Kinky Friedman Rides Again

Kinky Friedman’s got big boots. Size 10.5. Black cowboy jobs with Texas dust in the cracks. And points sharp enough to catch the hook of a song, of which Friedman’s got plenty: “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” “Rapid City, South Dakota,” “Ride ’Em Jewboy.” In October he’ll have a few more to add to the old jukebox, when he releases “The Loneliest Man I Ever Met,” his first studio album in 40 years.

“The record is stripped down to the soul,” Friedman told me. “I did it for a silent witness, like a lost cat or a dead sweetheart.”

We sat on the stoop at 329 Jane Street, in Manhattan’s West Village; it was 7:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, and we were supposed to meet inside, at the Corner Bistro but Friedman arrived with a lit cigar and, after flying in from his ranch in Medina, Texas, he wanted to smoke it. So we sat. And we talked. And we smoked. In this city of great differences that is Manhattan, Friedman still manages to look different. He was wearing a black cowboy hat, a Hawaiian shirt with a fluorescent floral pattern, a loose white jacket, black jeans and, of course, those boots.

Friedman was in town to do a few songs at The Lone Star Café Reunion Show at the B.B. King Blues Club & Gill. The Lone Star Café was a country music institution that existed in New York City during the 1970s and ’80s. It was famous for its music, as well as for its Bob Wade-designed green iguana sculpture on the roof, which caught flies with an open mouth over Fifth Avenue at 13th Street. Friedman played there; so did George Strait, Asleep at the Wheel and Willie Nelson.

If you aren’t old enough to remember those days in New York City, then perhaps Kinky Friedman is a familiar name for a different reason: He’s written about 18 mystery novels, including one called, not coincidentally, “The Lone Star Café”; he (re)gained notoriety with an improbable run for the governorship of Texas (Tex-ass, he sometimes calls it) in 2006. Improbable, it seemed, until suddenly he was drawing large crowds who were serious about electing the man with the campaign slogan “Why the hell not?” Kinky ran for governor much the same way he became a beloved cult figure in the country music scene: with relentless energy and an unabashedly unorthodox philosophy, and by positioning himself as an outsider in a game of insiders. Ultimately he received nearly 13% of the vote. Not enough to get him elected, but more than most politicos had expected.

Richard Samet Friedman was born in Chicago in 1944 to parents who were professors. A few years later they moved to Echo Hill Ranch in Central Texas, where his parents opened a summer camp in 1953. Friedman has written about his mother, Min Friedman, who put together menus for the campers, and about his father, Thomas Friedman, who told stories to the children under an old juniper tree. After college in Austin, Friedman joined the Peace Corps and went to Borneo. Inspired by his experience, he wrote a song called “Wild Man From Borneo,” based on the true life story of two brothers from Ohio, dwarfs who were paraded around by P.T. Barnum and given false biographies: They were billed as “The Wild Men from Borneo.” Part of the chorus is, “You’ve come to see what you want to see / Ah you’ve come to see but you’ve never come to know.” It is a wrenching song, and there’s an astoundingly bare version of it on the new album. It’s works like these that get buried beneath the cowboy hat and the blustery flurry of piquant one-liners for which Friedman is known. His friend Larry “Ratso” Sloman calls him one of the best songwriters of his generation, and if you listen deep into his repertoire, you find a case can be made. Most people know Friedman’s funny songs. Few know his ruminative stuff.

Our conversation meanders through politics and music, and when Friedman starts talking about his winter 2015 tour of Europe, he mentions that his father flew 36 successful missions over Germany as a navigator in a B-24. He notes the irony of a Lone Star Jew playing to the nation that made Jews wear a different star. But he believes the Germans understand him with a profundity that Americans sorely lack.

On his latest tour of Germany, he was often the oldest man in the house — “Somehow I became the thinking man’s David Hasselhoff.” And his concerts in Nuremberg and Munich were packed. One night in Austria, a young man asked him to sign a book and to inscribe it, “Writing down your memoirs on some window in the frost.” It’s a line from “Sold American,” a song Friedman wrote about a “faded, jaded fallen cowboy star” who no longer has a place in an America that has sold out all traces of authenticity for a consumer culture favoring stars of easier digestion. “There’s not an American alive who would ever want you to inscribe a book like that,” he said. “I soon came to the conclusion that the Germans may be the only people on the face of the earth who have learned something from their experience.” This is a political statement, but also a commentary on the arts. “A guy told me last week in Kerrville, Texas, in the UPS store that I look like the white Richard Pryor.” he said. “I was thinking, if Richard Pryor were still around he’d be a homeless person. So would Lenny Bruce.”

The band he formed in the 1970s, Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys, sang songs such as “Asshole From El Paso” and “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore.” A band name and song titles like that can be considered a death wish in terms of radio play and mainstream exposure. Take “Ride ’Em Jewboy,” an unhurried ballad that evokes the Holocaust with a distinctly country landscape: “Ride, ride ’em Jewboy / Ride ’em all around the old corral / I’m, I’m with you boy / if I got to ride six million miles.”

It’s hard to get a song with “Jewboy” on the radio, no matter how evocative the imagery. Plus, Friedman is not, perhaps, the greatest self-promoter. He once turned down an offer from Bob Dylan to co-write an entire album. He also overslept a songwriting meeting — “The only one I was ever invited to” — with Shel Silverstein. Whether it was the cocaine or some deep-rooted desire to fulfill Willie Nelson’s prophecy that “if you fail at something long enough, you become a legend,” Friedman’s musical career came to a lull. By 1985 he was playing the Lone Star one night a week and not doing much else. His father — “Uncle Tom,” as he was known back at the ranch — was disturbed by the funk he perceived his son to be in, so he offered Friedman a $10,000 advance to write a mystery novel. Friedman borrowed a typewriter from his friend Mike McGovern, at the time a reporter for The New York Daily News, and pumped out his first novel in half a year. “He had no training. He willed it,” McGovern said. Soon Friedman had a two-book deal.

But it’s still the music that seems to fill Kinky with the most pride, the song “Ride ’Em Jewboy” in particular. It hasn’t given him much “financial pleasure,” as he puts it, but it is “significant,” a word Friedman prefers to merely “important.” Friedman has been told by a friend of Nelson Mandela’s who was also in prison on Robben Island that Mandela played “Ride ’Em Jewboy” as his nightly lullaby in his prison cell.

“He f—king got it,” Friedman said, his voice getting louder: “If you look on the landscape of politics in the world, there isn’t anybody that inspires like Mandela, or Gandhi or Jesus or Martin Luther King. We have a president who’s probably the Forrest Gump of all presidents.” (Friedman is not an Obama fan, to put it lightly. He doesn’t have kind words for politicians at all, really, though he prefers Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to anybody else running for president, since at least they’re outside the mainstream.)

I ask him why he thinks there are no inspiring figures anymore. He tells me the answer is the same in music as it is in politics. It’s a problem with people, with our desire for packaged material and personalities that ape what came before, an existential cowardice that dooms us to mediocrity. “It is really true,” Friedman said. “The crowd always picks Barabbas. They always say, ‘Free Barabbas, kill Jesus.’ They do it every time.”

After Friedman finished his cigar, he invited me to eat with a couple of old friends in Chinatown at his favorite spot, Big Wong, where the waiters all know him as a big tipper. McGovern was there, as was Sloman, who has gone on to write “Private Parts” with Howard Stern, and more recently, “Undisputed Truth” with Mike Tyson. Sloman first met Friedman at a show at another erstwhile New York music venue, Max’s Kansas City, around 1972. He had written about Friedman and his band for Rolling Stone magazine, so when his friend, the guitarist Mike Bloomfield, told him they were in town, Sloman joined them. At the show, Sloman said, “the atmosphere up on stage was like ‘Laugh-In.’ You had everybody kibitzing. Everybody was kind of dissing each other,” So he got into it; he heckled from the audience, and after the show, Friedman’s brother Roger Friedman, who was then his road manager, told him: “You were the one heckling from the audience. You were the best heckler on the tour. You’ve got to meet Kinky.” They’ve been friends ever since.

As they all ate dinner at Big Wong, they traded stories and kvetched about having over-ordered. Their hearing is less than perfect; during the meal, one of them would always turn to me and ask, “What did he say?” At one point, Kinky recalled his bar mitzvah Haftorah. Though proudly Jewish, he’s not a religious man these days — “F—k the rabbis!” he proclaimed — but he still remembers something from his bar mitzvah speech, a sentiment that oddly makes sense: It’s not what you do with the Thanksgiving turkey, but what you do with the leftovers, that counts. Somehow he turned this into a lesson on how we ought to be treating the soldiers who’ve returned from Iraq with their limbs blown off. Sloman chimed in that when he chanted his bar mitzvah Haftorah in an Orthodox synagogue in Queens, where he grew up, the rabbi told him he should become a cantor. After arguing about who would take home the leftovers, Friedman, Sloman, McGovern and I strolled west on Canal Street, discussing who’s got the best brisket in town these days.

Backstage at B.B. King on a Thursday night, the dressing room was packed. There were close to 30 people performing that evening. Friedman warmed up on a couch with a borrowed guitar and sipped tequila, which he did not let go of the whole night — “The reason I drink tequila onstage is that it makes you feel good for a short amount of time, like a Barry Manilow song.” He greeted some folks he hadn’t seen in three decades. He would be taking the stage with “Chinga” Chavin, his old college roommate, the man who gave Richard Friedman his most enduring nickname (it was inspired by his curly hair, not his sexual habits). Chavin is the author of the song “Asshole From El Paso,” and they played it together that night.

When Friedman took the stage, it was clear that the packed house had been waiting for him. He’s not much more than 6 feet tall but onstage, with his guitar and his cowboy hat, he looms. He played “Ride ’Em Jewboy” and “Asshole From El Paso,” successfully performing a cowboy-hat flip on the fourth try, and then walked off to the sounds of hundreds of hungry hands clapping. There was no time for even one more song.

McGovern told me the story of how he toured with Friedman in the South Pacific. Friedman dragged McGovern up the peak of Mt. Vaea, a 1,500-foot mountain on the island of Upolu in Samoa. Robert Louis Stevenson, one of Friedman’s favorite authors, is buried there: After his death, he was carried atop the shoulders of locals and given a gravestone that reads, in part, “Home is the sailor, home from the sea, And the hunter home from the hill.” And with this image of a difficult climb to a place of eternal peace I can’t help but think that Friedman is wrong in his despair about his music and his fellow countrymen. In October, when he releases “The Loneliest Man I Ever Met,” a spooky, melancholy record that shows off the most serious side of the artist, I have to believe there will be a crowd of locals in each city he plays, waiting to bear him up to the top of the hill. Home will be Friedman, home from his long musical pause. You may recognize him by his boots.

Ross Ufberg is a writer, translator, and co-founder of New Vessel Press.

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