Inside the Paste studios where he was playing songs from his new album Resurrection, the singer and former Texas gubernatorial candidate Richard “Kinky” Friedman was rolling off dry one-liners as effortlessly as ever.
As he sipped Petrone at lunchtime, Friedman who recently celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday, admitted he was a little under the weather.
“I went to the doctor the other day and my doctor said, ” You’ve got Alzheimer’s and AIDS,” he opined and then paused before delivering the punchline. “I said, well, at least I don’t have AIDS.”
Friedman, who arrived on the scene in the early Seventies as the leader of his own band the Texas Jewboys, has made fun of himself and poked fun at pop culture around him in songs, on stage and in prose for over forty years. Earning the enmity of some who have seen his satire as crossing lines in a politically correct world, Friedman’s sarcasm has gotten himself into trouble on more than one occasion. Along the way he’s been a famed author and entertaining public figure who ran for Texas governor coming in fourth with over 12 percent of the vote.
These days you might have to take a step back to realize how straight Friedman is playing it. After a forty year absence from writing new songs, Friedman laid down his satirical pen and emerged last year with Circus of Life. On Resurrection (Echo Hill Records), Friedman is less of the character of the merry prankster and Kinkster for his bawdy antics of days past than he is the philosopher and raconteur looking deep within.
“He really reached back for this one,” says Larry Campbell the producer of Resurrection. “For all his bluster and need to agitate and shock, he’s one of the most soulful, deep feeling people I’ve ever met. He’s very empathetic and caring and a real champion for the underdog.”
On the title track as he recalls friends and loved ones, some of whom who he’s lost and have passed on, Friedman explores his chosen life within the context of why he is still out there playing shows.
“You might think that I’m too old to be out playing on the road/instead of staying home where I belong/You might think that it ain’t right to be out driving half the night,” Friedman sings alongside with Willie Nelson. When he concludes “No it ain’t right, it ain’t even wrong,” it’s universal resolution for a profession that every musician has chosen (or perhaps of the profession that chose them.)
The new music finds him lamenting a Nashville of yesteryear. In “Me and Billy Swan” Friedman reflects in his gravelly, weathered voice on his time as a young songwriter during a period when he appeared on the Grand Ole Opry. Friedman ruefully mourns a town where everything now sounds the same. Coming in a year when we lost the great songwriter Donnie Fritts, it’s an emotionally riveting song as he pays tribute to Tompall Glaser, journalist Hazel Smith and the great songwriter and performer Billy Swan.
Kinky’s past looms large and recently has come into focus again as he revisited a past life as part of the Lone Star Cafe reunion in New York City. The Lone Star was the famed club in New York City that came of age when the popularity of the film Urban Cowboy helped spawn a scene in New York. The club was a home for wayward Texans like Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, Doug Sahm, Jerry Jeff Walker and Friedman and was often referred to as the Texan Embassy. In many ways, it represented Americana before it had a name.
Friedman recently said he searched the world to find the best producer but given Phil Spector wasn’t available selected Larry Campbell. For both artist and producer, Resurrection brings them full circle. The very first record Campbell produced was Kinky Friedman Live at the Lone Star Cafe, a record that is long out of print and is an expensive collectible. He came of age at the Lone Star and would watch from the bandstand celebrities like Dan Rather, Nelson and others who’d regularly frequent the club. The club is also where he met Levon Helm with whom he’d go on to revitalize his career and earn three Grammys.
With the club having long shut its doors, the reunion switched to the Cutting Room, owned by actor Chris Noth. Friedman was joined with former Lone Star Cafe manager Cleve Hattersley and his wife Mary, Larry “Ratso” Sloman and producer Campbell. Mountain drummer Corky Laing sat behind his drum kit and recited the poetry of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”
The week of the show Friedman went back in time to recall the antics of yesteryear inside the studio of Mojo Nixon’s afternoon radio show on SiriusXM Outlaw Country, Hattersley was a founding member of the Greezy Wheels, the Austin-based band that is part of the Austin Music Hall of Fame. Larry Ratso Sloman is the former Rolling Stone reporter who covered the Rolling Thunder Revue and wrote the epic book On The Road With Bob Dylan (Three Rivers Press/Random House). This year he was featured in Martin Scorsese’s film about the tour. He also released the compelling album Stubborn Heart (Lucky Number Records) . As we near year-end, I can say it’s my favorite album of 2019.
Gathering together the men seemed like a fraternal order, knights of the roundtable. Sitting among his fellow Merry Kinksters, Nixon seemed like part of a circle where mischievous laughter was code for a currency that hinted at tales told and untold.
The common denominator is the patriarch Friedman who has bestowed written forewords for books by both Ratso and Cleve Hattersley These include two editions of Sloman’s epic book On The Road With Bob Dylan about the Rolling Thunder Revue and most recently Hattersley’s memoir Life is a Buttdial: Tales From a Life of the Tragically Hip (YES Books.)
When Friedman disbanded his run for governor in Texas Nixon lost his promised cabinet post as Minister of Disinformation. He’s been exiled to satellite radio where the self-described “loon in the afternoon” is left to howl daily.
The antics of the Lone Star years are recalled by Hattersley in vivid detail. There was the night that the New York Rangers hockey team brought their elegantly dressed wives into the Lone Star. Friedman walked in and shook up a bottle and sprayed the entire table. In another Hattersley describes having to walk into Albert King’s bus to pay the blues legend as he sat alone waiting with a gun in full view beside him. Hattersley also describes close encounters with coked-up luminaries such as Robin Wiliams, guitarist Larry Coryell and bassist Jaco Pastorius.
Switching to the present Nixon seemed as pleasantly surprised as anyone by Ratso’s Stubborn Heart. “I can’t believe we’re sitting here talking about how fucking great Larry’s album is.” Ratso once held court at the Lone Star and for the reunion, he made his first foray into playing in Manhattan. He’d been adopted by the Brooklyn-based indie band Caged Animals with guitarist and collaborator Vincent Cacchione. On Stubborn Heart, Ratso casts himself as an unlikely front man who dazzles in mystical erotica and seductive forces that power an undying romantic. With an imposing vocal presence set against an expansive but sparse landscape of minimalist electronica, he projects his deep commanding baritone using the spoken word and word play for compelling performance art.
There’s a metaphysical aspect to it. In the album’s opening track, he casts himself as an unlikely performance artist using word play and association that builds alongside a passion play with co-vocalist Yasmine Hamdan. “Caribbean Sunset” is a song he co-wrote with John Cale for his album Artificial Intelligence. Here he updates the song of a dark broken romance to bring a duality in an alternate view of a female character sung by Imani Coppola. One of the highlights of the album is his duet with Nick Cave in “Our Lady of Light.” And when he puts himself out there to sing “Sad Eyed Lady of The Lowlands,” Dylan’s eleven-minute homage to then wife Sara Lownds, it’s magnificent and majestic. It’s a soundscape that is reverent and faithful to the subtle but reverent vocal intonations. When he brings in five women to alternate on the repeating chorus, it’s kind of edgy outer world experience, Ratso’s harem from the avant garde sent for worship and adoration of one of the great heroines of song.
For his part Hattersley who has doubled as Friedman’s stage foil, provides lively reading of a colorful life. One minute Cleve is watching Arthur Brown’s self immolation onstage at the Fillmore. The next he is in prison where he served time for drug smuggling but earned his stripes (no pun intended) playing in the prison band. Within the context of his years in Greezy Wheels and at the Lone Star, he flashes back to seeing a young Jimmy James in the Village (later to become Jimi Hendrix) and discovering a young Jim Morrison. You might get whiplash reading the book but you’ll be glad you came along for the ride.
Hattersley spent most of November on the road with Friedman regaling his role as the fellow Texans “executive buttboy.” Proving that life imitates art, he seemed amused that he got butt dialed while onstage one night talking about his book. He finished the tour to come home to his native Austin where he made the rounds for book and record store signings.
These days as Friedman writes and sings about the mystical angel on his shoulder who gets him from show to show, Hattersley’s book takes you back in time with a collection of photographs that retrace the history of the Austin music scene including the once iconic Armadillo roadhouse.
In another scene in New York during the heyday of the Lone Star, Sunday nights were quite the thing. The music would stretch into the night and the party would continue at radio host Don Imus’ loft on Astor Plaza. As people started to go home at four in the morning, Imus would head out to start his workday and morning show.
Like Ratso who became a character in Friedman’s mystery novels, Larry Campbell made several appearances. He first appeared as Barry Campbell and later under his own name. It seems Friedman cast “Barry” as a distasteful character and the author didn’t want to get sued.
One night Campbell ambled up the stairs to the Lone Star Cafe roof where a legendary forty-foot sculpture of an iguana resided. Stumbling about, he broke the tail. Cleve never invoked disciplinary action. Recently Campbell saw a picture of it online as it had been sold to someone in Arizona. As he looked closely he could see the outlines of what looked like a bandage where the tail had been broken. It held it together but couldn’t quite cover up all the history behind it.