Circus or Revival; An Interview with Kinky Friedman

Richard Samet “Kinky” Friedman, born to middle-class Jewish parents in 1944, sums up his life simply. “I was born in Chicago, lived there a year, and couldn’t find work,” Kinky says. “So I moved to Texas, where I haven’t worked since.”

That’s the cowboy in him talkin’. In fact, Kinky Friedman has worked as pretty damn near everything you can think of: musician, singer/songwriter, humorist, raconteur, mystery novelist, non-fiction author, magazine columnist, and politician; frequent guest of radio’s Don Imus, bandmate with Bob Dylan in the Rolling Thunder Revue, the first full-blooded Jew to play the Grand Old Opry. He’s been called “the Jewish cowboy” and he did some cowboy stuff as a kid, but not on a cattle ranch; his parents ran a camp so city kids could experience country life.

Released around the same time that John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson were re-inventing country music, Kinky Friedman’s first few albums (recorded with The Texas Jewboys) established him as an outrageous, larger-than-life personality, with song titles like “How Can I Tell You I Love You (When You’re Sitting On My Face?)” and “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore.”

When his music career cooled down in the 80s, Kinky started writing mystery novels, starring himself as a hard-bitten Raymond Chandler-esque detective; he’s also written volumes of non-fiction and a travel book, as well as a long-running column in “Texas Monthly.” Kinky competed against a Grand Master as a chess prodigy at seven; served in the Peace Corps in Borneo in his 20s; supports the Second Amendment, but hates hunting and fights for animal rights (like the campaign to save Texas wild stallions from being slaughtered and sold to France as food.)   He’s an enigma wrapped in a riddle inside a mystery, with a big bushy mustache and a Cuban cigar.

With a decidedly gonzo campaign promising “the de-wussification of Texas,” Friedman ran for governor in 2006, but came in fourth in a six-way race. His platform, true to his nature, proved a cantankerous, contrarian mishmash of ideas, from the progressive (legalize pot and gambling, more money for public education) to far-right conservatism (he supported tougher border security and today applauds Trump’s immigration policy.)

“I support gay marriage,” Kinky said at the time, but added the punchline, “I believe they have a right to be as miserable as the rest of us,” so it was hard to tell if he was serious. Some of his ideas resonated with young voters; ” I just want Texas to be number one in something other than executions, toll roads and property tax,” he pledged. But a dozen years before the advent of Trump, when discussing his gubernatorial opponent Rick Perry’s approach to immigration, Kinky told an interviewer, “his policy has been, bring us your tired, your poor, your drugs, your gangs, your bombs, your terrorists: Welcome to Texas! That’s why we find dead bodies in the back of cargo container trucks. That doesn’t have to happen. It’s a policy of neglect, and the governor doesn’t want to offend Hispanics, if you want to know the truth.”

During the 2016 primary campaign, Kinky told everybody who’d listen that he loved Bernie Sanders, and he meant it; but in November, he voted for Donald J. Trump, and he’s been a fervent supporter of the president ever since. So perhaps it was for the best that, after the unsuccessful race for governor, with his music career waning and his mystery novels behind him, Kinky faded from public view.

For a bit.

“One night Willie Nelson called me up and asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was watching Matlock,” says Kinky, in an oft-repeated tale about his return to the limelight. “Kinky, watching Matlock is a sure sign of depression,” Willie told him. “You need to get back to writing. Turn off Matlock and write!” So Kinky followed his old friend’s advice and promptly penned the songs released in early July as Circus Of Life, his first album of all-new material in 40 years. This summer, he’ll be touring in his most extensive tour of America in decades, playing new tunes and a few old favorites. Circus Of Life eschews Kinky’s trademark brand of social satire and wisecracking in favor of mellow, more reflective songwriting; even a whimsical track like “Jesus In Pajamas” has profound things to say about how we treat the homeless, while others convey an elegiac sense of melancholy and remembrance. He used to sing about assholes from El Paso, trailer park trash, and Beaver Cleaver; now he’s being compared to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.

Oh, and what did Willie Nelson think of Kinky’s new songs? “He said he liked them,” Kinky says. “And then he added, ‘by the way Kinky, what station is Matlock on?”

GB: This is a real pleasure, Kinky. I’ve been a fan of yours since 1973’s Sold American.

KF: Well, thank you. Likewise.

GB: So first question, what took you so long to write any new songs?

KF: Well, that’s a very good question. I guess life just got in the way – politics, and prose writing. But there’s really no excuses. Maybe I was a little too happy. Now I’m very well grounded in a sick society.

GB: There are a lot of songs on Circus Of Life that could be described as elegiac, looking back at life, summing things up.

KF: Well, a lot of them are about dead cats and lost lovers and things like that, personal stuff that very few people who know. But it’s like a silent witness, I try to write for a silent witness, instead of thinking what a 16-year old girl would be wearing to a tailgate party.

GB: Like most of what passes for modern country.

KF: Yeah. There would be a committee writing that. But when you start doing that, when you start saying that you want something that Hollywood would like or something that deejays would pay, that’s always a mistake. It’s always much, much better to just Frisbee it out there, and you gotta be miserable. If you’re unhappy with your lot in life, you have a chance to be a songwriter. These songs were not calculated to be played on the radio, but I just got a call from somebody that said NPR is playing “Copper Love” and “Circus of Life.”

GB: Those are both beautiful songs.

KF: Thank you, but they’re not designed to appeal to most people. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe these days so many people are out of the circle, we all have ADD culturally, do it could be that this could be a significant record.

GB: These songs are sentimental and a few are romantic, but those are not the traits that you became known for. Early on you were much more of a humorist and some of those lyrics push the boundaries of what’s acceptable today in terms of political correctness. Has that changed your approach or put a crimp in your ability to perform some of those old songs?

KF: Not at all. I’m just writing what I feel at the time. It took me about a month to write these 12 songs that make up ‘The Matlock Collection,’ as I call it. That’s how this record started. One of the pre-eminent songs on here is “Jesus In Pajamas.” That’s a true story. At 3:16 am one night, I was in a Denny’s. This was the first one I wrote. This guy comes into Denny’s with a green-knit cap on his head, a big guy in his pajamas, mildly fucked up on something, begging for change, and I didn’t have any cash on me at the time. Then he started drooling and whatnot, so I left, but a few minutes later I started feeling very guilty. So I circled back to the Denny’s, and of course the guy was gone, and nobody had even seen him in there. So I left Jesus in pajamas on the cross again. That song was written on a drive from Ft. Worth to Dallas, that’s how fast that one came together. So you have to fight happiness at every turn. A happy camper creates nothing great. It’s a rough and unforgiving discipline, being a songwriter. It’s good if you have a ‘fuck ‘em and beat ‘em’ Fruit Loops attitude, but it’s hard on an average person. I know this record is different. It sounds like an early Kristofferson or Leonard Cohen record to me.

GB: It reminded me a lot of John Prine.

KF: A little bit of John Prine, right. If you went to a songwriters meeting in Nashville right now, to write a song with three other people, and they said put a little Leonard Cohen in it, some of these guys today wouldn’t even know who Leonard Cohen is.

GB: This isn’t the first song you’ve written with Jesus in the title, of course.
KF: (laughs) I really don’t do ‘They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore.’ I do a few of the old ones, but I notice the new ones are going down better. Nobody wants to hear the old stuff and neither do I. I do play a few of ‘em but mostly I stick to the new ones. I’m just coming to them from a different place.

GB: I was at SXSW in 1990 when you gave the keynote address, and I remember a few of the jokes from that speech, they’d start riots in today’s PC world. You’d be another Roseanne.

KF: Well, it’s not good. It’s Stalinism, is what it is. That idea of taking every frame of Kevin Spacey’s work in that movie out was just sick. That’s sicker than anything Kevin Spacey ever did. And Kevin Spacey is a great actor, not a good one. Now they’ve wiped him out. It’s Stalin-esque, is what it is, and I think the left is doing it. Just remember when you think of Trump that Jesus rode in on a jackass. That’s what Billie Joe Shaver told me, anyway.

GB: I remember reading during the campaign that you were optimistic about Trump. How’s he doing?

KF: I’m a cockeyed optimist and he’s already doing very well. I know so. The evidence is right there. He’s demonstrated more courage than Forrest Gump Obama, who demonstrated no courage whatsoever. He was a puppet, and Valerie Jarrett was the puppetmaster. Roseanne Barr was not wrong about that. They took care of her, and that’s fine, but pretty soon they’ll take care of themselves. The first politician that I heard rail against political correctness and say it was going to destroy us was Barbara Jordan (a Democrat, civil rights leader, and the first Southern African-American woman elected to the House of Representatives.) She was probably the last true statesman that Texas had. She was a true Democrat, whereas this people like Chuck Schumer and Maxine Waters just think they’re Democrats. But they’re not Democrats, they’re not Stalinists. Not to get into politics too deeply here, but Cesar Chavez was the first person I ever heard said that illegal immigration was a very bad thing, not just for America but for Hispanics who were working and trying to raise themselves up and make a life for themselves. Letting millions of illegals into the country was the worst thing we could do. And that was Cesar Chavez. That was a Democrat talking.

GB: When you ran for governor, you had some very progressive ideas, like legalizing pot and spending more money on public education, but you were also very tough on border security.

KF: Well, I always say, who would Jesus deport? It’s a thorny issue. Some of the issues are clear cut though. All this mockery of Trump, it’s not right. There are only two people I can think of who was mocked more than Trump. Abraham Lincoln, maybe, and Jesus Christ. So we need a reality president for a reality world. And we’ll see what happens. I’ve never been a fan of Trump’s, he’s never been a hero of mine. I used to joke that my heroes were Bill Gates, Justin Bieber, and Donald Trump. But they’re not. Trump has done three or four or five things he said he’d do, and they all needed to be done.

GB: One more thing I wanted to ask about. Don Imus retired recently to very little fanfare. You were a regular on his show for years and a friend, what do you think his legacy will be?

KF: I just talked to him yesterday. He’s doing well. His place in history stands very high. Imus was actually on the air longer than anyone we can think of, as whatever you want to call him. He started out as a disc jockey but he became so much more than that. A lot of people, especially on the East Coast, only know me through Imus. No doubt about it.

It’s different when I tour Europe and Australia. I get a purer audience there. (laughs) They understand the difference between significance and importance. Importance might be when you’re governor of California or something. Significance is Hunter Thompson, Abbie Hoffman, Shel Silverstein, maybe Tom Waits, Warren Zevon, Gram Parsons. Mostly people who didn’t quite make it. The mainstream is important but it’s rarely significant. Garth Brooks is important. I’m sure he’s important to his record company and his fan club, but he’s really not significant. Cesar Chavez and Barbara Jordan, they’re significant. So we strive for significance, and that’s why “Ride ‘Em Jewboy” wound up being played by Nelson Mandela in his jail cell. That was a song he played to himself every night from a smuggled-in tape cassette. I know it sounds like a Kurt Vonnegut thing but it’s true. That’s one thing that my producer Chuck Glaser told me. He said, Kinky, any time you record something, you never know who’s going to be listening, you never know who’s going to hear it. That’s an intangible award I think I’ve received because of country music. The guy who told me about Mandela said to me, now Kinky, don’t get a swelled head over this, because you’re not Nelson Mandela’s favorite singer. That was Dolly Parton.

Still, I never dreamed that would happen, and I sure would like to see another Nelson Mandela pop up once in a while in Africa or America who would help the political landscape. I’d like to see another Democrat like Barbara Jordan. I don’t see any, they’re not really Democrats. Ann Richards would be disgusted with them. Molly Ivins would be disgusted. Harry Truman would. JFK would. Sam Rayburn would. They’re not Democrats, they’re liberals.

Words: Jim Testa

Photos: Brian Kanof

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