The kosher cowboy
Kinky Friedman is a singing, writing, cigar-smoking Texan. Which doesn’t make him any less Jewish
Richard S “Kinky” Friedman has done it all. He toured America in the ’70s as part of Bob Dylan’s legendary Rolling Thunder Revue with his country band Kinky Friedman & The Texas Jewboys; he has written 28 detective novels; for most of this decade he has penned a column for the magazine Texas Monthly; he runs an animal-rescue ranch, and he was one of two independent candidates in the 2006 election for the office of Governor of Texas. Satirist, novelist, animal-lover — whatever you call him, just do not call him a politician.
“I’m anti-politician,” he says, getting ready for a flight to Manchester where he is about to give a lecture on the meaning of life to fans of his witty aphorisms and absurdist worldview. “You want to know my definition of politics? ‘Poly’ means more than one, and ‘tics’ are blood-sucking parasites.”
Kinky Friedman at home in Texas. Texans and Israelis are "both disappearing, whether they know it or not"
Friedman is a strange one. He was born in 1944 in Chicago to Jewish parents, but to talk to him you would think he was a Texan redneck. He does actually have cowboy credentials — in the ’50s, his family moved to Kerrville in central Texas, where he still lives, on Echo Hill Ranch where his cousin helps run the Utopia Animal Rescue service and his brother organises an annual summer camp for children.
So is he for real or just play-acting? Friedman does not answer directly, but he does say: “I hope I’m being misunderstood. Most of the people I admire were misunderstood.” Who, for example? “I’d start with Moses and Jesus,” he replies. “They were two good Jewish boys who got into a little trouble with the government. Oscar Wilde and Lenny Bruce were also pretty misunderstood.”
Among the notorious tunes he penned in his country-rock heyday was a little ditty called Ride ’Em Jewboy, an extended tribute to the victims of the Holocaust. “The public don’t understand the concept of satire very well,” he says in hindsight. “The Texas Jewboys were a country band with a social conscience. The intellectuals understood the lyrics and the country folk understood the music, but nobody quite got the whole package.”
He is very pro- freedom of expression, which he believes is being “strangled” and considers “America’s greatest gift to the world”. But then, as he adds: “Americans themselves are not what they used to be. They’re becoming ‘wussified’. They’ve got a weakness of fibre — spiritual, physical and moral. I can’t believe we live such a homogenised, sanitised existence. Look at the smoking regulations: a guy can’t put a sign up saying ‘Smoking Allowed’.”
That is another entry on his already full CV: cigar manufacturer. Friedman runs a company called KFC, which stands for Kinky Friedman Cigars. “I believe cigar smokers outlive non-smokers,” he contends. “They’re good for stress.”
Friedman left Austin High School in 1962 and graduated from the University of Texas with a liberal-arts degree. After college he served two years with the Peace Corps in Borneo, working for “11 cents an hour in the jungle with native tribes — it was probably the best work I’ve ever done”. Did he witness untold horrors? “No,” he says, suddenly serious. “I saw things with unfurnished eyes, as [US poet] Emily Dickinson said. We’re too culture-bound; we all need to be in the Peace Corps for a couple of years.”
Of all the things he has done, where does his heart truly lie? He responds without hesitation: “Animal rescue. I want to make Texas a no-kill state — no killing of dogs or cats or horses… or people.”
One of his key propositions during the gubernatorial election, apart from his pro-gay-marriage stance (“Why shouldn’t homosexuals be as miserable as everybody else?” he asks), and determination to improve the standing of teachers (“Teaching might not be the oldest profession,” he says, “but it’s the noblest”), was the abolition of the death penalty. He is disturbed by the number of executions in Texas. “What part of ‘Thou shall not kill’ don’t you understand? There’s more to Christianity than holding hands on a Sunday and singing prayers,” he says.
How about Judaism — is Friedman practising? He has got a stock reply for that one: “If I’m a practising Jew, I need to practise a little more.” Nevertheless, he is “a very strong backer of Israel”. Israelis, he decides, are “very much like Texans: they both like to wear their hats indoors”. Boom-boom! But he has a serious point. “They’re also both gypsies, wandering in the raw poetry of time. And they’re both disappearing, whether they know it or not.” He compares and contrasts Israeli Jews with the American variety. “The American Jew is a very uncomfortable creature. So is the British Jew. They’re wimps.”
The problem, as Friedman sees it, is that people, not just Jews, have become softened up by our consumer society and its infatuation with celebrity. “Money is a waste of time,” he asserts. “And fame, as Ernest Hemingway said, is death’s little sister. I fight happiness and fame at every turn. You don’t want to be happy — it’s the kiss of death for immortality, especially for an artist. There were a lot of people in Van Gogh’s day who were hugely commercially successful and we don’t even know their names! Having a pauper’s grave is a very good idea if you want to be immortal. It worked for Van Gogh, Anne Frank, Mozart, Jesus… You don’t want to be too successful in your lifetime.”
To Friedman, success is the enemy of art. “I’m in danger of becoming too successful. When people come up to me saying how I’m their hero and they love my latest book, that’s not being a writer. As Mark Twain said, the source of humour isn’t joy; it’s sorrow.” Does Friedman experience sorrow? “Very little, but I’m aware of it. I’m also aware that just about everybody I love is dead and that I have no living heroes; certainly no political heroes.” He does have musical ones: country legend Willie Nelson, whom he calls “the hillbilly Dalai Lama”, and his friend Bob Dylan.
He and Dylan often discuss America’s immigration problem. Their solution is simple: it is called “The Five Mexican Plan” and involves putting Mexican generals at five points on the border with a million dollars each and charging them $5,000 for every illegal immigrant who slips through. “Our borders are not remotely secure,” he says. “I heard Mexico dropped out of the Olympics because everybody who can run, jump or swim has already left the country.”
What if there had been a similar policy regarding Jews the ’20s and ’30s? “Many Jews weren’t allowed in [to the US], including the ones on the ship St Louis that they sent back to the concentration camps,” he replies, getting a bit heated. “But the ones who did come in came in legally — these people are not coming in legally, that’s the difference!
“In my life, I’ve shared ashtrays with two presidents,” he says of his passing friendships with Bill Clinton and George W Bush. “But being a Jew means remaining on the outside looking in, not just as a writer but as a human being.” For Friedman, that means living life to the full and trying to enjoy it while you can. “Find what you like and let it kill you” — that is his advice. “I like touring, I like smoking cigars, I have four dogs, four women and four editors.” Hold on... four women? How does he get away with that? “In a sense, I haven’t,” he says, cryptically. “But in another sense I have. I’m just playing it as it lays. I’m not married — I’m married to Texas, to the wind.”
Full name: Richard S Friedman
Born: November 1, 1944 in Chicago
Early life: Parents were Dr S Thomas Friedman and Minnie Samet Friedman. Friedman moved to a ranch in central Texas as a young child. Has a psychology degree from the University of Texas
Career: First came to prominence as a country-music perfomer in the early 1970s and claims to be the only full-blooded Jew to have performed at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. His band, Kinky Friedman and The Texas Jewboys, performed songs with Jewish themes. Has toured with artists including Bob Dylan. Has also written detective fiction (his hero is a New York private investigator called Rambam). In 2006 he stood for governor of Texas with a campaign slogan of “My Governor is a Jewish Cowboy”, gaining 12.5 per cent of the vote
On his Jewishness: He says: “If I’m a practising Jew, I need to practise a little more.” Declares himself a “a strong backer of Israel”
Kinky Friedman is currently touring the UK. For details of performances, visit www.kinkyfriedman.com