To Wit, Kinky Reveals A Serious Side

Joshua Mamis PhotoThere’s something Shakespearean about Kinky Friedman.

“The Kinkster” is a character, literally, in his own life and 34 books. The iconoclastic Jewish Texas country singer, mystery book writer and would-be politician is a giant among a relatively small circle of acolytes, known for his contrarian wit and raucous, sometimes raunchy, satirical songs and jokes.

It’s an image that he has surely cultivated to great effect, and, as he would say, to his own “financial pleasure,” merchandizing his own line of cigars and “Man in Black” tequila. (“It’s not your father’s tequila,” he boasts. “It’s your grandfather’s gardener’s tequila.”)

But Kinky knows he is more than that. He has a poet’s soul, and when you press him, as I did during a long, rambling and thoroughly entertaining conversation outside of Crown Street’s Cedarhurst Café before his gig Tuesday night at Café Nine, he’ll let drop in dribs and drabs that it’s his serious songs that still resonate some 40 years after he set the pre-internet world a-twitter as the leader of the late, great country music band The Texas Jewboys.

It’s a classic sad, sensitive, too-in touch-with-the-sorrows-of-the-world character. My theory has long been that Kinky has wanted to be recognized for his song craftsmanship, but that the spotlight has always been on the yee-haw social satire of “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore” and “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed.” I was surprised Tuesday night when he agrees immediately.

That’s why the songs that seem the most meaningful to him, those that come up in conversation, are the sad, serious ones.

“Great country music is like great classical music,” he said. “You have to be miserable to do it.” He talked about the melancholy of the great works by Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin; and the songwriting of Hank Williams and Willie Nelson. It’s a formulation that probably applies to any great art, but I was sitting with someone who has been drawn to country music, so I let it slide.

“Are you miserable?” I asked.

“I’ve been miserable for 68 years,” he said, “and I’m 69.”

Then he couldn’t help himself:  “But I read at a reading level of 71.”

Still, his set at Café Nine Tuesday night clearly reflected this.  Sure, he did a few obligatory crowd pleasers, “Waitret, Please Waitret,” “Biscuits” and “Homo Erectus.” But he left out “Ballad of Charles Whitman,” “We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You” and “Highway Café,” songs that have been on his fairly permanent set list.

Instead, he included what he calls the world’s first, and probably only, pro-choice country music song, “Rapid City, South Dakota,” the touching “Wild Man from Borneo” (where people go to the circus see the freak show: “You come to see what you wanna see/Ah, you come to see but you never come to know”), his cover of Peter La Farge’s haunting lament “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” the yearning for idealized love of “Marilyn and Joe,” the tragic “Nashville Casualty and Life” story of an overlooked and forgotten black busker.

And then there was “Ride ‘Em Jewboy.”

“Ride ‘Em Jewboy” perfectly reflects the Kinky dichotomy.  The title, irreverent. The content? Well, it may be the only country music song about a Holocaust survivor.

It also happens to be, if a story Kinky told last night can be believed, one of Nelson Mandela’s favorite songs.

He told the story at Café Nine, and the mention of the song title drew laughter. But there’s nothing funny about the song whose character once had on his sleeve “a yeller star.”

Seems he was touring South Africa in the ‘90s and met African National Congress leader Tokyo Sexwale, who was in the cell adjoining Mandela’s on Robben Island. He told Kinky that visitors would smuggle cassette tapes to Mandela, and that Kinky’s first record was a favorite. “I could hear him at night playing ‘Sold American,’” Kinky recounted. But that wasn’t his favorite song. That was “Ride ‘Em Jewboy.”

Why? Kinky theorized it connected with Mandela because Mandela, a lawyer, couldn’t find work as an African in the Afrikaans world until a Jewish law firm hired him. This story, too, had a punch line: Kinky, it seems, wasn’t Mandela’s favorite singer. That would be Dolly Parton.

Finally, there was one question I have wanted to ask Kinky Friedman for many years.

His song “We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You” is intricately conceived, playing off three different uses of the word “service,” such as at an eating establishment, to which the title refers, but also to services at a synagogue (“where the book was backwards, so I couldn’t read”) and, finally, to military service:

Life from Laos and Cambodia
No more tears tonight they showed ya
The latest old war movies on TV
You know it’s bound to escalate
So go and turn on channel eight
Watch channel seven border channel three
Well, I won’t mind your tanks and jets and jeeps
And speaking on behalf of all my fellow creeps
We reserve the right to refuse service to you
Right, face, forward, move
And get the children, too
Let Saigons be bygones
Don’t you blow this world in two
We reserve the right to refuse service to you

The last few times I had seen him perform, Kinky left out the verse. At first, I thought it was a mistake. Now I wanted to find out why.

“Dated,” he said.

“No it’s not,” I insisted. “it’s essential to the structure of the song. And besides, history repeats.”

Well, said Kinky, expertly changing the subject by quoting Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

We talked for over an hour, and I barely dented Kinky’s politician’s penchant for deflecting questions with long, fascinating rambles about his travels or his famous friends sprinkled liberally with asides and jokes rehearsed from his set.

Walking slowly back to the club, we talked about how, at 69, he has become a classic troubadour, traveling from town to town, playing folk clubs and dive bars, like this “musicians’ living room,” performing from his relatively small cache of material 100 times a year trying to make each one sound heart-felt and original to that evening.

Is there anything about it that he enjoys?

A moment of genuine introspection passed.

It’s hard, he then said, laying dive bars to small, though adoring, crowds. He somehow sounded respectful and worn down at the same time.

Café Nine proprietor Paul Mayer arrived, apologized for some mix-up, and asked Kinky if he’d “been downstairs” yet.

Sure, said the Kinkster, brightening a bit. “It reminds me of that Bob Dylan song.” He starts singing softly from “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” which he recalled from 1963’s “Freewheelin” album.

With half-damp eyes I stared to the room
Where my friends and I spent many an afternoon
Where we together weathered many a storm
Laughin’ and singing ‘till the early hours of the morn’.

By the old wooden stove where our hats was hung
Our words were told, our songs were sung
Where we longed for nothin’ and were satisfied
Joking and talking about the world outside.

Now that, he said with glistening eyes, “is a great song.”

Tags: ,

Post a Comment

Commenting has closed for this entry


posted by: Nashstreeter on August 13, 2014  11:30pm

It’s always amazing to me that guys think hostility to women is cute. When Kinky came to SUNY Buffalo back in the early 70s, I was visiting friends there, and we went to hear him, expecting some good ole badass politial humor. Instead we got a direct insult: Get your biscuits in the kitchen and your buns in the bed.
You mean us? Why attack us? we wondered. We didn’t kill anybody. Some of us were even Jewish.  Although we were, of course, women.
So we got even. We pulled the plugs on all his amps and mics, and we made the college allow us to talk about what the meaning of the song was.
If he’s still performing that song to adoring reviewers and audiences, it’s clear that we girls still have a long way to go. Kinda hard to imagine any self-respecting female putting either her biscuits or her buns anywhere near an old dried-up cow patty like him.