For almost thirty years Austin City Limits and I have interacted much in the same manner of Joseph Heller’s fabled covenant with God: We’ve left each other alone. There’s a reason for this. In all its storied, glorified history as the longest-running music show on television, ACL has taped only one performance that it has steadfastly refused to air: mine. I’m not bitter about this (though I am bitter about almost everything else). Indeed, I take a somewhat perverse pride in the fact that, way back in 1976, Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys were considered too risky, too controversial, and very possibly, too downright repellent for public television. For years my performance could be seen only at the Jim Morrison Museum, in Waco, but now that Janet Jackson has bared herself to the world, it’s time for me to make a clean breast of things as well.
For a while after the show didn’t air, I was in a mild snit. In fact, I contemplated committing suicide by jumping through a ceiling fan. Fortunately, I’m of average height, so the ceiling fan would have merely provided me with a mullet, which definitely wasn’t in at the time. If I’d been as tall as Ray Benson, of Asleep at the Wheel, the world’s tallest living Jew, I might have actually croaked myself. Ray, it should be noted, is not a suicide risk, having been on ACL about 117 times. Over the years, in fact, just about everybody in the musical universe has been on the show, with the possible exception of the great Buddy Rich. When Buddy was at last preparing to spring from his mortal coil, a nurse in his hospital room asked him if there was anything that was making him uncomfortable. “Yes,” he told her. “Country music.” That was probably why they didn’t have Buddy on the show.
There have been other great artists whom the powers that be have deemed not ready for prime time. Years before ACL gave the Kinkster the old heave-ho, George D. Hay threw Elvis Presley off the Grand Ole Opry and told him to go back to driving a truck. Elvis is said to have cried on that occasion. He left Nashville, but he didn’t remain a trucker for long. Some years later, when he was an international superstar, he happened to be at a party in Music City, when a record company flack introduced him to George Hay. Matter-of-factly, without malice, Elvis shook hands with him and said, “I know you. You’re the man who made me cry.”
Watching a bootleg video of my non-show recently was almost enough to make me cry. It was a bit like a funeral or a high school reunion, events that register faithfully the rapid and ruthless passage of time. There I was in the spotlight, wearing an Indian headdress, big blue aviator glasses, a furry blue guitar strap, and a sequined pair of bell-bottom trousers—and this was almost thirty years before Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The headdress had gotten me into trouble before, during a show in that most-liberated of all places, San Francisco, when Buffy Sainte-Marie chased me around the stage attempting to snatch the offending warbonnet off my head. She did not succeed, but the two of us hopped around in an angry circle for about five minutes to the delight of the crowd.
As I watched the ancient concert, I didn’t get that dated, insects-trapped-in- amber feeling I often have when watching Leave It to Beaver reruns. If the clothing and some of the hairstyles were clearly from another time warp, the social satire seemed to be more applicable to 2004 than to 1976. What the hell; every great artist should always be ahead of his time and behind on his rent. As Bob Dylan has said, art should not reflect a culture; it should subvert it.
There certainly seemed to be plenty of that going on in the video. There was, for instance, our song about the Statue of Liberty, “Carryin’ the Torch,” in which our drummer, Major Boles, played the last chorus using American flags for drumsticks. And who could forget “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” which contained a line that even Mel Gibson could get behind: “We Jews believe it was Santa Claus who killed Jesus Christ.” There was also a spirited version of “Proud to Be an A—hole From El Paso,” which stated emphatically: “God and Lone Star beer are things we trust” and “The wetbacks still get twenty cents an hour.” And there was the ballad “Rapid City, South Dakota,” which was recorded by Dwight Yoakam 25 years later—the first country song to touch on the subject of abortion.
I don’t like to put myself up on a pedestal, but the concert was pretty damn good. I wish you could’ve seen it. On the other hand, all of life is perception. George Bernard Shaw was such a genius that he could review a play without even seeing it. As Sherlock Holmes once said, “What you do in this world is a matter of no consequence. The question is, What can you make people believe that you have done?”
In any case, when the producers of ACL, in their infinite wisdom, decided not to air the show, the legend only grew. Had they gone ahead and run it, I’d undoubtedly be playing a beer joint tonight on the backside of Buttocks, Texas. I’d never have had the chance to become a best-selling novelist, a friend of presidents, and a candidate for governor. The truth is I wouldn’t even be writing this column, which would be a real shame, since it’s the only job I’ve ever had in my life. So God bless Austin City Limits.
Today I have many fans, not all of whom are attached to the ceiling. They listen to the songs that made me infamous and read the books that made me respectable. To some, I’m a Renaissance Texan. To others, I’m just another a—hole from El Paso wearing a cowboy hat and smoking a cigar. Take, for instance, the manager of a Barnes and Noble in New York. When the publicist for my latest novel, The Prisoner of Vandam Street, told him that I’d be there in person to give a reading, the manager was impressed. “Oh, great!” he said. “Is Kinky going to be wearing his costume?”