Kinky Friedman, The Bipolar Tour
June 19, Café Nine, 250 State St., New Haven, (203) 789-8281, cafenine.com; June 20, Bridge Street Live, 41 Bridge St., Collinsville, (860) 693-9762, 41bridgestreet.com
The first thing you should know about Kinky Friedman is that he's an underrated songwriter. In his time — he hasn't written a song in 25 years — he produced yee-haw party tunes counterbalanced by delicately beautiful songs with deceptive lyrical depth and insight.
The second thing you should know about Kinky Friedman is that he's evolved from an iconoclastic jokester to an elder statesman, the defender of an America where artists don't have to apologize for what they say, where great songwriting isn't tied to "publishing brothels," and the Internet hasn't stifled civic life.
The last thing you should know about Kinky Friedman is that on stage he combines aspects of Mark Twain, George Carlin, Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Beavis and Butt-head. He'll leave you humming and smiling and a little bit offended.
What he brings to the stage is an insane amount of life experience as well as wit.
He emerged from the rainforest of Borneo (where he served in the Peace Corps) wired and inspired by Lenny Bruce (where he got his "sense of hubris") and Hank Williams (where he learned his respect for authentic C&W), determined to form a country music band with a conscience, the Texas Jewboys.
He arrived in Austin, cowboy hat in hand (covering his yarmulke and his namesake frizzy hair, a "Lyle Lovett starter kit"), just as the anti-Nashville rebellion was taking root. He traded songs with Warren Zevon on his left and Tom Waits and Tompall Glaser on his right, wrote "They Ain't Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore" and "We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You." Feminists rioted in Buffalo during the ahead-of-its-time anti-PC anthem "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns In the Bed" (I guess they didn't have his sense of hubris). He came to the attention of Bob Dylan, who put him on the Rolling Thunder Tour, Don Imus, and got Ringo Starr to voice the words of Jesus Christ on a song. He appeared on Saturday Night Live, where he sang "Sold American," an achingly sad longing for the old way of life told through the story of a faded former country music star.
Then he ditched music for writing mystery novels starring a Sherlockian Texas Jewish country-music-singing detective and a band of Watsons culled from his real life pardners in crime. The books were read by the Clintons and the Bushes, and he visited the White House.
He ran for governor of Texas. The Yippie-esque prank evolved into a maybe-he's-for-real quest.
He's become adept at turning his proclivities into profits. Coffee, cigars and now tequila have been marketed with his name. On this Connecticut tour, he'll be reading from The Billy Bob Tapes, a new book he wrote with Billy Bob Thornton, and hawking his new Man in Black tequila.
Interviewing Kinky is a strange experience. He ping-pongs between serious observations on the state of our culture, and reciting practiced one-liners.
"An artist should be ahead of his time and behind on his rent, which I have tried to be," says Kinky.
"Musicians can better run our country than politicians," he observes, "but wouldn't get a lot done in the morning."
But ask him why the man who once referred to "Rolling Ronnie Reagan in suppository form," and who, in his books, refers to going to the bathroom as "taking a Nixon," endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry for president, and his hair straightens in irritation.
"That never happened," he growls. He wrote an opinion piece on Perry for the Daily Beast, in a generous spirit, about Perry's graciousness after the gubernatorial race.
"They titled the piece 'Kinky for Perry' without telling me," Kinky explains. "I don't endorse anybody. I'm not a politician. The Texas wire services put 'Kinky Endorses Perry.'" And it exploded on the Internet.
"Once you get something on the 'net," Kinky says, "you can't defend yourself. Once it's on the Internet it's over."
As for why he doesn't write songs anymore, Kinky has this observation about aging artists:
"Real songwriting requires great tragedy in life, like guns and alcohol. … You wonder why Kris Kristofferson or Bob Dylan or Willie [Nelson]" don't write songs as great as they used to, he says. "To do that they'd have to recreate the ambience of those times, and their success has distanced them from their art."
But fear not. The Kinkster has worked up some surprises for his Connecticut appearances.
"I am going to do 'Kevin Barry,' a song about an Irish martyr from 1916. He's the one who said, 'Shoot me like an Irish soldier, do not hang me like a dog.'
"Kevin Barry was a hero. And I heard the song when I was six sung by Paul Robeson. Here's this Jewish kid in Texas hearing a song about an Irish martyr sung by a black man with a great voice."
He forgot the song for 40 years. It haunted him recently when he toured Ireland.
"I got snatches of it," he recounts. "Verses and choruses came back to me." The promoter warned him that performing it would start a fight. "I don't know if I was smart or stupid, but I didn't do it," Kinky says.
"For American audiences it will not have that effect," he says. "A Jew is not supposed to know that song, but nobody else does. I played it for the first time [recently] at the Kerrville folk festival, and it's a beauty."
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