“Among the many things that writing does, it gives you the chance for revenge, clarification; there are a lot of basic human emotions that you can address by being able to write about them.”
Josh Alan Friedman, author of Black Cracker, is the third Friedman brother I’ve interviewed, as part of my “Capturing the (Other) Friedmans” series of podcasts. (I really gotta rename that.) Josh is an accomplished author and guitarist, and has plenty of stories of New York at its most sordid. We met up at a cafe in Times Square to talk about his old days writing for Al Goldstein’s Screw magazine, why it took him more than 30 years to write Black Cracker, his “Lewis & Martin” theory about his estrangement from his brother Drew, his parents’ successful divorce, and more!
“I want my list of works to be lean and mean and everything was urgent and had to be done. Nothing to play the market. My family’s had to suffer for that, that I haven’t done commercial jobs just to bring home the bacon.”
Along the way, we also develop an idea for a high-concept movie, talk lewdly in front of some tourists, pay homage to his literary idols, and figure out that therapy just gets in the way of making good art. If you’ve got a problem with any of that (especially the coarse language) then you should skip this episode.
About our Guest
In 1987, writer-guitarist Josh Alan Friedman sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads (the Crossroads of the World: Broadway & 42nd Street) and moved to Texas. He’d just written Tales of Times Square, a cult classic. Josh’s latest book is Black Cracker, the story of his tumultuous childhood as the only white boy at Long Island’s last segregated school. In 2008, he wrote Tell the Truth Until They Bleed: Coming Clean in the Dirty World of Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll. He has also written When Sex Was Dirty, and I, Goldstein: My Screwed Life (with Al Goldstein), and co-edited Now Dig This: The Unspeakable Writings of Terry Southern, 1950-1995. Josh also set off satirical fires and lawsuits as writer-half of the Friedman Bros, the most feared cartooning duo of the late ’70s and ’80s. Two anthologies remain in print, featuring the art of Josh’s brother, Drew Friedman: Warts and All, and Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead is Purely Coincidental (Two). On the music front, as “Josh Alan,” he barnstormed the state of Texas for 20 years, rocking whole arenas with his Guild D-40. Copping three Dallas Observer Music Awards for Best Acoustic Act, he released four albums: Famous & Poor, The Worst!, Blacks ‘N’ Jews (the title of which became a documentary on Josh’s life) and Josh Alan Band.
Credits: This episode’s music is Jeff’s Boogie by Josh Alan (Friedman). The conversation was recorded at the Cafe Edison on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded in a hotel room in London on the same gear. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Josh Alan Friedman by me.
“I don’t like drawing young people, attractive people. I used to get assigned drawings of the cast of ‘Friends’ for Entertainment Weekly, and it was painful. I would finish a drawing of Jennifer Aniston, and to reward myself, I’d draw Shecky Greene.”
It’s the Vermeer of the Borscht Belt! Drew Friedman, the great painter, cartoonist, chronicler of modern fame (and infamy), and Howard Stern’s favorite artist, invited me out to 2nd Ave. Deli in NYC one Saturday morning to record a conversation about art, leaving New York, show biz, R. Crumb, Joe Franklin, Tor Johnson, the Friars Club, Howard Stern, Abe Vigoda, the gallery show commemorating his books on Old Jewish Comedians, and his upcoming book of portraits on comic-book legends (as in ‘artists, writers and publishers’). We also talk about how Harry Einstein died during a roast for Lucy and Desi, trade Gilbert Gottfried stories, discuss the state of the illustration market, explore why he used stippling effects and why he stopped, and more. This one’s a lot of fun. Go listen!
“There’s a theory about why there were so many Jewish comedians: the smile behind the pain, the haunted smile. I don’t buy into it. I think they’re all just a bunch of hams. They like to be up there, telling jokes, being funny, and meeting women.”
Photo of Drew Friedman and Jerry Lewis courtesy of Jay Ruttenberg
About our Guest
Drew Friedman is an award-winning illustrator, cartoonist and painter. His work has appeared in Raw, Weirdo, SPY, National Lampoon, Snarf, The New York Times, MAD, The New Yorker, BLAB!, The New York Observer, The Wall Street Journal, HONK!, Rolling Stone, Field & Stream, TIME, The Village Voice, Entertainment Weekly, and more. His comics and illustrations have been collected in several volumes, the latest, Too Soon?, published by Fantagraphics in 2010. His collection of portraits, Drew Friedman’s Sideshow Freaks, was published by Blast books in 2011. He has published three collections of paintings of Old Jewish Comedians (1, 2 and 3), but none of Old Episcopal Comedians. He also raises champion beagles with his wife, K. Bidus. You can find his full bio and buy his art at his fine art prints site and you really should read his blog.
Credits: This episode’s music is Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals by Raymond Scott. The conversation was recorded at the 2nd Ave. Deli in Manhattan on a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded in my home office on a Blue Yeti USB microphone. File-splitting is done on a Mac Mini using Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Photo by a waiter at 2nd Ave. Deli.
I’m off to Louisiana! Down in the Treme, just me and my baby! (okay, we’ll be nowhere near Treme, but still.)
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I had some trepidation going into On some verses of Virgil (pp. 774-831 in the Everyman’s edition), because it’s more than 50 pages long and I’ve, um, never read Virgil. My fears were unwarranted; “some” verses turned out to be 8 lines, and those 8 lines turned out to be the launching pad for a fantastic essay on love, sex and marriage. I should know better by now.
The actual verses he quotes are:
The goddess [Venus] ceased to speak, and snowy arms outflung
Around him faltering, soft fondling as she clung.
He quickly caught the wonted flame; the heat well-known
Entered his marrow, ran through every trembling bone.
Often a brilliant lightning flash, not otherwise,
Split by a thunderclap, runs through the cloudy skies[. . .]
Gave the embraces that she craved; then on her breast,
Outpoured at last, gave himself up to sleep and rest.
With age and ill-health are wracking him, Montaigne uses those verses to explore the passions of his past, and sums up early that erotic love has no place in marriage. Not if you want your wife to keep her wits about her. “I see no marriages that sooner are troubled and fail than those that progress my means of beauty and amorous desires,” he tells us. “It needs more solid and stable foundations, and we need to go at it circumspectly, this ebullient ardor is no good for it.”
That said, M. doesn’t portray women as scheming, evil creatures. If anything, he finds them to be victims of the rules set up by men. His women have needs, desires, and sometimes make decisions as irrationally as his men do. By essay’s end, he contends that men and women “are cast in the same mold; except for education and custom, the difference is not great.” It’s a wonderful journey to this point, as M. uncovers the parts we keep covered and shows how we’re all prisoners of sex.
What makes this essay such a joy to me isn’t just M.’s hip take on gender issues, but his explanation for why he needs to write about the topic.
I am annoyed that my essays serve the ladies only as a public article of furniture, an article for the parlor. This chapter will put me in the boudoir. I like their society when it is somewhat private; when public, it is without favor or savor.[. . .] What has the sexual act — so natural, so necessary and so just — done to mankind, for us not to dare talk about it without shame and for us to exclude it from serious and decent conversation? We boldly pronounce the words “kill,” “rob,” “betray”; and this one we do not dare pronounce, except between our teeth. Does that mean that the less we breathe of it in words, the most we have the right to swell our thoughts with it?
It’s as if he’s building Howard Stern’s platform, four hundred years early. Later in the essay, he even complains to Nature about being unable to satisfy a woman because his penis is too small: “Certainly she has treated me unfairly and unkindly, and done me the most enormous damage.”
In Howard Stern fashion, he explains his openness:
I owe a complete portrait of myself to the public. The wisdom of my lesson is wholly in truth, in freedom, in reality; disdaining, in the list of its real duties, those pretty, feigned, customary provincial rules; altogether natural, constant and universal; of which propriety and ceremony are daughters, but bastard daughters.[. . .] Our life is part folly, part wisdom. Whoever writes about it only reverently and according to the rules leaves out more than half of it.
I wish I had time and space to write more about M.’s character. I feel like that’s my biggest failure with these writeups: an inability to convey the joy of meeting this man through his essays.