Kinky Politics. Up, with a Twist

3rd District candidate Karen Jones in the lion's den

State Street Scribe

by Jeff Wing 

db5049_1741cc93027c4c6cbf6421c4ad11a820Kinky Friedman is recumbent on a floral couch in Karen Jones’ dimly lit, pleasantly cluttered living room on a Saturday night in Santa Ynez Valley. Robert Jones, the family patriarch and descendant of storied Santa Barbara sheriff W.W. Twist, had warmly greeted me some moments before, looking askance at my TJ’s bouquet and remarking without missing a beat, “Hm, I’ve never even given my wife flowers…”. Back inside, there is a borrowed, recently strummed guitar next to Kinky, though his trademark black cowboy hat and floor-length black preacher’s coat give him the aspect of a visiting gunslinger in repose. Outside, friends and neighbors of the Jones clan are sipping wine and talking in the starlit front yard of the old homestead. Friedman, the self-described “Texas Jewboy”, has just flown in from the Lone Star State and is a wee bit the worse for wear, but even by weak lamplight his hooded eyes are afire with that Kinky twinkle that, for more than 40 years now, has extracted reluctant grins from those who really ought to know better, and he is having his way with us tonight. Karen’s staccato laughter fills the room with every Kinky pronouncement, and I have twice nearly blown orange soda out my nose.

This wise-ass American icon is all things to all people. To Karen Jones, who often house sits for Kinky when he is away on tour, he is a staunch supporter and confidant. Singing Jewish cowboy, legendary musician and songwriter, successful mystery novelist, Texas gubernatorial candidate, Kinky Friedman has toured with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, and has visited the White House twice to see two fans who are also friends; George Dubya and Big Bill Clinton. Friedman is a deadpan satirist in the mold of a Mark Twain or Will Rogers, but for the fact that you will respond to some of his scarifying, prairie-borne aphorisms by smiling in political-correctness terror through clenched teeth.

He is north of retirement age and is nevertheless days away from embarking on yet another 24-date European tour, where audiences to whom English is a second language will be heard singing lustily along to such Kinky classics of sidewise Americana as “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore” (a sly anti-bigotry screed) and “Ride ‘Em Jewboy”, an affecting Holocaust lament in the form of a cowpoke’s strummed campfire ditty. Born in Chicago, hauled off to Texas when his mom and dad opened a camp for Jewish kids there at the Echo Hill Ranch, Friedman is, yes, a Jew in Texas, or as he puts it “….a card-carrying Red Sea Pedestrian.” He ran for governor of Texas on the slogan “How Hard Can It Be?” and finished a respectable 4th. Friedman has said that his Last Will and Testament directs his executor to cremate him and fling the ashes into Rick Perry’s hair.

The Kinkster and the Candidate

Kinky has come all the way from Texas for one reason and one reason only; to visit with, support, and offer his endorsement to his pal and confidant, the wholly inimitable Karen Jones. Jones is the fabulously outspoken/freshly minted Supervisorial candidate/thorn in a certain casino’s side, who is running to replace the departing Doreen Farr as representative of SB County’s sprawling, and approximately Siberia-shaped 3rd District. That is the star-crossed district into which Steve Pappas ended up pouring all his money, and whose gerrymandered southeast corner bubbles minutely outward to encompass, like a lost bet, the wayward and sometimes unloved city of Isla Vista, whose name in pre-colonial Spanish means Inebriated Cliff-Plummeters.

Jones is also, for more than 20 years, the matriarchal rock n’ roll promotresse who throws down a little something called Jones Fest every June up in SY, a family tradition turned regional sock hop that began, way back when, as three women and their guitars on the Jones’ front lawn. Jones Fest has in the years since grown into a draw for hot-shot musicians and bands to whom the hoedown/block party is nowadays valued and ribald gig, with its hundreds of back-clapping attendees and vibe of hometown tumbledown love and mercy.

Kinky and Karen porch-kickin’ it on a Saturday night in the big SY Valley.

Ms. Jones’ twilight-colored Santa Ynez living room, combined with Mr. Friedman’s gentle strumming, is a wonder this night. This is one of those homes that seems to shine with a river light in the evening, the walls and every horizontal surface lovingly festooned with the aggregated mementos of several loving lifetimes. “Family, family without end,” as John Updike nicely put it. The Jones homestead, in the family since 1900, radiates a deeply embedded warmth. One would think this atmosphere of cozy conviviality would run counter to Mr. Friedman’s mien of acid-washed commentary, but as Ms. Jones had mentioned to me on more than one occasion, “Kinky has such a big heart.”

Indeed he does. Between his support for gay marriage, his animal rescue empire at his Texan childhood home, Echo Hill, and his unfiltered outrage at the idea of innocent people possibly being put to death by the State (…”there are no rich people on death row,” he neatly and inarguably summarizes), his more widely known public brand seems almost like Batman’s cowl; a secret-identity device. Friedman, after 20 minutes of earnest conversation, does reveal himself to be a sort of non-secular humanist. Make no mistake about his faith, though. “Willie (Nelson) and I are both for Bernie, though I take exception to the sh*t Sanders is talking about Israel these days. I mean,” he goes on, “If Bernie gets in we’ll have a Jeeeeeeeeeewwwwww in the White House!” This attention-getting pronouncement takes the form of a sudden and piercing Abrahamic yodel. Karen and I gasp with laughter and my sinuses briefly receive their holy host of fizzy orange pop.

Of course Kinky’s bitterest and most envelope-ripping songs are often social commentary disguised as button-pushing cowtunes. These songs and a tune written by the late Warren Zevon when he was in his cancer throes (“My Sh*t’s F*cked Up) grace Friedman’s first album in 30 years – The Loneliest man I Ever Met. Jones adores the unguarded Kinky, and would like the wider world to do the same. “You guys would really hit it off!” she’d written to me. She had asked me over the mountain to meet him. They were deep in conversation when I arrived at her home, and when Mr. Friedman stood to shake my hand, Karen Jones absented herself as silently as a woodland sprite/matchmaker.

Twist and Shout

Karen Jones is related by marriage to Sheriff W.W. Twist, Santa Barbara’s star-crossed good guy who figured prominently in both SB history and in a piece I wrote last year, about Santa Barbara’s Outlaw Tree and the good sheriff’s wounding by agents of the chronic thug and gang leader Jack Powers, in the hours before the Battle of Arroyo Burro, near present day Ontare and State Street. Karen Jones’ daughter, the vibrant and lovely Kara Twist Jones, had taken exception to my portrayal of her great great great grandpa Twist in the piece who, after all, was the town bully’s main nemesis and the Law and Order bulwark that stood between Powers and the SB County folk he and his jackass band terrorized. I had written some offhand thing about Sheriff Twist in the piece, and Kara Jones dispatched a scathing letter to the Sentinel calling me a “carpetbagger” who had, in effect, stuck another knife in Sheriff Twist’s back to augment the injury done by Powers’ minions the morning of the battle. It is an amazing letter.

I replied, maybe a bit too effusively, in the same issue that ran the letter. My excitement at being contacted by Twist’s blood was expressed, I’m afraid, as a wave of scarcely controlled fawning, which in print is irretrievable. But neither would I want to retrieve it. Later Karen would “reach out to me” by e-mail in response to one of my later columns. Her own e-mail missives are wonders of extemporaneous literature in the approximate style of a Jim Harrison. When on the way to work one day I heard on the radio she had thrown her hat in the 3rd District ring, I was all ears. In typical fashion Karen Jones used the opportunity to steer me to her beloved pal, Kinky Friedman. Jones, though, once you get her going, is a font of clear-eyed opinion, musically expressed. And we got her going, a little.

How Green Was My Valley

Candidate Karen Jones is not terribly hot on the idea of the Chumash casino expansion, and has, for better or worse, become the face of the pushback effort. Jones is, among many many other things, David to the Chumash Goliath as the tribe rolls out its expansion of the casino complex that has, to hear some tell it, already changed the character of the once unspoiled valley township and imported into its rolling hill country a gambling element that might be more at home in the darker corners of the Sunset Strip. The uber-expansive Chumash commercial build-out footprint on a Proposed Tribal Land Use document does indeed look like the radioactive fallout map of a medium yield tactical nuke, a land-grab (or land regrab, depending on ones historical perspective) of such a scale that it will dramatically morph the region’s character forevermore, and arguably not for the better.

It is in fact difficult to imagine the Chumash themselves embracing the blinking, humanity-sullying enterprise if it weren’t so ringingly in the financial interest of the tribal revenue gatekeepers. Not to get all Rousseau about it, but this band of First Americans, whose noble history in the area dates back some 14,000 years, has arguably chosen as its Recompense Revenue Engine the very worst of the white man’s recreational and spiritual afflictions. It could even be conceived by a part-time cynic as double payback; the Chumash get their federally mandated fiduciary apology, and they take the occasion to spread more of the illness that dispossessed them in the first place. As a matter of record, the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act is the enabler to the double-edged windfall experienced by Native American Tribes all over the country. The instrument of their redress has been, in some cases, very effective in sowing divisiveness. That’s cash for you.

Alias Stiff and Jones

Ms. Jones, a deeply rooted, well known, and very vocal local whose multitude of friends include Chumash descendants, is the 3rd District Supervisorial candidate whose clarion, pull-no-punches straight-talk has already made her a target of the dumbass political machine, the establishment stiffs who diddle with public opinion and would have Jones portrayed as an eccentric village character who we would all be better off ignoring. It’s the usual condescension from a political class terrified of mere competence and plain devotion to public service. Jones, who goes by the nom de guerre Grandma Snakebite, will not be swayed. Her unfiltered opinions are as refreshingly unmanaged as the Valley idyll she is working hard to preserve. The coming election for 3rd District Supervisor has made Jones the SYV Joan of Arc of the “responsible Chumash expansion” contingent.

Ambitious Chumash plans for Santa Ynez have some folks a little jittery
Ambitious Chumash plans for Santa Ynez have some folks a little jittery

“There are people here who know what this valley was like before that 1998 California law passed that allowed the Indians to start the gaming. And there are 10 – 15,000 Chumash descendants who get nothing and 140 Chumash who split the proceeds from that huge (casino) tower. Is that fair?” Why don’t the 10,000 Chumash who have been excluded from the reparations make a fuss about it? Karen’s son Alex weighs in. “I’ll tell you why those 10,000 people who don’t get the benefits aren’t fighting the 140 people who are: they’re scared. Because those 140 people who are getting the benefit? If you’re in the tribe you don’t want to mess with them.”

Truckin’

Maybe more to the immediate point, the Valley is said to have changed in ways that would appear linked to the relatively sudden appearance of a large gaming operation in its midst. “We started having interesting people come through,” Karen says. “We had our truck stolen. We had to fortify our property…” Alex again. “Two guys came down on a bus from Santa Maria, lost their ass at the casino, stole our truck. Right here. I woke up needing to drive to high school. I’m like, ‘where’s our truck?!’ We listened to the play-by-play and the police were in pursuit and there was a very nasty wreck on the 101.” He pauses. “Look, the tower isn’t going away. But let’s at least put a stop to the pooling of money and power by the people at the top, and share the bounty with all the Chumash descendants.”

“I’m just not for any group being given carte blanche to build whatever they want,” Karen adds. “We have laws, we have zoning. There’s a process. That’s why we have open spaces and L.A. doesn’t.” Karen and her son are at pains to say they are not talking about the Chumash as the problem. Many of their friends are Chumash, albeit of the financially disenfranchised variety. “We’re talking about them as individuals, as they should talk about us,” Alex says. “We’re individual people. You start lumping people into groups and it isn’t good.”

As for her candidacy, Karen Jones sees it as an extension of the service she enjoys providing every day to anyone who asks. “People always know I want to help them, whether they need their child picked up from school or they need to move at the last minute. I’m there. That’s my job. I’m a minuteman.” Alex chimes in. “But the electorate hears that my mom will work for the 3rd district for free, and they’ll say, oh, she’s that crazy candidate who wants to work for free.”

And he’s right. The bitch-and-moan electorate want a gifted Citizen Public Servant to Just Once win a meaningful elected office. But in the end those candidates, our friends and neighbors, get spun by the professional political class as eccentrics and amateurs.

Kinky takes his outsized cigar out of his mouth and begins jabbing the air. “Professionals built the Titanic and amateurs built the Ark,” he says, getting animated. “They all get together with the media, the Crips and the Bloods (by which he means the Republicans and the Democrats), and they gang up on the independent thinking people. Every time. Yes, I believe in term limits. Every politician should serve two terms; one in office and one in prison.”

Living Las Vegas

Inevitably, of course, the evening wraps with a walk to the casino, about 4 blocks from the Jones homestead. After all this jawboning it seems fitting to pay a visit to the object of so much ire. Karen has never been and Kinky thinks he might play a slot or two. It’s about 10pm. In the very near distance the casino tower juts up in the darkness like a medical center in the middle of an open field. We make our way there along pedestrian-unfriendly gravel shoulders, a small clutch of variously sized humans proceeding cautiously by moonlight and headlight, one of our number in flowing garb and a cowboy hat; a moonlit Fellowship of Ka-ching. On arrival, I stare. Groups of folk in bermuda shorts and blousy novelty t-shirts shuffle wearily around the main entry, which also features two bruisers in faux-police getups, checking I.D.s. As I walk past, a uniformed casino worker with a crew cut is shining his little flashlight at a kid’s driver’s license.

“What’s your last name, then? What’s your last name?”

“…Marcus?” the kids says uncertainly. At the top of a short but sweeping staircase the place opens up into a flashing, circus-colored expanse the size of a NASA hangar. Hundreds of ill-looking humans of every shape and description hunch with glum expressions over faux-roulette tables, slot machines and blackjack deals. For all that this is a “gaming” establishment, the massed humanity look like desperately tired kids trapped in an algebra class. At the blackjack station a guy disconsolately watches the dealer swipe his stacked chips away and shove them down an ornamental hole in the table. Jones speaks disparagingly and loudly of how efficiently the casino is unburdening these folks of their greenbacks. The unsmiling gamblers, hearing her good-natured shouting over the din, turn briefly to regard her with blank expressions and turn back to their games.

The place looks like an $80 million purgatorial chamber of the damned. To walk through the casino is to be severely dispirited, and in the very heart of a payback machine whose beneficiaries are still associated with a pre-colonial spiritualism that the invading European is said to have destroyed. And I feel surrounded by the ghastly proof of that axiom. And, yeah, this is all very easy to yak about for a privileged white descendant of the guys who paved the Trail of Tears.

Kinky Friedman, in his black hat, black floor-length preacher’s coat, black hair and black mustache, is parting the startled khaki gaming throngs like the slow-motion, mist-shrouded gunslinger from hell in your favorite bad Western. It’s a wild thing to watch. He finds a slot machine (“..this one feels good..”) seats himself, feeds in some bills and starts punching buttons. A small crowd gathers. I look at Karen and she laughs, her bright eyes flashing. “I have no idea what all those buttons do!” 5 minutes in and Kinky has a good run. He turns to the gathered. “The Lo-o-o-o-rd is with me!” he booms, waving his arms to nervous laughter, and everyone takes a half-step back. Within 20 minutes Kinky Friedman has won about $850, and Jones and I persuade him to take the money and run.

 

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