KINKY FRIEDMAN

McCabe’s Guitar Shop - November 18, 2017

Another Side of Kinky Friedman

By Ross Altman, PhD

Kinky FriedmanI’ve heard some great concerts over the years—the best of the best from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to Van Morrison, Mavis Staples, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard—and reviewed them all gratefully in these pages. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more moving concert than Kinky Friedman gave at McCabe’s last night. It was utterly magical and transformative—in the sense that it transformed the way I will think of this extraordinary artist forevermore. Let Dylan have the first word: “I don’t understand music. I understand Lightning Hopkins. I understand Lead Belly. I understand John Lee Hooker. I understand Woody Guthrie. I understand Kinky Friedman.” Wow! As usual, Bob Dylan is the first artist to make such an observation—putting Friedman in the same company as the all-time greatest folk and roots musicians. Now I know why he said such a thing—which couldn’t help but raise my eyebrows the first time I read it.

Shame on me: for thinking of Kinky Friedman more as a Jewish novelty song writer than a serious artist to begin with. Friedman made one of the most important distinctions in memory near the beginning of his show—a distinction which will get me through many a dark night of the soul from here on. He said that he did not think of himself as a successful artist. But then he added that there are many artists who are more successful than he—prominently like Justin Bieber. But not every successful artist is significant—and he consoled himself with the thought that he had some significance, even if he was not “successful” in the conventional sense.

I think he is both—because I regard McCabe’s as the premiere folk club in Los Angeles today—just like I regard Ed Pearl’s the Ash Grove as the premiere folk club in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s—up to when it was closed due to fire in 1973. Neither of them ever attracted mass audiences—after all McCabe’s holds only 150 people in its back room theatre. But they host the very best artists in their field, who draw what they draw—the best audiences in their field. Van Gogh sold three paintings during his lifetime; Emily Dickinson published only seven poems. Despite Thomas Grey’s sad warning that “Full many a rose is born to blush unseen and waste her sweetness on the desert air,” I still believe that history catches up with the great ones. And Kinky is one of the great ones.

The side of himself he revealed last night is not the version displayed on his vastly entertaining web site—the wildly humorous, satirical, brazenly comical character—the cigar-smoking “Asshole From El Paso”—his self-effacing take-off on Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogie”--one of many songs that have endeared him to Texans for half a century. Deliberately obscured from this self-portrait is the tender, self-revealing, heart-breaking, humble and vulnerable artist who sings in a quiet, non-confrontational style that speaks volumes, and goes straight to your heart. This side of Kinky is just as real, and he is an American original.

He recounts the most wonderful story of watching Matlock, the garrulous defense attorney portrayed by Andy Griffith, at three o’clock in the morning, when he gets a phone call from his “shrink.” His shrink is none other than fellow Texas troubadour Willie Nelson. He is barely awake, but you don’t turn down a phone call from Willie. Nelson asks him, “What are you doing?” I don’t know about you, but I would be tempted to lie in that situation—to say something to impress my shrink—like “writing.” Not Kinky. “I’m watching Matlock.” And here’s where Willie earned his degree and qualified as Kinky’s shrink. “Kinky,” says Willie, “you turn off Matlock and pick up your guitar and start writing—you still have something to say.” Well I don’t know about you—but if Willie Nelson told me to pick up my guitar and start writing, that’s exactly what I would do. And so did Kinky.

He wrote a song called, Me and My Guitar, a love song to his beautiful blonde Guild D-55, the first of what he now calls his “Matlock songs.” The refrain: “All I am is me and my guitar.” Until Willie writes a love song to his old Martin N-20 Trigger, that will be my standard for songs about guitars. It was breathtakingly simple and heartfelt—lyrical and beautiful.

As you know, Kinky Friedman began his career with a noteworthy band he dubbed “The Texas Jewboys,” a tribute to “Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.” His comical hits from those rollicking and rolling early days include They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore, and the song that earned him the coveted award “Male Chauvinist Pig of 1973” from NOW—Get Your Biscuits in the Oven, and Your Buns in the Bed—which Kinky performed last night in a kinder, gentler fashion than I have heard before—not shying away from its politically incorrect humor, but adding a layer of understated affection that made the song far more nuanced.

That’s not the only cumbersome “award” he has received over the years. Buffy Sainte-Marie also gave him one as a chauvinist towards Native Americans, when she literally tore off an Indian headdress she caught him wearing in a concert at the University of Buffalo in 1973. She thought he had no right to wear such a costume—and told him so with a gesture of defiance that has remained in the collective unconscious ever since. I wish Buffy could have heard Kinky Friedman’s version of Peter LaFarge’s masterpiece, The Ballad of Ira Hayes, the Native American marine photographed in perhaps the most famous photo to come out of WWII—of four US Marines who captured Mt. Iwo Jima in the battle for the Philippines:

The Ballad of Ira Hayes

Call him drunken Ira Hayes

He won't answer anymore

Not the whiskey drinkin' Indian

Nor the Marine that went to war

There they battled up Iwo Jima's hill,

Two hundred and fifty men

But only twenty-seven lived to walk back down again

And when the fight was over

And when Old Glory raised

Among the men who held it high

Was the Indian, Ira Hayes.

I have heard Johnny Cash’s hit version, and treasure Bob Dylan’s up-tempo folk rock version, and value Patrick Sky’s simple acoustic folk version; but none of them hold a candle to Kinky’s almost whispered prayer-like version from last night. It was a hymn to all Native Americans and their tragic history—and earned a feather from that headdress Sainte-Marie ripped so unceremoniously off his curly Jewish head. I was fortunate to be able to tell him so after the concert.

Among the other new “Matlock” songs I look forward to having on his upcoming album Spitfire in early 2018 is a beautiful love song called Zoey, perhaps named for Salinger’s heroine in Franny and Zooey, and a quietly majestic tribute to America’s veterans called A Dog Named Freedom. Before he sang it he asked the full house at McCabe’s late show if there were any military veterans there tonight. Not one hand went up—which drew a meaningful nod from Friedman as much as to say, “No surprise at this upscale, west-side folk club—the soldiers doing the fighting and dying are from the lower working class.” But the audience cheered as one for his moving tribute to a military dog who lost his leg in Iraq—for his was a “three-legged dog named Freedom.” It was the most moving dog song I have ever heard, and brought America’s veterans to life in a way few songs have been able to—especially Lee Greenwood’s hit (which Friedman mentioned in his song’s introduction) God Bless the USA.

A very small unscripted aside revealed how careful a songwriter Friedman is—in his portrait of Rapid City, South Dakota—he sets it in a “hotel”—“I mean a motel—there’s a big difference there.” That shrewd observation is one only a good writer would make—since either works for the rhyme scheme—but the social implications belong to a completely different character. It brings to mind Robert Frost’s definitive distinction between “the right word and the almost right word” as the “difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” Kinky knows that difference.

Kinky waited until late in the show for the punch line he saved about Willie’s initial middle-of-the-night call that prompted this new burst of songwriting from the 73-year-old song and mystery book writer. After he had written a dozen new songs he finally got the courage to call Willie back. And the first words out of Willie’s mouth were, “What channel did you say Matlock was on?” It was a perfect gag—a joke as Kinky described it “intended for just one person.” That’s what made it so delicious.

Kinky came on after (full disclosure) our mutual friend musician and journalist Michael Simmons opened the show. When I saw Michael on stage—the brilliant music journalist who wrote the LA Weekly cover story about Bob Dylan turning 70—I was overjoyed to see him—accompanied by legendary drummer Don Heffington.

Michael introduced Kinky with a lovely set that concluded with a heartwarming, You Are My Sunshine, done so slowly and deliberately the audience couldn’t help but sing along. And Michael brought the whole performance to life by remembering it was written by Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis—who succeeded Huey Long in office. When Gene Autry turned it into a smash hit Governor Davis didn’t pocket a penny, but used the profits to pay for “The Sunshine Bridge” he named for the song. The audience and I loved his performance, and then he barely paused to enjoy their enthusiastic ovation, but simply stepped aside for Lincoln Meyerson to introduce “The great Kinky Friedman.” My favorite musician-journalist took his deep black-with-a-white peace-symbol guitar and left up the same golden staircase to McCabe’s green room Kinky was descending. The moment was beautifully timed—almost as if rehearsed.

The last of the “Matlock” songs Kinky Friedman performed—and most moving of all—is his new song Jesus in Pajamas. There have been many songs written in modern folk music about “what would Jesus do?” and what you would say if Jesus “knocked on your door,” like “A Tramp On the Street.” But Kinky’s song sneaks up on you, and doesn’t reveal its full import until late in the song—when (spoiler alert) it becomes clear that Jesus has returned—as a somewhat unkempt waiter at an all-night diner—who serves the clientele in his pajamas.

How they treat him is the character test for these self-proclaimed Christians who don’t recognize Him for who He is—until Kinky finally leaves them “with the menu in your hands.” Whose Jesus are we now about to leave behind a wall against immigrants, whose Jesus is now being sexually abused, whose Jesus is now a victim of police brutality? It’s a brilliant conceit—and most tellingly written by a Jewish songwriter who has never shied away from the Christian faith—or his own.

But Kinky’s genius is most tellingly shown in his small portraits of ordinary people, “Saying goodbye isn’t easy—for a fool with a tear in his eye,” or for Zoey, “I know you’ll never be my wife, but I want you always in my life.” He wears his big heart on his sleeve. These are the old-fashioned songs he writes—as he put it in his moving memoir Heroes of a Texas Childhood—“on the last typewriter in Texas.”

Kinky left us with a telling final comment on his itinerary—wherein he was flying out of LAX at 4:00am to get back to his ranch and take care of his sanctuary for abandoned animals—which has single-handedly rescued thousands of dogs and cats over the past twenty-five years. It’s what he proudly calls a “no-kill shelter.” “It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true,” said Muhammad Ali—and this is true. How lucky we are he had time to stop at McCabe’s Guitar shop for a one-night stand on his way home.

He announced early on that he would take requests—and one from the back row finally came in for the encore: The Wild Man of Borneo—which he almost passed on as he hadn’t done it in a while. But on second thought he rose to the occasion—and left us with a perfect ending to a show that on reflection was a celebration of what British author Colin Wilson called “the outsider”—in this case a circus performer who told his amazing tale of how he got there under the big top. It was perfect in that this is the year Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus closed for good—on Sunday, May 21st—when I paid tribute to the lore of the circus and folk music at Topanga. Kinky’s song is part of this great tradition—and reminded me how moving some of these outlying characters some consider mere freaks really are. They are not freaks to Kinky—he always finds their humanity.

One song he left out of his show is worth noting—Ride ‘Em Jewboy—his symbolic cowboy Holocaust song—which he describes as his best; here are a couple verses:

(Chorus) Ride, ride ‘em Jewboy,

Ride ‘em all around the old corral.

I'm, I'm with you boy

If I've got to ride six million miles.

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…”

Finally, he made time to pay affectionate tribute to his brand of “Black Tequila,” in keeping with his own black cowboy hat, black denim jacket, black guitar strap and black Levis. He sees himself as following in the proud footsteps of other “men in black,” such as Lash Larue, Zorro, and the original—Johnny Cash—one of the good guys.

But for his farewell last words to the audience, he went with the guy in the white hat—Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys: “May the Good Lord take a liking to you.”

Outside in the foyer, where he was signing books and CDs, folks lined up.

They ain’t making Jews like Kinky anymore—if they ever did. He’s one of a kind.

Everything’s Bigger in Texas: The Life and Times of Kinky Friedman by Mary Lou Sullivan—was just published! For details see his website.

Thanks to concert assistant Brian Rodriguez who saw me heading toward the front door outside and told me I could come as his guest. And thanks as always to McCabe’s Concert Director Lincoln Meyerson, who waved me in with a big smile.

Ross Altman performs at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center Saturday evening December 16 in a CD release party for his new CD The Man With the Blue Guitar; 8:00pm 681 Venice Blvd, Venice, CA 90291 310-822-3006

Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton; he is a member of Local 47 (AFM); Ross may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.