Richard S. “Kinky” Friedman has been and continues to be the perennial outsider looking in. His humor, a combination of provocative social satire and irreverent goading, has functioned to facilitate his bold and controversial methods, as well as to protect him from the would-be offended. Using his wit as a shield and a sword has proven essential within the conservative country music world within which he has operated, and his ability to draw upon his quick wit has served as a way both to entertain and to subvert.
Born in Chicago in 1944, young Richard grew up in Texas on his parents’ country ranch where he still lives today. His parents were upper-class professionals, his father a psychology professor at the University of Texas in Austin. Kinky would follow in his footsteps, graduating with a psychology degree from UT in 1966.
While there, he founded his first band, King Arthur & The Carrots, a short-lived project that showcased Friedman’s early efforts at satirical songwriting. The band’s sole single release, “Schwinn 24” / “Beach Party Boo Hoo”, mocked the popular Jan and Dean-type surf music culture of the early ‘60s. Later, with his new band, the Texas Jewboys, Kinky developed his satirical instincts in more provocative directions.
As a wave of traditional conservatism swept across the nation in the ‘70s —a by-product of President Nixon’s “silent majority” backlash to hippy liberalism—Kinky decided that his band members should all have stage-names guaranteed to irritate the socially sensitive. Little Jewford, Big Nig, Panama Red, Rainbow Colors, and Snakebite Jacobs became the Texas Jewboys. And while his country outlaw compatriots (Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard) sought authenticity in earnest songs of romance and adventure, Kinky harnessed his humor and wrote scathing protest songs about prejudice (“We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You”) or against wholesome country values (“Mama, Baby, Mama Let Me Jump in Your Pajamas”).
Initially, listeners were not sure what to make of Kinky. He did not fit comfortably within any genre and his rapier wit had more in common with Frank Zappa than with any country artists. Still, he had a minor hit on the country charts with the title track from his debut album, Sold American (1973), though thereafter mainstream country fans got wise to his wise-ass style and soon left him for more palatable fare. Before the backlash, though, he managed to land a spot on the Grand Ole Opry (the first Jew, he claims), and his performance for Austin City Limits has since become legendary for the fact that, due to Kinky’s “offensive” language, the session was never broadcast.
Before long, Kinky Friedman & the Texas Jewboys were gaining renown for being the thorn in the side of country culture. This endeared the band to other independent spirits like Bob Dylan, who hired them as support act on his mid-‘70s Rolling Thunder tour, and to Saturday Night Live, which, finding a musical kindred spirit, fed them to the nation in 1976. Cast member John Belushi, particularly, remained an active Kinky fan thereafter.
Since their inception in 1971, the band’s fan base had mutated into a hodge-podge collection of unconventional mavericks, spanning Hells Angels bikers, hardened hippies, and down-to-earth country folk. These supporters found refreshing candor in Kinky’s comic offenses and in his libertarian outlook. Some, though, were less than enamored with his harsh delivery and Jew-themed lyrics. Indeed, across the US, the band were often chased off stages by Jews and Gentiles alike that were offended by the “liberties” Kinky took with his freedom of speech.
During the mid-‘70s, Kinky wrote most of the comedic songs that have remained the crowd favorites of his live sets. Each is characterized by his disarming Texas directness and subversive pursuits of story-telling. “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore” (1974) employs a classic Western bar room brawl scene to play out its good versus evil parable. The song engages two voices/characters: one is a racist “redneck nerd”; the other is Kinky, our Jewish savior of the sagebrush.
The “redneck nerd” throws the first verbal punch, charging, “You just want to doodle a Christian girl and you killed God’s only son.” Loading on the insults into absurd zones, the antagonist-provocateur broadens his invective, saying, “Aristotle Onassis is one Greek we don’t need / And them niggers, Jews and Sigma Nus, all they ever do is breed”. “Well, I hits him with everything I had right square between the eyes”, responds hero Kinky before declaring, “If there’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s an ethnocentric racist / Now you take back that thing you said ‘bout Aristotle Onassis”. This is humor at once child-like and silly, but also pointed in its incongruity and rousing in its relief.
“Ride ‘Em Jewboy” (1973) puts Jewish imagery in comedic juxtaposition with conventional country iconography. Like Lenny Bruce at his most edgy, feeling for humor without sacrificing heart, Kinky delves into the most unfunny and uncomfortable of topics: the Jewish holocaust. Merging the ostracized Jewish race (and its six million holocaust victims) with the roaming cowboy type, the narrator plaintively promises, “I’m with you boy / If I’ve got to ride six million miles”. Unlike in “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore”, in “Ride ‘Em Jewboy”, Kinky veers away from the easy “laughter” of slapstick humor, instead ushering in more serious emotional reactions by virtue of his own comedic restraint.
Despite the outlaw country artists positioning themselves as proud outsiders to the mainstream, Kinky was never averse to a little internal ribbing of his comrade peers. Merle Haggard, though embraced as one of the outlaw in-crowd, had shown his conservative credentials with such counter counter-culture songs as “Street Fighting Man” and “Okie From Muskogee”. Kinky, part parroting and part skewering the down-home wholesome values espoused in “Okie”, joined the rich tradition of comedic response songs with his own “Asshole From El Paso”, echoing Haggard’s rhetorical patterns and imagery, while exaggerating them into the following comedic lampoon: “We don’t wipe our asses on Old Glory / God and Lonestar beer are things we trust / We keep our women virgins till they’re married / So hosin’ sheep is good enough for us”.
Sometimes, Friedman’s lyrical wit turned to the topical trends of ‘70s culture. His mock-macho “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven & Your Buns in Bed” (1973), for example, took a swipe at the sometimes harsh seriousness of the radical feminist movement of the time. If “Asshole” had constituted the liberal mocking the conservative, with “Biscuits” he reversed the ideological combatants, teasing activist feminists with uproarious couplets like, “Before you make your weekly visit to the shrink / You’d better occupy the kitchen, liberate the sink”.
Although a seemingly equal opportunity satirist, Kinky’s brand of put-down humor mostly targeted institutions or constituencies that (from his perspective) had ceased to deserve underdog or sympathetic status. His subversive stabs sought to take the air out of the bloated, exhaling all exploitation, hypocrisy, and self-righteousness in the process.
When the Jewboys fell apart at the end of the ‘70s, Friedman continued to record new material intermittently, but he mostly turned his sights to a new career as a topical essayist and detective novelist. Inspired by the staccato brevity and macho wit of hard-boiled noir writer, Raymond Chandler, Kinky has made himself his own central character in his novels, and indulges the poetic license that takes his hero self in and out of various dramatic jams. Since 1986, Friedman has put out one or two books a year, under such typically Kinky-esque titles as Elvis, Jesus & Coca-Cola (1993), The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover (1996), Kill Two Birds & Get Stoned (2003), and ’Scuse Me While I Whip This Out (2004).
Recently, Kinky put both his writing and musical career on hold to embark upon a campaign to be Governor of Texas. Using Jesse Ventura’s independent campaign model and Anne Richards’ forthright Texas charm to complement his own sharp-tongued style, he performed as a competitive candidate throughout, ultimately receiving 12.6 percent of the vote in the five-person field. His stated goal of the “dewussification of Texas” and his strategic fence-sitting (“I’m not pro-life, and I’m not pro-choice. I’m pro-football.”) endeared him to the “don’t mess with Texas” libertarian strain of the state’s populace, while enabling him to navigate around the conservative fundamentalists and “good old boys” that control the power structures.
Largely liberal on the issues, Kinky—like Jello Biafra in his ‘80s San Francisco Mayoral campaign—was so freewheeling and down-to-earth with his wit and pithy slogans that he was able to disarm voters of various stripes, appealing to their intrinsic cynicism and distaste for “politicians as usual”. Classic Kinky one-line slogans like “No teacher left behind” spiced up the usually mundane campaign trail, and with Willie Nelson penciled in as future Energy Czar, subversive humor was given free reign as the candidate’s communicative strategy of choice.
Kinky Friedman’s 30-plus years as an outlaw outsider and general public irritant puts him in the company of American writers from Walt Whitman to Hunter S. Thompson. He shares these scribes’ youthful spirit and immature irreverence, though for Kinky such traits have defined his life as much as his art. Never married, still living with his parents, and a proud foil to his straight-laced father, Kinky has lived the life of an id-wit, an unruly child unwilling (or unable) to contain that which others have learned (or been forced) to repress. That said, Kinky still makes great effort not to say anything that responsible parents might not want their kids to hear. As he often states to crowds from the stage: “The Kinkster never likes to say ‘fuck’ in front of a c-h-i-l-d.”
The above essay is an outtake from a forthcoming book about subversive rock humorists to be published by PopMatters and Soft Skull Press.