WORLD

Will the governor of Texas be Kinky?

How the former leader of the Texas Jewboys became a real candidate

Peter C. Newman September 4 2006
WORLD

Will the governor of Texas be Kinky?

How the former leader of the Texas Jewboys became a real candidate

Peter C. Newman September 4 2006

Will the governor of Texas be Kinky?

WORLD

How the former leader of the Texas Jewboys became a real candidate

PETER C. NEWMAN

That badass country singer, Kinky Friedman, first appeared on my radar screen in the mid1970s, when he and his six-piece band, the Texas Jewboys, recorded sassy music that wasn’t merely outside-the-box but outside-the-stadium. Kinky’s repertoire included the occasional serious, extended tribute to the victims of the Holocaust (Ride’em Jewboy), but more often, the band played anti-women’s liberation songs such as Get Your Biscuits in the Oven, and Your Buns in Bed. Kinky crossed over the line with his crude send-up: They Ain’t Makin’Jews likeJesus Anymore. (Sample lyrics: You know, you don’t look Jewish, near as I can figure, /1 had you lumped for a slightly anemic well-dressed country nigger! / Oh, they ain’t makin’Jews like Jesus anymore, / They ain’t makin’ carpenters that know what nails are for.) At the time, Kinky was being accused of corrupting the youth of America, or at least those who listened to him. He contradicted such charges by brazenly pointing out: “I never say the word ‘fuck’ in front of a c-h-i-l-d.” His band members enjoyed being outrageous but missed the fringe benefits. “Why don’t we ever attract groupies?” complained Major Bowles, the band’s drummer. “All we get is Jewish sociology professors taking notes.”

Kinky performed at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville as part of Bob Dylan’s 1976 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, and played opening acts for his buddy, Willie Nelson. But by the early 1980s, his career was sinking in a quagmire of drugs, cocaine being his poison of choice. “He was high on 27 different herbs and spices,” recalls Jimmie “Ratso” Silman, a Washington TV cameraman who once played backup guitar for the Jewboys. “Friedman was a different person back then, definitely fairly repellent as a human being.” When Kinky quit the drug scene, he had a simple explanation. “I stopped doing cocaine,” he said, “when Bob Marley fell out of my left nostril.”

Friedman visited Vancouver while I lived there in the 1980s, but by then he no longer had a band. “While we were doing a gig near Austin, I went for a walk,” he explained. “That was when I realized how ambivalent I felt

about my music, and then it hit me: anybody who used the word ‘ambivalent’ had no business being a country singer.” Instead, he began writing satirical detective novels with such bizarre titles as Armadillos and Old Lace, God Bless John Wayne, and The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover, and nearly all of his 18 books became minor bestsellers. They were just as earthy as his songs. In one scene, he described the time he was in a hotel making love to a female friend when a bellhop who refilled mini-bars entered his room without bothering to knock. Kinky was not amused. “Can’t you see,” he complained, “that I’m in the middle of somebody?”

His writings were peppered with references to sex that not merely transcended but set back political correctness: “Every time you see a beautiful woman, just remember somebody got tired of her. But I could imagine a number of things that would look good on her. One of them, would be myself. She’s the kind of girl that older dentists find attractive. Has a nice set of teeth, a fair set of knockers and a lousy set of values.”

Not surprisingly, Bill Clinton, then in his Monica phase, was one of Kinky’s most ardent fans. Kinky was invited to the White House and they exchanged notes. Friedman even composed and recorded a down-and-dirty ditty that he was convinced would absolve

AN ANONYMOUS FARMER CAME UP TO HIM AND WHISPERED: ‘Y0I

the president from any charges of extramarital sex. The lyrics were self-explanatory: “Eatin’ ain’t cheatin’.”

Over the years, I sort of forgot about Kinky, only occasionally played his past hits or leafed through his books. The man was refreshingly incorrigible, but once the shock value wore off, his humour commanded a brief

shelf life. It came as a rude awakening, therefore, when I realized just a few weeks ago that this aging reprobate was running on an independent ticket for governor of Texas. In the process, he had unexpectedly emerged as one of the most newsworthy candidates of the current American election campaign. Because of a four-way split in the gubernatorial vote among mediocre rivals, polls showed him at 20 per cent, and he actually stood a chance of winning. He hadn’t changed his tune, but his oneliners had grown slightly more mellow. “I’m a bastard child of twin cultures,” Kinky commented during a campaign speech, “Jewish and cowboy, that have nothing in common except they like to wear their hats indoors.”

Last June, Friedman received twice as many write-ins from registered voters belonging to neither of the old-line parties as were required to get his name on the ballot as an independent candidate. To help his cause he had hired most of the rogue professionals who had pushed the wrestler, Jesse Ventura, into Minnesota’s top job in 1998. Serious Texan political observers started to predict the long-shot possibility of a Friedman upset.

That was a dramatic switch from Kinky’s initially jocular approach to his own candidacy. At first, he insisted that the main reason he wanted to move into the governor’s mansion was that he needed more shelf space. He also promised that as the state’s first Jewish governor, he would reduce speed limits to 54-95 m/h. Word leaked out that he had already promised to appoint at least eight of his cronies as wardens ofTexas’s women’s prisons. All or none of this was true, but at some point, Kinky got serious, and realized that if he could har-

ness the state’s prevalent political discontent and mobilize the 71 per cent of citizens who didn’t vote last time in mid-term elections, he might have a clear chance. The landscape seemed ideal for a non-politician. “Given the choice,” declared Dean Barkley, his campaign manager who had directed the Ventura campaign, “Texans are just as likely to vote for somebody they can believe in, who talks straight with them, and understands their frustration with traditional politics.”

But just how sincere can Kinky really be, not just about going straight but about holding the Lone Star state’s highest elected office? “If you ask him whether this is a joke, if you even suggest it’s a joke, he’ll lunge at you,” says Evan Smith, editor of Texas Monthly and one of the state’s top political commentators (Kinky is a regular contributor to the publication). Smith describes the ex-cowboy singer’s fierce independence as his greatest strength: “He’s independent of everything and of every-

body,” Smith wrote. “Sometimes even independent of his own brain. Certainly, his mouth is independent of his brain. But the fact that he’s willing to take on the establishment, however he defines it on any given day, means he has tapped into the people’s dissatisfactions. His candidacy sends a shiver up the spine of career politicians everywhere.” During his campaign, staged mostly in bars and at picnics, Kinky treasures most the comment from an anonymous farmer who came up to him and whispered: “You ain’t worth a damn, but you’re better than what we got.”

Still, Friedman has begun to sound more like a conventional politician, a stuffy echo of the former Kinky who never met a conventional idea he couldn’t publicly skewer in 25 words or less. Lately, he has been singing a new tune. “My plan is to appoint the very best people that I can find, get out of their way and let them do their job,” he has grandly declared. “I want people who have a passion about Texas and who care about her and who will do the right thing. It’s a plan that’s never been tried here before. It’s time for a fundamental change. We can make Texas number one in renewable fuels—which is a hell of a lot better than being number one in executions, property taxes, and dropouts.”

It’s not until you get to the small print of his platform that Kinky’s true character reemerges. One example: Texas has the longest border with Mexico, and Friedman’s solution to illegal immigration—his “Five Mexican Generals Plan”—is as original and offthe-wall as any of his books or songs. “When

1 talk about the five Mexican generals, people think I’m joking but I’m dead serious,” he maintains. “I will divide the border into five jurisdictions, assigning one Mexican general to each and provide him with a $l-million trust fund. Every time a person crosses illegally into the U.S., we’ll subtract $5,000 from the trust fund.” Friedman’s plan would place the responsibility of securing the border on corrupt Mexican military leaders instead of inept American border guards. It might even work; nothing else has.

His pledge to eliminate Houston’s pathetic ranking as the No. 1 air-polluted city in the United States is considerably less imaginative. If elected, Kinky plans to build coal-fired electric generating plants near the Dallas-Fort Worth area, so that the prevailing southerly winds would tag that city as being the state’s most polluted area. Houston would automatically slip into No.

2 position, fulfilling his election promise. Alone among the candidates, he supports gay marriage (“I believe they have the right to be as miserable as the rest of us”), and proposes to finance public education by legalizing gambling terminals in bars. He

N'T WORTH A DAMN, BUT YOU'RE BETTER THAN WHAT WE GOT'

plans to call the program “Slots for Tots.” His most controversial appointment, should he win, would be to name his buddy, Willie Nelson, as head of Texas’s Energy Commission. “People find that very humorous,” he admits. “But I believe very strongly that musicians can run this state better than politicians. We won’t get a lot done in the mornings, but we’ll work late and we’ll be honest.” Born in Chicago 61 years ago as Richard Friedman, he became a chess prodigy at 7, the youngest player to take on then-U.S. chess

champion Samuel Reshevsky. He lost the match, but the chess champion praised his game. The youthful Friedman graduated from the University of Texas, where he was permanently dubbed “Kinky,” which best described his Jewish Afro hairdo. (Friedman himself refers to his hairstyle as “my Fyle Fovett starter kit.”) He joined the Peace Corps in 1966 and was assigned to Borneo, where “I was supposed to teach agriculture to people who had been farming successfully for 2,000 years.”

If Friedman has a hobby—aside from insulting anyone within hailing distance—it’s taking care of pets in the shelter he runs. “On the whole, I prefer cats to women because cats seldom if ever use the word ‘relationship,’” he says. “I seldom meddle in cats’ personal affairs and they rarely meddle in mine. Cats are a fairly right-wing group politically. They are lovers of the status quo. They don’t like anything that might represent change. They hate marriages, divorces, moving days, graduations, bar mitzvahs, bill collectors, rug shampooers, painters, plumbers, electricians, television repairmen, call-out masseuses, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and just about everything else, most of which I agree with them about. They have great insight into human character. Cats, as a rule, don’t like lawyers. There may be lady wrestlers and Catholic universities. There may be military

intelligence. But a good lawyer is a contradiction in terms.”

“Kinky’s problem,” a New Yorker profile recently claimed, “is that he considers himself a serious soul who has never been taken seriously.” In front of a liberal crowd, Kinky woos the voters with the racist and sexist epithets that come to him naturally. And that’s the dilemma that is reducing his chances: if he remains true to himself, he risks not being taken seriously; if he abandons his persona and tries to become a regular contender with shop-

worn ideas and no outrageous asides, most Texans will opt for one of the other, certifiably regular candidates. (Although he would be the first Jewish governor, Kinky seems nervous mainly about the Baptists. It wasn’t that long ago that he advised their clerics to keep the heads of new converts under water much longer during baptism ceremonies.)

In his serious moments, Kinky claims he’s running “against the system, against the stagnant status quo and all the politicians who’ve been there so long they have forgotten why they’re there.” He visualizes himself as a oneman campaign against apathy, ignorance and complacence.

Superficially, Kinky has hardly changed at all. He still puffs Groucho Marx cigars (Montecristo No. 2s), sports Frank Zappalike facial hair, dresses entirely in black, and owns only two shirts. But he is well aware that he will be elected on Nov. 7 only if there occurs a highly unusual alignment of stars in the heavens, and he is the beneficiary of the devil’s own luck on the ground. “If I lose this race, I will retire in a petulant snit,” he predicts, and it’s a promise he aims to keep. Meanwhile, on the stump, Friedman has turned disgustingly politically correct: he winds up every speech with the benediction: “May the God of your choice bless you...”

Too bad they ain’t makin’ Jews like Kinky anymore. M