Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Messing with Texas

The Great Pyschedelic Armadillo Picnic, A “Walk” in Austin, by Kinky Friedman, Read by Stephen Hoye, Books on Tape, Inc., 2004

Kinky Friedman is one of the authors I occasionally, in my head, refer to as Aware Authors. I’m aware of his existence as an author and I’m aware of his band, but I’ve made no effort to read his work or listen to his music. As what little of his music I’ve heard or heard of, his sense of humor has often struck me as merely gimmicky, tired old cornball jokes. I’m-independent-minded-politically-incorrect-pseudo-borscht-belt-rated-PG-psychedelica-schmaltz. An inch more highbrow, a scad more liberal than Ray Stevens. Not to put too fine a point on it.

Now my wife and I often play a game I call “All Things Equal,” meaning, if money was no object, where would we most want to live. The southern east of the nation never comes in the rankings. Never, not once. Antarctica rates higher in my personal selections for domiciles. The American South is a geographic region I have little truck with; if it weren’t for slavery’s existence lasting longer I sometimes wish secession had been allowed. There is more bone-deep ignorance, bigotry, moronic foolishness in the American South than is palatable by those of us with actual functioning cerebral cortexes. This is how Terri Schiavo became, for a time, the Patron Saint of the Deep South. I’m not saying that there aren’t intelligent, sensitive people down south; I’m just saying they’re about as prevalent as blacks in Sweden.

The Alabama and Georgia qualities are a kind of Cooter Cracker ignorance. It’s guys in overalls with no shirts underneath, red bandana snot rags hanging out of their back pockets, crewcuts, Confederate flag tattoos.* Kentucky and Tennessee have a hillbilly and hilljack kind of greasy mulleted, aggressive ignorance, the kind that is personally, deeply offended by three digit IQs. Louisiana has an especially unique, perversely Catholic kind of bigotry, a Zydeco-winged gumbo nuttiness. Florida? What can anyone say about Florida other than it should be severed, actually physically, geographically severed from the mainland and a very high fence erected in the newly formed trench between us. This is a state whose latest law actually legalizes gang warfare, racial violence, and vigilantism.

Texas, though, has an altogether special kind of self-satisfied ignorance, a stupidity that is stand-up-proudly defensive of its own stupidity, an unhealthiness proud of its unhealthiness, a dumbfuckery too dumbfucking doltish and too dumbfucking proud of itself to even notice what a pile of sheer dumbfuckosity it is. There are few states that pride themselves on their enormous landgrab from the Indians (and Mexicans), but 150 years later the shitbrains of Texas haven’t grown tired of sucking their own dicks from that bit of treachery. It’s the kind of state wherein the residents are proud that their former elected officials beat people up. Part of what led the Texians to revolt against Mexico and break away to form their own nation was that the Mexican government prohibited slavery. An enlightened state, no?

It isn’t that I find pride and self-regard as particularly noxious; ask my wife: I’m one of the proudest most self-regarding person you’re likely to meet. No, what I find so damned infuriating in this Texan brag is that they are proud of an accident. Their parents (most likely) fucked in Texas, their mothers bore them in Texas. Who gives a shit? This is something to slap yourself on the back about? The latitude/longitude of where you were squeezed out? Talk about lowering the bar for kissing your own ass. You can even be a northern born asshole and move to Texas before beginning your career as professional geographic asshole.

Friedman’s book, The Great Psychedelic Armadillo Picnic, luckily, is not an overview of the whole of Texas nor even all of Austin itself. It is a deeply personal trip through the Austin that Friedman knows intimately himself. There should be more books like this, an entire series of travelogues by authors who are particularly tied to a place. Think Updike writing a walking tour of Boston, James Ellroy writing a tour guide of Los Angeles, or Umberto Eco’s Milan. Yet even though Austin is perhaps the least reactionary city in the entire state, it is likewise affected by the same mentality, the “We’re the Best” Syndrome, afflicting the rest of the state. While I’m well aware of the music scene (and absolutely adore Austin City Limits), it’s some kind of presumptuous to call yourself the “Live Music Capital of the World,” a title I’m sure they took without actually checking if that was indeed a fact. (It’s sort of like naming something The World Series then only inviting North American teams to compete.) ’ve never been to Austin, and if I ever went to Texas, it’s probably the place I’d want to stay, but I have been to Prague and I’m going to imagine that it just might give Austin a run for its money. Friedman mentions a wide array of musical styles, all of which I saw in a number of locations throughout Prague, but he leaves off dance, techno, symphony, klezmer, and opera, which were in abundance throughout the city.

This is the kind of book in which certain restaurants are mentioned and Friedman has to inform us that “Austinites like to eat.” This is the kind of brag I hate no matter if you’re making it about Austin or Montpelier, Vermont or Venice, Italy. It suggests that other localities don’t particularly care for eating, or that if they do care for eating they don’t care as much as City X does, or if they think they care as much as City X does about eating, they’re wrong. That’s plain irritating. Rather surprisingly, there is no mention of picnics, involving psychedelics or armadillos or not. That was what I signed up for. Apparently, a brief glance at Friedman’s catalog demonstrates that armadillo references are de rigeur.

Friedman does provide some information that is helpful from a linguistic perspective. “‘Ya’ll’ is singular, ‘all ya’ll’ is plural, and ‘all ya’lls’’ is plural possessive.” This is helpful to those ears unaccustomed to American idiomatic expression and is a window to wonder why of all languages, English is deprived of a specific third person plural. Geographically, southerners have made one, while east northerners have incorporated “youse” as theirs (though this most often precedes “guys” making more for a third person plural phrase than word).

Psychedelic Armadillo Picnic does include interesting bits on places like The Frontier Times Museum which has a small shrine to a boy who was decapitated while riding his bike and an exhibit entitled “Left Shoe of Unknown Negress.” I find this kind of collection of bizarreries to be rather fascinating. Halfway through a chapter on Haunted Austin, there was a click, then suddenly a new voice took over and began reciting “friends get a sudden urge to play baseball on the front lawn. Because the streets were built long ago, they are not as wide as you would find in other, newer suburbs” before lurching back to Friedman’s text. I swear the voice was NPR commentator Bob Simon’s. I can’t say if the missing part of the book was longer than that passage or not, but Friedman was still going on about ghosts, so I hadn’t missed much.

The book’s major weakness however is how slight it is. Friedman has a tendency to go off on tangents that are only mildly of interest, like how there’s a picture of him and Willie Nelson on the wall leading to the crapper in a restaurant. Who cares? At least three-quarters of disc two in this three-disc set is all about Kinky himself with very little discussion of Austin. To aggravate matters even more, Friedman refers to himself in the third person by nickname. “The Kinkster” did this, “The Kinkster” did that. Come on. Was there so little he could find to say that he had to devote what amounts to at least a third of his book to himself? Plus, I might add that a man who refers to computers as a “tool of the devil” and suggests (tongue in cheek, of course) that everyone named Wayne should be eyeballed closely, is probably not the best authority to call Willie Nelson a “conspiracy theorist.”

The reader Stephen Hoye read with great enthusiasm and clearly enjoyed this gig. I guess it beats reading Rich Dad, Poor Dad. Weirdly, he regularly pronounces the name “Waylon” of Waylon Jennings as “Way-lonn.” Maybe a bigger fan of the Okie from Muskogee could clear something up for me as I’ve never ever heard anyone call him Way-lonn Jennings. When he later mentions a boxer by name of Waylon, there is no broad “o” going on there. Perhaps, since I can’t read the words, this boxer’s name is “Waylin” or “Waylen.” Who knows? Is this “Way-lonn” accurate, or just a freak of the narrator?

Speaking of narrators, Friedman himself narrates an abridged version of the book that’s only one hour shorter than the full unabridged. Seriously, what was the point of that?

While the book was short (3 ½ hours) and a light and pleasant enough read, I’m not sure I’ll be bothering with much more of Mr. Friedman’s work. His weakness for tired kooky twists on cliches and his fondness for obvious schlocky humor raised nary a chuckle from this listener and his frequent drug humor referral was like very, very watered down Cheech & Chong. To add that final nail to his coffin, while I can countenance some pandering in a fellow who’s making noises about running for governor of Texas, anyone who claims George W. Bush as a good friend has written themselves off in my estimation. There are some things I’m apt to be open-minded about. That’s not one of them.

*Being of West Virginia extraction, I have a fine-tuned sensibility for the qualities of Southern types. Rednecks are distinct from crackers are distinct from hillbillies are distinct from hicks, etc. Perhaps sometime I will expound this taxonomy.

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