On the campaign trail with the Jewboy cowboy
After 10 minutes of alternating between self-deprecating jokes, put-downs of politicians, both on the national level and in his home state of Texas, and philosophizing about the political landscape generally, Kinky Friedman pulls up short. It’s clear there’s about to be a change in the tenor of the conversation, but here’s the odd thing: There’s no way of knowing if Friedman is about to get more serious or less, whether he considered the past 10 minutes too silly or overly sober.It’s the same take people have long had on Friedman. It’s impossible to know just how seriously to take a guy whose long-running band is named the Texas Jewboys, a musically sharp outfit led by a conservatory-trained pianist (who goes by the name Little Jewford). Hard to know what to make of a fellow who writes a song “Ride ‘Em Jewboy,” which, despite its Western beat, is a sorrowful parable about the Holocaust. And it’s most difficult to gauge a guy who quit touring because of the drugs and travel, abandoned a successful second career as a crime novelist, and has set his sights on a third act: governor of Texas.As it turns out, the 61-year-old Friedman thought he had struck too haughty a tone over the phone. “Let’s not get too serious about this,” said Friedman, who has campaigned under the slogan “How Hard Could It Be?” since announcing his candidacy in front of the Alamo just over a year ago. “You don’t want to think you’ve lost your sense of humor.”There doesn’t seem much danger of that. Whether playing music, writing novels – which invariably feature a Texas-born, Jewish detective in New York, name of Kinky Friedman – or running to be chief executive of the second most populous state in the union, Friedman seems unable to keep his comic gifts under wraps. If, come Nov. 7, he finds himself losing out to some proper, straight-backed goyish professional politician, Friedman, who is running as an independent, could certainly stake out career No. 3 as a comedian. Though music was the first of his careers, funny people were Friedman’s first inspirations.”My heroes have always been Mark Twain and Will Rogers. Humorists – and truth-tellers,” said Friedman, who was born in Chicago and moved at age 1 to the Hill Country west of Austin, where his parents ran a summer camp. “That’s what I did when I made music, when I wrote books.
“And that’s what I’m doing running for governor. People are drooling for the truth. They don’t even care where you stand on the issues.”Friedman believes if he has a shot at the governorship it is because Texas politicians have been woefully lacking in the two areas Friedman sees as his own strengths. It is galling to Friedman how Texas politicians – like Tom Delay, whom Friedman has no problem mentioning, by name, repeatedly – raise dollars to keep themselves in office. “They’ve put Texas on e-Bay,” said Friedman. But almost as bad is the self-seriousness with which they carry themselves.”I think politicians lack a sense of humor – and common sense. And they could use both,” he said. “Will Rogers said, ‘Every time they make a law, they turn it into a joke. And every time they make a joke, they turn it into a law.'”Friedman’s platform, as it were, is hard to pin down. Much of it is comical, or at least clothed in humorous terms. “I’d like us to be first in something other than executions,” he said, hinting at what is likely an honest overall lean to the left. The issues closest to his heart seem to be the ones he jokes about most often, like education; he has proposed the No Teacher Left Behind Act. (Actually, the issue he seems most passionate about, animal welfare, doesn’t come up much in his stumping or his songs. Friedman founded the Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch, which cares for stray and abused animals. “I’ve always loved stray dogs more than fat cats,” he quipped.) When Friedman announced his candidacy, he claimed it was because he needed the closet space.As far as Friedman can tell, his joking manner is starting to make him an honest contender. In an online poll posted last month on http://www.perryvsworld.com, named for current Governor Rick Perry, Friedman has some 15 percent of the vote; the incumbent, a Republican, has 38 percent. But Friedman is being taken as a serious candidate, or at least a worthwhile personality. He has been featured recently on Jay Leno and “60 Minutes,” and in an extensive profile in The New Yorker. “You get great coverage, but you can’t time it the way you want,” he noted, pointing out that this media blitz comes 10 months before Election Day.Still, the attention has been welcome, and unexpected. “We’ve reached a point where Texans are taking this more seriously than I am,” he said. “I didn’t think it would happen this soon.”As he has seen people line up behind him, Friedman has felt the increasing weight of what is at stake. “The hopes of Texans are riding on this – cowboys, teachers, college students. Everybody,” he said. “I think the soul of Texas is riding on this campaign.”
Friedman is no stranger to splitting the difference between laughs and gravity. As leader of the Texas Jewboys, the Western swing band he formed in 1973, Friedman played both halves of his persona, the Texan and the Jew, to the hilt. To the backing of fiddler Wichita Culpepper (“Take it away, Wichitaaah,” is the typical phrase to kick off a Jewboys song), Friedman sang tunes like “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed” and “High on Jesus.” Between songs, he would refer to the boytchiks in the band, claim that a fiddle instrumental was originally titled “The Meshugennah Rag,” and joke about having a gig coming up at The Electric Matzo Ball. Jewford chimes in with the quintessential radio announcer voice.The mix of extreme political incorrectness and musicianship earned the Jewboys a following among the seriously curious, while songs like “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore” earned condemnation from Jews, Christians, blacks and others. The band played numerous shows in Texas with Willie Nelson. At an early San Francisco gig, Jerry Garcia showed up to see them. The 1973 debut album, “Sold American,” made the country charts. When they moved operations to New York, where he played regularly at the Lone Star Cafe, Mickey Mantle and John Belushi checked out the show. In 1976, Friedman earned spots on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour and on “Saturday Night Live.”The Kinky persona developed, of all places, in Borneo, where Friedman served in the Peace Corps. “That’s when the Jewboy and the cowboy merged,” he said. “I was the bastard child of twin cultures, and they seemed to have a lot in common, cowboys and Jews. They’re both gypsies. And they both wear their hats indoors.”In the ’80s, Friedman, burned out by the music life, retreated to Texas and began writing crime novels. “I was searching for a lifestyle that didn’t require my presence,” he explained. Beginning with 1986’s “Greenwich Killing Time,” Friedman published some 18 books that mixed humor, philosophy, booze and detective work. Since 2001, he has written a regular column for Texas Monthly. Music has been limited to the occasional tour, usually with fellow Texas outlaw Billy Joe Shaver. Friedman hasn’t written or recorded any new music in ages, but last year did see the excavation of a treasure: “Mayhem Aforethought,” a recording of a live radio broadcast from a 1973 concert in Sausalito, Calif. Every so often, however, Friedman will agree to sing for a good cause. On Thursday, Feb. 16, Friedman and a downsized version of the Texas Jewboys will appear at the Belly Up in a benefit for United Jewish Appeal of the Aspen Valley. The band includes Little Jewford, who was born Jeff Shelby and is a childhood friend of Friedman’s. (“He’s a Jew and he drives a Ford,” said Friedman of the nickname. “And he’s an idiot savant pianist who also plays the most annoying instrument on earth, the kazoo.”) Rounding out the trio is Jimmie “Ratso” Silman – “a little Lebanese boy,” said Friedman. The appearance includes music and a reading from “Texas Hold ‘Em,” his recent collection of essays.For a year, Friedman has spent his time glad-handing his way across Texas with Little Jewford, now his driver and campaign sidekick. Running for governor, it seems, has made Friedman’s presence a necessity again.”Now we’re swamped, with everyone wanting us to do everything,” he said.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org