Josh Alan Friedman: The White Guitarist Who’s ‘Blacker Than You’

Josh Alan Friedman.

Josh Alan Friedman. Geoff Kern

Josh Alan Friedman is the most multi-talented musician you’ve probably never heard of. Why? He sings the blues, that’s why.

Honing his talent for storytelling as a journalist, Friedman made his name writing non-fiction books, a novel, and even a musical that never made it to stage. Covering the Times Square beat for a decade gave him a unique perspective on New York City, and growing up as a white kid in at New York’s last segregated public school gave him a unique perspective on basically everything else, as evidenced by the diverse influences on his new album, Sixty Goddammit.

Boasting a rippin’ cover of the theme from Blaxploitation classic Shaft as well as provocative original blues numbers (“I’m Blacker Than You,” for one), Friedman never shies away from pushing buttons, which should make his February 3 appearance at The Cutting Room one of the week’s most interesting concerts.

More than happy to talk about his new record when we spoke over the phone recently, Friedman revealed his thoughts on the state of the music industry in 2017, why the blues are at an all-time low, and why much of music today has become worthless.

I’ve been listening to the record over the past few days, and the show is on Friday.

I haven’t played New York in years. I’m from New York. I’ve been in Texas for the past 30 years. I used to play Village Underground and a lot of places that probably aren’t around anymore. I raised a daughter in the meantime so in the last 15 years I haven’t played much in New York. This might possibly be called the comeback.

It’s been a while since you’ve released any music.

This album, Sixty, Goddammit is my fifth album, and the first album I’ve released in 15 years since my daughter Chloe was born. I became like June Cleaver. I raised her like a good 1950s housewife in Dallas. I pulled back on touring and playing. This is the first one in the new century. I’ve learned about downloading and how everyone gets it for free. We used to have record stores the last time I put out an album.

We still do, they are just more of a vintage item. I personally love buying records.

I thank you. There is a revival of vinyl. John Lennon never even got to see what a CD was. CDs were fine. Now I’m learning about iTunes, which is the way of the world, so it’s like being slapped on the ass and being reborn into a different music situation.

Since the ’90s you have been working, though. You’ve written a good deal of both fiction and nonfiction.

I’ve had about three or four books published since the ’90s, but I can do that home late at night. I wasn’t able to stay on the road. I was never a road warrior, but I would go out for a week at a time. I’m finally doing that now, somewhat, since the album came out. I’m blessed and cursed with a double career. Writer and guitarist. They don’t even coincide.

One of the last books I did was Al Goldstein’s autobiography called I,Goldstein and then I published my only novel Black Cracker about a few years ago, which was about growing up in the last segregated public school in New York. I was practically the only white child there.

“If you are the only white kid in an all-black school in the ’60s that might have something to do with becoming a blues singer in Dallas.”

Some of those experiences have worked their way onto this record. The track “Blacker Than You,” for example.

If you are the only white kid in an all-black school in the ’60s that might have something to do with becoming a blues singer in Dallas. There might be a connection there. I had songs I wanted to include that were too black. I had a song called “You Can Kiss my Big Black Ass” but my wife told me that would be too much, I could only pick one of them, so I put “Blacker than You” on it. I also did the theme from Shaft.

That’s my favorite track from the album, actually.

I did a Black Exploitation medley on acoustic guitar that I would perform down here, but once again my wife said I had to choose just one to put on the record and I chose Shaft.

I was wondering if the writing you’ve done has influenced your songwriting?

I had a single when I moved here in 1987. The song was “Thanksgiving at McDonald’s in Times Square.” It was a jazz number about my experience at a McDonald’s in the late ’70s. It’s the only song I wrote about Times Square, and I’m most known for my book Tales of Times Square. I was the only guy covering Times Square as a beat. Fifty thousand writers in New York and nobody else covered it. So that’s one song that coincided with my work. Aside from a couple black-related songs.

That makes sense. You were just telling me about how you think the writer and musician sides of your brain are separated.

I think they are two separate guys. While I was a journalist, I worked for Screw Magazine. Even then I was in a band called City Limits. City Limits was the second-best doo-wop band in the city. We were always at the second-best club. Johnny Maestro & The Brooklyn Bridge were always at the best clubs. Always haunting us. I’ve always had both careers, but the guitar one took off when I came to Texas.

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about writing, but the guitar work here is impressive as ever. The work sounds stripped down, as compared to your more collaborative work, and sounds most like your first record Famous and Poor.

I could have tried to do a blues record, I could have tried to do a pop album—which I would love to do—but you only have so many opportunities. So I decided to do what I do best, which is this atomic acoustic guitar thing that I do solo. There are thousands of hot-shot electric guitar players, but there are very few acoustic guitarists who play rock and blues the way I do. I’m gonna feature what I do best for Sixty, Goddammit.

Now that you mention the title, can you tell me where the title came from?

Once again my wife gave me the name. She said, “Call it Sixty, Goddammit” and I was just turning 60 and immediately knew that was the name. She art directed the album.

It’s very much just you on here, but if you had the time to do a collaborative record as your next project, who would you work with?

There’s a lot of records I’d like to do. It takes me about two years to do an album and eight years to write a book. I’d like to do a rock-pop album with a full band and have Marshall Crenshaw produce it.

I did a musical called The Worst about Ed Wood and [it] came out as an album. It was intended for stage about the worst director of all time, but right after I released it the Tim Burton movie Ed Wood came out, so it overshadowed my album.

I have half another musical written, and I won’t say what it’s about, but it takes place in old New York and has a lot of Jews in it. It takes place on the Lower East Side and covers a mystical subject. I have the script half written with my friend Richard Jaccoma.

I’m sure some readers will be able to try and figure that out.

Sixty, Goddammit did make it to No. 1 on a couple blues charts. But you don’t really crack out champagne for that. A No. 1 blues record sells the same now as it would in the 1950s. If a record sold 15,000 copies that was considered a huge hit. It’s no different now. I’m not really just blues, but I get mixed into blues.

“Blues as a genre is at its lowest point in history.”

Do you see any revival for the genre?

Blues as a genre is at its lowest point in history. The last blues revival was in the 1980s coming out of Austin, Texas, led by The Thunderbirds. Traditional blues players are at their lowest point in a century at this point. Some like Clapton or the Stones can do a blues album and of course it will outsell all others.

Kids don’t listen to blues. I hope when they turn 30 or 40 they walk by a church and have an awakening. Blues is so much the father of all other popular music, but young people aren’t exposed to it at all. The corporate domination of popular music is devastating.

Lately, a lot of gospel has been reworked into a lot of popular music.

It’s a dynamic form. Gospel might have come before blues. They coincide, beginning together. My daughter’s friends are all 16 and when they come and see me they haven’t heard songs like that. They listen to rap. I wrote a song called “This Radio Don’t Play Nothing But The Blues.”

When the girls would be playing their stations I felt like I was gonna get in a car wreck. I threw down the gauntlet and said, “I can’t stand what I’m hearing.” Every song is a booty call.

So now I play two songs from our one blues station here in Dallas and then let them play two songs. But I’m amazed when they come and see my shows and listen for 90 minutes. It’s probably the first blues they heard.

One place where my daughter and I’s taste converges is classic Broadway scores. Every time we come to New York I take her to a few shows. Her generation has not come around to blues yet. Do you?

I don’t.

Probably because you haven’t heard a lot of it. You have to be taught how to listen to music. Unfortunately, a license is not required to listen to music. Maybe President Trump can enact that.

I doubt it’s the first thing on his mind.

But you do have to learn how to listen to music. Even Broadway. Even Opera. I know something is great but it doesn’t register with me. When Chloe was little she started listening to Maria Callas and I’m hearing opera music in a whole new way.

When you say you have to learn blues, I think about jazz and how my dad taught me how to listen to jazz.

He taught you this is the head, and then it repeats, and everyone improvises. Kids have to learn how to listen to something like that. The only thing they are exposed to is what’s over the radio. Take a kid to Broadway musicals and it’s not hard for them to grow into that. Almost any kid will love it if they see it living and breathing on stage. How many kids get an initiation into Broadway musicals? Not many.

I was one of the lucky few.

What did you see when you were a kid?

I went to San Francisco to see Phantom of the Opera, which has stuck with me ever since. I traveled to New York when I was younger. I think Mama Mia was one of the first ones.

Did you love it?

Of course.

You got to see it live, with actors spitting and sweating in front of you, and that made a huge difference.

Sure. I watched plenty of musicals on TV, but going to see it is when the obsession starts.

It quickly can become an obsession. My daughter used to only listen to musicals. But Justin Bieber took over by the time she became 13. I’m sure if I was that age I’d be listening to that too.

Most serious musicians now seem to be in worse shape as ever. With Sixty, Goddammit you can download and stream it for free anywhere. The musicians aren’t really getting paid. Music has become worthless. I’m not talking about Beyonce.

You’re talking about the 99 percent of other working musicians.

I’m talking about the 99.9 percent of musicians who aren’t Beyonce or Kanye. I’m seeing musicians commit suicide. It’s a little better in Europe, but there seems to be a cultural devastation on artists now.

Every city used to have an orchestra. Or a big city would have three. Now cities don’t have any orchestras or opera or ballet companies. Classical musicians could have a salary and be secure. That doesn’t exist anymore. But enough with the negative, there are a lot of great things, too.

Josh Alan Friedman plays The Cutting Room on February 3.

Josh Alan Friedman: The White Guitarist Who’s ‘Blacker Than You’