Kinky Friedman is one of the best songwriters of our era, yet most people today who know Kinky know him not from his music but from the series of popular detective novels he wrote, beginning in the mid-1980s, and for his recent campaigns for public office in Texas. His early music, recorded back when there were vinyl LPs, never achieved the kind of commercial success that many less-gifted, better-marketed artists enjoyed. Perhaps the greatest of the eras’ singer-songwriters, Bob Dylan, told Friedman, “You came five years too late, man, or you’d be rich like the rest of us.”
Every gift has conditions, all talents have constraints: Friedman’s would not conform itself to the marketing requirements of the music industry, which, as it became more efficient at getting listeners to part with the price of a record, became less interested in “acts” that ran contrary to marketing wisdom. Sold American, Friedman’s first record, had a children’s song, a satiric ballad, and an elegiac hymn for 6 million Jews dead in the Holocaust all on the same grooved slab of plastic.
Now the smokes from camps are rising
See the helpless creatures on their way.
Hey, old pal, ain’t it surprising
How far you can go before you stay?
Don’t you let the morning blind ya
When on your sleeve you wore the yeller star.
Old memories still live behind ya,
Can’t you see by your outfit who you are?
Don’t need a marketing degree to see how people who value a feeling of connection with 6 million murdered people might not feel, or wish to feel, one with Ol’ Ben Lucas. Friedman feels both.
When it’s cotton picking time in Texas,
Boys, it’s booger picking time for Ben.
He’d raise that finger mean and hostile
Stick it in that waitin’ nostril,
Here he comes with a green one once again.
One of those who heard Sold American was Bob Dylan. He and Friedman met in a Malibu kitchen where Bob leaned his ass on a counter and played Friedman’s Ride ’em Jewboy.
How long will you be driven relentless round the world,
The blood in the rhythm of the soul.
Wild ponies all your dreams were broken,
Rounded out and made to move along.
The loneliness which can’t be spoken
Just swings a rope and rides inside a song.
Dead limbs play with ringless fingers
A melody which burns you deep inside.
Oh, how the song becomes the singers,
May peace be ever with you as you ride.
“That’s just great,” said Friedman to Bob, “now am I supposed to play one of yours to you?” Still, Friedman and Dylan got along well enough for the latter to invite the former to join the fabled Rolling Thunder tour.
Friedman’s second record, for ABC in ’74, was called Kinky Friedman and was no more homogenized for marketing purposes than Sold American and, since it sold no better, it was time for Friedman to swing his rope and move along. He got another major-label record deal (with Epic records) and a chance to promote that release on Austin City Limits, a widely watched PBS music show. Would Friedman tone down his act in the hope of achieving greater commercial success?
It’s hard for most people to tell the truth when their paycheck depends on their not doing so: Friedman and the Jewboys did the hard thing and recorded a now legendary ACL show. Legendary not because of the performances (they were fantastic), which most people never saw, but because it is the only show in 30 seasons of production Austin City Limits made and never aired. No reason was given at the time, or later, for not airing the show, and no one knows, or is prepared to say, who made the decision to bag it. If you have to ask, you ain’t ever going to know.
Lasso From El Paso was released by Epic in ’76. When it did no better or worse than Friedman’s two preceding records Epic dumped him with a few kind words. Maybe he could play the clubs for a while, tune his act, write some new songs, and come back in a year, or maybe 200.
Cocaine was easier to sell than Friedman’s records. Peruvian marching powder was black-marketed to youth culture in the ’70s as a harmless all-natural Incan botanical safely sipped by Queen Victoria and (apparently) ingested by Sigmund Freud, who complained of “cooling eructations.” (What laymen call burps.) Freud’s enthusiasm waned when he recommended blow to a friend, Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow, who became a coke addict and died. “If only it had soothed his pain,” the father of psychoanalysis lamented. As the ’70s became the ’80s, reality began to show through the underground marketing, and as the cocaine merry-go-round picked up speed, people began flying off. Friedman was playing every Sunday night at the Lone Star Café in Greenwich Village, waiting for times to change, which they were, from the hopeful exuberance of the ’70s into the desperate ’80s with what Friedman calls “the hideous metallic cocaine bebop” comprising the score.
Friedman’s pickup bands warmed up the crowd Sunday nights and then, to the strains of “Exodus,” Friedman would descend to applause from the second-story dressing rooms. Great musicians, like Michael Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, and Levon Helm joined him on stage, as did celebrities like John Belushi. But the edges of those nights were creeping toward the center, and the future grew more uncertain. What the hell would come next?
For Bloomfield, Butterfield, and Belushi (and many other close friends of Friedman’s) it was confusion, despair, and death.
How long will you be driven relentless around the world,
The blood in the rhythm of the soul.
In the window candles glowing
Remind you that today you are a child,
Road ahead, forever rolling,
And anything worth cryin’ can be smiled.
So ride, ride ’em Jewboy,
Ride ’em all around the old corral.
I’m, I’m with you boy
If I’ve got to ride 6 million miles.
There’s a folk saying in Texas, more practical than clever: “When your horse dies, get off.” Music was finished with Friedman, and unless he wanted to become a dead legend, he’d have to find another way to go on. When he spotted a mugging in progress in the ATM vestibule of a Christopher Street bank he did.
A criminal was wrestling a woman for the possession of her pocket book. “No one else had a bank card,” Friedman told me in the immediate aftermath of the incident. “I opened the door with my card, entered, subdued the mugger and held him for the police.”
It was a quiet news day, and a well-disposed friend on the city desk of the New York Post wrote: “Country Singer Plucks Victim From Mugger.” The story, which ran on the front page of the Post, also featured a prominent photo of Friedman, snarling, his guitar cocked like a baseball bat over his shoulder, cigar jutting from his lips, standing outside the bank ready to conk criminals. Friedman would keep the clip close by to inspire him as he wrote his first detective novels and transposed himself from songwriter to fictional detective.
First published in 1986, Greenwich Killing Time was the first of a series of 20-some novels, which were eventually translated into a half dozen languages. In the books as in the songs, Friedman’s moral self, his historical self, his comic self, his childish self, and his Jewish self, assisted and hampered by friends, lovers, and family, fought criminality, cruelty, and dogmatism.
The fact that few people listen, fewer people actually hear what you’re trying to say, is, for an artist no excuse to stop saying it. Friedman’s message, his humor, his compounded ironies and inclusive offensiveness were perhaps more comprehensible in narrative form. More people read the books, but the message stayed the same. It was the same message contained in Friedman’s songs.
After music and his novels, Friedman had attained a certain celebrity. He spent time at two White Houses, first a Democrat and then a Republican one. He has political opinions but no partisan loyalties. Perhaps those visits to the White House fueled his competitive instinct, or naiveté prompted him to test his charismatic power on a new kind of audience—the people of state of Texas.
Running as an independent for governor, Friedman didn’t change his “act.” He talked to election crowds all across Texas the same way he talked to them on his records, in his books, and at the grocery store. Friedman brought to his campaign the same humor, sentimentality, sincerity, and irony evident in his songs and his books. In other words, he brought himself. He made a strong populist run, getting 13 percent of the 2006 gubernatorial vote. If not for some clever (if predictable) political maneuvers by seasoned party operatives who opposed him, Friedman might have won.
Unfortunately for Friedman and the people of Texas, politics is, or has become, entirely about marketing and advertising, just like the music business. “The people chose Barabbas,” Friedman says of his loss. His thousands of volunteers were heartbroken.
That horse was dead. Friedman was alive, living at Echo Hill Ranch, near Medina, Texas, about equidistant between Bandera and Kerrville, which is itself located about halfway between Austin and San Antonio. When he’s not at the ranch, Friedman’s out on the road, touring. He has played venues in Australia and all across Europe and as far from Texas as New Jersey; which is where Brian Molnar saw and heard Friedman perform “The Loneliest Man I Ever Met.” Molnar thought, “We’ve got to make a record.”
Friedman says the project came about obliquely and accidentally, almost against his will. Which is how he believes great work gets done. “A man who sits down to do a great painting never does one.”
“Brian badgered me to do this”—to go back in the studio—“after 30-some years,” Friedman said recently, adding, “and it’s maybe an unconscious reaction against overproduced crap that’s comin’ out of Nashville that all sounds like background music for frat parties—every song written by committee.”
Molnar brought down guitarist and songwriter Joe Cirotti from New Jersey to the small studio built in the annex at Echo Hill Ranch. A recording engineer from New Jersey, Michael Stigliano, also joined them. Steve Kaddison, of New York, mastered the recording.
“Brian Molnar liked The Loneliest Man” said Friedman, “and he wanted to record that. Will Hoover and I wrote it in Nashville long ago. It was based on the life of our friend Tompall Glaser, who was the singin’ unsung hero of the outlaw country movement. This is kind of a tribute to his spirit.”
Musicians and friends who’d heard about the recording sessions started stopping by the ranch. Willie Nelson recorded a duet with Friedman. Mickey Raphael, the legendary Texas harmonica player, plays on several tracks.
Referring to his version of Bob Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country,” Friedman said, “Bob and I both let true love slip through our hands, deliberately, with the same girl.” Friedman’s body language hedges a trifle. “Possibly,” he adds.
It’s a simple record, very spare, just great musicians playing together, not about production at all. As one writer said, reviewing the album, “It’s not a record, it’s a mirror.”
“My Shit’s Fucked Up,” Friedman said, “is a song [another great songwriter] Warren Zevon wrote, after he was diagnosed with the mesothelioma that killed him.”
“Depending on how hip the club is,” Friedman said, “maybe they’ll be laughing through [the preceding song] ‘A Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis,’ and then through to Zevon’s song about his own death.” Friedman pauses, then adds, “People laugh through the song because we all know, really, true love always ends in a hostage situation.”
Reflecting on his own emotional encryption, Friedman continued, “I don’t know if it’s more melancholy, this record, or more romantic, which is how I tend to see it, but romance is tragedy. If Romeo and Juliet had a Hollywood ending, we wouldn’t know their names today.”
Friedman knows his record is good, but he remembered that the others were too. As for commercial success, “I see dead people,” he said, “those are the ones that matter, those are the ones I am singing to.” And, Friedman consoled himself, “Willie Nelson told me, ‘If you fail at something long enough you become a legend.’ ”
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Ted Mann is an Emmy award-winning writer who worked on NYPD Blue, Deadwood, Hatfield McCoy, and Homeland.