First, he was a child prodigy who talked at 7 months. Later, he did enough cocaine to kill a baby rhinoceros. In a new authorized biography titled Everything’s Bigger in Texas: The Life and Times of Kinky Friedman, author Mary Lou Sullivan digs into the Texas Jewboy. And it turns out he’s a delicate onion.
"I'm a different person every time I answer questions, no matter what they are. Sometimes I’m a psychopathic liar," Friedman begins.
What about today?
Today, I feel pretty mellow. This has really been a strange experience having a biography written on you, you know? You see these differing opinions and all that.
Did the author have to pull your teeth to get you onboard?
No, I agreed to do it, but I didn't quite realize how ... not that it was intense, but you want to be very honest with stuff, I think. At the same time, you don't want to get too personal, you know? I didn't know a lot of that stuff until I read the book.
There were surprises when you read it?
Yeah, I didn't know my brother felt that way. Or how Ratso [Larry Sloman] or Dylan [Ferrerro, Texas Jewboys’ road manager] felt. They carried the narrative well, those guys.
There's the Justin Biebers and Barry Manilows and people that'll make more money than God. Then there are careers that really are interesting in that they seem very quixotic. Mine was like that. Maybe I thought I had a chance of really being a mainstream success. When you look at it, that's pretty ridiculous. It's a long shot.
In the book, you come across as much more complicated than your public persona would have people believe, like a yarn ball of contradictions.
I got the sense ... look, you never know. I could be doing a biography of you, and you wouldn't know if I was at a typewriter typing, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," a thousand times like Jack Nicholson.
Or if I was writing something great about you or something ridiculous, or something that says that everybody loves Rachel or everyone hates her. That makes a bad biography. We all know the story.
"The guy's a big success and everybody says great things about him." This is not one of those. I thought this was pretty accurate. It would be ironic if this book turns out to be a real financial pleasure, which it looks like it's going to for Mary Lou Sullivan. I've written nearly 40 books, and this one, the one I didn't write, is the one that really hit. [Laughs.] I think it's gonna do very, very well.
I think she [Sullivan] did a really good job because you get a good taste of the music business, too, and of the road. And a lot of the celebrity shit — what it's like to be a band that’s barely getting by, just trying to make it. Then there’s the drugs and all that shit.
Had you ever spoken about that period of your life before? I mean on the record and with such candor?
You know, maybe not. It wasn't that I was particularly hiding it or anything like that. But I’d say it was most of the ’80s for sure. You're not gonna turn down Levon Helm or Eric Clapton or somebody like that saying, "Here, have a line here, Kinky." At least I wasn't going to. I stopped about 1985 or ’86.
But I really was a death magnet for a while. People that were closest to me all seemed to be very vulnerable people who died young and broke: John Lee Hooker, Woody Guthrie. I haven't known any real assholes that died young, you know, of a drug overdose. All the bad guys, like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, live to be 93 or older.
That’s why I advise people to be a little more of an asshole if they can. Because it does seem to give you more longevity. On the other hand, as Bill Cosby's life will attest, longevity has ruined as many men as it’s made. If Bill Cosby had died 10 years ago, he'd be a national hero. Now he's just another predator.
Speaking of predators, what do you think about all these perverts?
Well, the interview Matt Lauer did with Bill O'Reilly is fun to watch. Did you see that? It's amazing. Now, look, does Matt Lauer realize that he is exactly like Bill O'Reilly and he just got Bill O'Reilly on the spot so he can do that? Or does he not think he's like Bill O'Reilly?
If you have your own TV show and you've got a limo and all that, there's plenty of women around, so why are they picking only the ones on their staff? The ones that are trying to make it in television or the movies or whatever, the ones that they think they can control? It’s all about power and control for those guys.
I find it enjoyable because most of these guys are stuffed shirts. We don't need to pick on him especially, but six months ago, we were toying with doing a TV show, and the people that were putting it all together said, "It’ll be like Charlie Rose. He owns his own shows; he does this and that. He's really the gold standard."
Tell me about this TV show.
It’s a talk show. We may still do it. All I know is that I would be the most self-absorbed interviewer in the world, so maybe that would be something different. I might be humorous. A lot of the people that I would like to bring on it would be very diverting and insightful.
People like Willie and Billy Bob Thornton and Dwight Yoakam, so people could see another side of them.
But you see, these guys I know never did this power-tripping stuff. My friend Don Imus was on the radio forever. He never did any of this shit. He said he fired people and hired people, but never did he use his power over them or threaten their careers.
You must have named your new record Spitfire after your favorite feral cat.
Yeah. It will be out in a few months. These are the 12 new songs I wrote when Willie advised me to turn off Matlock on TV. He said, "Turn off Matlock, start writing." That was at about 3 o'clock in the morning, and in a very short period of time I had written these songs. When you hear them, you'll wonder, as I do, wherever the hell they were all this time.
Because you're 73 and they're just now coming out?
I cannot believe I'm 73. It's unbelievable.
I don't act like it, you know? I’m very immature. I think immaturity has saved me.
If you hadn’t become a writer/singer-songwriter/animal rescuer/general disrupter, what do you think you would have done with your life?
Well, I think we're all drawn to occupations we're hideously ill suited for. I would've been a good teacher, I think. Or maybe a shrink — that would've been fun. But I'm telling you, these original songs, they've been percolating for decades. They are not satirical or funny. I think it's the best stuff I've done. Did you see the review that professor wrote for the show at McCabe's Guitar Shop, the night after Poor David’s when I went to Los Angeles?
No, but I guess you liked it?
Yeah, the Ph.D. gave a review that was rather amazing. Anyway, those are reviews. Reviews are one thing. If you want to die in obscurity in the gutter somewhere, then read your reviews.
But you don’t have a computer. How did you read it?
It was shown to me by a friend. I don't know, being 73 and playing, I guess it's a good thing. It's something to do.
Have you had stalkers?
Oh, a stalker. Yes. A couple of times. It's very, very tedious. I can't imagine how bad it is for Bob Dylan and those guys, Jesus Christ. Actually, it's not that bad for me. I mean, I like to meet people and talk to them. I'm a social butterfly, so I usually wind up meeting most of the audience at my shows. Even the stalkers have pity in their eyes while they’re looking at me.
Oh, come on. How are your animals?
They're doing pretty well. We're going to be closing our doors [on Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch] in mid-December because we're all getting older, including the animals. We're taking them down to Austin Pets Alive, which is a great outfit that sees that everybody gets a happy home.
Will you stay in Me-die-na?
You mean Me-dee-na?
I don't know. I’ve been giving serious thought to getting the hell out of here. I've spent a lot of time here at the ranch, both alone and with people. I don't know, whatever. I think I want to go somewhere else for a while. I just lost one of my dogs. He was a poodle, a small, white poodle who really stole my heart. I'd never had a poodle before, a dog that sits right next to you when you're sitting in a chair, you know?
His name was Mr. P. He came to me from a guy who was dying, who had to check into M.D. Anderson. He said if he lived, he would come back for Mr. P, and if he didn't, I’d take care of him.
Mr. P bit me twice the first day, bit the shit out of me. Then he warmed up, and he and I became very, very close. He was very protective of me. Anyway, I think he ran off to die. I think that's what happened. We have not been able to find him.
You can hear the coyotes at night and wild pigs and stuff. It's been two weeks now. It hit me so fucking hard. More so than when I lost my parents. I’ve lost a lot of people that I’ve loved. And I've loved many people in my life; that's why I think I'm a lucky man. Mr. P is certainly at the top of the list.
I’m really sorry. What about your dog Sophie?
Sophie's great. Sophie, she's my rock. She's blind and deaf. She runs this house like you wouldn't believe. She goes outside; we go for little walks and stuff. There's two others, Winston Randolph Spencer Churchill Friedman, who's a middle-aged beagle, and Luigi, the youngest. He had the misfortune of being a fucking pedigreed dog. Now he's happy and doing well.
There’s an entire chapter in the book about your 1975 Austin City Limits performance that’s never been aired on account of being too offensive. You’re the only such case, as far as I can tell.
At the time, it seemed like a real career breaker, you know? They told me just do what I normally do and they'll edit it. Instead, they went to the media with it and said, "This is the first show we've ever had to cancel because it's so offensive." [Friedman performed with the Texas Jewboys at ACL wearing a Native American headdress. Folk singer Buffy St. Marie ran up from the audience, screaming, took it off Friedman’s head, and disappeared with it.] I saw the damn thing a couple of years ago. It was on sale at the Austin airport. I bought a copy. It is tame by today's standards. I mean, really tame.
So I don't know why they did that. I don't know why I did what I did, either. I guess I got into music to express myself and to convey the truth as I saw it in music.
Bob Dylan himself told me that he picked up a guitar to get laid, which makes sense. The guy who sits down to write the great American novel never does that. I'm telling you, if a guy ever says, "I'm gonna go out and I'm gonna paint my masterpiece," he never will. It's always done by a guy who wants to get laid or somebody like Van Gogh, who was just trying to pay his rent. He didn't think he would ever be rich. There were Justin Biebers who really were successful in Van Gogh's day. But we don't even know their names. We can’t even Google them.
How did you first hook up with Bob Dylan in the the early '70s?
I went out to Roger McGuinn's house one night in L.A. It was very mysterious because we had to go to the end of the Santa Monica Pier; then this baby blue Cadillac convertible would pick us up and take us to this designation. This was me and Dylan Ferrero. Kris [Kristofferson] was there. And Bob was singing “Ride 'Em Jewboy” in the kitchen. He was drunk. We had a little conversation with him and hung out with these guys for a while.
Then we spent time together in Yelapa, the island off Mazatlan in Mexico. That was in '76 with Dennis Hopper and Bob and me. Spent a couple of weeks out there.
Is Willie still your shrink?
Yeah. He's a pretty damn good shrink. Recently, he told me his goal in life is to get to the next big town without slashing his wrists. Then he said, “Never give them everything you've got.” That's good advice to somebody who's performing music, you know? You've seen these guys … Leonard Cohen did it. He played for four and a half hours. Gave them everything he had. You shouldn't do that.
Do you get tired, after all these years, of answering the same interview questions? Do you just ever want to say …
Piss off, mate? No, not really. I rather enjoy it. Some writers I talk to are very interesting people. I find you insufferably dull, but no. You just have to watch it when you get real exhausted so you're not telling the same anecdote twice in one interview. That’s a sign that you're running too much on pure adrenaline.
[The topic migrates back to Matt Lauer.]
It's exciting. I like it. It's an ongoing story. And Garrison Keillor. He's always been a stuffed shirt, you know? But Lauer's interview with Bill O'Reilly was just terrific. Can you imagine that?
I mean the fact that he said, "Those five women that came forward to complain about you, can you imagine the courage that took with you, the biggest guy ... ." He was talking about himself, Lauer was!
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I just think it's amazing. I think a guy that can look at you like that, I mean … Lauer must be like a sociopath. Or a guy who sees how other people laugh, so then he laughs that way.
How in the hell can he be grilling Bill O'Reilly about that when he knows damn well he was doing precisely the same thing?
What are you listening to these days?
I'm listening to the final rough mix of Spitfire, making sure I like it. I think most of the songs were percolating through my life for years, but if you heard them you wouldn't know that I had written them.
As Billy Joe Shaver says, "I'm cursed to be born a serious soul nobody takes seriously." That may be changing.