We are wayfaring, wandering gypsies alone
Looks like looking for is where we'll always be
Cursed to be born as serious souls
No one will take seriously
--Billy Joe Shaver,
country singer and spiritual adviser
to Kinky Friedman
All across Texas
When it comes to black, Kinky Friedman picks up where Johnny Cash left off. He wears a black bull-rider hat, black boots, and a black belt with a buckle the size of a Mini Cooper hubcap. Over his black pearl-button shirt, he mixes things up a bit. He'll either wear the black leather vest, given to him by Waylon Jennings, or the black "preachin' coat," cut by Manuel, the famed former head tailor of Nudie's in Nashville.
In the airy, pastel atrium of the Ambassador Hotel in Amarillo, Ma and Pa Frontporch do double takes at the breakfast buffet, pausing by the Froot Loop dispenser, saying, "Isn't that . . . " when they spy the dark rider with bandito facial hair hunched over his omelet, skimming the newspaper. Kinky looks less like a Texas gubernatorial candidate than a desperado fortifying himself to knock over a stagecoach.
As I join his table, he welcomes me warmly. I've read a stack of Kinky stories on the plane, so I know how it works: Kinky is a shtick-Tommy gun, so if you tape eight hours of interviews with him, but are looking for original material, you know you'll have to throw seven out right off the top. Most of it will already have traveled several times around the world. He's pro-recycling: He calls it "rotating the crops." And so I try to peel the onion a bit, getting right down to his raw, vital essence--not political, but musical.
Kinky (so named for his "Jew-fro," as the ladies at Supercuts call it) is most famous these days for trying to become the first independent governor of Texas since Sam Houston in 1859. For two decades prior, he was known for his 17 well-reviewed comic-mystery novels, with himself cast as the protagonist ("I'm not afraid of anything, just that I may have to stop talking about myself for five minutes," he's said). But it was as head cheese-maker in Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys that he first entered public consciousness.
Before that, Kinky did a two-year Peace Corps stint in Borneo, where he introduced the locals to Frisbee while they introduced him to betel nut and hallucinogenic rice wine. Perhaps under the influence of it, he conceived the Jewboys. When Kinky got back to Texas in the early '70s, Austin had become a hothouse for outlaw country heroes who'd said adios to the slick sounds of Nashville in order to do some honest-to-God songwriting. Cosmic Cowboys and gypsy troubadours like Michael Martin Murphey, Jerry Jeff Walker, Billy Joe Shaver, and other guys with two first names walked the land.
Kinky and the Texas Jewboys served as the court jesters of the movement, though they were no redneck Weird Al Yankovics. There was much more going on. Kinky lampooned bigotry by assuming the role of the bigot in songs like "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore" and "Proud to Be An Asshole From El Paso." He could also pull off grim weepers, like "Ride 'Em Jewboy," undoubtedly the most haunting country song ever written about the Holocaust, even if it's the only one. "Anything worth crying can be smiled," he sang.
Because of his place in this universe, he has played, gotten drunk, or played drunk with nearly every musical hero of mine, from Levon Helm to Kris Kristofferson to the late, great Townes Van Zandt. Lyle Lovett is on his speed-dial. He has gotten baked on the secondhand smoke of Willie Nelson. Bob Dylan ate barbecue at his late parents' ranch. ("Thanks Mrs. Friedman," said Dylan, "You must be very proud of your son.") When I ask him about hanging out with Tom Waits and Chuck E. Weiss on the Bukowski side of Los Angeles in the early '70s, he lights up: "You know Chuck E. and the Goddamn Liars!!? [Weiss's band] Have you ever heard his 'Bad Jews in Malibu'? It's f--ing great!"
The musical revelry hits a speed bump when we start talking about his close friend Willie Nelson, whom he calls the "hillbilly Dalai Lama," and with whom he currently has a double-or-nothing wager. Willie took him for a grand on how the Iraq war would turn out (Kinky thought Bush and Blair would be "heroes"). Kinky now stands to win two grand if Joe Lieberman beats Ned Lamont--eight thousand if you count his Lieberman side bets with other suckers. Kinky's an inveterate gambler who takes "fact-finding trips to Vegas," though "these days, I'm bettin' on Texas." Still, of Lieberman, he says, "That f--er better win."
I ask him if he's heard "Teatro," some of the most achingly beautiful music Nelson ever recorded. He hasn't. So I take the CD out of my bag and try to give it to him. "It won't get listened to," he says. "I don't listen to music anymore. I think it stems from having been in so many dance halls and bars--I'm just pretty averse to it. Personally, I'd rather watch Fox News," he says. "Though I keep it muted most of the time."
Just then, a voter approaches, and takes a seat at our table as if she were an old friend. Her name is Kelly Wages, and she's voted for Republican incumbent Rick Perry in the past, but now she's undecided, like much of Texas. Perry leads the pack of four candidates, but with an anemic 35 percent, meaning that he's hemorrhaging even Republican support. "Why should I vote for you?" she asks Kinky.
Most politicians would take this as a cue to begin sucking up. But Kinky shoots me a get-a-load-of-her look and goes the reverse-psychology route. "Because I have no political experience whatsoever." (This is only partly true. In 1986, he ran for justice of the peace in his Hill Country district, promising to lower the speed limit to 54.95. He lost.)
Wages says that's precisely what she's worried about. Kinky says she shouldn't be too worried. The other candidates have 89 years of political experience between them, and Texas is fiftieth in education, health care coverage, and care for the elderly, while being first in executions, toll roads, property taxes, and dropouts, thus illustrating one of his campaign slogans: "Kinky Friedman: Why The Hell Not?" When I bring up a recent Dallas Morning News story taking issue with many of Kinky's figures, he says, "Oh f-- that lady! We're forty-third, not fiftieth--yaaayyyyy!" Wages starts laughing.
I ask Wages if he has her; I can feel her teetering. "Well," she says, "he talks some sense." She says Perry is too bullish on executions, and too negligent on health care. A little less indulgent of Wages since I'm not running for office and she's interrupted my interview, I point out that the two positions are complementary, that the more people are executed, the fewer will need health care. "That's a good point," Kinky allows.
He continues in the hard-to-get vein. If Wages doesn't want him, he doesn't want her. As a reformer, he wants to "get the money changers out of the temple," one of his frequent Jesus references. ("I'm washed in the same blood you are, brother," he tells me. "I'm a Judeo-Christian. Jesus and Moses are in my heart, two good Jewish boys who got in a little trouble with the government.") If Wages can't tell the difference between him and the other candidates, if she "thinks my style's too rough, and you prefer a dignified, self-important, pompous-ass politician," then maybe she should vote for someone else. Wages looks hurt, but intrigued. Kinky says the other candidates will try to sink him, like they do everybody, because that's what these cockroaches do. That's why someone like her, who's generally a good person, won't run for office. "They know what you've done," I assist. "It's a walk-in closet, isn't it?" asks Kinky.
After ten more minutes of this, Wages nearly has her pants charmed off. Kinky finally asks for her vote. "I'm an unemployed youth," he begs, "I need the job." (He's 61, though "I read at a 63-year-old level.") She says he's got it, and bids adieu with a lingering hug. After she leaves, he turns to me, mouthing his unlit and ever-present Monte Cristo No. 2 cigar. "She ain't votin' for us. C'mon, let's go find some place I can smoke. There could be a guy running around here in a Hitler suit, and all they'd care about is the guy who's smoking."
Smoking is one of many ways Kinky proves himself politically incorrect, a trait he takes great pride in since the obverse has contributed to the "wussi fi cation" of Texas. I ask him what other behaviors are "wussified."
"Doing interviews with THE WEEKLY STANDARD," he replies.
One of the reasons it's great fun campaigning with Kinky is that he's in on the joke. Which joke, you might ask? All of them, pretty much. He fundamentally understands how absurd it is to spend two years of your life begging people to love you, to secure a job in which half the population at any given time will hate you. I get the sense it's made him an action junkie, though he insists if he loses, he'll "retire in a petulant snit" to a life of quiet contemplation.
I ask why he does it. Because he loves Texas and hates what's happened to her, he says. And because, "I'm a dealer in hope. That's a great thing to be, the next best thing to being a mender of destinies, which is harder." Watching his rapport with people, who mob him everywhere we go, I offer that he gives people "happiness injections." He mulls it over. "Happiness injections--that's a good line," he says. "Take it," I offer. "Ehh," he says, having second thoughts, "It's kind of gay."
After two years of banging away, he's finally convinced the press that his candidacy is serious, though he sometimes confuses them, such as when he says, "F-- 'em if they can't take a joke." Or such as when he suggests Willie Nelson will helm his new Commission on Energy, which will champion biodiesel farmers' co-ops. (When critics raise Nelson's frequent pot-related brushes with the law, Kinky protests, "He's not heading the DEA.") Or such as when he lays out his Five Mexican Generals border plan (paying Mexican generals to keep illegals on their side, withdrawing money from their accounts when illegals make it through). "It's a joke," he says, "but a joke that's a good idea."
If the line is blurred, it always has been for Kinky. As he once wrote, "There is a fine line between fiction and nonfiction, and I believe Jimmy Buffett and I snorted it in 1976." (He's been off the "Peruvian marching powder" since 1985, he says, when he left New York and came back to the Texas Hill Country, which he calls "my hospital.") It might be a measure of the artifice of politics that many Texans regard Kinky, an ersatz cowboy who prefers to ride "two-legged animals" over horses, as the most authentic candidate in the race. "Rick Perry's a comedian too," says the only candidate who's been nominated this year for the Thurber Prize for American Humor, "he just doesn't know it."
As we traverse Texas, it becomes clear how uninterested Kinky Friedman is in appealing to delicate sensibilities. For instance, our driver, who is also his former keyboard player and current Bundini to his Ali, is named Little Jewford. "He's Jewish, and he drives a Ford," Kinky explains to audiences. The two, who have known each other since they were children at summer camp, are by now like an old married couple. Kinky has never married. He lives with his five dogs, "the Friedmans," and 60 or so others at his nearby Utopia Animal Rescue--he is always taking in strays, of both the canine and human variety (his current Kato is a Katrina evacuee, a street preacher and musician named Rev. Goat Carson). But he is emphatically heterosexual, saying, "I don't kiss babies, I kiss their mothers."
On their endless road trips, Kinky and Jewford feel no pressure to fill long silences. At campaign stops, Jewford keeps up an arch patter in a booming FM-DJ voice, saying things to confuse voters such as, "I'm not laughing at you, I'm laughing through you," all while wearing a shimmery test-pattern sportsjacket that Kinky says is made of "Elvis's shower curtain." When challenged on his name, Jewford, a classically trained pianist, is not averse to showing doubters his Little Jewford Visa card as proof, a card he regularly whips out to pick up checks. Says Laura Stromberg, Kinky's press secretary who is also Jewish, of Jewford's lack of tightness, "He's a big disappointment to the Jewish community."
The campaign also proves unconventional in the journalists it attracts. Kinky and company are often followed by a documentary crew, Jeremy Cohen and Gopal Bidari, two talented young auteurs who work for hotshot producers out of Hollywood. They are so ever-present that Kinky took to calling them Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He then grew bored with that, deciding Cohen, who is Jewish, should be named "Jihad," while Bidari, who is Indian, should be "Macaca," in solidarity with the Sen. George Allen scandal. He's even taken to introducing them at campaign speeches as such, saying they're making a documentary on him for Al Jazeera. Jihad and Macaca have taken to their parts. They now wear nametags at Kinky's fundraisers.
In Texas, the smart money holds that Kinky has the Jewish cowboy vote sewn up. After those three voters, nobody's positive where he stands. Kinky's currently clustered about 15 points behind Perry, along with the deadly dull Democrat, Chris Bell, who has said he "could be a corpse" and still get the straight Democratic vote, a theory he seems to be putting to the test. With them is fellow independent Carole "Grandma" Strayhorn, whose two big claims to fame are being former Bush spokesman Scott McClellan's mom and being a grandma. As most people who've ever suffered through a McClellan press conference would, she emphasizes the latter.
Such polling, however, only registers likely voters. And with two independent insurgencies, a big turnout could mean lots of unlikely voters making an appearance at the voting booth. "They ain't gonna come out to help Perry," says Kinky. Dean Barkley, Kinky's campaign manager, who masterminded Jesse Ventura's victory in 1998, says Ventura was languishing at precisely the same place Kinky is at the same point in the election (around 20 percent), and that the pollsters were caught napping because of their likely-voter fetish. For contradictory evidence, the campaign will hand you a sheaf of statewide call-in and Internet polls, contests Kinky walks away with most of the time. As even Texas Monthly has stated, if every eligible voter in Texas were required to cast a ballot, "Rick Perry would be out of a job and Kinky Friedman would be governor of Texas."
With such undercurrents swirling about, it's small wonder that Bell, "a serious man with a serious plan," in his words, privately called Kinky to ask him to step aside so that the anti-Perry vote wouldn't be fractured. Kinky publicly rebuked him, saying, "We will not negotiate with terrorists."
To sop up some of these unlikely voters, we go from Amarillo to Lubbock to Austin, hitting many universities along the way. At his college gigs, Kinky comes off like your favorite crusty uncle--the one who pretends to have a heart of stone, but who'll slide you candy or a dollar or a sip of beer when no one's looking.
On the way to the stage, he keeps loose with a steady patter of Kinksterisms. He'll ask the local student body representative, "How long will this ordeal last?" or, "Has there ever been a candidate suicide?" As reporters leave him to take their seats, he'll say with utter solemnity, "Good luck out there," and he periodically revs himself up with reverse fist pumps, as though he is starting a weed-eater.
Politically, he says he's like Frank Sinatra: "I started left, and moved right." Consequently, Kinky is still fairly liberal on social issues--he's reluctantly pro-choice, and he's for gay marriage ("they have every right to be just as miserable as the rest of us"). Otherwise, he does a fairly convincing impression of a Republican from ten years ago, back when they still had principles: tough on illegal immigration and crime, anti-tax and pro-fiscal responsibility.
But his performances are less stump-speech, more period-piece/one-man show. Just as Hal Holbrook plays Mark Twain, Kinky Friedman plays Kinky Friedman--offering a fruit platter of Twain and Will Rogers and Uncle Earl Long, all sliced and diced and stuck in a Cuisinart. He stalks the stage, punctuating the air with his cigar, spraying the glossolalial audience with a hail of one- liners: I'm 61 years old, too young for Medicare and too old for women to care. . . . Once enough people can get biodiesel, I will trade in my own Yom Kippur Clipper. That's a Jewish Cadillac--it stops on a dime and picks it up, basically. . . . Musicians can better run this state than politicians. We won't get a lot done in the morning, but we'll work late. . . . Trust me, I'll hire good people.
After the show, as you come to think of it, the kids often stand a few hundred deep, wanting everything signed, from their shirts to their chemistry lab books--even though most of them don't know his writing or his music. He signs every last autograph at every stop--fan etiquette he learned from Willie Nelson. "I've seen him do it in the rain," Kinky says.
The university circuit, like the rest of the campaign trail, is a grind. But Kinky says the young people charge him and give him spark--they are the "wind beneath his knees," as Jewford says. He feeds on them like a hillbilly Nosferatu, giving them his phone number, telling them he needs their energy in his administration, promising them patronage jobs, as he does to Southwest Airlines ticket agents and hotel bellhops: "You'll be on Easy Street!" he says. "It's a big street," Jewford dryly confides.
As we hurtle over the flat plains of North Texas--"wandering through the raw poetry of time," as Kinky calls it--he expounds on why his outsider ethos isn't just some silly gimmick. "Common sense, common honesty--that's all it takes. That's all I've got. And sometimes I'm not sure about common sense." He mentions the Buddy Holly sound, which came right out of Lubbock. "He didn't read blogs, or see all these TV channels, or hear much different kinds of music other than R&B out of Shreveport. As a result, he came up with a really original sound. And that's because of the aching emptiness. Just the fact that he was surrounded by so much emptiness. Sometimes an original thought comes out of great expanses. Not just geographical, but spiritual as well." It's the "Cowboy way," what Texas used to be about, says Kinky, "spiritual elbow room."
After our Lubbock stand, he starts thinking about the kids again. They always promise they'll vote, but tend not to make it to the polls if, say, their favorite South Park rerun is on. He turns to me in the backseat, his black hat slung over his knee as he exhales cigar smoke. "You know, I think the young people will probably f-- us. They f-- everybody else, right?" I'm astounded and impressed by his candor. Later, I find out he gave the same line in the same place to the London Spectator two months ago.
It's two days before the only gubernatorial debate, and Kinky is highly agitated. Not because Perry has agreed to only one of six proposed debates. Or because his campaign had to fight the other campaigns in a Texas death match for Kinky to be able to wear his cowboy hat during the broadcast. "He was born with that hat," protested Barkley, who won.
Kinky is fuming because the blogosphere and his opponents are tarring him as a racist. It's a bad rap for a guy who was a member of Students for a Democratic Society, who picketed segregation, who spent his entire irreverent music career making sport of the kind of yahoos they're suggesting he is. At issue is Kinky's calling bowling balls "nigger eggs" in a club performance 26 years ago and, more recently, his blaming Katrina evacuees for a spike in the murder rate in Houston, calling them "thugs and crackheads."
He has refused to apologize for any of it, saying the first charge is preposterous on its face, since he was playing a racist in his performance, and the second charge is true, but it has nothing to do with race, and this is precisely the kind of scared-of-your-own-shadow political correctness that keeps Texans from addressing real problems, like the border crisis. "If you ain't offending somebody," he says, "you ain't getting anything done."
In a debate prep session at his Austin headquarters, Kinky's staff throw all manner of questions at him, trying to trip him with the names of obscure Texas agencies, making him explain how a bill becomes a law. It's something he says he doesn't need to concern himself with since the institutionally weak Texas governor's gig means he'd basically be less of a legislative animal, more the "most powerful judge at the chili cook-off."
And anyway, all Kinky really wants to talk about is race. As his staff drills him on issues like health care and college tuition, Kinky finally explodes, "Ask me the nuclear question about the nigger eggs!" He has the single-minded obsessiveness of the man who has been unjustly accused.
He is so bothered that he is still chewing this cud when we move on to Dallas. At the Hotel Adolphus bar, drinks flow freely enough that I, who usually lead the charge in such matters, am given the nickname "Mr. Sip-Sip" when Dean Barkley decides I'm not drinking fast enough. Kinky ratifies it, and employs it liberally ("Sip-Sip, what do you think?"). But he is still stewing, swearing blood oaths that Perry better not tangle with him on this issue. "Fact is, you're going to call the only guy with a social conscience a racist--I'm going to nail your f--ing ass."
He announces a new line he'll employ in the debate when given the chance: "There you go again, Governor, playing the race card against me. And I never played the gay card against you." Perry who is married, has suffered unsubstantiated rumors that he is gay, enough so that he's seen fit to swat the rumors down in interviews with mainstream news reporters.
The next day, at a stop at the University of Texas, Dallas, Kinky is still discussing the idea with me and a few others. Taking off my journalist's hat, I tell him that while I'm always pro-entertainment, it's a bad political play. At the very least, he has to soften "gay card" with a jokier term like "the Liberace card." He likes it. But he's not sure if "Liberace" is the right word. He calls for a strategy session. He wants suggestions, which come fast and furious: Butt Pirate, Pillow Biter, Twinkie, Tea pot. Mr. Sip-Sip (that hurts). He abandons the idea--it wouldn't be the Cowboy Way. "There's no mud on the high road," he says.
The debate is at a Dallas television station later that night. Nobody wins, and nobody loses. It is uneventful and safe. The other three candidates come off as competently blow-dried, freeze-dried, and mummified, respectively. Kinky suffers a few perfunctory scoldings on the race issue, without resorting to calling anyone a Sip-Sip. He hangs in there and doesn't embarrass himself, but he is tentative and nervous, without fire. His best line comes in the press room afterward, when he says, "I stood toe to toe . . . and I feel good. Right now, I'm still voting for myself."
Later that night, we adjourn to the hotel bar with staffers, Kinky's girlfriend just in from England, and Jihad and Macaca, who are grateful for the free drinks. Kinky admits to me that he couldn't find his rhythm. "I did all right, but it was my C game." It's too bad the voters of Texas couldn't see his A game, as I had several hours before.
We make a stop at the Reading and Radio Resource Center, an audio reading service for the blind. Kinky takes his place in a studio, while Jihad, Macaca, and I watch him through the glass of the control room. He is a guest on the Eyes of North Texas show, hosted by an 83-year-old volunteer named Adele Campbell. She is spunky and spry and gives him a workout. She mentions that he likes to refer to himself as "the Good Shepherd," and wants to know if he's equating the voters of Texas to sheep. He smiles appreciatively with cigar clenched in teeth, recognizing a kindred spirit. "Well if this is a flock of sheep," he says, "we certainly hope they turn out November 7th."
Adele asks him to read something he's written, and he picks an essay he wrote for Texas Monthly, now collected in his book, Texas Hold 'Em: How I was Born in a Manger, Died in the Saddle, And Came Back as a Horny Toad. In print, Kinky shticks it up as much as he does on the stage, but he is a fine writer nonetheless. When he does a real piece of work, as opposed to, say, a chapter on Texas prison slang, he turns a beautiful phrase, gets in and gets out, and doesn't stop for smoke breaks.
The essay is entitled "The Hummingbird Man." It's about his father, who taught him most of what he knows, from how to belch, to how always to "treat children like adults, and adults like children." His dad, who Kinky calls "Tom," ran a summer camp for kids on the ranch called Echo Hill where Kinky still lives. He died a few years ago.
The piece starts off with advice from one of their dishwashers, a guy named Slim who "wore a Rainbow bread cap" and "drank warm Jax beer in infinite quantities." He told Kinky, "You're born alone and you die alone, so you might as well get used to it."
He didn't think much of it when he was a kid, but he's come to reconsider:
I live alone now in the lodge where my late parents once lived, and I'm getting used to it. . . . Sooner or later, fate will pluck us all up by our pretty little necks. If you have a family of your own, maybe you won't feel it quite as much. Or maybe you will. I'm married to the wind, and my children are my animals and the books I've written, and I love them all. I don't play favorites, but I miss my mom and dad.
After a reminiscence about how he and his father used to tend the hummingbird feeder, watching as the population of birds exploded, he drops the hammer:
Now, on bright cold mornings, I stand in front of the old lodge, squinting into the brittle Hill Country sunlight, hoping, I suppose, for an impossible glimpse of a hummingbird or of my mother or my father. . . . And I still see my dad sitting under the dead juniper tree, only the tree doesn't seem dead, and neither does he. It takes a big man to sit there with a little hummingbird book, taking the time to talk to a group of small boys. He is telling them that there are more than three hundred species of hummingbird. They are the smallest of all birds, he says, and also the fastest. They're also, he tells the kids, the only birds who can fly backward. The little boys seem very excited about the notion of flying backward. They'd like to try that themselves, they say. So would I.
Adele chokes up, and ends her show early. "You put me in tears, Kinky," she says. He waves her off with a line he used to dispatch hecklers when they threatened to lynch him and worse: "If we can just reach one person . . . " I'm not far behind Adele, spared only by the ridiculousness of witnessing this scene in a room with two guys nicknamed Jihad and Macaca.
After a week on the road with Kinky Friedman, I'm starting to think that the rodeo clown of the gubernatorial election has some intangibles that won't show up in likely-voter polls. He has a heart like a lion, "one eye laughin', one eye cryin'," as he says. Maybe the voters of Texas still have time to see that, and respond accordingly.
Or maybe they'll respond for other reasons, I think as I watch Kinky and Adele in the hallway afterward, him flirting with her, promising she can be the hostess of the governor's mansion, and then she'll be on Easy Street. Maybe they, like him, just need a job.
Matt Labash is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.