The Case for Kinky Friedman

It has been said if Kinky Friedman didn’t exist, someone would have to invent him. I’m just not sure who – other than The Kinkster himself – is capable. Richard “Kinky”
Friedman, who is currently engaged in his June “Bi-Polar Tour,” is a man who has worn a lot of ten-gallon hats in his varied career: humorist, songwriter, country music outsider, bestselling mystery writer, columnist, failed gubernatorial candidate, animal rights activist and, most recently, tequila mogul. Just behind the surface of his irreverent outward persona – a sort of hillbilly-Groucho hybrid – lies the heart and soul of a true poet, thinker and humanitarian. As The Kinkster himself has said, “I like to be as misunderstood as the next guy.”

In the great tradition of American humorists like Will Rogers or Mark Twain, Kinky’s trademark one-liners can be equally funny, abrasive and genuinely thoughtful.

His fiction mystery novels, in which the recurring amateur detective hero is – you guessed it – Kinky Friedman himself, are delightfully entertaining and oddly profound. Any deficiency in plot is reconciled by Friedman’s unique brand of humor, insight, narrative and charm.

Even his 2006 run for Governor of Texas was consistent with his oeuvre. With slogans like “how hard can it be?” and “why the hell not?” it’s easy to see why many did not take his run seriously. Yet, his motivations seemed genuine and his platform was grounded in simple common sense, if deceptively lighthearted. His reasons for supporting gay marriage, for example, may be the most convincing yet: “I believe they have a right to be as miserable as the rest of us.”

His Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch near Kerrville, TX has saved countless neglected animals from being euthanized. And although I haven’t yet tasted his Man In Black tequila, I’m betting it’s a lot like Friedman’s artistic output: perhaps rough at first taste, but ultimately satisfying. Or stupefying.

Of course Kinky is still best known as a singer-songwriter, and it is in his odd yet impressive musical output where he truly shines.

Friedman’s debut album, 1973’s Sold American, is a bizarre mix of satire and sincerity.

The title track is a beautiful, moving portrait of shattered dreams. The song is loaded with references to Nashville’s country music industry and its famed Lower Broad – five or so blocks in the heart of downtown which is now a tourist mecca complete with a Hard Rock Cafe and trinket shops selling George Jones keychains, but in 1973 was ground zero for country music’s has-beens and wannabes. Lower Broad in the early 1970’s was littered with junkies, winos, thieves, prostitutes and songwriters who had never quite gotten their taste of success or who had had a small, fleeting taste and continued to cling to that miniscule moment of showbiz glory. The once splendid Ryman Auditorium was falling into disrepair, families and tourists were hesitant to hang around the seedy stretch of downtown and so in 1974 the Grand Ole Opry relocated several miles away into the suburbs and left a shell of a once thriving neighborhood in its wake.

Once you heard the Opry crowd applaud

Now you’re hanging out at 4th & Broad

On the rain wet sidewalk remembering a time

When coffee with a friend was still a dime

Despite the unfulfillment that hangs over the song, there is Friedman’s trademark wit and use of puns.

 The Early Times is finished

And the want ads all are read

The lonely night is mourning

For the death it never dies

Puns and one-liners are one skill, but capturing the essence of an entire industry, neighborhood and culture in a few short lines is a genuine gift.

Writing down your memoirs on some window in the frost

Roulette eyes reflecting another morning lost

Hauled in by the metro for killing time and pain

With a singing brakeman screamin’ through your veins

The unnamed singer who haunts the backstreets of Friedman’s song with a drug addiction and the ghost of Jimmie Rodgers on his back isn’t, to my knowledge, anyone in particular. But I’ve met him – dozens and dozens of times – in my days on Lower Broad. It is a story old as showbiz itself and it continues to this day where, on any given humid June afternoon, there is someone hanging out on 4th & Broadway telling any tourist who will listen about that taste of fame they almost had. Friedman does not glamorize or romanticize his troubadour protagonist. Nor does he mock or ridicule. He simply paints a portrait of a very real person and lets the lines on that person’s face caused by all the sadness and past glories linger. It is a song loaded with pathos and humanity. It is Kinky Friedman’s finest hour.

To the uninitiated, a song called “Ride Em Jewboy” by a band called Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys sounds like trite, offensive, novelty shtick. Kinky is many things, but trite he is not. The song, in fact, is about the Holocaust. This is not immediately obvious (although well established). Friedman fuses cowboy and Old West imagery with references to that darkest hour of human history in a slightly oblique way. Its haunting atmosphere, which begins with slow lingering arpeggiated chords followed by some sort of pseudo-yodel falsetto refrain, invites us into a world discomforting enough that even the casual listener understands on some instinctive level that there is more here than meets the eye.

Ride, ride ‘em Jewboy

Ride ‘em all around the old corral

I’m, I’m with you boy

If I’ve got to ride six million miles

Now the smoke from camps are rising

See the helpless creatures on their way

Hey, old pal, ain’t it surprising

How far you can go before you stay

Don’t you let the morning blind ya

When on your sleeve you wore the yeller star

Old memories still live behind ya

Can’t you see by your outfit who you are

How long will you be driven relentless ‘round the world

The blood in the rhythm of the soul

Wild ponies all your dreams were broken

Rounded up and made to move along

The loneliness which can’t be spoken

Just swings a rope and rides inside a song

Note: the visuals in this clip have nothing to do with the meaning of the song, but it was the only clip of Friedman’s original recording I could find on YouTube. 

The solemn “Ride Em Jewboy” is followed by “Get Your Biscuits In the Oven and Your Buns In the Bed.”  Unlike “Ride Em Jewboy,” there is no great higher meaning here.

You uppity women I don’t understand

Why you gotta go and try to act like a man

But before you make your weekly visit to the shrink

You’d better occupy the kitchen, liberate the sink

Offensive and misogynistic? It’s all in the delivery, and the messenger. When coming from the provocative and soulful pen of Kinky Friedman – the eternal underdog – on an album that contains such a poignant tribute to the victims of the Holocaust, “Get Your Biscuits In the Oven and Your Buns In the Bed” should only be offensive if you can’t take a joke. One of Kinky’s true talents is his ability to force us to laugh at ourselves. And he’s led by example his entire career.

The 30th Anniversary reissue of Sold American contains a bonus track, inexplicably omitted from the original release. “Nashville Casualty and Life” is in many ways a companion piece to “Sold American.” (An inferior re-recorded version appears on 1983’s Under the Double Ego.) The title references the Nashville based insurance company’s downtown high-rise but the song is about Cortelia Clark: a blind, African-American street performer (also immortalized by the exquisite Mickey Newbury in his song, “Cortelia Clark”).

And the station-master pointed to the sign

And they busted him for loiterin’ when he was makin’ memories rhyme

Out in the falling snow he’d sing his song

To a world too cold to listen and too white to sing along

1974’s Kinky Friedman and 1976’s Lasso From El Passo each contain a generous amount of irreverent, crude, clever, and purposefully offensive material balanced with touching portraits of loners and losers trying to get by in life.

Kinky Friedman kicks off with “Rapid City, South Dakota,” a song about a young man who leaves his pregnant girlfriend behind to deal with her abortion alone. This heartbreaking tale is followed by a song set to a polka beat called “Homo Erectus,” which simply needs to be heard rather than explained.

The album closes with what is perhaps Friedman’s best-known composition, “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” in which a loudmouthed racist in a Texas roadhouse learns the hard way that our protagonist isn’t about to turn the other cheek. Once again, Kinky turns an otherwise off-color pun into a statement against racial prejudice and ignorance and, yes, manages to rhyme “racist” with “Aristotle Onassis.”

Lasso From El Passo contains the song “Men’s Room L.A.” in which Friedman finds himself sitting in a men’s room stall in that unholiest of places, Los Angeles, where he discovers a photo of Jesus on the floor at the same time he discovers there is no toilet paper. Ringo Starr guests as the voice of Jesus Christ who helps our protagonist resolve this dilemma.

Just when you think perhaps The Kinkster has gone too far this time, he closes the album with a tender, heartfelt version of the Peter LaFarge classic “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” about the Pima Indian who raised the flag at Iwo Jima only to die drunk in a ditch. The sincerity in his delivery rivals – if not surpasses – that of the iconic 1964 Johnny Cash version. Where Cash’s is built up with marching snare drum and bugle, Friedman’s is subdued with fingerpicked acoustic guitar and soft organ accompaniment. Where Cash is angry and indignant, Friedman is plaintive and reflective. Just when you think you’ve got him pegged, Kinky Friedman outmaneuvers once again.

Ok, I lied. “Ira Hayes” is the second to last song. The album actually closes with “Waitret, Please, Waitret” which is built around the infectious hook, “waitret, please waitret, come sit on my face.”

Just when you think you’ve got him pegged, Kinky Friedman outmaneuvers once again.

Kinky Friedman has embraced practically every pleasurable vice that adulthood has to offer, yet, like his hero Mark Twain, manages to capture and keep alive the essence of childhood innocence and imagination. And just as the real Marilyn Monroe was an intelligent and serious actor behind the dumb blonde persona, Kinky Friedman is far deeper than his facade. But that irreverent, crass and crude exterior is part of the whole package. The two cannot – and should not – be separated. “Ride Em Jewboy” and “Sold American” are only made more powerful by every “Homo Erectus” or “Get Your Biscuits In the Oven and Your Buns In the Bed.” I suppose if there is an over-arching theme to his work it is “know who you are, embrace yourself without shame or compromise and be kind to animals and children.”

Or, as the man himself says, “Money will buy you a fine dog, but only love can make it wag its tail.”

Not such an offensive concept now, is it?

Matt Powell is a writer, musician, lawyer and entrepreneur living in Venice Beach, California. He has a Bachelor of Music from Berklee College of Music in Boston and a Juris Doctor from Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. He is the guitarist and songwriter for The Incredible Heavies and The Sharbettes, as well as the co-founder and designer at Plecas Powell Design, a mid-century modern furniture design company. He often writes about music as a means to explore the interconnectivity of broader issues and themes.

Sold American: 30th Anniversary Edition

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4 responses

  1. Well done. Tough person to sum up, but you did it perfectly. He will always be misunderstood

  2. Rosaleen Fitzpatrick | Reply

    this is wonderful Matt!! I love this guy. thank you for as alwaya, expanding my world though your beautiful writing and utterly unique view.

  3. […] Jewish jokes as anything else. This is the same approach that has worked for provocateurs like Kinky Friedman or Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame. South Park, perhaps more than any other comedy […]

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