Determining the fact and the fiction behind one of Kinky Friedman's Village Irregulars
Kinky Friedman once remarked that the line between fiction and reality is the one he snorted back in 1978. More than two decades later, he's still getting things mixed up. For example, putting his friend John McCall, the multimillionaire shampoo magnate and owner of the beauty supply firm Armstrong McCall, in his new detective novel Steppin' on a Rainbow and not even bothering to change his name. To be fair, Kinky does put a lot of his friends in his novels: Chinga, Hoover, McGovern, Rambam, and Ratso are real-life people that readers of Kinky's fiction are familiar with. But with McCall, Kinky's stratagem works a bit differently because McCall -- the real John Herschel McCall -- is in actuality more like a fictional character than a real, live person. That is, he's more like someone you would read about in a page-turner of escapist fiction than encounter in the course of a quotidian and humdrum existence. And so, in an attempt to illuminate this phenomenological enigma, The Austin Chronicle conducted its own investigation (minus Kinky's Sherlockian talents), and the result is this interview.
It doesn't seem so surprising that Kinky and McCall are friends when one discovers that McCall is one hell of a raconteur himself, perhaps the equal of Kinky, a walking spring of stories pouring forth just about everything he has ever witnessed, thought, dreamt, and experienced. The documentary The Shampoo King (2000) by UT associate professor Ellen Spiro is perhaps the best introduction to McCall. The Shampoo King is the result of Spiro following McCall with a video camera on his around-the-world adventures. Spiro parodies Citizen Kane, intercutting sections from the original film beginning with the infamous shots of the San Simeon mansion. Then we see McCall, underscored by the soundtrack of a vaudeville song-and-dance routine from Citizen Kane, schmoozing with the schmoozerazie at one of the numerous hair shows that he puts on all over the country, and which is one of the sources of his fortune. One unidentified interviewee remarks, "He sells and carries more shampoo than anybody in the entire world." Indeed, every time you walk into a beauty salon and purchase sold-in-salon-only hair care products, there's a good chance that you're putting money in McCall's pocket.
A spoof on the sequence where a journalist interviews Kane's ex-wife, now a fading lounge singer, begins a series of beauty industry insiders giving their opinion about McCall. One associate remarks that McCall is, "The closest thing to a genius that I've ever met. ... He's got -- I think -- very definitely ESP." Another associate chimes, "He has beauty industry ESP." This is followed by a most revealing shot of McCall in his standard black limousine speeding through a section of Las Vegas and framed by mock-ups of the Sphinx and a pyramid from the Egyptian-themed Luxor Hotel. In another segment, McCall and Kinky take a Gulfstream to Hawaii for one of McCall's birthday party extravaganzas. It was perhaps one of these trips that Kinky used as the basis for Steppin' on a Rainbow where McCall leases a Gulfstream and flies the "Village Irregulars" to Hawaii to search for McGovern, who had vanished on a beach while researching his cookbook Eat, Drink, and Be Kinky. Near the end of the documentary fake precipitation from Citizen Kane's tumbling snow globe is superimposed on a shot of McCall's hand, which features a ring with his Flying M Ranch insignia.
The Shampoo King draws parallels between the lives of McCall and Charles Foster Kane. Both inherited a business in their 20s and expanded them far beyond the visions of the founders, both built huge mansions, and both collect artifacts from all corners of the planet. (McCall quips that the scribe who penned Citizen Kane understood the disease of collecting.) McCall even bears a slight resemblance to Orson Welles.
The Austin Chronicle interviewed hunter-gatherer McCall at his Lodge, which Kinky has dubbed the "Taj McCall," amongst his African mask collection, Julie Speed paintings, an antique jukebox, Armadillo World Headquarters posters, Winston Churchill first editions, Parisian club chairs, an enormous elk head, and, echoing the line that Kinky snorted, a large movie poster for Citizen Kane.
Austin Chronicle: You're described as the Shampoo King from Dripping Springs. Would you explain what you do and how you earned that moniker?
John McCall: I'm a child of the professional salon industry. My grandmother was a hairdresser. I have probably six aunts that are hairdressers. My two uncles are hairdressers. At one time or another I've had probably six cousins who are hairdressers. My mother was a technician for a large manufacturing company in our industry called Rayette. I started working at the family store as a child in the sixth grade. During my life I've met everybody that had anything to do with the industry. Since I've been involved so long, I'm kind of like the historian of the industry. And I've run my business -- my father passed away from cancer, the kind of cancer that I developed -- and I took the business over when I was 25. How old am I now? I'm 54. Well, actually I'm 39. Sorry I said that. Jack Benny and I have both been 39 all of our lives. [McCall's 54th birthday party on June 1 included party favors in the form of red bandanas with Jack Benny's face in the center and the words "Jack/John 39 Forever."]
AC: Now you're a recovering attorney.
JM: I'm a recovering attorney. I have actually not read a contract in years. I try to stay away from it.
AC: You're first appearance as a fictional character was on page 172 in God Bless John Wayne. Kinky quotes you as saying, "Maybe you could bring me some back on a piece of dry toast." What is the meaning of this phrase?
JM: Like somebody says, "Let's go to a party and there's going to be a lot of girls there and maybe you can meet some people," and you say, "Well, just bring some back on a piece of dry toast." It's a kind of thing that nobody knows why I say it, and I don't really know what it means anymore.
AC: How does it feel to be a fictional character in a Kinky Friedman novel and also a real person?
JM: I was a little worried at first to be mentioned in any of his books. My mother was alive until last year. You never know what he's going to say. Once you're an orphan -- you don't have a father or mother -- it completely frees you. You don't really care what anybody thinks or what anybody says because the only people that you really care about what they think are you parents. I think that if we look back, why we went to college, why we tried to succeed, be good, not get thrown in jail, it's all because of our parents. Once your parents are out of the picture you really don't care if people put you in books or what they say about you. But I remember sometimes they would put me in a newspaper because of a land deal I was in and call me a liar or say something really mean-spirited. And I would be so afraid that my mother would find out. Or she would read this and think badly of me, she would maybe believe it was true. Those kinds of things hurt. Kinky will tell the truth, whatever it is, good or bad, the truth as he sees it. Even though his books are fictional there's a lot of truth in them.
AC: So you were telling me a story about how you were the oldest roadie in Ireland.
JM: Sometimes I ride with Kinky. Like I've done that in Australia and a couple of times in Europe. My only job seems to be to schlep the guitar from a hotel to the train station and sometimes collect money in the green room, because that's where you collect the green. And Kinky has a saying, "First the star, then the guitar." So my job is to make sure he has a little Jack Daniels poured in his glass. A time or two I've had to get a limo when I can see that he's attacking the audience. I see that gleam in his eye and he wants to see if he can make people mad at him. That's happened once. I had to get the limo, load the luggage up, and pick Kinky up because they're chasing him out the door.
AC: What did he do to make people mad at him?
JM: He was doing a benefit -- did not charge these people any money. And he goes and sings a song -- if they would have listened to the song they would have known what it was about. But he used what they considered an inappropriate word, designating a certain ethnic group, and they didn't like it.
AC: Where was this?
JM: Padre Island. And it was for Planned Parenthood. But I saw the gleam in his eye, and he knew he was going to get in trouble. He says he claims he doesn't know but sometimes he just does it on purpose, and I don't know why. Maybe it's a self-destruct button. Maybe it's just to add a little excitement. I knew it was going to happen, that's why I went out to get the limo. It wasn't like he didn't know it was going to happen.
AC: You've described yourself as a Baptist-Hindu and a Baptist-Buddhist.
JM: Buddhism has caught my fancy lately because they have those little statues that people leave money in.
AC: Where did you meet Kinky?
JM: Where did I meet Kinky? I remember meeting him but he probably doesn't remember this. I met him a long time ago on the way to Europe. I would break the trip up and spend a few days in New York. And I went to this place called the Lone Star Cafe. I used to like to go see Kinky and Delbert McClinton. Thursday night was Delbert night and Wednesday night was Kinky night. Or maybe it was the other way around, I don't know. Probably in the Seventies. Late Seventies, middle Seventies. And then I hired him one time for my birthday party during my 30th birthday at the ranch. And I remember he said something really nasty -- it wasn't really nasty -- it was inappropriate to one of these old ladies. Wife of somebody I was doing business with. And she asked him, "Why do they call you Kinky?" And he said, "They used to call me Big Dick."
AC: So you met Kinky at the Lone Star Cafe during his Greenwich Village days.
JM: He doesn't remember meeting me. And I really didn't think much about him one way or another. I think that when you get to a certain age you find that there are people that don't have families and don't belong to anybody. And I think that you probably gravitate towards these people. And I'm kind of an orphan.
AC: You were mentioned in Roadkill on page 236: "I felt comfortable discussing the subsequent ongoing search for my client with John McCall. He'd been through hell a couple of times himself and came out laughing at the devil. In 1986, his entire company went belly-up, but John had brought it back bigger than ever. In 1990 McCall himself had gone belly-up. Diagnosed with deadly lymphoma cancer and with the medical experts pointing the bone at him, he'd been given only weeks to live. Yet incredibly, the cancer had turned to water and disappeared during a dream John had aboard a plane. The doctors had never seen anything like it, but of course, that's what they always say. Either that or you'll never walk again." What was the dream about?
JM: I flew to Houston and had my blood tested. Flew back home for some biopsies. The first biopsy they cut me here [points to throat] and put me on a table for six hours. On the way to Houston I had a vision -- I was praying -- and in the vision I saw the tumor in my lungs turn to water. So I told the surgeons that I was okay, and they said that they were going to test me anyway. So they cut me open and they pulled these nodules out of me and they said, 'It looks like cancer. They're calcified, but they're benign.' And they went in and did a needle biopsy of my lung into the tumor. And the guy doing the biopsy said that he was pulling water out of me. And I knew that I had it made, and I told the surgeon that and he said, 'Naw, your blood count is crazy. Something's going on in there.' Well, the blood counts were done the day before. But I went ahead and did the chemo and everything. They treated me for big cell lymphoma -- which my father died of -- just because it was hereditary, and I had the symptoms. I don't think they ever found a cancer cell in me.
AC: On page 53 of Steppin' on a Rainbow your character is quoted as saying, "All power is merely illusion and has nothing whatsoever to do with ultimate success, not to mention freedom or happiness."
AC: Would you care to elaborate?
JM: Happiness is a moving target. I don't think that anybody is happy all the time. You can be happy for moments. For moments everybody is happy. I think that my moments of happiness in the last few years have been more than most. So the happiest moments in my life were when I didn't have a dime. When I went broke was one of the happiest -- I remember when I lost everything someone came and asked my wife, I was upstairs at our condo and I was listening at the stairwell and a friend of mine came by and asked, How's John holding up, and my wife said, I've never seen John this happy. So it didn't have anything to do with how much money I had or how successful I was, I looked at it as a challenge. It made life interesting. I'm at my best during bad times. When I lose everything, when someone's sick, when there's a mess at work, when I'm getting audited by the IRS, when a deal goes awry, when everybody else crumbles around me, that's when I do my best work. When everything's fine and dandy and rosy, I become bored and complacent and unhappy.
Kinky Friedman, Steppin' on a Rainbow, Spanking Watson, John McCall, The Shampoo King, Eat, Drink, and Be Kinky, Guide to Texas Etiquette, or How to Get to Heaven or Hell Without Going Through Dallas-Fort Worth, Mike McGovern