By Rudy Mesicek
The Salt Lake Tribune
Kinky Friedman is the opposite of humorless. By which I mean to acknowledge his sense of seriousness. (Thank you, Martin Amis.)
In the roughly 90 minutes he spent onstage at The State Room on Thursday night, he let loose a smorgasbord of views — some sung, some read, some told in that friendly barfly fashion. And, while there were plenty of punch lines — however raunchy, juvenile or whimsical — one left with the feeling one had spent an evening with a good-natured, worldly companion who laughs because there’s so much to be bitter about.
Like political correctness, for instance. A plague that Friedman derided by way of remembering the Civil Rights Movement leader Barbara Jordan, who, he said, warned — as far back as the ‘60s — that it would make America drown. Neither Richard Pryor nor George Carlin nor Mel Brooks would today be able to do what they did, he said.
Unlit cigar in hand, Friedman introduced some of his most well-known songs with an anecdote or two, dropping names of friends (Willie Nelson: “the hillbilly Dalai Lama”), of peers (Levon Helm, to whom he dedicated “Autograph”), of heroes (Paul Robeson, whom he first heard sing “The Ballad of Kevin Berry” — a paean to the Irish martyr — which Friedman then sang in one of the highlights of the show) and even of a one-time political foe (Rick Perry, whom he ran against in the 2006 race for Texas governor, and later, enigmatically, endorsed for president).
To stay focused (and, possibly, hydrated), he sipped often on his very own concoction —sold under the label Man in Black (“we salute Zorro, Paladin and Johnny Cash”) — a drink he described as “your grandfather’s gardener’s tequila.”
In the lead-up to the mournful “Nashville Casualty & Life,” Friedman took aim at Walmart and, by implication, the Grand Ole Opry, saying the former was now the sponsor of the latter. The quip drew plenty of groans from the audience. But that was just the setup. Straying from tidy conclusions, Friedman quickly added that since he might end up as a greeter at Walmart one day, he can’t badmouth it too much, and that, anyway, the job is actually “a very Christlike thing … much akin to politics, except it deals more with the truth.”
Late in the show, he abruptly changed pace, and read a chapter titled “Tom Friedman The Navigator.” The piece warmly and vividly commemorates his father — a WWII veteran who taught him “almost everything he knows.” “To always root for the underdog,” for one. “How to belch,” for another.
Such are the clues that indicate what shapes the Friedman world view. And that comes through when he performs. He gets at the dire state of things in songs like “Before All Hell Breaks Loose” or “Wild Man from Borneo” or “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore” — but his touch is light, in a latrine light bulb kind of way. He’ll take on racism, say, or mass murder, or gender politics, but cut through the bull with grit and wit. He’ll exaggerate the ridiculous. By so doing, he is able to condemn the ugliness but keep on winking too. He is able to play the sexist pig and do it with a wide grin. Put the yeehaw in the oy vey. And stick it to the cranked-up literalists everywhere.
And that, pointedly, is the opposite of sermonizing, which is the cultural default mode. And that’s why it’s such a pleasure to let oneself go.
All of which leads to the advice with which he wrapped up the Utah leg of his “Bi-Polar Tour”: “Find out what you like — and let it kill you.”