Kinky, how are ya doin’?”

Maybe there will be renewed applause with this new album.

Well, I hope so.

Photo Credit: Brian Kanof

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