Truth is stranger than fiction, but as country singer turned novelist Kinky Friedman put it the other day, “When you write fiction, you can tell the truth.”
Maybe that’s why two longtime music industry figures--Friedman and heavyweight rock lawyer Freddie Gershon--have new novels out this month.
Friedman’s book, “Greenwich Killing Time,” is a traditional detective thriller, though it’s loaded with colorful pop parlance: When his detective hero discovers that a woman has bumped off her lover, he quips, “I guess she Sam Cooked him.”
However, Gershon’s book, “Sweetie Baby Cookie Honey,” is far more outrageous--it’s a rock ‘n’ roll version of “Valley of the Dolls,” the kind of sex, drugs and suicide roman a clef that already has record company chiefs on the phone with the now-retired industry attorney, wondering if they’ve mercifully been left out of the book.
TELLING ALL?: Now 47, Freddie Gershon has been a key rock industry figure for two decades, writing songs for Don Kirshner in the early Brill Building days, serving as an attorney from everyone from Bette Midler and Lesley Gore to Van Morrison and Chicago, as well as being a partner in Robert Stigwood’s RSO Records empire. For years, he kept a journal, but he says that when his wife saw his notes, she told him, “This is a book. This is great trash!”
Using composites to capture the flavor of rocksters he’s seen in action, Gershon completed a steamy novel, populated with characters like troubled singer Hedy Harlowe, conniving record exec Thane Crowley, overnight success Derek Robertson, embezzler Joey Gold and enterprising attorney David Barry, one of the few vaguely likable characters, who Gershon acknowledges is largely based on himself. We wouldn’t dare give away all the sordid details, but there’s enough hysterical bedroom scenes and backstage drama to fuel an entire miniseries. (Gershon says he’s already sold the book to a TV production company.)
Gershon says he began work on the book (available from Arbor House) after becoming disenchanted by the music business. “I got tired of all the greed and avarice, not only of the managers and agents, but of the artists themselves,” said Gershon, who was in San Francisco plugging his book. “The artists pretend they’re in it for the music, but they often end up selling out to the highest bidder. If it comes down to picking a hall based on the acoustics or the amount of tickets they can sell, they’ll go for the big bucks every time.
“I’ve lived vicariously through the lives of lots of pop stars and, with most of them, you wouldn’t want to suffer being with. They are vulgarians of the first order, totally self-absorbed and intolerant of anyone else’s ego. That’s probably why there’s a lot of sex in the book, but not much love. It’s hard to make commitments when you’re driven by a pathological drive to be a success.”
Judging from these sentiments, you can imagine why Gershon has gotten a lot of calls since word of the book--and its unflattering portraits--got around. Gershon has already heard from several top execs who he said liked the book, including record company bigwigs Elliot Goldman, Dick Asher and Walter Yetnikoff, who Gershon said wants to do a sound-track album and home-video project for CBS once the book is made into a TV movie.
Gershon wouldn’t reveal who didn’t like the book, explaining: “I suspect they’re just projecting their own guilt and discomfort onto the book, since they weren’t even the people I was thinking of. A lot of people have liked it--I think they’re flattered that someone chose the record industry after all the books that have always concentrated on the film world.”
One of the many dark themes running through Gershon’s book is that pop stars are now worth more dead than alive, which he sees as symbolic of the music industry’s greed and cynicism.
“The record industry has a whole necrophiliac mentality,” he said. “I’m not sure I understand it, but everyone puts a premium on it. Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison--even John Lennon--they’ve all sold huge amounts of records years after they died. But the industry looks at it, it’s as if to say, ‘We didn’t kill them, so why not make some money off them?’ ”
A KINKY CASE: Death--murder to be exact--is also what makes Kinky Friedman’s book go round. Friedman is the glib tunesmith behind such irreverent honky-tonk tunes as “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed” and “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore.” But now he’s put down his guitar, sharpened his pencil and produced “Greenwich Killing Time,” a mystery thriller (from William Morrow & Co.) that’s already done well enough to be going into its fourth printing.
Set in Greenwich Village, its detective hero is a cigar-smoking former country singer named Kinky who refers to cocaine as “weasel dust,” wears a tie with the slogan “Hello, Handsome,” and has pals like McGovern of the Daily News, who once “combed his hair before meeting a race horse.” Though Friedman says he’s sworn off his country music career (“I’m in my Elton John retirement phase”), he does manage to work some pop references into the story, as when he notes that a murder was so obvious that “even Ronnie Milsap could see it.”
“I’ve always talked about finding a life style that didn’t require my presence and I think that writing novels is it,” said Friedman from his Texas ranch, where he was so happy about the book’s reception that he even read some of the bad reviews over the phone. “All I did was employ the same form of literary epilepsy that I used when I was writing country songs. I found that as long as I didn’t run out of cigars, I had no problems with the book. I typed about five pages a day with my toes, and it’s worked out pretty good. I just wanted to write something that would amuse Americans on airplanes.”
Though he says his detective-fiction heroes are Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker, Friedman described his own style as “something like a country & Western version of Margaret Truman.” Friedman sounded relieved to be away from pop music’s drug-ridden fast lane, which gets a pretty good working over in the book.
“Being in the record business, with all its ups and downs, really helped me realize that it’s a small step from the limo to the gutter,” he said. “I have a slightly different attitude towards drugs than the White House. I don’t much like drug dealers, but I think you have to struggle with your own demons and find the Jesus of your own choosing, as Billy Joe Shavers says. It’s still a day-to-day thing with me.”
For now, Friedman sounded like a guy on a literary high, already boasting about having nearly completed a second thriller, “A Case of Lone Star,” about a series of murders of country singers at New York’s Lone Star country music saloon. Asked which prominent country stars get bumped off, Friedman explained: “Well, most of ‘em are carefully disguised. I mean, you can’t really kill off George Jones, though I wouldn’t mind having something terrible happen to Larry Gatlin.” He laughed. “The nice thing about this switch from music to books is that a lot of people have been looking for a reason to like me for a lot of years and now I think they’ve found one.”